Thursday, April 5, 2007

A restaurateur goes into the Ultimate Fighter auditions hoping to drum up business. He comes out as a . . .

By John C. Cotey

The remaining contestants showed up for their final interview in shorts, T-shirts, hats on backward. The kind of stuff they might wear to the gym for a workout.

Tampa's Allen Berube showed up in a gray suit and pink tie. The kind of stuff he might wear to a business meeting.

For two weeks, he had advanced through the qualifying rounds for The Ultimate Fighter reality show as the walking and wrestling and punching billboard for his seafood restaurant. He announced himself as the Monstah Lobstah, after his South Tampa restaurant, or the Crustacean Sensation.

It had gotten him this far, and now he was ready to close the deal.

"I figured if I could just make it into that final interview, I was in," said Berube. "I could sell you a glass of water if you were drowning."

In this case, he tried lobster rolls, which he made that morning in his hotel room.

Ultimately, whether it was the food or a wealth of personality or the producers hoping to inject some life into the house, Berube was chosen for the fifth season of the popular reality show, which debuts its new season at 10 tonight on cable's Spike TV.

"I'll never forget the tie," said Brian Diamond from Spike. "It was this red, pink looking thing . . . this crustacean-looking thing.

"Oh, and the food was pretty darned good too."

* * *

Berube isn't what you'd expect in a mixed martial artist. Everyone calls him Monstah, but he's 5 feet 8 and 155 pounds.

In a sport where just about everything is tactical, Berube relies on his strength. He likes to intensely stare down his opponents - eyes bulging, neck craned - and he comes forward from the opening bell throwing punches.

He's had three fights locally, winning at the A La Carte Pavilion and the Sun Dome.

But Diamond said experience wasn't everything in selecting Berube.

"We try to find a balance," he said. "If we had all characters who couldn't fight, it wouldn't be true to the UFC Ultimate Fighting Championship. If we had all fighters and no characters, it wouldn't be a TV show."

Berube, quite simply, masterfully marketed himself to producers and made sure they remembered his name: Monstah.

He even went as far as to tell Diamond he would attract a large female audience to the show as the Boy Band Fighter; to emphasize the point, he takes off a black UFC baseball cap and runs his hands through his short blond hair.

"I got the look, you know?" he said.

His New England accent is as thick as chowdah, his allegiance to the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots evidenced by the shredded Yankees hat pinned to the wall.

Almost every sentence is punctuated by "you know."

Berube thinks his spin on reality television - he once tried the lobster rolls thing during a tryout for The Apprentice - could be his big break.

You know?

"He loves the spotlight," said Rob Kahn, a black belt under UFC legend Royce Gracie. Kahn trains Berube and 150 others at Gracie Tampa. "In fact, I think he's uncomfortable when the spotlight isn't on him."

* * *

Berube hasn't seen any of the episodes yet, but thinks he comes off well.

"I was a good guy," he said.

On the first episode, he gets some key minutes in front of the camera. He takes a jab at one of his teammates, Gabe Ruediger, who is crying during one scene because he can't cut weight.

In the van taking the players back to the house, Ruediger is consoled by teammates and told to keep giving 100 percent.

From the back row, a smiling Berube says "you just gotta stop giving 100 percent in the kitchen."

It's just the beginning of Berube's getting under people's skin.

"A lot of (stuff) goes down, you know" said Berube, who still thinks he'll come off positively. "I can't wait to see it. It doesn't even feel real yet, until I can see it on TV."

* * *

A wrestler and boxer in high school, Berube, 32, is still a relative neophyte when it comes to mixed martial arts. He trained in jujitsu, a martial art that stresses fighting from a defensive position, for only one year before he was talked into his first pro fight in June on a Real Fighting Championships card at the A La Carte Pavilion.

"Free advertising, you know?" said Berube, smiling.

Just what he needed. In 2006, Berube struggled through his toughest year as a restaurant owner.

In the spring, he had to file bankruptcy after his new Carrollwood location failed.

Especially galling to Berube was that he closed down his original and successful Carrollwood Monstah Lobstah, opened in 2002, to make room for a bigger, newer one. Despite advice to the contrary, he charged forward and ended up in court.

"I was too cocky," said Berube. "I knew everything."

He calls it his "college," since he never went. Heck, he barely made it through Biddeford High School in Maine, despite being elected class president as a freshman, he says.

Things are looking up for Berube again, even if the lingering effects of the bankruptcy continue to haunt him.

"We're getting by, but there's no room for pleasure," he says.

He hopes to launch an online branch of Monstah Lobstah in the next few weeks that specializes in overnight delivery of lobster, "if you have a friend in Kansas or something, and you want to get him a gift."

And he hopes his exposure on television helps. Much of the reason for that trip to Miami in October, where he began the process of beating out 1,000 others, to make TUF was to grab more free advertising.

TUF has averaged 2-million viewers, and in the coveted 18 to 34 demographic it has been ratings gold. It has made stars of all its winners and is credited with helping put the Ultimate Fighting Championship into the public mainstream.

"I thought, man, if I can get on this show, I might just be able to pull myself out of all this," Berube said.

* * *

Berube went to Las Vegas to pimp his restaurant. But he came back a fighter.

Sure, he still offered a year of free lobsters to the person who mentioned Monstah Lobstah on air the most.

UFC coach B.J. Penn called foul on his promoting and at one point tells Berube if he doesn't win his fight, he can't mention the restaurant again. Yet all the other fighters never call Berube anything but Monstah, even the ones who don't like him.

But Berube said he became less concerned with advertising and more obsessed with fighting, soaking in lessons from Penn, one of UFC's legends, and training with veteran fighters.

"I was in a little over my head in there," Berube said. "But by the time I left, my coach said I was the most improved and came the furthest. I have to tell you, when I first got there, it was more about business, you know, but when I left I was like, man, I have an opportunity to make a career out of this."

Berube is looking for a business partner to invest in the restaurant so he can have more time to train with Kahn.

"Monstah always had a good work ethic," said Kahn. "I never thought he was taking this as a hobby. But since he's been back, he's arranging his schedule better so he can be here more."

Berube hopes he gets a fight on the show's season finale June 23, which is televised live. That would be the tipoff to a UFC career, which may go nowhere, or somewhere.

"I have to see what is it going to do for me, what can I get out of this while the fire is hot," Berube said.

* * *

Berube wants a reaction to everything he says, and he will poke around until he gets it.

He never stops talking, is almost always smiling, and he is just obnoxious enough to get people riled up.

In other words, the perfect reality show candidate.

On the first episode, Cole Miller, with a career record of 19-2, gets to pick who he wants to fight and chooses Berube.

Berube thinks it was because he was seen as an easy mark by the better fighters.

It wasn't.

Miller snarls into the camera, "I want to fight Monstah" for one reason.

"He annoys (me)."


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