Drago: People go into a fight with how they grew up
This is number eighty-six in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature UFC and TUF 4 veteran, Pete Sell. Sell, like his good friend and teammate Matt Serra, is a likeable and tough guy from Long Island who was part of some memorable fights in the UFC. It has been a few years since “Drago” last fought in the UFC, but he is still an active fighter who plans to fight again in the future. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Pete Sell: As a kid my father put me in Hwa Rang Do or something like that. You’re breaking the boards and doing this and that. I did that for a little bit and then I got out of it. Then as a teenager, I was doing Tae Kwon Do for a couple of years. These guys from Renzo’s in the city, there were some white belts from over there, they came into our school and they were friends with the owner. They came in to do a challenge match type of thing. It was friendly. It was cool. You could punch, kick, do whatever you want, and they said that they wouldn’t hit you back. So they’d end up taking you down and putting you in a submission. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, what the hell a triangle was. At that time, nobody knew anything. So I was like, “Wow! This stuff is great!” So I was like seventeen and I ended up training with Matt and Nick Serra and Rodrigo Gracie at Long Island Academy. I was doing it like once a week, and then after a few months, I started competing at grappling tournaments. I was just having fun doing it. I told them that I wanted to fight one day, and then a couple of years down the line, I was doing it.
JB: So is that where you first met Matt Serra? It was at Jiu-jitsu? What do you think it was that made you really click with him?
PS: Yeah. At that time, I was maybe a senior in high school and I was just a kid to them. They were like men. I’ve always looked at Matt as kind of like my big brother. I was always going through a lot with my friends and living that stupid kind of life with drugs and everything before I met Matt and Nick and them. I just really didn’t care about life at all before that. My friends and I were always being retards and doing a lot of stupid stuff, getting in fights and bad situations. I kind of just gravitated towards Matt because he had been through a lot of stuff growing up too. We just clicked on whatever level. He eventually introduced me to Longo, and the rest is history. Papa Longo has always been awesome. I’ve always looked to Matt and Ray for advice. They are not just funny bastards together. They are also like mentors to me.
I’ve really been with those guys since the beginning. I met Matt when he was a brown belt in Jiu-jitsu, and he was fighting on local shows. I thought it was cool he was fighting. I’d go to his fights and watch. I remember at his fight when he fought Shonie Carter in the UFC, I went nuts. I remember being with a couple of my boys and pumped my buddy is going to be on pay-per-view and this and that. Obviously the fight didn’t go his way, but I was there for him and I was just so proud of him for making it to that level.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fight, a decision win back in 2002, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
PS: I remember it was against this guy that was a last-minute replacement that was like 5-1-1. I had no fights so I wanted to get a guy that maybe had one or two fights or no fights, but I ended up fighting this guy when the original guy got injured or whatever. I won a decision, but I almost tapped him a couple times. I wrestled one year in school, but I was never a wrestler or anything like that, so in that fight I actually jumped guard and swept the guy. That’s how far back this was. I used my Jiu-jitsu. I had very good Jiu-jitsu. The Serra Brothers and Rodrigo had made me good. And every time I went to Renzo’s, everybody chipped in. It was awesome.
JB: Before debuting in the UFC, you were an undefeated 5-0 with all your fights taking place locally in the New York/New Jersey area. Then you made your victorious UFC debut by bursting on the scene with a submission victory over veteran, Phil Baroni, at UFC 51, in Las Vegas. What was that debut like, fighting the NYBA, on the big stage of the UFC, in the fight capital of the world?
PS: I tell everybody, “Anything you want to do in life, you can do.” If you asked me years ago if I was going to do half the s—- that I’ve done in the UFC and at that high a level, I couldn’t have called it. You kind of just go with the flow. I remember at the time that they asked a few other guys to fight Phil and I was like the third or fourth string guy that they asked. I thought they were f—-ing with me. I was thinking I needed more experience before I made it to the big show. I wanted to be conditioned first and be ready to go and kill everybody. With five fights at the time, I don’t know if I was that ready for that big of a show, especially against a big name. Phil was killing guys at the time. But I was like, “All right.” Ray and Matt believed in me so I listened to them and ran with them. They kept me going.
I remember all Phil’s s—–talking at the time. You know how he was. It was kind of a nice thing to have that because I was able to play the humble one while he was running his mouth. It couldn’t have gone any better. At that time, I was a Jiu-jitsu guy and I ended up choking him out in the end. It was definitely a good feeling. It was surreal. I didn’t believe that it had happened. What a good feeling, you know?
JB: In your next fight, you lost to the tough Nate Quarry. How did you react to your first professional loss?
PS: Up until that fight I was having fun with fighting, but then I started dealing with the media and everybody talking and this and that. They’d say, “You better keep winning those fights.” I remember one guy said to me one time, “They like you now, but you better keep winning those fights.” People put all this crap in your head and it makes you nuts. So I went out there and I wanted to prove something. I feel like I put more pressure on myself to prove something that time than I had in my debut. It was a weird thing. That’s where my head was at then and never thought like that before.
