We’ve heard the tale time and again. A fresh face joins the UFC ranks touting serious wrestling credentials – All-American! D1 champion! Team captain! – and buzz immediately ensues. Be it Cain and Kos, or Jon Fitch and Jon Jones, one’s performance on the mats almost always clues us into his potential in the cage.
Rich Attonito is the anomaly.
Despite being a former Division I wrestler at Hofstra University, the 33-year-old New Jersey native is something of a late bloomer in the world of competitive sports.
“I have to admit that during my athletic career in high school and college, I never had a chance to achieve the goals I’d set for myself,” he says. “I would always be one win short of a tournament, or one more match away from state quarterfinals. There was always a sense of never quite making it.”
It’s not as if Attonito takes pride in these non-accomplishments, but he also doesn’t shy away from them. He’s a silver lining type of guy. Disappointments in his youth – and learning to cope with them – have only served him well as an adult. He says they were especially helpful in maintaining mental clarity during his time on The Ultimate Fighter.
“I was the oldest one in the house, and while I’m not by any means the most mature person, I think my age was one of the reasons I was able to stay focused rather than get caught up in how much some stuff sucked,” he says. “Having a little more life experience in general allowed me to keep my wits about me in a situation where there are so many unknown factors.”
The worst unknown factor was a broken hand that halted his run to the quarterfinals. Even in victory (opponent Kyacey Uscola was DQed for illegal knees), the Team Liddell member had once again come up short and was sidelined for the remainder of the show. It was a twist that could have tested anyone’s sanity.
“At one point during college I was injured and needed elbow surgery,” he recalls. “It put an end to wrestling during my senior year and my entire athletic career was basically over. It felt like the end of the world. But because I survived it, this time I was able to say to myself, ‘Okay, this is just a bump in the road. You’ve been down it before. Now you have to just pull over to the side and get it fixed.’ A younger or less experienced version of me might have harder time managing those emotions.”
Staying positive paid off. After the show wrapped and the hand healed, Attonito was given a chance to face the much-maligned Jamie Yager at June’s Ultimate Finale. His official UFC debut may not have ended with the coveted prize (that honor that went to Court McGee), but a second-round TKO was reward enough.
“I was a little surprised at how difficult it was to get his timing and take him down,” he says. “I thought I’d put him on the ground, grind him out, and either TKO him there or submit him, but I ended up using my boxing. I think it goes to show why I’m not the type to have any predetermined expectations for a fight – except for winning.”
With the victory, Attonito will never again have to long for the missed opportunities of his past.
“Being depressed or bothered by that feeling of always being one step away… this changes all of that. Ever since I started training, my long-term ultimate goal was to fight five times in smaller shows – you know, give myself a chance to compete – and then win a single fight in the UFC. Now I’ve experienced the feeling of accomplishing something. It’s incredible to reach a point where I get to re-evaluate everything and come up with a whole new set of short and long-term goals.”
With those new objectives in mind, Attonito, 8-3 (1-0 in the UFC), will push toward the next yard line on September 15 when he faces Rafael Natal at UFC Fight Night in Austin, Texas.
Natal, who’ll be making his Octagon debut, will bring a 12-2 record that his opponent has studied well.
“This is going to be a classic wrestler versus BJJ practitioner matchup,” says Attonito. “And yet it can still go anywhere. Sometimes you get two guys who can cancel each other out in grappling, and that leaves no choice but to see who’s better at the other things. Natal’s got a lot to offer – he’s got the jiu-jitsu skills, he likes to strike, he’s got a judo base – and I’m one hundred percent confident in my boxing, so it’s going to be exciting because we can go at it in every aspect.”
Although it’s been less than three months since his last appearance, Attonito – who trains out of Florida’s American Top Team – says fans should expect to see a marked improvement in his game.
“I’ve brought myself up a couple of levels in terms of certain skills,” he says. “When you take your next fight right away it’s great because everyone is here to help fine tune little details you may not have been paying attention to during the last one. For instance, I feel like in six weeks I’ve made more improvements to my jiu-jitsu game than I have in six months.”
With the middleweight prospect finally hitting his stride, he expects that the future will bring true justice to his nickname, the Raging Bull.
“I’m 33 and not 23,” says Attonito. “Even though I’m in my prime, I don’t want to wait too long. It’s time to roll with this – I’ve got a path to blaze.”