As if fighting a guy that wants to take your head off isn't bad enough, UFC middleweight Rich Attonito has another adversary that could take him out at any time: a bad back.

At least in a fight, you have something to hit.

But the 33-year-old has overcome his back issues and will look to put Dave Branch on his own this Saturday on the undercard of UFC's The Ultimate Fighter 12 finale.



A TUF Sell

TUF diehards will remember Attonito from his run on season 11 of the hit Spike show as a member of Chuck Liddell's team. He was Liddell's second overall pick but ran into some hard luck at nearly every turn.

After defeating Kyacey Uscola by first round DQ after Uscola threw two illegal knees, Attonito had to withdraw from the competition when doctors found he had broken his hand.

Interestingly enough, that spot went to eventual winner Court McGee. Had Attonito not suffered his injury, history might have told us a completely different story.

But Attonito (9-3) is all about the here and now, not looking back on what could have been.

"I got a great opportunity. It catapulted my life and career to a level I couldn't have dreamed of a year or two ago," he said. "I'm really thankful for it."

Surprisingly, the Elizabeth, NJ native almost didn't go to the tryouts, as he had a full-time job that allowed him to keep actively training with Florida's American Top Team. Thirty-two at the time, Attonito explained that he needed to weigh the risks and rewards of his decision and how it would affect his life.

Luckily, he had a firm supporter at home: his wife and his teammates at ATT.

"She is really instrumental for me. She was a real big supporter of me going to do the (TUF) show and encouraged me a lot," Attonito said. "She kinda kicked me in the butt when I second guessed the idea of everything. She's helped keep me focused on why I started doing these things in the first place."

But even she couldn't help what was happening in Attonito's back.



Pain

After beginning his pro career at 3-2, Attonito was recruited to join ATT, and with his brother in Florida attending school, the Jersey boy headed south in late 2005 to test himself against some of the best in the MMA business.

While training for a fight in the spring of 2006, he felt pain in his back, not the "Ouch, that's uncomfortable" type, but rather the "Holy @*&$...I can't move" kind that nightmares are made of.

It was a herniated disc, and it kept the former college wrestling teammate of Phil Baroni out of action for almost two years, made worse by its on-again, off-again nature.

"It was the type of thing where I could train for a bit and then one day, I would bend over to dry my leg off after a shower and my back would go out," he explained. "I'd have a fight scheduled and be training for weeks and then, boom. I'd make a wrong move in training and it would lock me up and keep me out for two weeks."

But he never thought about hanging it up and made some changes in his training which have kept the disc relatively pain-free for years. Attonito is back in a rhythm and ready to finish up his second straight year with at least three fights after competing in just two fights in the previous three years.



Dropping Yager Bombs

After just a single round and no additional televised opportunities to show his skills, Attonito was left on the outside looking in for another shot at the big time after filming of TUF ended.

But luck is funny like that. Five weeks before the TUF 11 finale show, he got "the call" from Joe Silva offering him a fight that many of the talent on the show wanted: Jamie Yager.

"I was excited for that fight. On the show, he beat two guys that train at ATT. I felt like I wanted a piece of him to even the score," Attonito said. "I knew that fighting him and beating him would bring some more attention. I probably gained some more fans by beating him up."

And he certainly did beat him up, defeating Yager by second round TKO and introducing himself to the mainstream MMA world in the process.

"I still get people that thank me for doing it," Attonito joked, adding that Yager was a good person that had his bad side shown more often than not by the cameras.

Still competing under a general three-year UFC rights contract for TUF fighters, he was asked back for another fight. This time, Attonito was given BJJ ace Rafael Natal who was making his Octagon debut.

The former Hofstra wrestling product flattened Natal in the first round, coming razor close to winning via a first round TKO. Instead, Natal showed the referee he still had enough of his faculties and hung on. Attonito did his business throughout the final two rounds, outlasting Natal for a unanimous decision victory, his fourth in a row.



Breaking The Branch

Attonito now has 7-1 Dave Branch in his path, another BJJ black belt who is 1-1 in his Octagon career. While similar to Natal in his BJJ game, Attonito said he presents some new challenges he is looking to overcome.

"I have to approach each fight as a single opportunity so that I'm always in the moment. You got to take fights on an individual basis," he said. "I've stayed alive to fight another day. I plan on going out there, getting better every day and putting on exciting fights. I plan on being around for a long time."

In just few days, Attonito will get his shot at realizing that plan.

Josh Nason is a New England-based freelance MMA journalist that covers live events, has written for FIGHT! Magazine and frequently does radio/podcast appearances. He asks for your "like" for ESPN Boston to cover MMA. Follow him on Twitter.