The Showman: Phil Baroni
‘New York Bad Ass’ Phil Baroni's entrance to a fight is fabled for its extravagance.
Flanked by a duo of scarcely clothed, statuesque blondes and adorned in a sleeveless, sequined robe which drapes along the metallic ramp, he incites both cheer and scorn in equal measures.
Sauntering toward the cage with all the affected posturing of a Shakespearean villain, Baroni shifts his hulking frame to the rhythm of an obnoxiously pounding baseline.
Dense black sunglasses cover his eyes from the combination of strobe and pyrotechnics that mark his arrival. He holds for a moment. The shades and spangled gown are slowly removed, revealing a T-Shirt which is promptly torn from his body. He postures once more and is ready to fight.
It is a performance that has little changed in nearly a decade of competition. Baroni, in that time, has managed to amass the mediocre record of 13-11. It is an excellent entrance though.
On June 6, 2009, the pantomime of Phil Baroni arrived at the Scottrade Centre, in St. Louis, MO, with typical resplendence. Buoyed by an improvement in form correlating with a drop in weight, the 'NYBA' carried hope that an unfulfilled career at Middleweight, could be redeemed in it's twilight at Welterweight.
Baroni, 3-0 at 170lbs, was rewarded with a fight against prominent Strikeforce welterweight contender, Joe ''Diesel'' Riggs. The fight produced little of the fireworks promised throughout the promotion. The pair traded takedowns and transitions during the opening rounds, before the fight was decided by a factor always problematic to the aging Baroni: fitness.
A chronic lack of conditioning appears to have followed him through the weight classes. As the fighters entered the third, he was little more than a impressively defined heavy bag, with only his granite jaw, ensuring the fight lasted to a decision.
There was no doubt of the result. Riggs was the unanimous victor and Baroni was left to wear the disconsolate look of a man beginning to doubt himself for the first time.
Baroni began his Mixed Martial Arts career on Aug. 5, 2000. Driven on by the potent blend of an immaculately sculpted frame, honed through years of amateur bodybuilding, and that specific strain of self-confidence which seems inherent to all New Yorkers, the Long Island native won his opening three fights comfortably, proving an exciting and combustible character both inside and outside of the octagon.
A consummate exhibitionist, endowed with a preening nature and brash wit, Baroni instantly distinguished himself from his peers.
He was a modified throwback, incorporating the Pit Fighting persona of pioneers such as Tank Abbott and the legitimate technical acumen required of the time. (He is former Two-Time All-American collegiate wrestler and holds an amateur pugilist record of 17-0.)
As such, Baroni polarised fans of the sport. Whilst some appreciated his cavalier aggression and embellished arrogance, others viewed his distasteful interviews and garish entrances as gimmicks akin to the theatrics of professional wrestling. Either way, Baroni was a personality, and before the era of the Ultimate Fighter this was a valuable commodity in MMA.
Baroni’s time in the UFC, could be seen as a microcosm for the failings and successes he would suffer and enjoy throughout his career. A debut victory against a limited Curtis Stout was promptly followed by an uncomfortably close decision loss to Olympic Silver medallist Matt Lindland.
Ever the embodiment of inconsistency, Baroni would prove victorious in his next two fights, including a career-defining demolition of former UFC middleweight champion Dave Menne, in just 18 seconds.
Immediately following the stoppage, Baroni ascended the cage, declaring himself ‘The Best Ever’, before boundlessly informing all those ringside that he wanted Lindland and was indeed, ’The man’. A claim that was consequently tested and dispelled by a second decision loss to 'The Law'.
Baroni would go on to lose his three remaining fights in the organisation; twice at the hands of the late, former champion Evan Tanner and once to veteran card-filler Pete Sell. He was dropped amid calls to retire.
Given his showmanship inclinations, it is perhaps unsurprising that Baroni would enjoy the most productive period of his career, within the bright lights and unashamed spectacle of the East. Achieving a credible, if not spectacular, record of 4-2 in the Pride Fighting Organisation it is the performances rather than the results that mark Baroni's time in Japan as the pinnacle of his powers.
In Japan, Baroni faced fighters sharing in the ethos of entertainment and consequently each bout during that period is an exhibition in relentless aggression and heart. (The two fights against Ikuhisa Minowa, highlight this more than any others.) It was a period he would consequently struggle to recreate outside of Pride.
Upon leaving Japan, Baroni has enjoyed minimal success. A highly publicized loss to Frank Shamrock and a subsequent battle against allegations of steroid abuse, resulting in a much disputed fine and six month suspension, seemed to have cemented his demise as a fighter ranked among the elite.
TKO defeats to journeymen fighters, Kala Hose and Joey Villasenor, only further endorsed the calls for retirement. Baroni instead decided to drop weight for the first time in his career and was rewarded with the first three fight win streak he has enjoyed since those opening bouts. He would fight Riggs with an opportunity for redemption.
In Riggs, Baroni was offered a possible path back to the pinnacle of the sport. A path back to that arena in which he felt he always belonged. A path back to the UFC.
That path now appears forever unavailable and Baroni is in legitimate danger of leaving a legacy exclusively concerning his pre-fight antics rather than his talent. It is a fate he is acutely aware of. In the weeks and months preceding the Riggs fight, the Pride veteran regaled a story, symbolic of his varied and somewhat disappointing career to date.
"I was at a gas station one night and some dudes were getting hammered and were getting ready to go drive their car, and they were like, 'Hey, dude. Nice entrance.' Yeah. Nice entrance. Not even nice fight.’’
Perhaps lost behind the bravado and posturing, lies an awareness of a potential that will probably never be fulfilled. But still, It is an excellent entrance.
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