Ryan LaFlare could have walked away from life as a professional mixed martial artist.
After beginning his career with six straight wins under the Ring of Combat banner, his promising start came to an abrupt halt as a combination of injuries led to the Long Island native enduring a two-and-a-half year hiatus.
But for a man who always felt like he had unfinished business when it came to his athletic endeavors, quitting wasn’t an option.
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Over the years, athletes from various backgrounds have made the transition to MMA.
From collegiate wrestlers and traditional martial artists to NFL defensive linemen and former hockey enforcers, there has been a steady stream of competitors from other sports opting to wrap their hands and test their mettle inside the cage.
After an injury brought his collegiate wrestling career to a halt, LaFlare followed his older brother and cousin onto the lacrosse field, where he enjoyed a successful career, even if he downplays his own abilities and accomplishments.
“My family is a long line of lacrosse players,” offers the UFC welterweight. “My cousin A.J. (Hogan) was a three-time All-American at Johns Hopkins. My brother George was one of those God-given talent kids that didn’t have to practice on his own because he was so good.
“I was the type of kid that got a bucket of balls, went to the field, and shot as many times as I could until my arm was dead. When I was done with that, I’d run a couple miles to make sure that my legs never gave up. Obviously, I like being a physical guy, so I’d just run people over if I had the ball on my stick.”
By the time his career at Div. III Farmingdale State College was over, LaFlare departed as the school’s all-time leading scorer and an honorable mention All-American.
“I wanted to be an All-American, and I was just shy of being an All-American,” he says of his collegiate lacrosse days. “I talked to a couple people about maybe trying out for the Long Island Lizards (of Major League Lacrosse) because I felt like I had some unfinished business.
“The same with wrestling - I was an All-County guy, which is above average, but it wasn’t the elite class that I wanted to be in. I felt like I had unfinished business with both, and after college, I was like, `I want to fight’ and devoted my life to it.
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Six fights. Six wins. Six finishes.
Propelled by his natural athletic ability, collegiate wrestling experience and a non-stop motor, the Lindenhurst, New York native charged out of the gate, going from neophyte to regional champion in the span of two years.
But his aggressive approach and hectic schedule caught up with him. He blew out his ACL and was forced to have reconstructive wrist surgery. What was supposed to be a short break to allow nagging injuries to heal turned into a 31-month hiatus. Throughout it all, however, the unbeaten welterweight never considered giving up.
“Even though I was out for almost three years, I never walked away from the sport. I was never like, `Ah, I don’t want to fight anymore.’ I was constantly studying the game, doing whatever I could to learn.
“If my right knee was hurt, I was doing things with my upper body. If my wrist was hurt, I was working out my legs. I was coaching, I was working for CompuStrike, I went to these fights - I was involved with the MMA game, and I think part of that is how I developed as a fighter. I got to take a look at the sport from the outside in instead of just going out there with that Long Island attitude, trying to kick everybody’s butt. I got to study the sport and settle in, start to really understand what it takes to be a champ.
“To be honest, I don’t even know where my mindset was before I was hurt because I was hurt for so long,” he says with a laugh. “I just remember that the way I thought of fighting, I took it personally - every fight I had to find a reason to hate the guy. If you watch my earlier fights, I was this crazy guy on a rampage trying to kill everybody - not worrying about my technique, just trying to knock everybody out or submit them right away.
“Obviously, after I was hurt, it’s a rollercoaster - everything goes through your head. You’re watching other guys that you were beating up get better, coming up in the ranks while you’re at a standstill, so you have no choice but to suck it in and take an outside look.”
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A little more than a year after returning to the cage, LaFlare stands on the precipice of contention in the UFC welterweight division, having added four victories to his resume in 2013 to push his winning streak to double digits.
In addition to emerging as a dark horse in the deep and talented 170-pound ranks, the former lacrosse player is also part of a group of fighters from the Long Island area making waves on the biggest stage in the sport, a cast led by middleweight champion Chris Weidman.
“The funny thing is that we’ve all known each other for so long,” says LaFlare of his fellow Long Islanders. “Me and Al Iaquinta go back seven, eight years - doing amateur fights together. I’ve known the guy since before he was training at Matt Serra’s gym. We would fight together on some local cards. I went to college with Chris Weidman. Me and Gian Villante - I watched him hit mitts for the first time. All these guys, we’ve all known each other for so long, helping each other, and watching each other get better.”
In addition to sharing a geographical connection, the group all carry themselves with the same quiet confidence and minimal interest in self-promotion. Where some fighters are quick to call out others or sing their own praises whenever the opportunity presents itself, LaFlare is content to handle his business in the cage and allow the UFC to tell him what comes next.
“As long as I keep winning fights, I’ll get the recognition that I deserve,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone reminiscent of the middleweight champion. “I’ve got to keep getting better, keep learning - the second you stop learning is the second you start slipping.
“I don’t feel like I need to be the loudmouth calling people out to get the respect of everybody - I think if I keep going out there, getting better, and beating everybody, the respect will come.”
