ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- After having his ups and downs captured on film for six weeks, cleverly edited and then presented to the world for dissection, Bubba McDaniel would like his detractors to know one thing:
Today, some four months after the show’s finale, he barely resembles the “broken-down” version of himself that competed on Season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
McDaniel entered the “TUF” house with a wealth of experience and confidence to burn. Naturally, the cameras gravitated to the outspoken Texan, but little did he know that each word he uttered was molding a public perception.
“My mindset at the time was I’m in a houseful of guys that I’m going to possibly have to fight, and I was ready to fight,” McDaniel recently told Sherdog.com. “Things came out and they seemed a little aggressive and a--hole-ish. That’s the way it was -- the environment at the time. When it came to real situations and real talk, I spoke the truth.”
Unfortunately for McDaniel, his in-cage performance often failed to match that bravado. In short, McDaniel lived up to the blunt evaluation assigned to him by coach and Jackson’s MMA teammate Jon Jones early on: that the man called “The Menace” runs hot and cold. Including the elimination round, McDaniel went 2-2 on the show, but it was his losses to eventual finalists Kelvin Gastelum and Uriah Hall that stood out.
Falling to Gastelum, the youngest member of the house, would have been shocking enough, but Hall’s brutal knockout, which broke McDaniel’s face in three different places, was especially humbling. And even though the rigors of constantly cutting weight and being cooped up in a house with only other aspiring fighters as company were partially to blame, McDaniel says that Jones’ assessment still holds up.
“I was a picked on kid in middle school and high school -- I go back to a picked on kid mentality here and there. I still get afraid here and there,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a fear of being beat up, it’s a fear of not performing correctly. It actually hinders me. I’ve been doing mental work to get myself in that good straight frame of mind ready to fight. The ups and downs of me, that’s real. It depends on what day what Bubba shows up. Every fighter has some kind of mental issue, it’s just how you overcome it.”
McDaniel believes his image makeover began in earnest at the “TUF 17” finale on April 13, when he submitted fellow cast member Gilbert Smith with an arm triangle 2:49 into round three. Prior to that fight, he sought the help of sports psychologist Keith Wagner, who also happened to be an old friend. While it may not be a daily or even weekly occurrence, McDaniel says he still relies on Wagner from time to time, because it’s important to be able to flip the proverbial switch come fight night.
If any further evidence was needed that “TUF” offers only a distorted view of reality, then one need look no further than the curious case of Hall, a man UFC President Dana White once called “the nastiest, deadliest, meanest kid we have ever seen in the history of ‘TUF.’” After a pair of head-scratching losses in the promotion, including a UFC Night 26 effort against John Howard that seemed to feature more glove taps than strikes, White changed his tune. “He’s one of the nicest human beings you can ever meet. He’s not a fighter, man,” the promotion boss said.
As someone who has dealt with his own issues, McDaniel gets it. While “TUF” was an atmosphere where he struggled, it allowed Hall to thrive.
“He was in a situation where he was just so pent up and frustrated at the house that when he got in there, it was a nice feeling for him to fight,” McDaniel said. “Being in that house is rough. It doesn’t matter if you’re the nicest guy in the world -- you’re wanting to hit something. So I can see how he would turn it on in that house the whole time and keep it. That broke me down because of the way things were; I wasn’t even a shadow of myself. Different people rise to different occasions.
“Him actually putting out the effort to be a mean-hearted person, I just don’t think that’s who he is. But as a fighter, as an athlete, talent-wise, the dude should be a world champion. ...Once he gets his mental aspect going he’s going to be something.”
Meanwhile, McDaniel must continue his own progression at UFC Fight Night 27 in Indianapolis. While the matchmaking trend of late has been to pair “TUF” alums from recently completed seasons against one another, McDaniel will face Brad Tavares, who has been victorious in five of six Octagon appearances. Yes, the Hawaiian middleweight is a veteran of “TUF 11,” but he has also had more than enough time to establish himself in the world’s largest MMA promotion.
“I definitely think I have the toughest fight [of any cast member] coming straight out of the gates since the finale. To me, this is a win-win fight,” McDaniel said. “I’m the underdog, the pressure’s really on him. He’s looking for a Top-10 fight [next]. I’m gonna go out there and put on a good performance, show everybody that likes to hate on everything that you’re gonna see a good me coming out. It’s not gonna be the guy you thought you saw in the house.”
Despite all the exposure he received on “TUF,” McDaniel says that sponsors haven’t exactly been beating down his door. According to figures released by the Nevada Athletic Commission, he made $16,000 ($8,000 to win) for his victory over Smith. If McDaniel can beat Tavares and get another win bonus, he says it will help him cover costs to train for his next fight. If he shows up and loses, he’ll merely break even.
Which is why that in addition to promising a better product in the Octagon on Wednesday night, McDaniel would like people to know that he’s actually a pretty nice guy. While that claim is mostly directed toward misinformed fans, perhaps the people who advertise their products on fight shorts need to know, as well.
“I’m a loyal dude to the people that want to sign up to help me out...I’m at everybody’s disposal right now,” he said. “I want to stay in this sport.”
As long as McDaniel remembers to flip that mental switch once the Octagon door shuts, things only figure to get better.