There's no time like the present.
The old adage is especially true for Ryan LaFlare, who is on a hot streak since sitting on the sidelines for two years due to injuries. Now, LaFlare is ready to return to the UFC’s cage just about a month after exiting it with his hand raised.
Until earlier this year, the undefeated welterweight from Lindenhurst, New York had been on an unwanted sabbatical from MMA since June 2010. The emerging Long Island talent signed with Strikeforce, but missed his opportunity to debut because of torn ligaments. Thankfully, LaFlare’s story has an upswing, as he returned to the cage in January with a win, made a successful first trip into the Octagon in April, and looked quite formidable in his unanimous decision win over Santiago Ponzinibbio in early November.
“It's the first time I've been healthy for a long time,” tells LaFlare. “I've been plagued with injuries for my whole career. I actually felt 100% going into this camp. I got full sparring in and all my strength training in. Regardless of whatever people are saying about me, I knew what I was going to do in the fight. It was the most confident I've ever felt going into a fight.”
The 30-year-old who wrestled in high school and at Nassau Community College before shifting his athletic focus to lacrosse at Farmingdale State College has an impressive 9-0 pro record and, suddenly, is 2-0 inside the Octagon. At UFC Fight Night, LaFlare traveled to Brazil to take on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 2 alum Ponzinibbio and proceeded to outwork his opponent on his way to a 30-27 across the board victory. It was all about production, as LaFlare threw over 200 strikes, shot for 10 takedowns, and passed/reversed Ponzinibbio at will on the ground. Nevertheless, getting the obvious decision win wasn’t enough for LaFlare, who wanted to show fight fans his finishing ability.
“Right afterward, I wasn't crazy about it,” remembers LaFlare. “[Henri Hooft, Blackzilians’ striking coach] was in my corner and said, 'Hey, you're not happy? Why aren't you smiling?' I was like, I don't know. I wanted to finish him. I felt like I let him hit me more times than I wanted to get hit. But the one good thing about not being satisfied with your performance is you have to be obsessed with getting better. That's what I'm going to do. I have to keep working on keeping my hands up, throwing straight punches, and don't get discouraged when the guy lands a couple. Hang out, cover up, and come back.”
What was quite apparent in the bout is that LaFlare’s got cardio for days. Whether he’s tearing up the mats in his own gym Long Island MMA or visiting Florida to train with the Blackzilians, LaFlare is pushing the pedal to the metal using a non-stop offense as his best defense. LaFlare credits his all-adrenaline sparring sessions with fellow Strong Islander and UFC featherweight Dennis Bermudez for keeping his gas tank full.
“I train with Dennis Bermudez and you know his pace,” states LaFlare. “We're like the same person. If you watch the two of us train together, even though I'm two weight classes above him, it's crazy. You could probably videotape it and sell it. That's how we train and if I'm not training like that then I feel like I'm having an off day. That's just the way I am. That's just how I was brought up. That's how I used to wrestle, that's how I used to play lacrosse. Everybody I train with, everybody at the Blackzilians will tell you, I have one speed and that's full speed.”
“Full speed” is also how LaFlare is treating his UFC career as he defeated Ponzinibbio on November 9th and signed up a few days later to fight Court McGee in a little over a month’s time at UFC on FOX on December 14th. What was scheduled to be a battle between The Ultimate Fighter winners, season 11 winner McGee was set to tangle with season 17 winner Kelvin Gastelum, but the latter needed to be replaced due to a knee injury. As mentioned, with LaFlare’s own injury problems hopefully behind him, coupled with being currently healthy and on a winning streak, it was a no-brainer for LaFlare to enter the Octagon one more time in 2013 against his highest profile challenge yet.
“I got home on Monday and I got a call on Tuesday,” says LaFlare. “They said they needed a favor, they needed somebody to fill in for [Kelvin Gastelum]. I thought about it for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, I said let me call you back. I said to myself why wouldn't I take this fight? My weight's good, I'm in shape, I have a couple of bumps and bruises, but nothing that's agonizing or crazy. So I said I would jump in and take the fight. I'm where I wanted to be my whole career. I'm in the UFC and, not only that, I want to be a force to be reckoned with. Everybody who says they want to be champ, you need to have short-term goals first and then long-term goals later. I wanted to be in the UFC, I wanted to be active, and I wanted to be known as one of the top fighters.”
Up next for LaFlare is a Sacramento showdown with “The Crusher” McGee. At 16-3, McGee has found new life since dropping from middleweight to welterweight by rattling off back-to-back decision wins this year against the gritty Josh Neer and TUF: Smashes winner Robert Whittaker. The Pit product, who is based in Orem, Utah, is one of the most productive fighters inside the Octagon throwing well over 300 strikes in each of his last three fights alone. “The Crusher” is notable for his cardio, offensive onslaught, and durability.
“Court's record speaks for itself,” reveals LaFlare. “It's not like he's just fought against young guys, he's fighting top level guys. I think he's a really top level competitor and I think I'm a top level competitor too. Where his strengths are, that's where my strengths are too. If you don't have confidence in this sport then I don't think you belong in this sport. I think we do make a good fight. This is the type of fight I've been waiting for: a big name with the same type of strengths that I have. I think it's going to work out in my favor.”
Taking the McGee melee on short notice, LaFlare will be staying close to home and not making the pilgrimage to Florida to train with the Blackzilians, which he has done five times already. LaFlare will rely on the UFC talent in his own gym like Dennis Bermudez, Gian Villante, and, specifically, Costa Philippou, who defeated McGee via decision in March of 2012. The 12,000 square foot facility of Long Island MMA is a joint venture between LaFlare and his head coach BJJ black belt Gregg DePasquale. As for striking on the island, LaFlare has trusted his hands and feet since the beginning with Bellmore Kickboxing’s Keith Trimble, a union that has resulted in him earning four of his seven finishes wins by KO/TKO.
“I like finishing fighters,” affirms LaFlare. “If you've watched any of my fights from earlier in my career, obviously I wasn't fighting the same caliber of opposition, but I like finishing fights. I don't like going to decisions. I want to knock the guy out or submit him. I feel like until I started doing that in the UFC, I'm not going to be satisfied.”
This Saturday in Sacramento, California, welterweights will war as two cardio machines in McGee and LaFlare collide in an attempt to cement their place in the division. “Court doesn't go down without a fight and neither do I - I know it's going to be a good fight,” asserts LaFlare, who is ready to seize what’s offered with a healthy body and confident mind. “I've passed up too many opportunities to pass up any opportunities now. I'm in good shape, so I don't see any reason to turn down fights. Obviously, it's been a good year and I think 2014 will be an even better year.”