Where have you gone, Gabe Ruediger? It was the phrase on the lips of many MMA fans in the nearly three years since his last Octagon appearance against Melvin Guillard in September of 2006.
But he didn’t go anywhere. The most talked about man in the sport in the weeks after his short stint on The Ultimate Fighter’s fifth season, Ruediger instead settled on the slow and more obscure road back to glory. He lost a couple, won more than that, stayed in the gym, and even had Paris Hilton as a student for one day (“We did one private lesson for self-defense,” said Ruediger, “and that was the extent of that.”).
And by the time the summer of 2010 was halfway through, he had won six fights in a row and seven of nine since leaving the UFC. It was then that the call went up from fans for him to grace the Octagon again, and that opportunity was just around the corner.
“When you feel that you’re ready, there’s always that question – when am I gonna get that call back?” said Ruediger. “After I won the Tachi Palace belt (with a first round TKO of Lenny Lovato on July 9th), my manager said that there was interest, but that Joe Silva just didn’t know what matchup to give me. The UFC’s so talent-rich, and the lightweight division’s so deep, but obviously when Joe Lauzon’s opponent pulled out, I couldn’t think of a better matchup than that.”
Joe Lauzon. A castmate of Ruediger’s on TUF who is already seven fights deep into his UFC career (the first against Jens Pulver occurring before TUF5). For Ruediger, short notice or not, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“It’s an opportunity you don’t turn down,” he said. “When the UFC calls you and you’re able-bodied, you go. Obviously I would have liked more time to prepare, but even with the short time, I feel surprisingly well. I don’t think that’s gonna be a concern.”
What may be a concern has nothing to do with Ruediger himself, but with public perception of his return. While in the world of reality television, whatever impression you leave with viewers is one that will likely follow you throughout the rest of your life. For Ruediger, the lasting impression of him eating cake in the house and then being unable to make weight for his first fight against Corey Hill. He was then removed from the competition and skewered by message boarders around the world.
He admits now that the abuse he took was hard to swallow at times, but the more he thought about it, he was amazed that his pre-TUF resume – which included a WEC lightweight title – was tossed to the side, in some cases, permanently.
“When everything initially happened with the show, and the show aired, I think all that stuff did affect me,” he said. “But I’m at a point now where I don’t pay attention to any of that. There are always going to be naysayers, and I’m still completely perplexed at people who think I’m a horrible fighter because of me being on a TV show where I didn’t even fight. I don’t understand how you can gauge the type of fighter I am from that alone.”
That’s show-biz, and after it happened, it forced Ruediger to re-evaluate everything in his life, in and out of competition.
“To some extent, I think sometimes to reach our potential we have to fall, and I think I needed that fall,” he said. “In retrospect I needed to have a wake-up call and figure some stuff out about myself. Was it the best thing that could have happened? No, it was very difficult and so was climbing back up. But through that, I’ve become a stronger person, and regardless of fighting or not, I think that it helped establish my own inner will.”
Ruediger’s lone Octagon appearance stuck him with a knockout loss courtesy of a Guillard body punch, and after a nearly year-long layoff that included a scrap with the California State Athletic Commission over his fitness to fight, he returned with a win over George Kassimatis, but then dropped his next two bouts to Akbarh Arreola and Justin Wilcox. If his career prospects were getting dim before, it was downright dark now.
“That was a really bizarre time in my life and people don’t realize that those two losses were because I had my neck fused,” he explains. “The first one, my whole left side was shut down because my C7 vertebrae had popped out of place and was shutting down my entire left side. And then my second loss was that I came back too prematurely. I needed to heal more (from the surgery) and I needed a lot more time training. Who knows, maybe those guys would have beaten me anyway, but it was more of circumstance than anything.”
Knowing that he still had some gas left in his competitive tank, Ruediger started fresh in February of 2009, and he hasn’t looked back since, running off six wins in a row, five by submission and one by KO over Lovato. So with his confidence sky high, there was no question that he would accept the Lauzon fight in place of the injured Terry Etim.
“I was training for a championship, so I was in shape for five fives,” said Ruediger of the Lovato fight last month. “The three weeks after that I was off, when I jumped back in the gym, it was surprising how easily everything came back. And all of the concerns that I’m sure people might have had, including my weight, are not concerns at all.”
Now coming back to the dream destination for all fighters, Ruediger returns as a veteran who has seen the organizations he has fought for in the past – the UFC and WEC – explode in popularity around the globe, making it a surreal sort of homecoming.
“You see how fighters you know that you’re better than are getting accolades and making money, and you look back on the mistakes that you made,” he mused. “I think it’s incredible the way the sport’s growing and the way the WEC and UFC are both growing.”
He’s also kept a close eye on the fighters he befriended on The Ultimate Fighter, like Cole Miller, Gray Maynard, and Rob Emerson.
“I’m a fighter and a fan, so I’m always keeping up with all the shows, but the guys that I went through that process with I’m gonna be following a little bit more,” he said.
One name is conspicuously missing from that list, and that’s his Team Penn teammate Lauzon, but that’s not to say there’s bad blood between the two despite some message board back and forth a few years back. As “Godzilla” puts it, “Joe and I were actually friendly (on the show). Training wise, it was funny because Joe’s perception of what happened on the show and my perception are two separate things.”
And it’s clear that despite what happened in 2007, these two have both evolved as athletes, and they’re both going to have to fight on Saturday night in Boston.
“That was over three years ago, and I’ve improved and Joe’s improved, and it was a TV show and wasn’t a normal format for training,” said Ruediger of their time on the show. “And again, it was training. So what do I know of Joe? I know he’s a tough kid, I know that he’s not gonna give up and that he’s coming to fight. I think it’s gonna be a good matchup for me.”
If so, it may be the start of a more extended stay in the UFC for the 32-year old Van Nuys product.
“Am I a new rising star?” he asks. “I’m not gonna say that, but I think that I have the capability of beating anyone in the division, and I have every intention of going in there and every fight that Dana White and Joe Silva ask for, I’m gonna say yes. And as long as I’m healthy and ready to go, I think I can be competitive against anyone in the division.”
Even against an old buddy fighting in his hometown.
“I’m very aware that I’m walking into Joe Lauzon’s backyard, but what I’m hoping for is, do you remember the scene in Rocky IV where Rocky goes to Russia?” he smiles. “I’m hoping that the Boston crowd, by the end of the fight, is screaming “Gabe, Gabe, Gabe.”