Thursday, April 5, 2007

Former Moliner debuts on `Ultimate Fighter' tonight

By Steve Tappa

During road trips to wrestling meets, from grade school through high school, Wayne Weems remembers sitting in the backseat, dreaming aloud with fellow former Moline wrestler Matt Lackey. Some of that crazy talk came true when Lackey won a prep state title, earned a scholarship to the University of Illinois and claimed an NCAA championship.

Now, another long-shot goal is getting realized, with Weems appearing tonight in the fifth-season debut of Spike TV's popular reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter."

Weems is among 16 lightweights featured in the 13-episode, Ultimate Fighting Championships show. The series culminates in a Pay-Per-View TV card June 23 in Las Vegas.

Until that finale, Weems is prohibited from fighting in another show, for fear of injury.

To make ends meet in the meantime, the 24-year-old is working odd jobs for sponsors (Bi-State Home Improvement and Moline Glass) and making autograph appearances. The first is an all-ages premier party for another sponsor, the Carriage Haus and Kilkenny's Pub in Davenport's East Village. The event starts tonight at 7 p.m. The show airs at 9 p.m.

"It's funny; I just talked with Matt," Weems said. "He's back training for the Olympics, going for the gold in wrestling, and I'm going to be on TV, in the UFC where I've always wanted to be. We always talked big and dreamed big, but how many times does it ever really happen?"

Weems' big break occured because he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

After much-urging from friends, especially former Moline grappler and Mixed-Martial Arts veteran Mark Long, Weems decided last October to get serious and train full-time.

His first call was to local manager Monte Cox, who handles all of the top fighters in trainer Pat Miletich's Bettendorf gym. The UFC also just happened to be looking for 155 pounders for the TV show's fifth season.

After an application process, Weems (16-2) was among 50 or so prospects invited to Las Vegas around Thanksgiving for interviews and physicals.

By Christmas, news came Weems needed to report Jan. 21 for the show's six weeks of shooting. The fighters interact, training twice a day and competing for a UFC contract while living under the same roof.

"The hardest part of the whole process was not telling anyone," said Weems, who was forbidden to share the news by the super-secretive show's staff. "My family and girlfriend and managers knew, but none of my friends did.

"When I went out to tape the show, I just disappeared. I turned my phone off. Nobody knew where I went. Nobody filled out a missings-person report, though. I guess nobody missed me that much."

Because of the show's secretive nature, Weems can share few details. However, the 3-time prep state qualifier said, "It should be exciting. I know I did some pretty funny things that I hope make the show. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

"I don't regret anything. If what I did gets on TV, great. If what I did doesn't make the show, I'm fine with that, because I was just myself. Some guys did some crazy things just to get the TV exposure, but I wanted to be the `Ultimate Fighter."'

It's just that sort of attitude Weems believes landed him the part in the first place. During a combative interview, with what turned out to be the show's producers, Weems didn't give any ground.

"The (interviewer) jaw-jacks with you, just to see how you'll respond," Weems explained. "Like he'd say, `Wayne Weems? What kind of name is that? I hope you have a nickname.'

"He asked me, `So, are you (gay)?' My response was, `Only on days that end with `Y.' He didn't get the joke, but the other guys in the room did. From there, I just kept jawing with him. It was the weirdest interview of my life, but I guess they liked that I could think on my feet."

The bizarre interview was just part of an entirely surreal experience, Weems said.

"They'd ask us to do things over, like getting out of a van, because their cameras weren't set or the lighting wasn't right or they needed a different angle," Weems said.

"We'd talk a lot at night before we went to sleep, and they'd burst into the room with those TV lights glaring and the camera rolling. I'd wake up in the morning, roll over and there'd be a camera in my face. Now, what's exciting about watching me sleep?"

Weems finds out tonight.


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