Former MMA fighter Matt Riddle enjoyed a successful career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) during his near six-year stint. The blonde-haired, outspoken, and always smiling fighter compiled a 7-3-2 record during his time in the UFC before being terminated in 2013 after failing a second drug test.
However, the lifelong wrestling fanatic was always in the professional wrestling mindset, even in the UFC. One of Riddle's loses earned him Fight of the Night honors and he says that entertaining the crowd was just as crucial as winning.
"If you get Fight of the Night, there's a reason you got Fight of the Night, it's usually because you had that crowd on its feet, going crazy during the fight, almost like a professional wrestling match. But in my head, even though I lost those fights, they felt like wins to me because I entertained that crowd beyond belief."
Riddle's unlikely journey to stardom in the UFC started before he was selected to be on The Ultimate Fighter 7 in 2008. Riddle began as a wrestler in high school, earning a scholarship to East Stroudsburg University, that was later rescinded after his college wrestling coach was fired.
That is when Riddle decided to switch from wrestling to training in MMA. Riddle loved professional wrestling, inspired by watching the likes of Rob Van Dam, Shawn Michaels, and Triple H. But Riddle admits that he felt his size wouldn't let him "fit the mold" of a prototypical pro wrestler.
"It seemed like the only guys that were getting anywhere in the business were really big men," said Riddle. "MMA was blowing up and there were weight classes there, so I knew there was a spot for me there. It was the closest thing I thought I could do to professional wrestling."
If his coach didn't get fired, Riddle can see his life turning out a lot differently. Riddle's parents offered to pay the rest of his tuition and if he accepted the offer, he believes he would've followed in some of his friends' footsteps.
"[I] Probably would've graduated college and gotten a degree in physical education and health and probably been a school teacher," Riddle admits. "I would've been pretty happy, I've got a couple of buddies right now that are school teachers and they seem pretty happy."
The Ultimate Fighter 7
After toiling away for many years, Riddle got a call from an executive at Spike TV, asking Riddle if he wanted to be a television star. At the time, Riddle says that he didn't even have a driver's license and was pumping gas for his mother's car.
Placed on the team of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Riddle quickly turned heads and punched faces on the show. A knockout of Dan Simmler earned Riddle respect from many people, including UFC president Dana White, who called the knockout the greatest in The Ultimate Fighter's history.
There were also some tough moments, like Riddle being punished for putting shaving cream on Jackson's head. The legendary MMA fighter made Riddle run on a treadmill, at a speed of 50 mph for an hour while not allowing him to hold onto the sides of the machine.
The entire ordeal was "horrible" as Riddle puts it but helped him earn some respect.
Riddle went on to defeat Dante Rivera in The Ultimate Fighter 7 finale, which also marked his UFC debut.
After making his UFC debut, Riddle went undefeated through his first three fights, winning all of them via unanimous decision.
Boasting a record of 6-3 through his first nine fights, Riddle faced his most daunting challenge yet. On just two weeks notice, Riddle accepted a fight versus Chris Clements in Calgary, Alberta, Canada at UFC 149. Not only did Riddle dictate the pace of the fight, he won the fight with a standing arm triangle choke, earning Submission of the Night.
All told, it was his most rewarding victory for many reasons, but primarily for his entire family.
"It was a fight that honestly changed my life a little bit because I made like over $100,000 that night. I was able to take care of a lot of bills, invest, buy a house, and do stuff like that."
Failed Drug Tests and UFC Release
After the fight, it was revealed that Riddle tested positive for marijuana. Thus, his victory was ruled a no contest. Just two fights later, Riddle failed a second drug test and was subsequently released.
Riddle technically finished his UFC career on a four-fight win streak, but two of those fights were ruled no contests due to the failed drug tests. It has been two years since his release and the company's handling of the situation still baffles Riddle.
"I really couldn't believe, not because I wasn't in the wrong. If I fail a drug test that's on me, I'm in the wrong," Riddle explained. "I couldn't believe it because a week earlier, Dana White said he would never fire anyone if they were on a winning streak."
On a more severe scale, MMA star Nick Diaz was suspended for five years by the Nevada State Commission due to marijuana use. In Riddle's view, "the Nevada Athletic Commission is not a fan of Nick Diaz, the way he carries himself as a professional athlete."
Riddle also questions the UFC and the commission for allowing fighters to get Testosterone Replacement Therapy or prescriptions to painkillers while reprimanding fighters like him and Diaz for using marijuana as pain medication.
"You're gonna allow fighters to use steroids to get more intense fights? Or keep certain fighters around longer than they should be because they're older? I wasn't against them doing that but then they wouldn't allow somebody like me using marijuana for pain medication.... they'd rather have me go to a doctor and get oxycontin and TRT instead of using marijuana."
As for his own circumstances, Riddle believes the UFC's handling of his situation was unjust at best.
