To a certain extent, Mike Massenzio is the latest real-life Rocky Balboa.
It’s an easy formula, the tale of a down-and-out underdog given a one-in-a-million chance at fortune and glory. Massenzio won’t be fighting Anderson Silva anytime soon, but Saturday night at the IZOD Center, on the undercard of UFC on FOX 3, his opponent is six-time Czech Republic National Wrestling Champion Karlos Vemola represents an opportunity to begin his first serious run.
Consider Massenzio’s Sisyphean MMA career:
- Massenzio, fighting out of Paterson, N.J., had to work his way back into the UFC. He was released in 2010 following a third-round submission loss to Brian Stann. It earned Massenzio "Fight of the Night" honors, but also a pink slip.
- Massenzio, 29, owns a UFC record of 2-4. His last bout was particularly damaging, a heel-hook loss to Rousimar Palhares at 1:03 of the first round.
- The "Master of Disaster" is 3-5 in his past eight fights, including matches in the IFL and an independent show last April.
The resume isn’t exactly Apollo Creed stature, but Massenzio has taken the hits. He was sidelined 18 months recovering from multiple knee surgeries and in his first fight back he provided Stann with a stiff challenge. He was invited back to the UFC after agreeing to fight Krzysztof Soszynski – moving up to light heavyweight and on three days’ notice – and lasted all three rounds en route to losing a unanimous decision. The biggest win of his career is one over Steve Cantwell, a former WEC light heavyweight champion.
Given every reason to want to quit, all the motivation to stay down, Massenzio has figured out how to survive.
"I joke around a lot that I’m a living Rocky," Massenzio said. "My whole life hasn’t been easy. My parents were divorced and I came from nothing. My only way out to be able to feed my family is to compete and keep pushing forward. Everything was always an obstacle. No matter what it took, if you do right, you’re going to get right. It makes you stronger. It’s motivated me. And I’m still here."
The Rocky inspiration stems from the Sylvester Stallone character as someone nobody believed in, and he didn’t care. Even when facing the indestructible and unbeatable Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, Massenzio favorite film in the series, Rocky put it all on the line.
"A lot of times you find out who a real man, a real champion, is by either they cower away or they push through it," Massenzio said. "Even when getting ready for fights, I watch Rocky. It’s about never giving up."
Roughly 30 minutes from Paterson’s rough streets, and a short drive from the high school where he won high school state championships at 160 and 171 pounds, Massenzio will stare down Vemola, who despite his credentials as a Czech national wrestling champion comes off a bad decision loss to Ronny Markes last August. Vermola is 1-2 in the UFC, which means like Massenzio he could be facing a must-win.
For Massenzio the mindset is a combination of business as usual and win or else.
"You obviously want to go out there and perform the best you can," Massenzio said. "You have to be able to win even when you’re at your worst. Beating Cantwell was a big step. A lot of people didn’t think I was going to win and I went out there and won big. Then I took a fight with Rousimar, one of the top 10 guys in the world. It was a great opportunity and if it came up again I’d do it again."
Massenzio, fighting in Palhares’ backyard, barely lasted a minute against a top-five middleweight. But the experience just may turn out to be what he needs to propel himself on a winning streak, one step at a time.
"Sometimes a loss is better than a win – you learn a lot from a loss," Massenzio said. "I knew what I was getting myself into and I still feel in my heart I’m at that level with him. It was a silly mistake, but you get knocked down you have to get back up and keep moving forward. That’s what a true champion does.
"Going into this fight, I’m taking it like another fight, but I’m going out there to show everyone who I am and that this is where I belong."
The son of a former professional boxer, fighting is Massenzio’s life and there’s no turning back. It’s helped him overcome a harsh upbringing and go in the right direction in life. Win or lose, setbacks or setups, Massenzio has ultimately found a way. In addition to Rocky, a quote from NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice is embedded in his fighting spirit: "Today I will do what others won't, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can't."
"People talk the talk but don’t walk the walk," Massenzio said. "I coach college and tell kids it’s not doing what you’re expected to do, but you do what no one expects you to do."
The lesson is simple. Don’t bother telling Massenzio the odds, because, frankly, he doesn’t care. Like Rocky Balboa, he’s come back from much worse.
-- Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC