Saturday, March 31, 2007

“No Love” has plenty of it for the fight game, and life

By Jason Probst

When you’ve got a few dozen bouts under your belt, and have been in the game since 1999, it says something about a fighter who still likes learning new things. You never know when it’ll get you through a tough situation.

For Rich Clementi, that’s exactly the case as he prepares for his welterweight bout with Roan Carneiro at Thursday’s Ultimate Fight Night. And the 31-year-old battler from Slidell, Louisiana has endured plenty of rough times in and out of the cage.

He’s seen a lot. Hurricane Katrina ravaged his house and hometown. He was mobilized as a reservist after 9/11, and had to cancel an imminent bout in Japan, the elusive big chance he labored years to get. After getting out of the military, he went through a rough divorce and took a bad attitude with him, which prompted his friends hanging the nickname of “No Love” on him. And with a 34-11-1 record, including stints in Japan and in a spate of smaller shows wherever he could find a slot, he’s got the kind of experience you can’t get without going the hard way around the block.

Clementi has accepted that the game’s a never-ending process of evolution and adaptation. That’s why he’s always watching and keeping his eyes open, in a fight, and in life. He recounts all of this with a sense of detachment and no discernible bitterness. In fact, he’s pretty upbeat for a guy who still has three feet of water in his house from Katrina.

“I consider myself a connoisseur of the game. I love the game, man. I love guys that push themselves,” said Clementi, an alum of “The Comeback” cast that comprised Season Four of The Ultimate Fighter. “I learned a lot from them. I’m always been a guy that learns. (Season Four winner Travis) Lutter’s kinda different. He doesn’t go out of his realm. He’s great at what he does. But I’ve always loved learning new things. I love watching guys even if they’re up and comers, even amateur guys. What pisses me off is some of the fans. The newer fans. There’s two types of fans, and you have this whole breed who think, ‘If they weren’t on Ultimate Fighter, who are they?’ I respect all those guys that still haven’t got their dues. I’m kinda lucky. The show’s helped me out. There’s so many guys out there that are good. Right now, it’s a fighter’s market.”

Because mixed martial artists have few if any amateur bouts, the transition from competing on small shows to the big stage can produce first-time Octagon jitters, and it can be a serious impediment to performance – often an adrenaline dump that has you exhausted before the bout even starts. Facing Carneiro, a 10-5 Brazilian, “No Love” figures he’s gotta do what any veteran would do to a debuting UFC fighter – and that’s put the guy’s feet to the fire, quick-fast, and forcing the issue. He’s watched Carniero through online sources and feels like there aren’t too many surprises in store.

“I watched his fight against Anderson Silva (Carneiro lost via strikes), and it’s a tough fight to watch against guy of that caliber. He seems like your typical fighter. What’s cool is I get to form a game plan. Guys like Din Thomas are tough to form a game plan against because he’s great at everything,” Clementi explained. “I’ve known some people that trained with (Carneiro) in Brazil. He’s got a real heavy type of ground game, I hear the guy’s such a hard worker, one of those guys that’s always at the gym. My whole goal is to try to mentally break him. That’s probably his weakest attribute. He seems like a guy if he doesn’t get that takedown…”

Browse through any fight-finding database in the game for an hour or so, and click on random names you never heard of. There are plenty of 0-1 fighters who never came back, given the taxing physical and mental drain of competing in MMA. Now consider Clementi’s career, where beginning in Aug. 2000 he lost four bouts in as many months.

“I started off like 3-6. It’s challenging to me,” said Clementi. “Some people, a loss breaks them, other people it makes them run twice as much. It makes you do different things.”

After getting eliminated by Shonie Carter on TUF, Clementi came back at the season finale and dropped a decision to Din Thomas. But he notched his first UFC win at January’s Ultimate Fight Night with a submission over Ross Pointon.

Clementi’s first UFC appearance was four years ago, a fourteen-minute battle against Yves Edwards, where Edwards eventually submitted him via choke in the third round. Clementi was outmatched that night, but never stopped trying, never stopped coming. A lot of guys could’ve mailed it in after two rounds of chasing the spry Edwards and trying to solve the mercurial puzzle of his takedown defense and pinpoint striking. Gone the distance by downshifting. Not Clementi.

“I look at it, and probably the most developmental loss I had was to Yves. I looked at everything he did that works and applied it to my own game,” he said. “I never really looked at any other way. People are just gonna lose in this sport. There’s too many variables, from weight cutting to home life to whatever, so many things involved with fighting. The only thing that aggravates me is, I can accept a loss but if something doesn’t go my way because of what I did, that bothers me. How can I lose to this guy if I didn’t do my best?”

Outside the fight game, Clementi is a businessman with plenty on his plate. He runs an MMA gym in Slidell, an area that he says is “bouncing back hard” after the ravages of August 2005 and Hurricane Katrina. He runs the gym, training fighters like Alan “The Talent” Belcher, who locks horns with Kendall Grove at UFC 69 April 7, and other fighters. Rich also runs a fight promotion company, and, believe it or not, is owner/operator of the state’s first 24-hour tanning salon. And plans are in the works for a second salon to be opened up at the time of his interview here.

“I decided to open up a tanning salon and it’s been doing very well. Businesses like that, self help, nail places, leisure type of businesses are doing well,” he said. “My place was trashed. I’m like 8 feet off the ground and I still have like 3 feet of water in my place. I came into my house on a blowup raft. I came with my fiancée, to salvage what I could. If you leave, it’s gone.”

But it’s all relative to what others have suffered. And with the arrival six months ago of his first child, Richard Cale Clementi, it’s sobering considering what his neighbors and fellow Lousianans have endured. The human toll has been incalculable, and the results of the much-criticized cleanup effort on behalf of the federal government have had varying degrees of effectiveness since the tragic events of a year and half ago.

“It was really just some belongings. If you’re around here you don’t say ‘Oh it hit me really hard,” he said. Being alive is reward enough. “For instance, I knew this girl. I just lost personal belongings. She was like ‘My dad died in the attic’ (during the flooding).”

“I was in the Navy Seabees,” Clementi recalled of his eight years in the military. “I did three years in Bosnia when that first kicked off, went into National Guard and did college full time and was training to fight. I was actually fighting in the Navy, kinda on the D.L., and things started going well for me. Then two months after got out, I got activated after 9/11 happened. It was my first big fight in Japan, and back then it was like if you ain’t fought in Japan or UFC you haven’t made it yet. I had to cancel my first big fight.”

But he stuck to it, and kept scrapping. And as the sport got bigger, experienced veterans like Clementi were a perfect fit for TUF 4, a show that needed guys with mileage and a back story to generate a different kind of dynamic for viewers, and fill slots as programming opportunities created a demand for proven fighters.

Belcher, a 6’2 middleweight with potent strikes, is one of those younger prospects that gets Clementi excited. The two train together a couple times a week preparing for bouts. It’s the kind of mentoring process that has a Tito Ortiz renewed when working with an upstart like Grove, and the Clementi-Belcher equation is similar. With Generation Y coming of age in MMA, Generation X can pass along a lot of valuable lessons.

“I’ve been working with Rich for probably a little over 2 years,” Belcher said. “He’s taught me a lot of stuff. That’s the main thing I’ve got from Rich is his experience. Not really the technical stuff. I’ll get that from my boxing or jiu-jitsu coaches. What I learn from Rich is how to win a fight.”

So when does the ironically nicknamed “No Love” lose his fondness for the game, and leave?

“It’s funny man, I think I’ll always be one of those guys, a 70-year-old guy in the gym. It’s tough to say. I’ll be like ‘let’s go over here and fight,’” Clementi said. “I’ll quit when I wake up in the morning and it’s not fun for me. Probably what I’m thinking is take on a few high-level fighters. And if I tone it down, I’ll fight with some of my guys on tour. But right now I’m still looking to knock heads. It was nice to get my first win in UFC against Ross, and I think this is gonna be a good fight for me.”

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