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Mixed martial arts: The ultimate goal

Locally trained fighter Vinc Pichel is taking advantage of the credibility he gained from TV

Posted: June 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Vinc Pichel, a mixed martial arts fighter, trains at Big John McCarthy’s Ultimate Training Academy on Friday in Valencia. Pichel starred on the popular TV show “The Ultimate Fighter Live,” where he bowed out in the semifinals.

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It was early 2011 when Vinc Pichel sat and wrote down his professional goals. As ambitious as they were, the lightweight fighter out of Big John McCarthy’s Ultimate Training Academy in Valencia knew they weren’t too lofty.

At the top of that list was breaking into the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and he gave himself three years to do so.

He’s already ahead of schedule.

“I had it all written down,” Pichel says. “I had goals and what I needed to do to get there. I’m already two years ahead of my plan. I just need to keep going.”

It has been a year and half since he put pen to paper, and the 29-year-old has a moment to sit back and reflect on his progression — eleven amateur fights with only one loss, undefeated in seven professional fights, and an eye-opening run on the UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter Live.”

Now, he’s just a phone call away from his first bout in the elite promotion, and his life has made a decided turn since the 15th season of TUF ended in May.

“You go into (the show) kind of expecting the way it’s going to be,” Pichel says. “You really have no idea. … You don’t know what you can take until you are at the edge.”

TUF puts contestants against each other for a chance at a six-figure contract with the UFC. The show has opened the door for multiple champions and even for the promotion to become mainstream after its landmark first season on Spike TV.

Sixteen fighters live together in a Las Vegas home, are split into two teams, and are coached by two UFC personalities.

This was the first season each fight was aired live on FX.

Only five years since he began training MMA all at BJMUTA, Pichel was pushed to his limit. He battled through weight cuts, injuries, isolation from friends and family, TV cameras at every turn, and workout after workout.

Trained by his coach, current UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, the experience has taken his career to a new level.

Pichel was 7-0 going into the show, all his wins coming by knockout or technical knockout and all by the second round.

His first fight was against Cody Pfister, and a spot in the TUF house was at stake.

“(Expletive) it man. Put it all aside. We are going to find out who the most mentally tough guys are over the next 13 weeks,” says UFC President Dana White before the preliminary fights began. “You are here for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s to become the Ultimate Fighter. Welcome to the UFC training center guys, and good luck on Friday.”

Pichel hit Pfister with two well-placed elbows, landed a few punches, and submitted the fellow 155-pounder via rear naked choke with 1 minute, 22 seconds left in the first round.

Spot secured.

“When I left, I basically put my life on hold,” Pichel says. “I quit my job to do this. It’s always in my head: If I lose this fight, I go back to nothing. … The first fight was super nerve-wracking, the most stressful fight of my life.

“That first fight was the only stressful fight as far as emotion goes. From there on, it was basically just physical stress.”

Pichel then rattled off a submission win against John Cofer and a majority decision victory over Chris Saunders.

The bout against Saunders put Pichel into the show’s semifinals, one fight away from a shot at the UFC contract and a checked box on his goal sheet. However, Pichel left the fight with leg and nose injuries and only one week to recover.

Cruz was quick to reassure Pichel.

“They didn’t try to change us or how we fight,” he says of his coaches on the show. “They saw how we were already and gave us more weapons for our arsenal.”

For Pichel, who walks around at 180 pounds and stands 5 feet, 10 inches tall, that meant “beasting through people.”

Pichel recalls Cruz focusing on his strength and size advantage.

“At first, I don’t think he thought too much of me,” Pichel says. “After a while, I know he started to realize that I’m one of his best fighters, top three of his fighters. He told me all the time that I’m a beast, and he wants me to beast people.”

Unfortunately for the locally trained lightweight, his run on the show came to an end in the semifinals against Al Iaquinta.

The two fighters traded punches, but Iaquinta’s takedowns earned him the first round.

In the second, they bloodied each others’ faces over a back-and-forth five minutes.

The judges gave the round and the spot in the finale to Iaquinta.

“I knew automatically that they were giving it to him,” Pichel recalls. “I was just pissed I didn’t get that third round to prove myself. What can I do? I lost. It sucks. All I can do is take it in stride and learn from it.”

Learning is Pichel’s strong point.

He was a sponge on the show, and has been ever since he joined BJMUTA, says his head coach at the gym, Brian Peterson.

“When he came in, he was training in a garage with somebody that knew a little bit of martial arts, so he could teach him hitting the bag, stuff like that,” Peterson says. “He had next to nothing. But he was a street kid, so he kind of knew how to brawl a little bit. He’d been in plenty of fights, kind of a knucklehead.

“He was a clean slate. He didn’t know much, but he listened very well, and he showed up to practice every day,” Peterson adds.

His teachability combined with a big heart and cool head is what ultimately makes Pichel unique. The combination of all three elements has helped him mature over the years from the knucklehead to the calm, well-spoken athlete who was composed in the cage after his loss to Iaquinta.

“I just see things in a different light,” Pichel says. “It’s like wearing a different pair of glasses. I had scratched up, foggy glasses before. I have clearer ones now. (MMA) didn’t really change me as far as the person I am. It makes me see things differently.”

The view from the UFC cage can have the same effect.

It’s a vantage point Pichel could be looking from soon, as he awaits word from the UFC.

In the meantime, he says he is going to begin some training at Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista, working again with Cruz, though he says BJMUTA will always be his home.

Now for the next item on the goal sheet — a title fight.

“I’m going to try to get that sucker within a year or two,” Pichel says with a laugh. “Hopefully in a couple years I am going to be beasting through people and getting my name out there.”

It is already out there, and it’s about to become even more well-known.

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