Phil Baroni is 15-17, overall, in his pro MMA career. He has lost two straight, four out of his last five, seven out of his last nine bouts, and he’s not happy about it.
More on that in a bit. Right now, Phil Baroni is riding in a car with his coach Nick, “One Kick” Blomgren in California where the charismatic KO stylist will take on Karo Parisyan at a Bellator event in two days, and he is quite happy about that.
Despite being on a losing streak, Baroni – for many years one of the most well-known and most feared MMA fighters in the world – finds himself fighting for a top organization and doing so with his long-time coach and friend Blomgren in his corner. “The New York Badass” has bounced around gyms (including American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose) for years but says he’s happy to be back where he feels at home – with “One Kick Nick.”
It all started with a girl.
“I went to California for [expletive],” Baroni explains of his decision to leave Vegas and venture to San Jose for training.
“I went for [expletive] and she paid for things so it made sense.”
Certainly, that type of arrangement would sound like a favorable one to many a man. That begs the question as to why Baroni returned to “One Kick Nick” and land-locked Las Vegas.
“You know what, I don’t think I ever said this in an interview before, but I was kind of embarrassed, I think,” Baroni reveals.
“You travel around the world, to Japan, all over, with someone [like coach Blomgren] and you start to make mistakes, start to lose and it’s hard to show your face. If I’m honest, I think I was embarrassed.”
That closeness to his coach is also what brought Baroni back, however. At the end of the day, he knew Blomgren’s support for him was unconditional.
“Someone like that, who travels all over with you, is with you for years, you’re not just a number to them. He’s there for me, win or lose.”
Win or lose, for better or for worse. Baroni talks about loyalty much in the same way he speaks of “old school” fighters.
The fighter recently listed fighters who he thought of as of the same generation as himself. Baroni seems to think of himself as a part of a dying breed.
Part of that old school breed category is most certainly an age and time thing. Baroni is now 38 years old and fourteen years into his pro MMA career.
"I'm a lot better than my record. I need to correct my legacy" - Phil Baroni
There’s more to that “old school” tag that is timeless, however, in Baroni’s mind. To the UFC and Pride veteran, one thing above all else characterizes the old guard of MMA fighters like himself.
“They fought to prove something,” he says.
“It wasn’t about fame or even money. Guys now a days want to be famous. Even when I was winning in the UFC and in Pride, fighting on pay per view, I was never famous. Yeah, maybe if I went down the strip in Vegas the week of a fight there would be one guy wearing a Tapout shirt and he’d recognize me, but I wasn’t famous. I was famous to my circle of friends but there was no fame in fighting. Things have changed so fast. You look at a guy like Kenny Florian – you’d have to ask him, I don’t know – but I bet he’s more famous now as a television commentator than he was for all his years as fighting.
“Really, we didn’t fight for money or for attention. We didn’t have any of that. I was eating skittles, man. I was eating [expletive] skittles. I was in Vegas eating skittles in a one-room apartment while training for big fights. I would go to the strip club where my buddy worked and he’d let me in so I could eat at the buffet. I wasn’t looking at [expletive] I was looking for chicken and rice to eat. I was hungry!”
If Baroni fought to prove something – to himself, to the world – back in his twenties and early thirties, it’s still the reason why he’s doing it now, nearing his forties. From the outside, it may look like the well-educated (though entertainingly foul-mouthed) Baroni is forcing the issue a bit these days by continuing to fight as the losses mount.
It would appear that he always could have done something different with his life. There are less grueling ways to spend a life than to spend it as a professional fighter, after all.
But Baroni soldiers on – traveling the world as he always has, looking for tough fights, crazy experiences and, most of all, to prove something to himself. “That is still why I fight.”
And it must be why Baroni appears to be working harder and more seriously than ever. In his younger days, he was yoked and massive at middleweight.
Now, he’s lean, shredded and disciplined as a welterweight. The dieting, the blows sustained, the disappointment are…well, perhaps not “worth it,” but simply necessary to an old school fighter like Baroni.
As he says, Baroni may never have achieved the near-mainstream fame that current UFC stars have, but at one point in time he was very much a UFC and Pride cover boy and came razor-close to becoming a world champion on several occasions. Baroni can’t accept that that guy now has a losing record and won’t allow himself to go out on a low note.
“There’s so much talk these days about who is on the cover of the new UFC video game. It’s a big deal. I was on the cover of a UFC video game, years ago,” he remembers.
“I was supposed to be that guy but I wasted some chances and I got some bad decisions in fights.
“I need to correct my legacy. Maybe legacy isn’t the right word. Fedor [Emelianenko] has a legacy. I’m not saying I’m at that level but I’m a lot better than my record.”
The fighter, especially the fighter with knockout power, retains a sort of both requisite and earned arrogance until the day he or she dies. They will always believe that they could still beat anyone at any given time
To this day, Phil Baroni still owns some of the most dramatic KO highlights in MMA history, and they haven’t faded from his memory at all. “Put me in there with anyone and it isn’t going the full three rounds,” Baroni says.
“Put me in there with someone who likes to fight, a Diego [Sanchez] or someone who can do those fight of the night bouts, I don’t care who it is, they are not making it three rounds with me. I still believe I’m always one punch away from being world champion.”
It’s perhaps a cruel irony that those who don’t have anything left to prove are great precisely because they feel as though there is always something more they need to prove to themselves. That’s a big reason why fighters fight on even when it may no longer be prudent to do so.
Maybe Phil Baroni should keep fighting. Or, maybe he’s put his body through enough and should give it a rest.
There’s no way of knowing for sure. But on Friday he will be stepping into the cage again and one thing remains true, for better or for worse – there still isn’t a man alive who wants to take a punch, flush, from Phil Baroni.