Heavyweight Duffee says self-belief is better than ever despite bumpy MMA ride
It's been 40 months since American Todd Duffee announced his arrival in the UFC with a seven-second knockout. And 31 months since he suffered his own shock stoppage in his next fight and was subsequently cut by the organization.
Things got even more complicated after that.
"Ride is quite an understatement. It's like a roller-coaster actually," Duffee said dryly of his mixed martial arts journey.
The six-foot-three, 260-pound slab of muscle has been labelled everything from the next big thing to a problem child with a bad attitude.
Since leaving the UFC, the 27-year-old has endured a knee injury, made a movie ("Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown") and spent just 53 seconds fighting. Alistair Overeem knocked him out in 19 seconds — on short notice — and Duffee stopped UFC veteran Neil Grove in 34 seconds.
But heading into his comeback fight against Philip De Fries at UFC 155 on Saturday in Las Vegas, Duffee (7-2) isn't reviewing recent history. He's just happy to be back — as a replacement for Matt Mitrione, who was pulled from the card to replace the injured Shane Carwin against Roy (Big Country) Nelson on Dec. 15.
"It's super-exciting," said Duffee. "I went from getting ready to sign a kickboxing contract — which is not exactly what I wanted out of life but (given) my circumstances and things like that, it was my best option.
"And now I'm back to doing what I love. And doing it on the biggest stage on the world. It's huge. Words can't describe it."
Still he sees Saturday only as an opportunity.
"I still have to capitalize on it," he said.
At UFC 102 in August 2009, Duffee evaded a punch from Tim (The Thrashing Machine) Hague at the opening bell and then felled the Canadian with a stiff jab before finishing him off on the ground.
"That was an appetizer, I want to eat now, Dana. Let me eat," Duffee, referring to UFC boss Dana White, said into the camera as he celebrated the win.
It took just seven seconds, which was a UFC record for fastest knockout until the UFC revised its record book to give that honour to Duane Ludwig (6.2 seconds).
"Hello world," Duffee said in his post-fight interview.
"Can't wait to bring more heat," he added.
Duffee, whose purse was listed at US$10,000 for the historic KO, had been forced to wait for his UFC debut. He was originally slated to fight at UFC 99 in June 2009 in Germany but lost his spot when the UFC signed former Pride star Mirko (Cro Cop) Filipovic.
Duffee made it to Germany but only as insurance in case another heavyweight went down.
A back problem delayed his return to the cage in December 2009, nixing a fight with Paul (The Headhunter) Buentello.
Elevated from the prelims to the main card at UFC 114 in May 2010, Duffee dominated Chicago cop Mike Russow until he walked in a right hand midway through the third round.
Duffee outstruck Russow 51-14 throughout the fight, according to FightMetric. But Russow's 14th punch was a game-changer.
"If that was in a movie, you would say 'Shut up. That can't happen in real life,' " said incredulous commentator Joe Rogan.
Duffee says he carried injuries into the fight that cut into his confidence and was so nervous about the bout going to the ground that he did not "commit as much as I should of to try to finish him.
"I should have finished him numerous times," he lamented.
Still he says the loss taught him a lot about self-belief.
"It made me realize that it's important, that maybe I did lack a little belief," he said. "And I think the last two years, through this journey, that belief has grown very strongly within myself.
"Instead of everybody else telling me how good I am, I know how good I am."
Still, there were more bumps along the way.
In the wake of the Russow defeat, Duffee was subsequently cut from the organization with White rubbing salt into the wound later that year in an interview with MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani.
White noted that the UFC has the right to cut fighters after a loss and then tore a strip off the big fighter.
"But the biggest problem that I have is Todd Duffee is his attitude," the UFC president said. "You guys don't see it, you don't know ... Todd Duffee to me doesn't seem like he wants to be in the UFC, he doesn't like being in the UFC. Let him go fight in the smaller organizations and work his way back up, if he even wants to work his way back up and get back in the UFC."
Duffee says his return to the organization came right out of the blue. He thought it would take another three or four bouts and 18 months to fight his way back.
"I just got a lucky break, man, and I've got to ride this wave all the way in," he said.
The Hague win thrust Duffee into the spotlight, a place he acknowledges he's not that comfortable in.
The KO record also rankled him because he knew it really belonged to Ludwig, a friend.
"It felt cheap," he said.
Duffee has been forced to live cheaply recently due to his checkered fighting career.
"It's no secret, if you don't fight, you don't get paid," he said. "It's very difficult, but that's part of the sacrifice.
"At the end of the day, you have to remember you're chasing a dream. There are no guarantees. I'm operating without a safety net, I know that."
He credits the support of his family and friends for keeping the dream live, although there were occasions when he almost stepped back.
"There's been a few different times where I had to kind of look at my situation and go 'This is kind of getting stupid.' I wasn't able to get anywhere with fights and it wasn't for lack of trying, I can promise you that.
"There's not a lot of heavyweights out there to fight and not a lot of promoters that want to pick up somebody with a bad attitude. That was the perception I had to deal with it, a little bit. People look at me like a G.I. Joe figure or an arrogant jock-asshole whether they've actually had a conversation with me or not."
Asked how he got the bad attitude label, Duffee says he doesn't know.
"And I think at this point it doesn't really matter to me," he said. "I've got to kind of look forward and just be happy that I have this opportunity in front of me."
Duffee grew up in Illinois and played football at Southern Illinois University. But his gridiron career was put on hold by injury and when his mother, a registered nurse got a job transfer to Georgia, he followed her south.
Georgia Tech offered him a walk-on spot on its football team but his focus had switched to boxing and then MMA.
These days, Duffee trains in San Jose at the American Kickboxing Academy, alongside former UFC heavyweight title-holder Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier, Strikeforce's heavyweight Grand Prix champion.
Velasquez tackles champion Junior Dos Santos in the UFC 155 main event.
Prior to Russow, Duffee's only loss was as an amateur. He threw a spinning back fist, his opponent ducked, and Duffee broke his forearm and his tricep tendon when he hit the top of his opponent's forehead.
He fought on for some three-and-a-half minutes, his forearm popping in and out, ins
"His strength is his submissions because he's finished most of his fights that way," he said. "But he's dangerous in all areas. But I think I'm just better in every area, to be honest.
"But he's still a tough fight. And it's a fight. At the end of the day, we wouldn't be fighting if we knew what was going to happen. But I have a pretty good idea that I'm going to be the winner."