Chuck O’Neil isn’t one to settle for just anything. It’s not the way he’s built. So when he talks about his goals, admirably, he’s aiming high.
“I just want to achieve greatness in life,” said the Boston welterweight. “I want to make my mark on this world and you get one opportunity to do it.”
Again, it’s an admirable thing to say, but when it comes to the twists and turns of life, sometimes you get more than one swing at the plate, and if anyone should know that, it’s O’Neil, who scratched and clawed his way from obscurity into The Ultimate Fighter 13 competition and then into the big show, never taking ‘no’ for an answer.
Now that’s the attitude that can start you on the road to greatness.
Born in Bourne, Massachusetts, O’Neil ironically began training in mixed martial arts after seeing the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. A year later he was in a fight in Manchester, New Hampshire, getting submitted by Eric Bauer in the second round. Motivated to get better, he began building his game, his record, and his reputation. By 2010 he even scored a spot on a local Bellator show, where he stopped Damian Vitale in the third round. But by the end of the year, the opportunities were drying up.
“I felt like I was at a point where it was time to move on out of the New England area because it was really hard for me to get fights,” he said. “A lot of guys were dropping out, pulling out, and not accepting fights. I’m just an awkward guy to deal with at 170 pounds, so it was tough for me to get fights. I was at this crossroads – get this chance (The Ultimate Fighter) or have to start fighting outside of the New England area.”
He got the Ultimate Fighter gig, but not really, as he was an alternate for season 13, there to compete only if someone left the show. Lucky for him, Myles Jury tore his ACL during the coaches’ evaluations and was forced out of the competition.
O’Neil was in, but in his first fight he was submitted by Zach Davis. He was on the outs again, but he would get another chance when he was brought back for the Wild Card fight. This time he made his opportunity count with a second round submission of Javier Torres. Next were the quarterfinals, but after an impressive decision win over his previous conqueror, Davis, his joy was tempered when it was revealed that his opponent tore the retina in both his eyes, basically ending his fight career. That sobering fact hit the 25-year old O’Neil hard.
“We’re not in a patty cake sport,” he said. “You’re putting your health on the line every time you step into that cage or even anytime you step into the training room. And the light really comes into your eyes when you see it from a different perspective, knowing that this could be taken away from you at any moment. And having Zach’s opportunity taken away from him was just horrible. I was really concerned about him afterward, and I felt awful. He’s a great guy, an awesome competitor and tough as hell. And to hear that he’s never gonna be able to fight again just crushed me.”
O’Neil would fight on though, only to get stopped by Tony Ferguson in the semifinals. But despite the loss, “Cold Steel” made an impression on viewers and on UFC President Dana White as a scrappy fighter whose toughness could cover a multitude of technical sins.
“I think Dana put it best when he said that I didn’t have the best skills in the world, but I was one of the toughest guys there,” said O’Neil. “And that’s what it is. In the New England area we may not be the most skilled guys, but we’re really tough, and you can only hold us down for so long before we’re gonna rise to the top.”
Since the show, O’Neil has been working with trainers Mark DellaGrotte and Jimmy Quinlan and training partners like featherweight contender Josh Grispi to make sure that when he shows up in Las Vegas to take on castmate Chris Cope this Saturday, he’s not the same fighter people have been watching on Spike TV for the last 10 weeks.
“I never had the best jiu-jitsu,” said O’Neil, who nonetheless has submitted five of the eight men he’s beaten. “I had decent jiu-jitsu and a couple of moves that worked well, but I’ve been really starting to work on my jiu-jitsu and wrestling a lot and putting in extra time with DellaGrotte at Sityodtong and working a lot of mitts and gameplan stuff, so I definitely feel I’ve evolved a lot as a fighter, but I still have a long way to go before I reach my full potential, and it’s gonna be great when I do, but I’m having fun along the way.”
And hey, if the jiu-jitsu or wrestling stuff doesn’t work, tough never hurts, and Chuck O’Neil has got plenty of that in reserve.
“As corny as it sounds, I found within myself what was gonna make me happy in life at a very young age,” he said. “With that, I learned my limitations and how to control my body and push myself forward through a lot of hard situations. I’ve seen a lot of crap in my life and it helps me push on through it. You can’t feel sorry for yourself, you gotta keep pushing hard, and I was blessed with an opportunity and I wasn’t gonna let anyone take it away from me. I go out there and fight, and I don’t give up.”