“A couple of these fights I just took I was the underdog - nobody thought I had a chance against these guys, but I believe I can win and my teammates believe I can win, and that’s all that matters. I don’t care what anybody else thinks. If you start letting the media get in your head, you’re defeated before the fight even starts.”
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To date, not even the media has been able to defeat LaFlare.
After returning from his injury-induced hiatus with a third-round win in January 2013, the former Ring of Combat welterweight champion was tabbed to take on Ben Alloway in his UFC debut last April in Stockholm, Sweden. Seven months later, he was jettisoned to Goiania, Brazil, where he collected a unanimous decision win over Ultimate Fighter: Brazil finalist Santiago Ponzinibbio.
Five weeks later, he was back in the cage, grinding out a victory over Court McGee in Sacramento to push his record to a perfect 10-0. For a guy that started his career with seven consecutive fights in Atlantic City, LaFlare’s first three appearances in the Octagon have provided ample travel opportunities.
That trend will continue with his fourth bout under the UFC banner, as he ventures to Abu Dhabi to take on John Howard on the main card of the UFC Fight Night event set to take place at Yas Island on Friday, April 11.
“It’s funny because my manager said, `Hey, we’re going to get a fight for you in April. It’s looking like either Orlando or Baltimore - those are the two fights that are late in April.’ I was really looking forward to fighting on the East Coast. Regardless of if I’m flying or driving from New York or Florida, it’s a three-hour flight or a three-hour drive however you look at it.
“I was really excited, telling all my friends and family, `Hey, I’m getting a fight real close to home,’ and then he calls me and says, `Your fight’s booked. You’re getting John Howard’ - which was one of the fights I had asked for - `and it’s in Abu Dhabi.’
“I don’t know if the UFC hates me or what it is,” he laughs, “but I’m actually looking forward to it. At first I was a little bummed that it wasn’t close, but now I’m like, `When else am I going to get a chance to go to Abu Dhabi?’ I’m real excited to go check it out and show everybody what I’m about.”
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Though he’s Long Island through and through, LaFlare has prepared for his showdown with Howard in South Florida with The Blackzilians.
Represented by Glenn Robinson of Authentic Sports Management, the man behind the establishment of the Boca Raton, Florida-based fight team, LaFlare has spent his previous fight camps supplementing his training at Bellmore Kickboxing with trips to the Jaco Hybrid Training Center to work alongside the likes of Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, and countless other elite competitors.
This time around, he’s spent his entire camp in the Sunshine State.
“I talked to my manager, I talked to Keith (Trimble, the head coach at Bellmore), and we all came to the decision that if I want to train and be the best in the world - and I do want to be the best in the world - I need a lot more training partners and guys my size that are going to push me.
“I’ve been with Keith (Trimble) and Gregg DePasquale for the past seven years - I feel like I’ve learned everything I know from them, but you almost get too comfortable training with the same guys you’re with. I come down here and at first it stinks because you’re fresh meat to them - everybody likes beating you up - but in the long run, you’re gaining a lot more because you’re learning every day.
“You’ve got the world’s best coaches,” he continues. “Henri Hooft is a world famous Dutch kickboxing coach, (wrestling coach) Kenny Monday was an Olympic gold medalist, and Jorge Santiago, who I’ve been working my jiu-jitsu with, and even Jake Bonacci, who’s the strength and conditioning coach down here - there’s not much to complain about.”
That includes his matchup with Howard, whom LaFlare and his team had targeted as a possible opponent following his latest victory.
“It’s not even that I called him out, I just figured that was a matchup they were going to give me and I like it,” clarified LaFlare. “He was the Ring of Combat champion right before me. He had to give up his belt because he went to the UFC and I took the belt, so I’ve been following his career since he left Ring of Combat.
“Besides that, I noticed he was on a streak - he won two big fights, beating Uriah Hall and Siyar (Bahadurzada), who trains with us at The Blackzilians. He’s shorter, so I can use my range, and we can decide who the real Northeast champion is.”
With a fight in Abu Dhabi, naturally.
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While some fighters are in a rush to reach the top of their weight class, the 30-year-old LaFlare is content to follow the path the UFC charts for him.
Having fallen short of his personal goals on the wrestling mats and lacrosse field, and after battling back from a string of injuries that would have halted the careers of many others, the unbeaten welterweight would prefer to keep improving and make sure he’s able to reach the goals he’s set out for himself inside the cage whenever his time comes.
“Say I ask for a title shot and tomorrow I go, but maybe I wasn’t exactly where I thought I was? Then I have to take a big step back, refine my skills, refocus myself and I’m stuck in limbo.
“Once you’re at the top, there’s really not that much room for you to improve - you either sink or swim - and I feel like I always want to keep improving. I don’t think I’m at my max potential. I think I can still get better and I want to keep testing myself and see where I am.
“I’m going to let the UFC decide where they think I belong - I just want to keep getting better.”
LaFlare on the Long Road to the Top
"As long as I keep winning fights, I’ll get the recognition that I deserve. I’ve got to keep getting better, keep learning - the second you stop learning is the second you start slipping." - Ryan LaFlare