NEW ORLEANS – It sounds like the kind of headline that would give Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh nightmares.
"Joe Flacco flattened by professional MMA fighter."
The story is true, but Harbaugh can rest easy for now. Flacco's rough treatment at the hands of UFC hardman Gian Villante took place more than six years ago, and in the perfectly legitimate setting of a college football game.
Villante was a linebacker with Hofstra, and before he swapped the gridiron for the octagon, he provided Flacco with one of the fiercest sacks of his college career.
Game reports of a 10-6 victory for Flacco's Delaware Blue Hens describe a "brutal" hit from Villante, and the fighting star remembers the moment clearly, although he admits that back in 2006 Flacco didn't seem destined for the kind of elite excellence he has since produced.
"It is pretty cool to think that I put a quarterback who is now in the Super Bowl flat on his back," Villante, a fast-rising light-heavyweight who recently inked a deal with UFC, told Yahoo! Sports.
"I got him pretty good and when I watch the game with a bunch of friends, I will make sure I tell them that I took down the guy who is starring in the Super Bowl.
"Joe was always a good athlete and you could tell he made smart decisions. At that level a lot of people have potential and you have no idea who will make it and who won't. I remember when he ran he looked kind of funny because he was so tall but he was deceptively quick.
[Related: Randy Moss won't apologize for best-of-all-time boast] "It doesn't enter your head at the time that you might be playing against a guy who could one day win an NFL championship."
Flacco's college career played out far away from the huge crowds and more glamorous surroundings of the major conferences. Stuck behind Tyler Palko at Pitt, Flacco transferred to Delaware of the FCS. After sitting out a year, Flacco put together two solid seasons for the Blue Hens.
The clash with Hofstra, which came in his first season at Delaware, was a close affair, but Flacco threw for the game's only touchdown and managed to grind out the win in Newark, Del., despite Villante's best efforts.
"If he hits as hard as he did on the football field, I am sure he is one heck of a fighter," Flacco told Yahoo! Sports this week. "I wish him all the best."
Villante, 10-3 in his pro fighting career, attempted to break into the NFL after college but found the individualistic nature of MMA more to his liking. He has made strong progress ever since, with a recent three-fight win streak attracting the attention of UFC chief Dana White.
His harsh regimen of training and dieting meant he was unable to accept an offer from former teammate and New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston to visit Louisiana and soak up the atmosphere of Super Bowl week.
"I would have loved to be there but I am going to be rooting for the Ravens because of Joe," Villante said. "To me, playing in college created a kind of bond, not just with your teammates but also with the guys you played against. We were all in it together, all trying to get better, all trying to make it.
"It gives me pride to think that I played against someone like him who has gone on to such great things and for that reason I'm going to be a Baltimore guy on Sunday."
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