Monday, April 2, 2007

For Sell, the best of times means the right frame of mind

By Jason Probst

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That’s Pete Sell’s mantra, and if the 24 year-old Long Island native knows anything from his UFC career, it’s that you can end up on either end of the equation in the blink of an eye.

With a record of 7-3, Sell has been on both ends of the most memorable finishes in the organization’s history. No one will forget his stunning debut at UFC 51, where he choked out Phil Baroni in a three-round war, despite entering as a late sub and with a mere five bouts under his belt.

And in his last fight, Sell battled Scott Smith with the two supplying the quintessential finish that had no precedent. After doubling Smith over with a wicked left hook to the liver, Sell seemed on the verge of a finish. All he had to do was stick the proverbial fork in, and Smith would surely be done.

But as Sell rushed in for the finish, Smith ushered up enough energy for one more punch -- launched from the floor -- and Sell was knocked out. Both men were spent as the smoke cleared, on the floor in the aftermath of a finish that would be inconceivable if you hadn’t seen it transpire.

Now, facing Thales Leites at UFC 69 Saturday, Sell is looking to write the next chapter in a career that has been an unpredictable ride. And compared to the life outside the cage, no matter what happens in the Octagon, Sell isn’t fazed no matter how the cards play out. He’s seen a lot worse, working as a bouncer and being a street-wise kid from Long Island who’s had a few lucky escapes from serious trouble.

And despite his competent striking he’s shown in his bouts, Sell still says he’s just tapping into the standup realm. He’s the last guy to describe himself as a world-class striker. It’s been on-the-job-training thus far for a guy who entered the UFC as a tough grappler with a well-developed ground game, but doesn’t shy away from trading blows.

“I’ve got a couple of (Leites’) fights. He seems like a real good ground jiu-jitsu guy. I don’t think he’s better than (Travis) Lutter or has as good of takedowns, but he’s a tough guy that’s gonna come to throw. He dropped Martin Kampmann in the first round,” Sell said when asked about the scouting report on his foe. “I feel like people haven’t got to see my skills enough. That body shot had landed on Smith, man, people don’t realize I’ve been learning my standup in the big show. After Baroni...I was just kinda winging it. People are like, you are a technical boxer! Heck, I’m just going for it. Eventually I want to get my standup the way I got my ground game. Even if there’s guys that beat me on the ground, there’s nobody that can take me down they can’t beat me.

“With Baroni, I was like a 5-1 underdog. Somebody yelled at me during weigh in ‘You’re a dead man!’ Man, it was something to overcome,” Sell added. “Then you start questioning yourself. Am I ready for the big show on TV and everything? When I got backstage and saw the cameras and I was like what the hell am I doing? I’m one of the last ones there. And then I just didn’t think about it, I was like I got nothing to lose in there. And man, that’s it, I just ran with it. I took his shots. I was like, if this guy thinks he’s gonna beat me and knock me out brutally in the first round, I ain’t going out like that.”

Filling in for the injured Robbie Lawler, Sell was an unknown on that night two years ago, the only thing recognizable in his dossier being his affiliation with Matt Serra, who’s been a trusted mentor for Sell. But after the opening round, where he willingly traded shots with the heavy-handed Baroni, the nerves were gone.

“Nobody says I’m getting outta the first round with the guy, and I go to the corner, and I’m like he don’t hit that hard. In my head, I’ m like I already won. He said he’s gonna drop my jaw in the sixth row,” Sell said. “In that third round I finished him. It’s just that mentality that got me through the fight. Once I did it, I was like that’s it? You just have that mentality. I kinda like to spread the word with that with everybody. Follow your dreams, and do it.”

One of those dreams was the chance to participate on The Ultimate Fighter series season four, dubbed, “The Comeback.” Sell joined 15 other UFC veterans in a competition where he defeated Charles McCarthy before being eliminated in the semifinals by 185-lb. winner Travis Lutter. The fight with Lutter was largely one-sided, with Sell battling valiantly from his back against the expert submission grappler.

“At the end of the third round, I split his head open, I gave him stitches. Look at what he did to (fellow finalist Patrick) Cote. People are like, Sell just laid on the ground, I was trying everything I could,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up my back to a guy like that. Look at what he did vs. Anderson Silva. Silva got mounted and pounded. Styles make fights, A vs. B vs. C. You could look at it through the grapevine. I beat Baroni who beat Ryo Chonan who beat Silva who beat Lutter.”

