If anyone needed a brand new year to pin his hopes to, it's Phil Baroni.
The 34-year-old mixed martial artist from Massapequa, a 10-year veteran of UFC, Strikeforce, Pride and anywhere else that would pay him to fight, is doing what we all do on New Year's Day. He's wishing all the travails of past years remain in the distance and hoping his life and luck change along with the two digits we write at the end of the date on a check.
"No pressure, no diamonds, man," Baroni said.
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Here's the difference: Baroni isn't writing it down on a piece of paper, or promising to join a fitness center. He's stepping into a cage and punching and kicking someone in the face, chest, shins, hips, arms, legs, wherever. That someone is Brad Tavares, and he will try to do the same to Baroni at UFC 125 Saturday in Las Vegas.
"I'm not a stepping-stone," Baroni said. "I'm more like a roadblock. I'm going to derail this kid and fight my way back to the top. This old dog still has some teeth, and I'm looking to bite him."
Baroni sounds rejuvenated. Invigorated. Willing to fight. More importantly, willing to listen. The middleweight credits his time away after losing to Amir Sadollah at UFC 106 in November 2009. Baroni traveled to Hawaii for a month or so, he said, then over to Thailand. There, he trained in Muay Thai, where he realized the workouts, dedication and long training runs were necessary.
"I was looking at it as punishment, a tough life," Baroni said.
Not anymore. For the past three months, Baroni shifted his training from Las Vegas to Javier Mendez and the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. When Cain Velasquez was there preparing to beat Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title in October, Baroni was there. When Josh Koscheck was preparing for his fight this month against Georges St-Pierre, Baroni was there.
That atmosphere helped keep him in check, mentally and physically. "I think I have a lot of fight left in me," Baroni said. "I feel refreshed. I'm hungry again. I was burned before."
Baroni's fight will be televised on Ion after UFC struck a deal with the network this week. How exactly did Baroni, a 13-12 career fighter who is 3-6 in the UFC and hasn't won there since 2002, get himself onto the broadcast? Well, it helps to fight Tavares (5-1), a semifinalist from Season 11 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Twitter doesn't hurt, either. Seems fans "terrorized" Dana White on Twitter to have the Baroni fight televised.
But an active list of followers can get you only so far. At some point, Baroni needs to win. That point is now. Right now. Baroni knows he's run out of second chances in the UFC, and has rededicated himself to fighting.
"My whole dream when I was growing up was to be world champion," Baroni said. "In my mind I wasn't scoring three-pointers with 10 seconds left. I wasn't hitting home runs in the ninth inning. I was knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler. I have an opportunity now to live my dream."