But it was like I never got an ending in that fight. He hit me with that reverse power jab or whatever, and it was a flash knockdown. The ref stopped it, but I got up right away and I was good. I don’t want to bitch about nothing, but it was definitely heartbreaking. Everything I had worked so hard for, and then to have that happen, it was hard.
I remember going into that fight like I wanted to prove something. I wanted to knock out Quarry brutally. I was going to come at him and I was going to go hard. That was my game-plan. But by doing that, I wasn’t sticking to what I normally was working on. Because I kept charging and charging him, I put myself in danger. Now fans always tell me I had some “barn burners” because of fights like that. I didn’t play the safe route, but it sucks that I lost some fights that I could have won. It is what it is. That’s the fight game.
JB: You got another shot in the UFC via the awesome season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter, the comeback season. How did you like doing the show and being there with Serra?
PS: It’s funny. I remember that at that time I think I was set to actually fight Joe Riggs. I think it was when Buentello fought Arlovski at Mohegan Sun. I was sparring and threw a punch, but I got taken down with a single-leg and the meniscus in my knee tore. It was only a couple weeks before the fight so I had to pull out. I rehabbed that and then defended my Ring of Combat title months later. I fought on a Friday, and then maybe that Saturday or Sunday, I went with Matt to the auditions to TUF 4. So it was like one thing after the other. They liked me at the auditions, and then things took off from there.
I thought it was cool. I had Matty there so I had one of my boys to hang out with. I thought it was great. Of course he’s a character. He’s a funny dude to be around, especially when you’re in a house where you can’t listen to music and there’s nothing really to do. It got boring at times and you’d go a little stir crazy. But you’re there for one reason. I’d go back and do it again tomorrow. It was a great time. It was a vacation. You got whatever food you wanted, you trained every day, you didn’t have to worry about calling anybody back. It was a good thing.
JB: Not long after that Serra, of course, won the belt. Then you, Longo, and he ended up coaching season 6 of TUF. How was Serra’s upset victory from your perspective and how did that second TUF experience compare to your first?
PS: I was backstage because I had actually fought that night on the prelim card. I lost a decision to Thales Leites. I had some battles with him with Jiu-jitsu, going back and forth, and I’m telling you, one of those guillotines I had in the third round was so close. It was a hair away. Imagine that, if I had choked out that guy with how good his Jiu-Jitsu is. But I had a rough night and you could see that my face was all beat up on TV. So I was upset about losing the fight, but I was real happy when Matt won. He was kind of getting a bad rap from fans in the UFC. He wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved. Then he finally knocked out GSP, and he got his glory moment. No matter what anybody says, at one point, he was the best in the world.
With season 6, having been on the show, I kind of knew what they were dealing with already. I knew how some guys may be feeling about certain things. It was easy for us to just be on the camera for a little bit, get out of there, and then bounce back. It was kind of nice. It was like another vacation. I was there sparring with everybody and training with everybody. It was definitely a good experience. It was also good from a coaching and cornering point of view. I’m not going to mention any names, but you got to see some guys who get goofy or some guys that are almost crying in the back or some guys that are getting angry. Everybody goes into the fight with how they grew up and everything. We’re all human beings and everybody reacts to the fight in a different way. There are guys that are nervous as s—- out there beforehand and they perform better than everybody. Then there are guys that are cool as a cucumber and they do horrible. You know what I’m saying? You never know. I just saw all different aspects of the game from a different point of view.
JB: Your last fight in the UFC was at UFC 96, and though you lost more than you won in the promotion, you never had an opponent that was below average by UFC standards. You went from Baroni, to Nate Quarry, Scott Smith, Thales Leites, Quarry again, Josh Burkman, and then Matt Brown. Of those fights, what were your most satisfying performances?
PS: Baroni was my defining moment because it was when I made my name and everything. But one thing I’ll say is that I went out on my shield every time with my fights. I might not have taken the safest route. Other fighters might think it’s stupid, but I always had the balls, no matter what the situation. If you look at the Scott Smith fight, for example, that’s a fight I should have won. The second Quarry fight, that’s a fight I should have won. But I went in on Scott Smith and I was going to hit him with a haymaker uppercut and I was going to knock him back into the cage. It was going to be insane. But I could have just put my hands up and walked away and it would have been done. I didn’t have to do anything. But I was trying to make my mark. I was going for it. I just made some mistakes on the way. Even with the Quarry second fight, I was winning that fight hands down. I was beating him to the punch. I dropped him. I feel like there were a lot of things I could have done. I could have taken him down. I could have used my jab. But I said, “Screw that. I want to knock him out. I don’t want a decision. I want an ending. That’s it. I want to make sure I get him.” So I was going after him and I was going for the kill. Other guys, if they know that they have it in the bag, they play the jab game or the takedown game or whatever the safest route is for them to go. It may not be the most exciting for the fans, but they get the “W.” They go home with the paycheck and get closer to a title-run with a bigger fight. I look back on it now, and it’s like “Ah, man, maybe I should have played it a little safer.” But everything in life is always 20-20 in hindsight, like they always say.
