If heart could be measured, then there is no doubt that Chuck O’Neil would be one of the wealthiest fighters on the planet.
As one of the few remaining fighters carrying the Forrest Griffin gene, O’Neil built his MMA career as a blood-and-guts fighter, always willing to push forward regardless of the circumstances. For years, he was the temporary fix for “Just Bleed” addicts looking to see a good old-fashioned street brawl.
Throwing caution to the wind is by and large what put O’Neil on the map and eventually led to him being cast on Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter. Unfortunately, It is also what led him to being one-and-done as a UFC fighter.
Much has changed since O’Neil basked in the mainstream spotlight. His evolution as both a fighter and a human being helped him defeat UFC veteran Ricardo Funch in October 2014 to capture the Classic Entertainment and Sports welterweight title.
Leading up to his first title defense on January 30, an older and more mature O’Neil reflected on being cut by the UFC and his overall growth and evolution as a fighter.
“I know Dana really liked me after the show because I was a hard-fighting guy, I was tough,” O’Neil told Bleacher Report. “But at the same time, I made it to the show by being tough. I still had a long way to go in my career, and a lot of times people would look at me as being uncoachable at the time. Since losing [to Chris Cope] and getting released by the UFC, I have changed things up.
“I’ve found a better camp, a coach that really helps me out. I’ve got another coach that really helps me out a lot now too, so I have a great team around me of coaches and training partners and everything. Without that experience of losing and looking like a jerk on national TV while losing, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. I’ve completely evolved as a person and a fighter since then.”
Life is often thought of as a winding road of twists and turns to an unknown location. We all have thoughts and dreams, but our itineraries in life are often realized upon arrival.
As a kid, O’Neil envisioned himself parading around in tights as a glorified stuntman in the world of professional wrestling. It’s a dream of many young men when taking in the larger-than-life spectacle that is World Wrestling Entertainment.
But things quickly changed when O’Neil started watching the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. It was the show that changed everything for MMA, turning a dying sport into a billion-dollar empire. O’Neil realized right then that he had found his life’s calling.
“Growing up in middle school and high school, I was a huge wrestling fan, like sports entertainment wrestling and WWF and everything,” he said.
“I always said that I wanted to be a wrestler after high school, and I was a real heavy-set kid. But around the time I graduated high school, the first season of The Ultimate Fighter was on TV. I was like, ‘Wow this is pretty awesome.’ I was thinking how great it would be to be on that show, and then I started researching where to train and find places to train and I ended up at Lauzon MMA, Joe Lauzon’s school back in 2005. I just started getting in better shape and kind of changed my life for the better.”
O’Neil’s dream to enter the TUF house became a reality several years later.
After being cast on the 13th season, he was chosen as a member of former UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar’s team. He made it all the way to the semifinals before losing to the season winner, Tony Ferguson.
Few fighters actually enjoy living in the TUF house. You are cut off from the rest of the world for several weeks and placed into a house full of people you’ll have to fight. It isn’t an ideal situation for any MMA fighter.
But unlike most, O’Neil enjoyed every minute spent in the house, outside of being coached by Lesnar.
“It was awesome to tell you the truth,” he said. “I have friends who have been on the show, and they’re like, ‘Oh man, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.’ I loved every minute of it, and like I said, that was my first initial goal when I got into the sport is that I wanted to be on The Ultimate Fighter.
“It was a cool experience. I mean, obviously, I wish I could have had a better coach than Brock Lesnar, someone that was more involved with the team or seemed to care a little bit more than he did. But at the same time, I loved every bit of it, being away from everything for six weeks. My food was paid for and just training all day. That’s all I had to worry about. They take your phone and everything away. It was a great experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
O’Neil is scheduled to defend his welterweight title against Emmanuel Walo in the main event of CES MMA 27.
While he has grown and matured since his stint on TUF, O’Neil still embodies the blood-and-guts approach that helped him achieve earlier success, but he now balances his urge to stand and bang through refined technique and a vastly improved skill set.
Under the tutelage of Nate Ryan and Dave Keith at Mass BJJ, O’Neil hopes to turn his recent welterweight run into something significant. It is often said that a fighter isn’t truly a champion until the belt is defended.
For O’Neil, the journey back to the mainstream spotlight begins with Walo, a dangerous challenger who hasn’t lost a fight in over three years.
“Leading up to the fight, there’s nothing but respect between the two of us,” said O’Neil. “Again, that just shows the evolution of the sport. You don’t have to sit there and talk s—t about each other. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to have a great fight, we’re going to shake hands before and shake hands after.
“Obviously every fight starts on the feet. We’ll be mixing it up really good, and I think like most of my opponents that have fought me before, they underestimate me a little bit in all aspects of the game. I think he’s going to feel my power on the feet and say, ‘I don’t like this.’ Then he’s going to try to push me against the cage and feel my strength against the cage and say, ‘Oh I don’t like this either.’
"I feel like I have an advantage on him everywhere, but he’s not going to be easy. I don’t think it’s going to be an easy fight, but in my mind, I see a finish in the second round.”
CES MMA 27 takes place on Friday night at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island.
Jordy McElroy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the MMA writer for Rocktagon and FanRag Sports. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.