Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
Surrounded by a few hundred liquored-up patrons who had just ended a hard day on the job, Ross Pearson used to fight in working men's clubs in the United Kingdom.
With plumes of smoke in the air and grown men yelling, he'd put on his show, then join those he'd entertained for a pint or two.
His fight on Saturday night against Aaron Riley at UFC 105 in Manchester, England, couldn't possibly present a more different atmosphere than where the 25-year-old was doing battle just two years ago.
The opportunity for career advancement was afforded to him by earning a six-figure UFC contract with a unanimous decision victory over Andre Winner on June 20 at the Ultimate Fighter Finale 9.
"Prior to being on The Ultimate Fighter, I'd never been on the television before," Pearson said. "I'd been fighting in men's clubs, small arenas, probably the max (attendance) would be 1,000 people.
"Sometimes it was in a cage, sometimes it was a ring, but basically it was just slap-bang in the middle of the floor. There's a bar there and people just gather around. That's my memories of early UK MMA."
The fight will be Pearson's first under his new UFC deal. Landing it was a turning point for him in many ways.
It's something that he can admit was no more than a fantasy when he paid 150 pounds — or roughly $250, American — for a ticket to watch Michael Bisping defeat Elvis Sinosic via second-round TKO at UFC 70 on April 21, 2007.
Now, he'll be entering the Octagon as a part of the same card as Bisping, who was also his coach in the ninth season of The Ultimate Fighter.
"Just thinking back, it wasn't that long ago when I was sitting in the crowd as a fan, dreaming, thinking that I'd be there one day," the Sunderland, England, native said. "Now, I'm here."
Pearson's road certainly wasn't easy.
After grinding it out on the semi-pro circuit in the UK for several years, Pearson won an elimination fight against A.J. Wenn, punching his ticket to Las Vegas for The Ultimate Fighter, which pitted Team United Kingdom against Team United States.
Pearson said that if it wasn't for having his fellow countrymen around in the fighters' house in Las Vegas, he may not have made it through.
By design, a stay in The Ultimate Fighter house is intended to break a man down, severing all connection to the outside world.
"I definitely see how people go crazy in the house," he said. "The house definitely plays games in your head. Just when you've got no television, don't know what's going on in the outside world, your mind starts playing tricks. But, like I said, everyone from Team UK was there to help each other and support each other, which brought it through for me.
"The first night, when Robert Browning started with his antics, I think that was the closest I came (to losing it). Then, as soon as he left the house, there was peace and tranquility."
While Browning lost it — and then lost an elimination match later in the second episode — Pearson flew under the radar for much of the show's ninth season.
"Just the fact that I was getting an opportunity that I couldn't let slip, that's what I was focused on, really," he said.
Focus is now a constant virtue for Pearson, who since earning his UFC deal said he's more career-minded than ever. No longer treating mixed martial arts as just a sport or hobby, he said it's truly become his life.
Never a smoker, he no longer drinks very much and is constantly looking after his body. Also, instead of simply turning up his training a couple of notches leading up to a fight, he said his regimen is on a constant, intense plateau.
The focus of late is the 28-year-old Riley, who has 40 professional bouts under his belt and has been doing so since he was 16.
Riley's riding a bit of a hot streak, as he's won four of his last five fights, including a unanimous decision over Shane Nelson at UFC 101.
"I've watched a few of his fights, and there is quite a lot of footage of him on YouTube," Pearson said. "He's a very good all-around fighter. He's very aggressive, he likes a fast-paced fight, he doesn't mind standing and banging, he doesn't mind wrestling, he doesn't mind grappling. He's very well-rounded and he's a solid, tough opponent. Basically, I think he's a veteran of the sport and I respect everything he's done. I'm not taking anything away from him, I just think I'm better than him in everything.
"I'm looking to take him out, whether that means by TKO or KO or whatever. I definitely think I've got better hands than him and I definitely think I've got better Muay Thai than him."
The physical battle is one thing, but Pearson said he doesn't expect any kind of stage fright to set in, even though he's taking in the Manchester Evening News Arena from a different angle this time around.
"I've seen the arena before. I was there for UFC 70. I don't think I'll be shocked," he said. "I think I'll handle it well. Once that cage door shuts and the fight's happening, you can't see outside of the cage. It's just me and Aaron Riley fighting."