If you really think about it too, imagine if I had won those fights. They were so close. If I won the Scott Smith fight, what fight would I have gotten after that? If you look at some of the guys I fought, Travis Lutter fought for the title, Nate Quarry fought for the title, Thales Leites fought for the title. I was always a fight or two away from getting to a top spot. I guess Matt had his defining moment with GSP, and I feel like I never had that in the UFC. It drives you nuts sometimes, but what can you do? It’s a crazy f—ing game, you know?
JB: Since the UFC, you’ve had three more fights in Ring of Combat. You last fought at Ring of Combat 39, in February 2012, and won via decision. What has been going on with you since then, and what’s next in your fighting career?
PS: I guess you look back on things and you think, “Maybe I should have saved some money.” Even when I was fighting, I didn’t make a killing, but I was getting by. I was living off it and I was able to chill and do what I wanted and not have to work ten jobs. I was kind of living like a cowboy or something. I had rent to pay so I needed a fight. Then I had the fight, paid the rent, and then there was another bill so I got another fight. I lived like that for so many years. I’m actually going to be thirty-one this week. So it’s coming up. But it’s like, f— man, I just got to get my s—- in order. Life catches up to you. I teach at Matt Serra’s school in Huntington and I teach at Ray Longo’s in Garden City. I do private lessons and personal training too. I’m still a part of the game and I still love being around fighting. I still spar. It’s in my blood. I love it. I love the competition. I love the fights. I love what it’s about. But it kills me right now that I don’t have the time. Even trying to do this interview with you, I was retarded. I’m gone all day. I literally just sat down to eat maybe twenty minutes before I started talking to you. That was my dinner. I have just been going, going all the time. This has just been how it is for the past four or five months. But I’m going to get myself together and nothing is going to stop me from getting what I want.
Definitely I feel like I’m not done with fighting. I don’t have a game-plan right now. I have to get my stuff situated first and then get back to that. I have a lot going on. I have a great girlfriend, Ashley, and I have some other good things going for me. I got a lot of good people around me – Matt Serra, Ray Longo, Nick Serra, all my boys, and Abe at Lifetime Chimney Supply. I can’t say that everything is bad, but I definitely have lots of rocks unturned. I still want to fight. I still want to make my mark and do my thing. For s—-s and giggles I’ve even dabbled with some of the acting stuff that I’ve done over the years. I know a couple of guys that do some of that stuff, and I have fun with that too.
I’m focused right now on getting things together. Once I have the time, I’m going to get back to fighting. I still have some f—ing anger in me. I still can kick somebody’s f—ing a–. I get fired up in the gym. I’m the happiest when I’m there. When I’m not there, I’m not happy. I’m like a grumpy old bastard. But at the end of the day, it’s all good. I appreciate it all, and I want to thank Eric Hyer and Jamal Hamid for their help. And at our gym we got the new UFC middleweight champion, Chris Weidman! What a great guy. We got Al Iaquinta about to make his mark too. We have so many up-and-coming fighters that it is an honor if I can help them with anything. It’s exciting to be part of such a great thing with such great people.
JB: Last question, Pete, and thanks for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter, and how much do you enjoy it?
PS: I don’t think there’s a better job. You get to kick peoples’ a—es and you get paid for it. Are you kidding me? Who’s better than fighters? They got the world by the balls. There’s nothing better than that. I really feel that the fight game is such a high. It’s one of those highs that you don’t want to let go. There’s nothing that will replace that adrenaline rush and the nerves that you get leading up to a fight. There’s nothing better than having that feeling and having that gusto. At the same time it’s also a gamble. You train you’re a—off and you prepare the best you can for a fight, but it might go your way. It might not. You don’t know. That’s what makes the nerves. What a great feeling, you know?
Go to personalmmatraining.com/ for info on personal training with Pete.
Thank you so much for reading and please follow Jack Brown on Twitter.
Visit JackJohnBrownMMA on Facebook for links to all of Jack’s past interviews. Previous interviews include: Dan Hardy, Rose Namajunas, Joe Lauzon, War Machine, Tom Lawlor, Bas Rutten, Chris Leben, Phil Baroni, Julie Kedzie, Michael Bisping, Duane Ludwig, Sara McMann, Matt Lindland, Duke Roufus, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Dan Severn, Nate Quarry, Ken Shamrock, Matt Serra, Jeremy Horn, Ray Longo, Kevin Randleman, Dennis Hallman, and dozens more.