Over three and a half years ago, a scrappy kid from Massachusetts was fighting for the chance of a lifetime. Some of the country’s best unsigned welterweight and middleweight fighters were vying to be featured alongside coaches Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos on the 13th edition of the UFC’s acclaimed reality series The Ultimate Fighter. However, with so much talent on the season, the scrappy kid didn’t quite make the cut.
For some fighters, that might have been the end of the story. They’d go back to plying their trade on smaller shows while waiting for the next big break. Not that scrappy kid, though. He was selected as an alternate. If something went awry with one of the cast members, then he would get his shot.
Chuck O’Neil’s chance came when TUF 13 cast member Myles Jury sustained an injury. O’Neil, that scrappy kid, entered the show as a replacement. He lost his first fight, but he was afforded a second chance when he was chosen for the wild card spot. Fate wanted him to be featured on this season, that’s for sure.
Although he did not come away with the TUF crown, O’Neil still got his shot at a fight inside the famed Octagon once the TUF season came to a close. It didn’t go well, though, with O’Neil suffering a decision loss at the finale. It was “one-and-done” for O’Neil. It’s never easy to find a new home, but after compiling a 1-1 record post-TUF which included a victory over UFC veteran Marcus Davis, O’Neil settled into CES MMA, where he is now the reigning welterweight champion.
The fights are close to home, and his championship run under the CES MMA banner has given O’Neil a whole new air of confidence. Life after the UFC isn’t all that bad. CES MMA has shown precisely that to O’Neil.
“It was awesome. Pat Sullivan was very professional when he approached me and always has been very professional, and I’ve found my home here,” O’Neil told Combat Press. “I have big plans of getting back into the UFC, and CES is supporting me every step of the way. I’m very proud to be their champion. To beat Ricardo [Funch], especially in the fashion that I did, just made it that much better.”
The road to TUF was a long one, to say the least. While O’Neil did make his debut as a fighter at an early age — he was just 20 when he fought Earl Bauer in 2006 — it wasn’t because he had excelled at any particular combat sport beforehand. He simply saw an opportunity to get involved in something that he thought looked “cool.” From there, his love affair with mixed martial arts was born.
“I always wanted to find a way to challenge myself. I loved pro wrestling and, when I saw the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, I was amazed,” O’Neil said. “It was a great way to get in shape and challenge myself. I had my first fight, which I lost and looked like crap. But I was hooked. I knew that that was what I wanted to do. The rest is history. I’ve come a long way and it’s been awesome.
“I had my first fight when I had only been training for eight months, when I started training at Joe Lauzon’s school. Before that, I was a really heavyset kid; I was about 245 pounds. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was going to school for criminal justice. Once I got into fighting, my life changed and I got into exercise science, and it’s totally changed my life for the better. I don’t have any regrets.”
Over the years, fighting as we know it has changed. Mixed martial arts has seen some of its biggest developments over the last decade. Over three and a half years ago, O’Neil learned some lessons of his own. He credits those lessons as a big reason why he has notched five wins in his last six appearances.
“I was really banged up,” he laughed. “I fought four times in 17 days [during TUF]. I just wanted to get healthy for the finale. I made it through there pretty much through just being tough. I wouldn’t really listen to my coaches. But the game has changed.
“Chris Cope told me, after the finale, that they had watched a lot of film on me and they saw all the tells. I was surprised by that — that the sport had evolved to that point where there was film studying. After that, I hooked up with my coach, Nate Ryan. Now, I’ve got a great boxing coach in Dave Keefe. Now, I’m a completely different fighter. My season was on TV the other day. I watched myself and I was trying to stop myself from throwing up in my mouth when I was watching my fighting style back then [laughs].”
On Jan. 30, at CES MMA 27, O’Neil will make his first welterweight title defense. He faces Emmanuel Walo, who has not tasted defeat since his professional debut in 2012 and currently rides a four-fight winning streak.
“I’m really excited for it. Manny is a great, very tough, explosive and exciting fighter, and that’s the kind of fight that I want,” O’Neil admitted. “I don’t want someone who’s going to try to point-fight me to a decision. We’re going to get out there in the center of the cage and we’re going to fight. That’s the kind of fight that’s exciting for him, me and the fans. That’s what I want. I’m excited for it. It’s going to be good.”
The bout will mark the seventh time that O’Neil has competed under the CES MMA banner. Although he may be happy with his new home, there comes a time in every person’s life when they need to leave home and venture into the unknown. For O’Neil, that could mean a second berth inside the Octagon, especially with CES MMA’s recently role as a launching pad into the UFC for other fighters such as Charles Rosa and Rob Font.
“If all things go according to plan, I’m going to go out there, handle business and ultimately get back to the UFC,” O’Neil exclaimed. “If not, I’m going to get back to training and defend my belt again as soon as possible. I want to be active and get back to that main stage and show them what I can really do. I’m not just tough anymore. I’ve got skills. I’ve got assets to go along with my toughness. It’s a whole new game.”