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Chuck O’Neil restoring UFC hopes by moving to middleweight

A crowd of several hundred spectators watch a fight Friday Jan 4, 2008 in Carter Lake, Ia.(AP Photo/Dave Weaver)
(AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

You’re only as good as your last fight.

Those words have prevailed throughout the turbulent career of former CES welterweight champion Chuck O’Neil. Not that turbulence as a professional MMA fighter is necessarily a bad thing. There are various reasons few have the fortitude to step into a cage and fight for a living, and many of those reasons have nothing to do with getting punched in the face.

Sometimes the toughest thing for a fighter to deal with is being forced under the judgmental microscope of others. An argument can be made that this happens in every sport, but none have been as seething and prevalent as in combat sports.

Players in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer — nearly every conceivable sport known to man — are given passes for having an off night. But the same rules don’t apply to fighters.

Take O’Neil, for example. His impending return to the UFC was the talk of the town when he was riding hot with four consecutive wins last year, but after two straight losses, he quickly fell back into the abyss of irrelevance.

“The fight game is hard. It’s not easy, and if it was, everyone would do it,” O’Neil told Today’s Knockout. “You see someone that works in an executive office and they have a bad day at work. Their boss and themself are the only ones that are going to have to worry about it and hear about it.”

“When you’re fighting as a professional fighter on TV — whether it’s on AXS or for the UFC — and you have a bad day in the office, everyone is going to scrutinize you about it and everything you should have done differently. It’s tough, it’s not easy. You have to win, and at the end of the day, winning is the only thing that’s important. You can be at the highest of the high, and you lose couple fights and no one gives a crap anymore.”

People are certainly paying attention now that O’Neil returned to his winning ways. He credits the turnaround to his decision to move up to the middleweight division. The weight cut to 170 pounds had become too strenuous leading up to fights, and he often found himself exhausted before even stepping into the cage.

It also had a negative impact on his ability to fight freely. There were many times he was forced to adjust his game plan on the fly to keep from gassing out too fast. Being the bigger man in fights isn’t always an advantage, and O’Neil found that out the hard way.

Now that he is at 185 pounds, he can finally focus on fighting more than weight cutting.

“I feel a lot stronger now, and through that, all of my individualized skills in the sport of MMA have gotten a lot better too,” said O’Neil. “I’m just in a good place overall and I’m fighting a lot more free now, not worrying about gassing out or having my muscles get too fatigued out in the fights now so I can fight free.”

O’Neil is 2-1 since moving to the middleweight division.

He has won both of his fights so far this year — a unanimous decision over Dennis Olson and a TKO over Roy Jones. He’ll be looking to close out the year with a hat trick when he meets Wilfredo Santiago.

It’ll be a dangerous fight for O’Neil stepping in against a man with a reputation for napalming faces. There’s a reason he’s known as “The Brown Bomber.” Santiago doesn’t have an extensive resume as a professional MMA fighter, but he has finished five of his six wins with impressive knockouts. None of those victories went the distance.

One would think O’Neil is going to enter this fight with some apprehension to stand and bang. Fans that are familiar with his stint on The Ultimate Fighter 13 should remember his aggressive, energetic fighting style.

He doesn’t plan on deviating from that same style of fighting when the cage door closes and Santiago charges forward.

“We work a lot on going out there and being the boss, as my boxing coach Diamond Dave [Keefe] says,” said O’Neil. “You can’t go out there being scared. We’ve got four-ounce gloves on out there. You can fight the sloppiest guy on the feet and he’s going to land one and send you home early.

“I’m going to go out there and I’m going to dictate the tempo. I’m not going to worry about what he’s doing. He’s going to have to worry about what I’m doing and forward pressure. I’m well-versed in every aspect in MMA so I’m going to be able to take the fight anywhere and put him away.”

There is a different kind of fire burning within O’Neil these days.

The man that defeated him for the CES title last year, Dominique Steele, went on to sign a multi-fight contract with the UFC after that fight. He also gets to witness the big show from the sidelines of his teammate Eric Spicely, who recently knocked off No. 15 ranked UFC middleweight fighter Thiago Santos.

The thought of returning to the UFC keeps O’Neil up at night, but he also realizes the importance of every fight. A win over Santiago would put him one step closer to making that dream a reality, while a loss would send him right back to the drawing board. In a perfect world, O’Neil hopes to get the early finish and celebrate with the cheat meal to end all cheat meals.

“[I’ll] finish him in two-and-a-half minutes and go home to have pizza with my niece the next day.” O’Neil said.

CES MMA 39 will be taking place on Friday at the Plymouth Memorial Hall in Plymouth, Mass. Former WSOF and Bellator veteran Saul Almeida will also be in action against undefeated featherweight contender Manny Bermudez.

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