In the fight game, you take any advantage you can get: physical, psychological, whatever it takes. Sydney’s Richie Vaculik basically went in the other direction when trying out for the first season of The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes series in 2012, giving up any advantage he had to get a shot at a UFC contract by signing up as a lightweight competitor on the reality series.
Vaculik is a career-long bantamweight.
“It was too good of an opportunity not to take on,” he explains. “It’s always been a dream of mine to compete in the UFC, and I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned, so I applied for it, selected lightweight, went through the audition process, and got lucky and was chosen.”
Only a real fighter will call himself lucky while knowing that he had six weeks of training and fighting with monsters ahead of him, separated from family, friends, and the outside world as part of the deal. And as his custom, Vaculik tried to look at the bright side.
“I was one of the lucky ones that didn’t have to cut weight in the house, which was a bit of a bonus,” he laughs. “But then of course when you step into the cage and the guy has 15 to 25 pounds on you, it’s a little tough. But that’s no excuse because I still think I could have beat both my opponents; I just made a few mistakes and they capitalized.”
Representing his native Australia against Team UK, Vaculik lost his first bout in the competition to eventual winner Norman Parke. An injury to Team UK’s Mike Wilkinson brought him back to the semifinals, but his second stab at glory came up short when he was submitted by Colin Fletcher.
“It was extremely tough,” said Vaculik of the TUF experience. “I didn’t realize how tough it would be, being away from my loved ones and my family and living in a house with your opponents and having no escape. All you saw was the gym and the house for six weeks. I love to surf and spend time on the beach. It’s a great escape from fighting and a great way to come back to the gym refreshed and excited about fighting, and that was all taken away from me. So it was a massive learning experience as a fighter and as a person and something I was really grateful for. I’m very proud to have been there and done it, and I feel like I left the place a better person for it. I knew it was a gamble going in there as a lightweight and giving that weight away, but I still believe I could have won it. I was a little disappointed in my performances.”
Vaculik, 9-1 entering the house, did impress with his heart and tenacity, but once the show was over, a UFC contract wasn’t on his doorstep.
“After I left I was hoping to get signed back down at my weight by the UFC, but the roster was so stacked at that moment that it was just best to go out and get some fights at bantamweight or flyweight and try to stick with it,” said Vaculik, who stayed busy in a bit of an unconventional manner, fighting at home for the Combat 8 promotion that uses modified rules of three minute rounds and only 30 seconds of groundfighting allowed per round. Vaculik won the organization’s championship at bantamweight, competed in jiu-jitsu tournaments, took part in another reality series, The Crew, and even though he was fielding offers from other MMA promotions, he still had his heart set on getting a call from the UFC.
“I’ve tried to stay busy and I did that, fighting in a promotion that had modified rules,” he said. “I won the bantamweight title in that promotion and then I was in talks with promotions throughout Asia, and I just wanted to stay active. That was the main thing, but it was getting quite hard to stay active here in Australia. A few promotions went under. But then I got a call from the UFC so I was over the moon.”
So what is it about those three letters – UFC – that meant so much to the 30-year-old Vaculik?
“It’s the biggest and best promotion of mixed martial arts in the world,” he said. “If you’re a serious MMA fighter and you want to prove yourself and test yourself with the world’s best, the UFC is the only place to do it. They’re head and shoulders above any other promotion. I had a taste of it being in the Smashes, and I did wonder what it would be like to fight in the UFC, so I never lost sight of it.”
On Friday (Saturday in Australia), Vaculik gets his shot at 125 pounds against fellow newcomer Justin Scoggins.
“He’s a really exciting fighter,” said Vaculik. “He’s a very creative striker, he loves to move and he’s pretty evasive. He brings a whole different bunch of skills that are unique in mixed martial arts, and I’ve been working with particular guys to replicate what he’s really good at. I’m just really excited to get in there and mix it up with someone as exciting as Justin. These are the kind of fights that I really chomp at the bit for.”
Then again, you get the idea that Vaculik would be amped up for any fight in the Octagon, especially since being in the UFC was as far-fetched a notion as an Aussie fighter could have back when he turned pro in 2006.
“In the early days when I started, the UFC was just a dream because they didn’t have my weight class and it wasn’t active in this part of the world,” he said. “Then things changed and all of a sudden they added the weight classes and they started to do shows in Oz, and the possibilities started to become reality, and that’s when that excitement just grew.”
Now it’s reached a fever pitch for “Vas,” who gets that rarest of opportunities shortly: to fulfill one dream and start another.
“It’s like a new beginning.”
Richie Vaculik's New Beginning
"If you’re a serious MMA fighter and you want to prove yourself and test yourself with the world’s best, the UFC is the only place to do it." - Richie Vaculik