Courtesy of UFC
Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009 | midnight
It would be hard to find anyone on the UFC 101 fight card looking forward to fighting in Philadelphia more than Las Vegas resident Matt Riddle. He was born in Pennsylvania and is off to a strong start in the UFC welterweight division, with wins in the first two fights of his career.
“This fight, I’m going to sleep in my own bed in my own house,” he said. “This is where I’m from and I’ve always wanted to fight in my hometown.”
His fight on Aug. 8 will put him a long way from where he was in 2006 when, in his own words, Riddle’s life had pretty much “gone to (expletive).”
After a successful wrestling season at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, Riddle’s scholarship vanished into thin air when his coach was fired. Working in a video store, Riddle didn’t have the money to stay in school or the desire to take out student loans.
Hearing that he was dropping out of college, his girlfriend dumped him on the spot.
So when Riddle’s longtime childhood friend asked him to move up to his small up-state New York apartment and let him “punch him in the face,” Riddle took him up on it.
“The only reason I called was because I knew that he would come,” said Riddle’s friend, Scott Kaplan. “I had tried to get him to come before but there was no reason for him to because he had something better to do than to come to New York and get punched in the face.
“But when all that stuff happened, I didn’t have to press him much.”
Riddle arrived shortly after, dropped off by his mom because he didn’t have a license, and began working on what had once been a dream of both he and his friend –- fighting for a living.
As kids, Riddle and Kaplan were known for buying pay-per-view fights on their parents’ accounts when they weren’t supposed to and fighting each other in between UFC bouts.
Kaplan’s family gazebo was turned into their personal Octagon.
“When we were in high school we’d go in there with no mouthpieces and fight each other, using soccer kicks and everything,” Kaplan said. “One time one of our friends was watching and he said, ‘Dude, that’s sick.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah we know, it’s awesome.’ And he went, ‘No dude, that’s sick,’ and about threw up.”
With no mixed martial arts gyms to join in New York at the time, Riddle and Kaplan bought about six zebra mats to set up in one of the two bedrooms of their small apartment.
Their jiu-jitsu instruction came from thumbing through a book they had bought and trying out moves on each other.
“We got three books and literally paged through them and said, ‘I like this, let’s try it on the mat,’” Riddle said. “I personally liked it just because I could teach what I wanted to learn. I also have gaps in my fundamentals but they help me out because I don’t do the same thing as a normal purple belt would.”
Considering their long history of fighting each other, the MMA training actually came along fairly quickly for both Riddle and Kaplan.
Sustaining themselves financially while training, however, was a different story.
Riddle found a job with a roofing company upon moving to New York, but that was quickly set back when Kaplan was let go from the job he had been working to pay for the apartment.
When Riddle was fired from the roofing company not long after, (“I’m just not very good at holding on to jobs,” Riddle said) the two had to turn to the owner of a tattoo parlor, who paid them small amounts to do odd jobs.
“My parents told me if I wanted to fight they wouldn’t support me. That year was the hardest I’ve ever lived,” Riddle said. “The only person that helped me out was a guy named Paul -- he’d just give me money and feed me. I also bounced at his pool hall. He would have death metal concerts so I’d spend the weekend breaking up mosh pits.”
Although he wasn’t good at holding down a job, Riddle proved to be a handful with the most experienced grapplers in the region.
After rolling through grappling tournaments, Riddle caught his big break when he was accepted onto the seventh season of the UFC reality television series, “The Ultimate Fighter” at an open tryout in New Jersey.
Riddle cemented his spot on the roster when he knocked out Dan Simmler in what Quinton “Rampage” Jackson called “the knockout of the century.” Riddle’s right hand broke Simmler’s jaw, sending him to the hospital.
“It was the first season where you had to fight to get on the show,” Riddle said. “So I showed up expecting to be on the show and then 24 other fighters showed up. I knew Simmler from grappling tournaments before and he was just a d-bag. I didn’t know for sure whether I would fight him or not but when they matched me up with him I was all smiles.”
Riddle is now 2-0 in the UFC with unanimous decision wins over Steve Bruno and Dante Rivera. He now turns his attention to a former castmate of the reality show, Dan Cramer, at UFC 101.
Unlike Simmler, Riddle has nothing bad to say about Cramer except for the fact that he made him listen to rather long, pointless stories constantly while in the "TUF" house.
“It takes him like half-an-hour to get through a story,” Riddle laughed. “When we had first met he was telling all of us, ‘Yeah, you know my boys from Connecticut, all of us were in our polos hittin’ the streets,’ and we had just met him. I didn’t know his boys.
“One day I was like, ‘Cramer, nobody is saying it, but you tell the worst stories, stop talking.’ And everybody just started clapping.”
As always, Kaplan will be in Riddle’s corner when he takes on Cramer on Saturday. Just a quick drive away from Riddle’s hometown and a state away from the apartment where they taught themselves the game, the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia will be a big reminder to both of them how far they’ve came.
“It’s definitely kind of a dream come true,” Kaplan said. “We started doin' it purely for no other reason than it was fun. Slowly it turned into we might be pretty good. Now he’s in the UFC and we live in Las Vegas.”
Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or firstname.lastname@example.org.