Contender Andre Fili trades in violent upbringing, favorite food for UFC

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Americans eat three billion pizzas a year, according to website Those three billion pizzas are covered by 252 million pounds of pepperoni. There are 350 slices of pizza eaten every second in the U.S. and 93 percent of Americans eat at least one slice a month.

Andre Fili during UFC 166 last year. (USA TODAY Sports)
Andre Fili during UFC 166 last year. (USA TODAY Sports)

There is routinely a telltale sign of most pizza eaters: the rotund belly that is evidence of one's passion for the pies. But not all pizza eaters are huge.

Andre Fili, the promising UFC featherweight contender, loves his pizza but he sure doesn't show it. In fact, Fili probably could have told you how much Americans love pizza, though.

Oh, Fili couldn't have cited any statistics, because he hasn't taken the time to do any research, though he concedes that as a pizza-holic himself, he's contributed to that staggering total of three billion pizzas eaten a year.

Fili, 24, was feeling pangs of hunger for a slice of his favorite food while training for a recent fight. He encouraged his followers on Twitter to eat one for him, and it created a phenomenon. Soon after writing, "Eat one for Fili," his followers were tweeting him photos of their pizza.

"People love pizza, man, and they eat a ton of it," Fili said, chuckling. "That pizza thing got a life of its own. I wake up to pizza tweets every day. You wouldn't believe how many, either. Every day, tons of them."

Having to give up the food he loves during training is one of the sacrifices he's had to make in order to fulfill his childhood dream of fighting in the UFC.

He was 14 and, he admits, quite a troublemaker, when he first decided his career goal would be to fight in the UFC.

Almost exactly a year ago, he was preparing for a fight at welterweight while still hoping that he'd get a call from the UFC. While at work, he was receiving a lot of text messages and telephone calls from his manager.

He called his manager, Jeff Meyer of MMA Inc., and asked what was up. Meyer told him the UFC wanted him, and asked him what he weighed.

"I wanted to go to the UFC so badly, I lied to Jeff," Fili said. "I told him like 174, 175 and I think I was really 178. So he says, 'OK, so get to work because you've got a fight.' "

Turns out, they wanted him in two weeks …

At featherweight.

That meant Fili would have to lose 32 pounds to make the division's non-title fight limit of 146 pounds. It was a Herculean task and one he couldn't quite make. He made 148 ½, but UFC president Dana White cut him slack because of how much weight he had to lose.

Fili was a fighter most of his life, though the overwhelming majority of his brawls didn't involve either training or cutting weight. He was a notorious street fighter and was in and out of trouble a lot.

"I was young and stupid and I didn't think a lot about the consequences of what I was doing," he said. "I was an angry kid and I was looking for an outlet. I loved to fight and if something happened, I was ready to [fight] right away."

He said he grew up in a broken home, run by his beleaguered mother. He said his father did not live at home and was in and out of jail frequently. The times he was out, according to Fili, he would often show up and violently beat up his wife, Fili's mother.

As a seven-year-old, he said he watched as his mother took a physical beating.

"I had a pretty chaotic, violent upbringing," Fili said. "It was always something. My dad was pretty violent toward my mom and later on, my mom was sometimes violent toward me. It was kind of a crazy, chaotic household, really. My dad was in and out of jail, and he's in prison now. There was so much trouble and violence all around me.

"Once I was old enough to start going out on my own, when I was 14, 15, I started looking for trouble myself. I had a chaotic upbringing and I was looking for my trouble all the time."

He would tell his friends, who came from similar backgrounds, that it didn't impact him, but he knew it was a lie. It tortured him and he struggled to come to grips with it.

"That was something that messed with me a lot," he said of the violence in his home. "I can talk honestly about it now, and I can see the truth now, and what was really going on. If you would have asked me when I was young if it bothered me and I had too much of an ego to say the truth, so I'd have bull[expletive] and said it did not. It did affect me a great deal, though. I can talk about it now, because I understand it.

"I couldn't do anything and I was so ashamed. It affected me when I was a kid. I mostly felt ashamed. My dad is this big Samoan dude and he and my mom were always in a physical altercation. I'd take my little sister and hide her to try to keep her safe. I was always kind of ashamed that I didn't step up and stop my dad, but I was a little kid and he was this big Samoan guy and realistically, there was nothing I could do."

Jeremy Larsen (R) fights against Andre Fili in their catchweight bout during UFC 166. (USA TODAY Sports)
Jeremy Larsen (R) fights against Andre Fili in their catchweight bout during UFC 166. (USA TODAY Sports)

Fili's life changed in 2009 when he'd moved to Sacramento, Calif., and happened to join Urijah Faber's Team Alpha Male. Fili was on probation and wore an ankle monitor.

He'd been placed on house arrest after a fight, but he told his probation officer that he was a fighter who trained at Team Alpha Male. He was then allowed to go to Faber's gym to train because it was his job, but he had to return immediately home.

What he saw when he began working out there blew him away.

"It was like a positivity cult," he said, laughing.

It was at Team Alpha Male where Fili would learn what it meant to be a man, and to be a professional.

"When I got there, there was almost nothing positive going on in my life," Fili said. "I wasn't really a bad person, but I didn't know how to do the right thing. And I know this sounds stupid, but I didn't know how to work hard or how to live a positive lifestyle. And that's what those guys at Team Alpha Male were doing.

"It was a slow transition. I spent a year there getting my ass kicked, because I was still partying and I wasn't taking fighting seriously. But as I watched Urijah and [Danny] Castillo and guys like that, and saw how they sacrificed to make themselves successful and how they were committed to living positive, productive lives, I began to get it."

The message finally resonated with Fili, who stopped Jeremy Larsen in the second round of their UFC 166 match on Oct. 19, 2013, in his UFC debut. He lost to Max Holloway at UFC 172 in April when he was choked out after being badly hurt by a spinning back kick.

"I kept a straight face on and tried to act like it didn't hurt, but man, that hurt so bad," he said. "I can't even tell you. It felt like I could feel his heel hitting my liver."

He'll face Felipe Arantes at UFC 179 on Oct. 25 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in a bout he hopes will be very fan friendly.

The engaging Fili, who loves to skateboard and sings punk rock in different bands in his free time, can't wait for the bout.

The only thing he dreads is the weight cut, and looking at those photos of pizza he'll get on Twitter.

"The part of fighting that people don't understand is the sacrifice you have to make to be able to fight," he said. "Most guys who are pro fighters, they'd probably fight for free. We as a group, most of us anyway, we love to fight. Fighting is the fun part, not the hard part. The hard part is all the sacrifices you make to get to the fight, all the bull [expletive] you deal with to get to the fight.

"All your friends are going out to eat and you just can't. Or your family is barbecuing. But I have to watch what I eat. I have to train a lot, so I can't go hang out. It's hard to have a girlfriend because it puts a strain on that relationship. It puts a strain on relationships with friends. Fighting is a selfish sport. We miss out on a lot of things.

"You miss those things so we can train three times a day and eat exactly what we need to eat, and when. That is a full-time job. It's brutal going out. Your friends don't give a [expletive]. They order a large pizza, some breadsticks, all the soda that's your favorite, and they eat it smiling. It's torture. But it's what you have to do if you want to fight."

Fili has wanted to fight, and has been fighting, all of his life.

He's fulfilling a dream, but he's also swallowed the Team Alpha Male kool-aid.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was finding that gym and those guys," he said. "Being there and becoming part of that team, it saved me. I don't want to think what I might have become. They showed me the right way and helped me become a real man and a real person."