He was the next big thing, or what UFC president Dana While touted a young Georges St. Pierre during Season 8, Episode 8, of The Ultimate Fighter. When Phillipe Nover wasn't hit by fainting spells, he trained with swagger and earned submission victories over Dave Kaplan and George Roop to reach the live finale.
That night at the Palms in Las Vegas was the turning point in Nover's career to date, for all the wrong reasons. Efrain Escudero's wrestling game neutralized Nover's dizzying striking attack to grind out a unanimous decision. A premature stoppage in his next fight that denied him a chance to rally against Kyle Bradley was followed by a seizure that forced him out of a contest with Sam Stout and a controversial unanimous decision defeat to Rob Emerson that led to his release from the UFC.
Once a shooting star in the fight game, Nover (6-4-1) enters battle with Derrick Kennington (6-3) on the undercard of Bellator Fighting Championship's 74th event, Friday night at Caesars Atlantic City, 1-4 in his last five bouts and inactive since November 2011, when he was once again on the receiving end of a disputed defeat. Nover was scheduled to compete four months ago before twice tearing a ligament in his foot; this after neck surgery sidelined the Filipino Assassin for 18 months.
Given a chance to revamp his training and reflect on the time spent away from competition, Nover is back on higher ground, refreshed and poised to work his way back up the ladder at 155 pounds.
"You rocket to the top and then it's a slippery slope going down," Nover, 28, said. "But that's the MMA game. Sometimes you have to ride the wave and hope the best. I've definitely have had the worst of luck in my last few years of fighting. I really haven't been able to show my true performance out there. I'm so glad my body is feeling good now and my mind is feeling great. I'm so excited to continue fighting.
"I'm getting close to30 so I really have to take my body into account and just heal up properly."
Nover's rebuilding phase comes full circle in his second Bellator fight against Kennington, a student at Kurt Pellegrino's Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Belmar, N.J., who came down in weight class.
"This is probably his biggest fight yet," Nover said. "He's going to give it his all. Personally I feel I outclass him. I've been there and have a lot more experience. I've been in and out of the games. I know the ups and downs. I know everything about it, pretty much. I'm going to use that as one of my assets."
Where Nover believes he's evolved the most is the art that cost him against Escudero that night in Vegas. The loss went undigested for four years while Nover worked on improving his wrestling game. Now it's a matter of his body holding up and for what he's learned training at Renzo Gracie's Academy to translate inside the cage.
"I feel like a totally different fighter," Nover said. "I just have to perform the way I perform in the gym in my fights and I'll be right back at the top. I'm just happy to continue fighting and want to string together a few wins. I'm just happy to fight the world's best."
That means doing what he needs to do to either remain with Bellator - after Friday he has one fight left on his contract - or earn a second chance with the UFC. Given the controversial nature of Nover's Zuffa losses to Bradley and Emerson, and how much equity he appeared to accrue with White during The Ultimate Fighter, one could assume Nover got a raw deal when he was served his walking papers. But Nover didn't deny the holes in his game against Escudero and Emerson. He was taken down, outmaneuvered and out-strategized, so once released it was time to go back to the beginning.
"They could be ruthless at times, but they are the Olympic level and world class level of fighting," Nover said. "Four or five years ago I was OK, but now I definitely feel I belong there. I'm extremely confident in my skills now and I know I can hang with the top level of Bellator and the UFC."
Right now, Nover's solitary focus is Kennington and Bellator 74, a chance to avenge - guess what? - another round of questionable judging, the three-man crew who awarded Marcin Held a split decision victory at Bellator 59 despite Nover's superior stand-up, improved ground attack and submission defense. If you ask Nover, however, he's already won. Mixed Martial Arts allowed him to overcome anger issues growing up and parlay his abilities into a nursing career outside of fighting. Among his dreams is to open a new school and compete not only in his Brooklyn neighborhood at the Barclays Center, but to fight in the Philippines to represent his heritage.
While the journey back has been trying, in some ways it's been rewarding. "I really began to appreciate so many aspects in life," Nover said. Come Friday night it's another opportunity to make an impression, perhaps his best one yet.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC