Ricco Rodriguez will return to the Mohegan Sun, where he won the UFC heavyweight title. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Ricco Rodriguez struggled to find work with prominent mixed martial arts organizations for a number of years, until he signed with Bellator Fighting Championships in February.
Rodriguez (47-11) will meet Seth Petruzelli at Bellator 48 on Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., site of the most significant victory of his career -- his September 2002 triumph over Randy Couture, which netted him the UFC heavyweight crown. Rodriguez believes he has found a place where he can finish out his career while competing against some of the top heavyweights in the world.
“Taking this opportunity to fight with Bellator is really my final calling,” he told Sherdog.com. “I don’t plan on going anywhere else. I plan to compete in the heavyweight tournament, see how I match up with the heavyweights, really push myself to be a champion and finish my career here.”
While searching for a new professional home, Rodriguez grew tired of the unprofessional methods utilized by certain smaller promotions with which he had dealt. He has not competed in back-to-back bouts within the same promotion in more than three years, as he bounced from one regional stage to the next.
“When you’re working for a smaller organization, you’re almost taking a chance in a circus act,” Rodriguez said. “It is awesome to work for an organization that treats you with class and respect.”
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney was admittedly hesitant to sign the heavyweight, who has had issues with substance abuse in the past. Historically, Bellator has not gone out of its way to sign UFC washouts and former champions, and Rodriguez was no exception.
“A lot of people don’t understand the politics,” Rodriguez said. “Bellator is looking for their own champions. They aren’t looking for former champions. They are not the company that’s taking the leftovers from the UFC and making them their champions. They are producing guys that are in the Top 10 rankings.”
Rodriguez believes Bellator provides a unique platform through which to showcase his talents. The opportunity to compete on national television via MTV2 intrigues the 33-year-old, along with the way Bellator raises and grooms its own fighters.
“They have a different formula. They are coming at their demographics in a totally different way, and they are finding their own athletes,” Rodriguez said. “Look at [Bellator welterweight champion and 2008 Olympian] Ben Askren; you think that these guys couldn’t compete in the UFC? I’m happy with Bellator. I believe they care more about the fighters.”
On a 12-fight winning streak, the longest such streak of his career, Rodriguez will lock horns with Petruzelli in his promotional debut. He has designs on competing in the next Bellator heavyweight tournament, a victory in which would lead to a crack at champion Cole Konrad.
“I’ve been wanting to fight better opponents,” Rodriguez said. “Seth is very unorthodox, and he’s very elusive. He is a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Everybody thinks I should win, but a fight is a fight. Anyone can get knocked out at any time. It’s just a great opportunity to come back to [the] Mohegan Sun, where I won my UFC heavyweight title, and show people I belong in Bellator.”