Phil Baroni is the man fight fans love to hate, the self-styled New York Badass, but this bad boy image which promoters like to project is a million miles away from the real Baroni. In person, he is warm, open, and quite brutally honest.
As Baroni reaches the twilight of his MMA career he is anxious to set the record straight. "The whole New York Badass thing is a gimmick more than anything, but I am getting older now—I will be 34 when I next fight. Being a punk at 24 is cool but now I think it's tired. I'm not a punk or a wise guy I am a regular guy, a blue collar guy, and a hard worker and that's my real personality,” he says.
Baroni made his UFC debut in 2002. He was cut by the UFC in 2005 after losing four consecutive fights but seven years later, after a successful stint fighting in Japan, he found himself surprisingly recalled. Since his return Baroni has already fought once, losing via decision to Amir Sadollah, and is desperate to get back to winning ways when he returns to the Octagon in four months time,
“I have a four-fight contract but I need to start winning or I know I will get cut. I don't want to get cut by the UFC because it took me six long years to fight my way back. I have always wanted to finish my career in the UFC and I wouldn't want to be released now as it would be a long hard road back,” he says.
Baroni is the eternal optimist but if he is unable to take advantage of his second opportunity inside the Octagon it is highly unlikely he will get a third.
When Baroni made his UFC comeback last November he found that much had changed in the intervening years, not least the attitude of the fans. "I used to get booed by the fans and it definitely bothered me but I didn't realize it until I came back from Japan. In Japan the fans liked me and they cheered for me. Then when I fought Frank Shamrock in his hometown I got booed and it bothered me."
Since returning to the UFC he feels that fight fans are finally starting to see him in a new light. "I think people are starting to like me, even Jo Rogan seemed to want me to win my last fight. Now I am just being myself and I think the real fight fans like that and appreciate me. I never look for a way out in a fight, I am a real fighter I am not just an athlete who fights."
Being just a regular guy does have its disadvantages for Baroni, who lives in Las Vegas with his wife and children. "A lot of the problem is that I have never been part of a team, a lot of the most successful guys are on teams and they hang out together.
"My friends are all regular guys who go out and drink and gamble and don't live at a gym or have a healthy lifestyle. I need to get out of Las Vegas and hang out with people who are positive role models because hanging out with regular guys is not conducive to being a professional fighter."
Baroni, who is currently training at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, admits that his last loss hit him particularly hard. "Before coming here I was not doing what I should have been doing, I was living a bad lifestyle. I spent three months drinking and gambling and eating. I lost a lot of money and I realized I have an eating problem, you could call it a disorder."
During this time Baroni also put on a lot of weight and coming to Thailand proved a profound culture shock. “When I first came here I couldn’t go two rounds on the pads because I was so out of shape but today I managed eight rounds.
"I came here because I had a lot of stuff to figure out that I couldn’t figure out back home but I decided to stay because the training has been so good. I’ve never trained Muay Thai in my life and it’s a weakness which a lot of my opponents have exploited.”
The last fight, against Amir Sadollah, was a prime example of this. Baroni came out swinging and appeared to be on the verge of scoring a sensational first round knock out but faded badly down the stretch as Sadollah dominated him in the clinch to win a clear cut decision.
It was a huge blow to Baroni who says he is not prepared, either mentally or financially, to face the possibility of retirement. “When I first got in the UFC I thought I would quit aged 30 but that obviously hasn’t happened and I would like to keep going as long as I can.
"I don’t know what I will do when my career ends, I don’t want to think about it. I wanted to make enough money to be able to retire but I am going to have to win a lot of fights if I am going to do that.”
This puts enormous pressure on Baroni to win his next UFC fight which he thinks will probably see him return to the middleweight division where he made his name. “I wrestled at 170 lbs in high school and I am almost 34 now so I don’t want to be at the same weight I was at when I was at school.
"I think it’s just a fad, everyone is going down in weight but I don’t think it suits me. I think guys like Kampmann and Swick have lost a little bit of power down at the weight. I don’t think being tall and skinny is the way to be.”
Baroni thinks that the weight cut was a contributor factor in his disappointing performance against Sadollah. "I cut 21 pounds in 36 hours for that fight and I feel like I lost a lot of power at 170 pounds. It was my first fight in the UFC for six years and I was so stressed out and nervous. It was a must win situation so all I did was punch, I didn’t use wrestling or any of my other skills.”
Baroni hopes he will have more success fighting at 185 lbs because he is in urgent need of a win. He thinks that the time spent training at Tiger Muay Thai could make the difference.
“My attitude when I first got here was bad and I wanted to go home but now I don’t want to leave. I have learned so much and I have realized I have a lot more to learn.The whole experience has been really good for me, both as a fighter and as a person, and hopefully that will be reflected in my next fight."
Baroni, who holds victories over MMA stand outs such as Yuki Kondo and Ryu Chonan, has an overall record of 13-12. His last win inside the octagon came back in 2002 and was a highlight reel knock out over former UFC Middleweight Champion Dave Menne. Baroni is perhaps better remembered for his reaction to the win than the emphatic fight finish itself, straddling the cage and screaming, “I am the man, I am the best, the best ever.”
I wondered it he might be embarrassed by this outburst but in fact Baroni looks back upon it with pride. “I don’t regret it at all, that was an important fight for me and I was excited to win it. It was a good moment and something I will never forget.”
Baroni will need to summon up a similar performance in his next UFC outing because his livelihood is very much on the line. A win could revitalize his career and cement his status as a UFC contender. A loss could thrust him back into MMA obscurity and would be potentially devastating for a man who admits he has nothing else to fall back on.
If he does manage to roll back time and grab the victory he so desperately needs Baroni could be forgiven for another emotional outburst. He is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and what you see is very much what you get.
When Phil Baroni next enters the Octagon he will be probably be wearing his trademark New York Badass boxing robe and sun glasses. Do not be fooled by his brash appearance though. Behind the shades lurk the eyes of a man who has fought long and hard and, for whatever reason, still has too little to show for it.
He is clinging to the coat tails of his MMA career and needs to win his next fight if he is to hang on any longer. Most athletes are meticulously clean living, circumspect and media savvy. Baroni is a throwback to an older era, a real-life Rocky who is frank about his faults and his fight to overcome them. We should enjoy seeing Baroni fight while we can because inside the increasingly competitive UFC he may very well be the last of his kind.