Living in the fighter house gives everyone a chance to stare into the abyss. There’s no television, no outside contact, video games, internet, or any of the expectable trappings of modern life. There’s the twelve elimination fights that whittle down the survivors’ ranks -- and the day-to-day boredom that’s perhaps the biggest obstacle of all.

“When I came on to the show, honestly I didn’t think it would be exactly what it was. You think about it, you sit in a room with a couple people for a day, you kinda go outta your mind,” Sell said. “Then do that for six weeks. There’s only so any times you can play pool or cards. It definitely made you look at life in a different way. But afterwards, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Realizing the importance of preparation, Sell quit bouncing just two months ago. It’s been a definite improvement to his ability to prepare correctly and focus entirely on fighting, to say nothing of reducing the chance for troubles encountered in that line of work.

“I think my head’s a little more straight than in the past. I got outta bouncing. I was bouncing every weekend. Having a couple drinks, hanging out with girls,” he said. “I did that for five years, even when I was training. Even the period leading up to Baroni, I didn’t train a couple months at all. Now I’m starting to take it serious. I stopped being up to 5, 6, 7 in the mornings. Sometimes you only train once (a day), you’re getting in fights with people there, then you’re having a drink or two. I always gave people the benefit of the doubt. I’m not one of those bouncers looking to kill anybody. You can go the easy way or the hard way. From a bouncer’s point of view, it’s a job. If the owner says you can’t do this, then you can’t.”

Yet you hear so many excuses from patrons that don’t want to cooperate that it can give you little patience.

“I’m like come on bro, I don’t want to hear this,” Sell said. “I heard it from the last ten people.”

Yet even in the upscale jobs, it’s still dangerous. A bouncer has the right to evict people, but the distinct disadvantage of never knowing what the patron is crazy enough to try, regardless of the setting.

“The last place I was at I wore a suit, yet two guys pulled out knives and got stabbed,” he said. “One time I got into a scuffle with a couple guys, my friend got mad and had a .38 and put it to his face, and the other guy pulled a gun out, we were running across the street, and they were lickin’ off shots at us, and my shoe came off and I was running and they’re shooting at me. I’ve seen guys get cut. I’ve seen a lot in my life. So I’m like, what are you gonna do, knock me out? Me and my friends joke around sometimes, and things you seen in the movies I seen with my own eyes.

“I collected money from people back in the day. Beat up plenty of people in bars. I’m bouncing, doing side jobs. I remember one time this guy in the Bronx had a problem with one of the guys, a mortgage broker or realtor or whatever. This guy was threatening him and he wasn’t gonna sign the paper, saying he was gonna shoot him,” Sell recalled. “This guy paid me $200, and I went with him to sign the papers. So for me, I always just kinda did that thing. I look at it like, I’m a positive thinker, but I expect the worst. I want to shoot for the stars. I want the belt. But I’m not gonna be like ‘oh my God, (if it doesn’t happen).’”

Sell’s also had the kind of performance every fighter fears-- his one-round stoppage at the hands of fellow TUF veteran Nate Quarry in August 2005 -- where he didn’t get to show his stuff in a quick loss, though the stoppage was somewhat controversial. He’s vowed to never make the mistake again that led up to that night.

“I think I went in there with the wrong head. I was like I’m not gonna sleep on this guy, but I was. I was watching him on the show, he talks like Dudley Do-Right. Even though his fights, I was like ‘There’s got to be something he does right.’ I got caught on a weird angle, at that exact time I was gonna throw a punch to the body, and he threw a left hand, and it was just a weird angle.”

Nowadays, he’s committed to his career, and been getting into acting classes on the premise that if you want to do something, you should do it all-out. Damn the chances and naysayers. The way Sell sees it, they’re probably the same people yelling at him while he was weighing in to fight Baroni.

“I’ve been getting into acting classes. A buddy’s been helping me out, when I have time to do it, it’s cool just learn the art of it, learn the techniques that help you do it better,” Sell said. “It helps you speak better, I’m like ‘why don’t I try this acting?’ I’m never gonna be that guy that says ‘What if?’ Because I’m doing it. It’s my dream to fight in the UFC, and to get the belt. I’m going for that and then looking to get into film and TV. People will just sit there, whether it’s drinking or eating, stuffing everything inside, sitting around and just waiting. And nothing’s gonna happen. I feel like nothing works out for people like that. I like people who are positive and strive. For that, you watch those True Hollywood stories, you see them go through this and that, he was performing at nightclubs every night, then look at the guy now - he’s a movie star. But back then the guy was a nobody. To me, I look at me and that’s me now. And that’s the way I’m thinking.”

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