"I thought I had a good relationship with the UFC at the time. I was there since day one, fighting for them for 5/12 years when they released me," said Riddle. "I was more shocked that they handled my situation the way they did when they handled other situations more fairly."
Despite the usage of marijuana costing him his UFC career, Riddle is an advocate for the legalization of the drug. He says it should be "100 percent legal, especially in sports." However, Riddle revealed that he has quit using the drug due to his new job of being a professional wrestler.
His last use of the drug came eight months ago. He's substituting it with an occasional beer. But once he retires from being an athlete, Riddle says it's likely he'll return to using marijuana in some form. The reason? Riddle knows he can operate as a normal human being, contrary to what people may say.
"If marijuana was so horrible, how was I winning fights, taking care of a family, and taking care of my house and everything else?"
Retiring from MMA, Riddle turned his focus to his real dream of being a professional wrestler. He began training in late-2014 and made his debut on February 7 for The Monster Factory in New Jersey. Just a few months later, Riddle was the Monster Factory Heavyweight champion.
Training for pro wrestling was easier for Riddle than the average person. With his wrestling background that dates back to his days as a state champion at Saratoga Springs High School in New York, Riddle says making the switch was easy.
"The transition for me has been pretty easy and everybody is extremely helpful and nice," said Riddle. "It's a little different than MMA because most times, people are just trying to knock you out instead of helping you better."
Riddle mentioned independent wrestling mainstays such as Drew Gulak, Chris Dickinson, and Luis "The Punisher" Martinez, as some of the people who have helped him and befriended him during this journey.
One part of the transition that Riddle expected and experienced has been tension from other wrestlers. His popularity in the MMA got him in the door and he understands why some veterans may have an issue. But just like his opponents in the UFC, the wrestling locker rooms around the world can see that Riddle isn't just doing this for fame, but a genuine love for the profession.
"After they meet me a couple of times, the tension goes away because I'm a pretty nice guy," said Riddle. "Everybody in wrestling is usually a pretty nice guy, they're all just hard workers trying to get their opportunities."
Thanks to his popularity with UFC and natural athletic ability, Riddle earned himself that opportunity with a WWE Tryout.
Coming out of the tryout, online reports suggested it went well, some suggesting that WWE inked the former MMA fighter to a contract. While Riddle says the tryout "went extremely well," saying that he's signed with WWE is a bit of stretch.
"I did not sign with WWE, I will say my tryout went well with them and I am looking forward to working with them in the near future.Them hooking me up with EVOLVE, I think they might have said something for me and that's how Gabe [Sapolsky] got my information. But I wouldn't say I'm signed with WWE and that's why I'm at EVOLVE."
Incorporating Mixed Martial Arts Into Professional Wrestling
The match with Dickinson only lasted eight minutes but allowed Riddle to show he can both wrestle and incorporate some MMA moves, something he feels needs to be more prominent.
With MMA legends like Brock Lesnar in today's world and names like Ken Shamrock of yesteryear, Riddle thinks the style needs to be featured more.
"Even when I'd watch professional wrestling, I always thought that was one missing element, the MMA element," Riddle explains. "There's guys like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk that incorporated mixed martial arts submissions and moves into professional wrestling. I feel like the way it was incorporated was really good, but there's not enough people doing it. I think it should be a bigger part of professional wrestling because it makes sense."
Riddle is doing well in certain areas but admits that he's still lacking in others.
The one thing that Riddle is working on to improve is his selling.
As an MMA fighter, Riddle was never supposed to give his opponent any inclination he was hurt, or he could be easy pickings inside the octagon.
"Biggest thing for me was selling because when you fight, you don't sell anything," said Riddle. "You don't show any emotion when you fight, even a smile after you get rocked could give it away and the guy will come in and try to finish you."
Riddle is also looking to get to 240 pounds before cutting back down to 225 pounds. His goal is to have a "Cesaro build with MMA background and pedigree."
Not only has the physical part of the switch gone smoothly, Riddle is also finding the life of a touring wrestler one of the more liberating things he's experienced.
In MMA, Riddle says that making money isn't the easiest thing – considering you only work at most three times a year. Alternatively, Riddle can work whenever, wherever he wants as an independent wrestler.
"I can actually sell my merchandise, I can actually get sponsored by other sponsors, unlike the UFC where you can only get sponsored by Reebok."
Working more often and getting sponsors are nice, but what excites Riddle the most is being a larger than life persona.
"The best part is I can be myself and be a character, but in MMA, even if you're the top of the top, you usually get 40 seconds, maybe a minute with Joe Rogan on a microphone and you talk about your fight and you gotta thank your mom, your sponsors, your wife, your girlfriend, your boyfriend...I guess. Whatever you gotta thank, and you gotta get all that in one minute and that's your character."
For full audio of the interview, you can listen to it here.
[Image via 411Mania]