World Series of Fighting (WSOF) will hold its one-night, eight-man Lightweight tournament this Friday night (Nov. 20, 2015) at Comerica Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., the winner of which will earn a future title shot against champion Justin Gaethje.
One of those men is former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter -- and The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 16 competitor -- Mike Ricci. Ricci was the favorite to win the show on Dec. 5, 2012, but wound up being defeated by Colton Smith via unanimous decision in the Welterweight finals.
Ricci moved back to 155 pounds after the loss, having some early success at the weight in UFC, but ultimately being released by the promotion. In two Titan FC fights since then he's knocked off Jorge Gurgel and George Sotiropoulos.
Those victories brought him to the attention of WSOF, and he was subsequently announced for its eight-man tournament at WSOF 25, giving Ricci a chance to return to the spotlight on NBC Sports.
If he does get past tournament quarterfinalist Brian Cobb, he could wind up facing Islam Mamedov, Jorge Patino or possibly even a tournament reserve fighter.
Ricci recently spoke with MMAmania.com about his history in the sport, the huge opportunity ahead of him this weekend and how he wound up making the jump from Titan FC to WSOF.
"I had a couple of misfortunes you know in Titan man. (After I healed), the org didn't have a card in time, so I just started to shop around and I found a fight with World Series. It became this big thing with the tournament and what not, and it just materialized from that."
Ricci is excited about his prospects going into the quarterfinals against Brian Cobb. In fact losing a split decision to Myles Jury at UFC 165 in Sept. 2013 suggests to Ricci he was already among the world's best.
"Outside of the UFC, I don't see anybody else who's going to be able to give me a challenge. When I was still in UFC my last loss was to the No. 8 guy in the world, and it was a close competition to Jury, so I know where I'm at. I feel like it's going to show in this tournament."
If that's not a bold enough declaration for you, his next statement may really raise some eyebrows.
"I truly believe outside of the UFC I'm top three in the world. Gaethje has (a title) and Will Brooks has one, I think those are the two biggest promotions, so I can't put myself ahead of guys who have a title. It just wouldn't be fair -- but I believe I'm up there with those two guys."
At 10-4, Ricci isn't ignoring the skill set of the more experienced fighter, Brian Cobb (20-8), though. In fact, during our interview he raised Cobb's profile by highlighting his past.
"He's fought in the UFC. I think he fought Terry Etim. I check out the guys that I fight at the beginning (on film), and then I chill after."
Ricci is right, but he's even more certain the tournament is designed to weed out lesser opponents (and by implication Cobb).
"The first round, the guys who are not physically capable and technically capable are going to get pushed out, and that's all normal because that's how fighting is. Then in the second round it's going to be like okay, who has the mental capacity to go back in and to perform and win? You're going to see two Lightweights in the third round that are in my opinion top ten Lightweights in the world. This is the pinnacle of fighting competition."
The implication here is clear: Ricci expects to be one of those two men. Readers may be wringing their hands in anticipation of burying Ricci as delusional, but when you train at Tristar Gym, confidence is easy to acquire.
"If I want to wrestle, if I want to kick, if I want to punch, or if I want to bring the fight closer or further from the fence, I just find I'm transitioning from one idea to another with more ease and more flow. I've helped countless guys with their training camps over the last year, from Rory (MacDonald), to Kajan Johnson, Chad Laprise, Joe Duffy, Tom Breese, I've been in all these guys training camp, so I've been getting better man."
The only thing that seemed to bother Ricci over the course of the interview was the idea of a reserve fighter getting into the tournament in a replacement slot without -- in his opinion -- having earned that shot.
"They have replacements on standby. That's kind of a little bit messed up. They built the format that all the big money is at the end right? The first two fights are good money, and then at the end you've got the big payday. You could have some bum sitting on the sideline waiting and then everybody's injured everyone's hurt and you've got one guy left. And then all of a sudden they're like, 'Okay, you can go in there.' It doesn't really make sense to me. I think once you get to the finals, the other guy can't advance, then the other guy should just win by default."
Fighters like LaRue Burley or Benny Madrid might take the implication they're "bums" personally, but if Ricci is worried about making enemies it doesn't show. He's just ready to handle business.
"A lot of people are like, 'Aww man, you haven't fought in a year and two months.' Man every top guy fights once a year anyway. You don't ever hear anyone talking about them being rusty, you know what I mean? How did I get rusty? It hasn't been five or six years -- chill out! Really, I'm not too worried."
That's Mike Ricci. He's not worried about proving he's among the best 155-pound talents outside of UFC. He's just confident he'll get it done. Tune in to NBC Sports Network this Friday night or head to Comerica Theatre in Phoenix to find out if he is wrong or right.
Complete audio of our interview is below and complete WSOF coverage can be found right here on fight night.