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NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Anyone who has spent more than a few seconds training with Todd Duffee raves about his potential.
Frank Mir, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion, can't stop singing Duffee's praises. Veteran heavyweight Carmelo Marrero calls Duffee one of the biggest, fastest and strongest heavyweights he's rolled with. UFC president Dana White was touting Duffee's talent before Duffee debuted in the UFC last year.
It's a struggle to keep those who are familiar with his talent from gushing. Nearly everyone who's around him for any length of time comes away impressed. He's become a fan favorite because of his record-setting, seven-second stoppage of Tim Hague at UFC 102 last August – but he can't understand the fuss.
Duffee is preparing to fight veteran Mike Russow (12-1) on May 29 at UFC 114 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. "This definitely feels like my debut," Duffee said. "I don't feel like I've fought in a year-and-a-half. It's hard."
There has been a lot of hoopla surrounding Duffee (6-0) since he signed with the UFC last year, but the one-time college football player at Southern Illinois isn't sure why. He landed a jab that knocked a surprised Hague down, then dropped eight punches on the ground, including a crushing left on the sixth blow, that caused referee Mario Yamasaki to stop it in just seven seconds.
It turned out to be the quickest win in UFC history. But Duffee, the textbook definition of level-headed, isn't gloating, even though he became an Internet sensation with the short work he made of Hague.
"The way I see my situation is that right now, I have a job," he said. "I'm looking for a career. If I win this fight, yeah, maybe I'll make a career of this. But I'm only six deep [into my career]. Yeah, I have one impressive win on my record, with Assuerio [Silva, in a 2008 match in Brazil]. but people don't respect me because, frankly, I've been overhyped."
There were days when Duffee trained with Mir when he believed he was on the verge of something. The next day, he said, he felt like it was his first day in the cage.
"I can compete at that level in the gym, but it's different when they turn the lights on and they close the door behind you," Duffee said. "You have to remember to breathe. It's way more mental. I've competed my whole life, but I'm not saying that I'm above and beyond making that simple mistake. Mentally, that's one thing I'm really preparing myself to not do."
Duffee came out of the American Top Team camp, where he regularly sparred with UFC light heavyweight Thiago Silva and Strikeforce heavyweight Antonio "Big Foot" Silva. Part of his reputation was built on coming from the famous camp, which is among the sport's best but isn't known for its heavyweights.
Duffee is one of the game's most analytic athletes and he questions himself constantly. It's why he spends his days working on the most minute details, so it will be natural in a fight.
"I know I'm at the level where I can compete with guys like that, but it's not more about 'Well, can I go out and do it?' " Duffee said. "It's a game of chance a lot of times. You're often milliseconds and inches from winning or losing. How many opportunities I get and how often I can capitalize on those opportunities is what I'm talking about.
"In the gym, I've done it and I've repeatedly done it for the last three years, competing at that level with those guys. I've done it. I'm there. It's just now I have to go out and show the world."
Duffee's a banger who wouldn't mind firing hands and taking his chances, but against Russow, a Chicago police officer, it may not be the pure toe-to-toe battle he'd prefer. Russow is a wrestler who would like nothing better than to take Duffee down to the ground and maul him.
Duffee isn't particularly concerned with how the fight looks. He chuckles at fighters like Tito Ortiz, who predict they'll inflict all sorts of harm upon their opponent before a fight only to go out and grind out a boring win. To Duffee, as he's trying to transition from job to career, a boring win is a lot better than a thrilling loss.
There's a lot of money to be made for the top stars who sell plenty of tickets and pay-per-views. Duffee's not at that point yet. He's not even worried about title contention at this stage. He's just concerned with establishing himself and earning his keep.
"I'm not too concerned with, 'Oh, I want to fight Brock," he said. "'I want to fight the champ.' It's a belt, dude. Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows it's about matchups. You don't see champions holding belts for a long time for that reason. This isn't boxing. There are too many variables. So I don't really care about the extraneous stuff. I want to establish myself as a professional as opposed to a prospect for the belt."
A seven-second knockout in your debut might be a good way to establish yourself, but Duffee had a little piece of advice for fans who saw his quick wins and are already expecting big things.
"Don't believe the hype," Duffee said. "It's all about performing night after night out there. That's the only thing that is real, getting in there and performing when it's time to go. I'd be the first to tell you I still have a lot left to prove."