Mike Ricci is the first to admit that he was headed down a bad path.
“Oh, if I didn’t have mixed martial arts? I don’t even think we should talk about where I would be—that’s the truth ... ,” the 26-year-old Montreal native admitted.
“As passionate as I am about MMA, I was that passionate and that full-throttle into, you know, the wrong type of things and the wrong crowd, the wrong area. There’s a chance that I wouldn’t be around here today if it wasn’t for MMA.”
Fortunately for Ricci, who had some martial arts experience to his credit and was interested in learning about self-defense, was introduced to mixed martial arts at a gym in Saint-Constant.
As it turned out, a young fighter named Georges St-Pierre, who was preparing for a match against Jason “Mayhem” Miller at the time, was waiting for Ricci at the off-island suburb of Montreal.
St-Pierre was an emerging star at this point, having only one blemish on his record—a first-round submission loss to Matt Hughes in a title fight at UFC 50.
But Ricci nevertheless figured that the man they call “GSP”—who was ultimately five victories away from claiming the UFC’s welterweight championship—wouldn’t put up much of a fight.
Not surprisingly, Ricci quickly learned that mixed martial arts wasn’t as easy as he perhaps thought it would be.
“(St-Pierre) was teaching, and I was pretty arrogant. I went in and I didn’t really want to pay attention too much—I just wanted to fight ... ,” Ricci said.
“I was, like, ‘Let’s just spar, let’s just gear up, let’s do this.’ I was quite ignorant at the time. I geared up and when I sparred, I was enlightened. Instantly.”
Despite Ricci’s lopsided learning experience at the hands of St-Pierre, arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, he insisted that he was immediately hooked on the sport. In retrospect, though, Ricci isn’t exactly sure why.
“MMA fighting is something that chooses you, I think ... ,” Ricci said. “I went in, I got bit and it changed me forever.”
Ricci’s parents and friends thought he was crazy for wanting to pursue mixed martial arts. Many already involved in the sport insisted that Ricci, at 20, was too old to start a serious run in the highly competitive sport.
“I don’t remember anybody at that point who believed in me—nobody,” Ricci admitted. “I was such a long shot. I was a lanky kid who was already so old—already 20 years old—so no one really gave me a shot at fighting.”
Ricci nevertheless took his best shot, spending the next year or so training at a few different gyms and picking up bits and pieces of information from grappling books.
About a year after Ricci first came into contact with St-Pierre—a life-changing occurrence, by all accounts—the young martial artist was introduced to Firas Zahabi, the head coach at Montreal's renowned Tristar Gym.
“One day, I was just hitting the bag and Firas walked by,” Ricci recounted. “He was, like, ‘Hey, you wanna do MMA? Why don’t you come in Saturday at twelve (o’clock), to spar?’ ... We gear up and, once again, I got a bad beating. I went into the gym thinking I was going to smash this guy. He said, ‘Look, you can do really well. I can coach you.’ ”
Within a few months, Ricci was in the ring, competing under the Zahabi banner and hoping to turn his passion for the sport into a career.
Ricci, who still trains at the Tristar Gym, isn’t sure where he would be without the influence of St-Pierre and Zahabi.
But under the guidance of the pair, Ricci, who describes his style as technical above all else, has established himself as one Canada’s most promising young lightweight contenders.
Since Ricci made his professional debut in 2008—a TKO victory in Montreal—the man they call “The Martian” has claimed victory in six of eight matches, including a win over Strikeforce vet Jordan Mein, and has fought for the Bellator Fighting Championships promotion.
Ricci reflects on where he might be without the influence of mixed martial arts quite a bit these days, but he admittedly has very little idea of where he would be if not for that day at Saint-Constant.
But Ricci, who is to soon make “exciting” news regarding his career public, is focused on his future in the sport more than anything else.
Ed Kapp is a contributor at Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained firsthand.