These are heady days around Montreal's TriStar gym. Four weeks ago, the student who put the camp on the map, UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, returned from an 18-month absence and retained his title with a victory over Carlos Condit in front of a raucous hometown Bell Centre crowd. Then last week, Rory MacDonald scored his biggest career win with a dominant performance on network television against mixed martial arts legend B.J. Penn.
Now it's Mike Ricci's turn to live in the limelight. No, not the former Quebec Nordique -- this Mike Ricci is a 26-year old converted lightweight who will look to become the first Canadian to claim a championship on The Ultimate Fighter. Ricci will face Colton Smith in the welterweight final at the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Saturday night in the finale of the reality series' 16th season.
"I thought coming home from TUF that I'd have a bit of a break," Ricci said in a recent media teleconference. "That wasn't the case with that. With Georges getting ready for Condit and Rory getting ready for Penn, the gym was just jam-packed with fighters from all over the world, trainers from all over the world.
"We brought in the best guys and built such great camps and the gym has just been, you know, it's just been a freak show," Ricci continued. "It's just been going wild. Nothing but pure talent to me. I've met and trained with guys that I'm super grateful for being able to train with."
Like many a fighter before him over the course of the UFC's flagship cable series, Ricci saw a season on the show as a chance to jump the line, so to speak. His career had stalled a bit in recent years -- he's 2-2 in his past four official fights, with his losses coming to current Bellator champion Pat Curran and current UFC fighter Daron Cruickshank -- but 13 weeks of exposure on basic cable television was a way to make himself a commodity.
"I feel it was an opportunity for me to get ahead and go faster than I would have by the usual route, fighting your way up on undercards," Ricci said.
But those other fighters before him have also found out that TUF life is a tradeoff: You improve as a fighter and gain exposure. But spending six weeks in a house out in the Nevada desert, shut off from contact to friends and family and with no Internet access, is enough to test the will of even the strongest men.
The veil of secrecy surrounding the TUF house is such that, in a famous example, during the first season, Boston-area fighter Alex Karalexis came out of the house after the fall 2004 tapings unaware that the Boston Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time since 1918, and thought his friends were ribbing him when they told him the news.
Ricci, as both the smallest guy in the house and the quietest, took to the lack of contact with the outside world worse than most, and he hasn't been afraid to express his thoughts about the experience.
"As far as training and by experience goes, I think 'The Ultimate Fighter's' a great format," Ricci said. "You get to fight so frequently and so it keeps you so fresh and so sharp. But as far as being taken away from my family and friends, training partners and coaches, I wasn't too happy about that. It was obviously something I knew was going to happen going into it. I knew I was going to miss home and be taken out of my element. But it was something that I had to do to get to, you know, where I wanted to be in my career."
Ricci went so far as to say that after spending a month and a half having cameras follow his every move, simply coming home to Montreal and adjusting to day-to-day interactions with the people in his life turned out to be a chore.
"Coming out of the house, I had a bit of like this social shock almost," Ricci said. "I came back and I have a large circle of friends and a big family. So coming back into the city definitely took some adjusting. I was used to being in a hostile situation where I was constantly sizing people up or being sized up, waiting to fight on one-day's notice.
"So it was definitely a hostile environment and having coming back into the real world, being able to use a phone and a computer and people being nice to you and showing you affection and what not, definitely took some getting used to," Ricci continued. "So I definitely had some readjusting to do and then after that I was getting right back to normal."
If nothing else, come Saturday night, the entire TUF experience will be over for Ricci, win or lose.
"Well obviously I didn't like the experience regardless, win or lose," said Ricci, who plans on returning to lightweight after this weekend. "So obviously winning and having the outcome that I had made it a little easier to deal with and cope with. I felt like I at least gained something from what I went through."
With a victory Saturday, Ricci will join his TriStar campmates St-Pierre and MacDonald (the latter of whom will corner Ricci on Saturday) and make it a clean sweep for the gym's high-profile recent fights. While he respects Smith, he feels the opportunity to watch Smith up close in the house will work to his advantage.
"That's the beauty of TUF, right, you get to watch your opponent fight live multiple times. Especially if you're obviously in the finale you get to see your opponent fight (multiple) times. And Colton, I don't think he even lost a round in TUF. So definitely a good fighter. He's well rounded, always comes in good shape."