Life on the UFC Bubble: 3 Fighters Struggle to Make It Back to the Octagon

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMarch 22, 2012

Jake Rosholt had to eat a big punch or two on the way to his career's biggest win
Jake Rosholt had to eat a big punch or two on the way to his career's biggest winJon Kopaloff/Getty Images

The bubble. For a professional mixed martial artist, it's the worst place imaginable to be, a purgatory on the margins of the sport. It's a place without significant endorsement opportunities. Without fame and stardom. Without life-changing money or an entourage. A place where you're unlikely to encounter Ariel Helwani or Mike Straka. And there are dozens of fighters there, some seemingly forever, unable to make their way back to the UFC's famed Octagon.

Worst of all? Once you arrive there, the exit strategy is unclear, the path back to the sport's spotlight unmarked, and incredibly treacherous. How does a fighter who has tasted the thrill that comes only with a major UFC event, that adrenaline rush that combines a rabid crowd and a fat wallet to dizzying effect, survive on the independent scene? By scratching and clawing and waiting for that magic phone call where UFC matchmaker Joe Silva changes your life forever.

Three-time NCAA champion Jake Rosholt says he can't survive long term on the bubble. No one can. To make a living in this sport, it's UFC or bust.

"I would be embarrassed to tell you some of the pay days that I've fought for outside the UFC," Rosholt told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Thankfully I'm in a great situation with Team Takedown where my income doesn't come just from fighting. Other fighters? I don't know how they do it. I wouldn't be able to support my family where I'm fighting now. The money in the UFC is so much better."

Rosholt, who went 1-2 in a brief UFC stint, has been on the outside looking in for two years. That's like a blink of an eye for veteran John Alessio, who last fought in the Octagon all the way back in 2006.

"I have a wife and son. All I want to do is give them the best life possible," Alessio said. "There's definitely a lot more money there. I just need to get in. I need to get my foot in the door. I need them to give me another opportunity. I feel like, this time, I'll stay there. Then I'll be able to really provide for my family."

Alessio is as old school as they come these days, a young fighter who started early enough that he actually competed in the UFC before the current regime took over in 2001. The 32-year-old Canadian is 8-1 in the last two years and undefeated at lightweight. But the Xtreme Couture fighter still waits for a call that never seems to come.

"I train with guys in the UFC all the time. All day," said Alessio, who beat Ryan Healy in the Score Fighting Series last week. "I see exactly where I stand. I think I would be a definite threat. It gives me a lot of confidence."

You'd think the problem might be on the business side—that Alessio is missing out because he has an inexperienced or out of favor agent. Nothing could be further from the case. Robert Roveta of Denaro Sports Marketing represents him as well as dozens of other fighters at all levels of the sport.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia also has a power agent, Monte Cox. But he too is relegated to waiting for a call up.

"I'm sick and tired of watching a bunch of bums fight in the UFC," the 35-year-old Sylvia said. "Guys that I know I can beat...They told [manager Monte Cox], 'Tim needs to keep winning. Keep putting wins together.' I've done that and nothing happened. And there are guys in there I think are absolutely horrible...Yeah, I've got an attitude about it. I'm tired of it. I've got to make my own destiny."

Sylvia and Alessio, at least, are still able to ply their trade. Rosholt, perhaps because of his wrestling pedigree, has trouble doing even that. He hasn't fought since July of last year despite being in a constant hunt for an opponent.

"Trying to find that path that brings me back there has kind of been a bit of a struggle," Rosholt admits. "We've been working our butts off to get me a fight since around Christmas time. Trying hard."

He's recently moved up to 205 pounds and is eying some of the bigger names on the free-agent market, including former UFC star Anthony Johnson. The problem for Rosholt, and others in his shoes, is simple: The high-profile fights that do exist would require signing a contract with Bellator or another UFC competitor, which would limit his options.

"Some of it is the promotions. They don't want you to sign for one fight," Rosholt said. "They want you to sign a contract for five fights or something. That's something I don't want to be in. The only place I want to fight long term is the UFC. That's the cream of the crop. So going out and getting stuck in a long term contract somewhere else is out of the question for me.

"I want to fight somebody good. Somebody that's a big name, a tough fight. You're trying to look for other guys in a similar position, who are good enough and wanting back in the UFC. But maybe they don't want to take that risk. Maybe I'm a bad matchup for them?"

Matchups are the name of the game in mixed martial arts. They say "styles make fights," not just because it's a comfortable cliche. It's also true. To Rosholt's chagrin, that means fighters looking to make their way into the Octagon are very careful about what fights they take. As Alessio explained, the fighters are walking a very fine tight rope with no safety net. A loss can be disastrous.

"I absolutely worry about losing," Alessio said. "Because it gives them a way out. 'Oh, you lost. Now you need to get back on a winning streak.' And what's that? Another four or five fights?  That could take a whole year of your life. You start back at the beginning. So, winning is very important. I came into this last fight with the attitude that losing wasn't an option."

Rosholt prefers to maintain a more positive mindset. Unlike some other veterans looking for a return to glory, he doesn't want to compare himself to middle-of-the-pack guys. He's seen fighters he beat during his wrestling days, men like Phil Davis and Chris Weidman, have significant UFC success. And unlike his first run with the promotion, this time he thinks he's prepared to go all the way to the top.  

"If you look at it like 'I can't lose,' you're not going to do your best. I'm out there to win and do the best I can do. Hopefully that fight is entertaining and a great fight for the fans," Rosholt said. "I don't feel any pressure. I feel like sooner or later things are going to come together and I'm going to get my shot at the UFC.

"I know that I can be a champion. And some day it's going to happen. I'm not just a guy who can get in the UFC and fight in the UFC. I want to be UFC champion. And I know that can happen. Sooner or later it will all work out."