Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 | 3:22 p.m.
T.J. O'Brien says he received the perfect opportunity to break into the UFC with the 12th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series — and he blew it.
He doesn't expect to make the same mistake twice.
O'Brien (16-3) will look to capitalize on an unexpected second life with the UFC on Saturday when he takes on Paul Kelly (10-3) on the undercard of UFC 123 in Detroit.
It's an opportunity O'Brien thought he was years away from after suffering a 13-second knockout loss to Marc Stevens in the elimination round of the TUF 12 tryouts. The fight was nationally televised during the show's first episode.
"I was as surprised as anyone," said O'Brien, on receiving a call to replace the injured Gabe Ruediger. "After my performance on the show, I thought I was going to have to advance my career elsewhere."
The Iowa-based lightweight says that, actually, he wasn't even sure he wanted to advance his career at all following that experience.
O'Brien began mixed-martial-arts training in 2005, when he picked up jiu-jitsu after scholarships in basketball and track and field fell through his senior year of high school.
Despite building an impressive record and working his way into Des Moines Jiu Jitsu to train alongside UFC veteran Kevin Burns, O'Brien felt he wasn't where he needed to be both professionally and financially five years into his training.
After returning home from the TUF 12 experience in Las Vegas, O'Brien picked up a full-time job for the first time in years and tapered back his training to once a day.
"I went out to Vegas with the wrong mindset, that if I lost, I would retire," O'Brien said. "I was thinking, 'I've been in this game for five years now and I have nothing to show for it.'
"It's not just my MMA career. I turned 23 and I wasn't where I wanted to be. I thought, 'If I had put five years into a company, I'd have a pretty good career by now.' I wasn't happy with where I was."
Although his time in the gym was scaled back, the wins inside the cage kept coming.
In back-to-back fights in July and October, O'Brien posted consecutive first-round submission wins over two durable opponents.
Three days after the October win, the UFC called and offered the Kelly fight.
"I fought on Friday, got the call Monday, and got right back in the gym," O'Brien said. "It kind of sucks being in the gym for two months straight, but there are benefits because you don't have to get any rust off. I was just able to build my cardio and focus on my opponent."
That opponent likely will be fighting for his future in the UFC, as Kelly has dropped three of his last four fights.
O'Brien is looking forward to a second chance at showing the UFC audience what he's capable of and believes that, stylistically speaking, the fight should favor him.
"His strongest point is ground-and-pound and my strongest point is working off my back," O'Brien said. "In the standup, we're pretty equal, but I can do things other people can't. I have a 78-inch reach. I want to exploit that and stay at a distance.
"I love the matchup. I couldn't ask for a better one."
If O'Brien starts to get overconfident in the advantages he holds over Kelly, all he needs to do is think back to the 13-second knockout loss to Stevens to pull him back to reality.
Although Stevens went on to become the first pick of the season and was portrayed as one of the fighters to beat, O'Brien believed the UFC wanted to put him on the show and gave him Stevens as a favorable matchup to get into the house.
O'Brien, after all, specializes in chokeholds — Stevens later was submitted twice on the show and now stands to not even make the UFC roster.
"I blew that opportunity," O'Brien said. "I dropped my hands and he took full advantage, but he seemed like a one-dimensional guy. He was exposed on the show and I doubt he'll even get a contract."