The city of St. Petersburg, Fla., showcases some amazing places. Sitting right next to the bay is the world-famous Salvador Dali Museum, which has been a staple of the area for nearly 40 years. It’s accompanied by the Mahaffey Theater, where countless musical and comedy acts have performed. The destination town features beautiful beaches. It also serves as the current home to the Tampa Bay Rays, even though the city of Tampa is just over the bay.
On the other side of the county lies a lesser-known part of Florida called Pinellas Park. It’s in this small town that a future wrestler and fighter was brought up and molded into the person he is today.
Florida MMA has exploded over the past few years with amateur promotions like the World Class Fight League, Rival Fight League and Combat Night MMA. It’s within these promotions that we have seen the rise of such fighters as Mike “Platinum” Perry, Sarah “Chucky” Kleczka, Alex “Spartan” Nicholson and Matt Frevola.
Tony “T-Murf” Murphy has yet to achieve the same level of recognition as these fighters, but it could be just a matter of time.
Murphy was born in Largo, Fla., and split his time as a child living between Birmingham, Ala., and Pinellas Park.
“We all did stuff that knuckleheads do — and a lot people wouldn’t agree with — but people don’t understand what ‘rep’ means in certain areas,” Murphy told Combat Press “That was a big thing. Especially a lot of us, my population, we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of things. It wasn’t straight horror every day — I’m not putting that front out There — but I’m telling you that if you had a problem with someone and got looked at sideways, you were expected to do something about it, or everyone came back and thought that you were a bitch. That was the truth.
“I think all those fights made my mentality say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ So, when I was losing as an amateur, I always knew I could come back. A lot of parents wouldn’t agree with their kids out running around [and] fighting, and I’m not saying that’s how we should do things, but whatever. It prepped me well.
“I’ve never been scared of anybody. Period. Yes, I do always get nervous, because you want to be successful, but I’ve never once feared anyone I’ve fought, and I’ve fought a lot of people.”
Most amateur fighters make it to about 10 fights max before deciding to make the jump to the professional circuit. Fighters like former two-time Bellator featherweight champion Daniel Straus never took a single amateur fight. Murphy, on the other hand, amassed a whopping 21 amateur bouts, with 13 victories and eight defeats.
“I definitely feel being an amateur as long as I did is what molded me into what I am today,” said Murphy. “I’m at [American Top Team], the best gym in the world — my opinion, and at the [MMA] awards, they won the award again — so I’m surrounded by some of the best athletes and the best fighters in the world, and they’re definitely making me evolve at a quicker pace.
“Stay amateur and get your fights in. I put in 23 [or] 24 fights, something like that when you add in the kickboxing too. I mean, there’s a lot of pros that don’t have that many fights. That’s a hell of a timeline, you know what I mean? Being an amateur and taking those lumps early. When I got into the game, I was a tough-kid athlete. I had a wrestling background, and we street fought and stuff like that, but that’s not MMA. And I learned that very quickly. I was losing every other week, and there [were] times where I thought I was gonna quit.
“I heard it all — ‘Oh, T-Murf’s scared to go pro’ — in the local area where everyone was coming up. You know, I just stuck with it. I was fortunate to go out to [Las] Vegas, be at Xtreme Couture, kinda wrap up my amateur career around all of them and then come over here to ATT, and that’s when I had my pro debut, which was last year.”
Las Vegas was the location of one not-so-well-documented incident in Murphy’s career. Murphy was at a Tuff-N-Uff weigh-in to support a teammate. He was not scheduled to appear at the event, but he would go on to compete the next night.
“That was me and Sean Spangler,” recalled Murphy with a burst of excitement. “We’re good friends now. I’ve seen him multiple times since that night we fought. But I was there supporting an ex-girlfriend, and bottom line is he had a guy pull out. I looked at him and was like, dude, he’s gotta be my weight. He had a similar frame. So we weighed in, and he was down [and] I was down.”
Murphy made it into the second round before he was caught in an anaconda choke from Spangler for the submission loss. However, Murphy’s attitude is that of a mad man. He was willing to take a fight on less than 24 hours’ notice without a single hesitation. MMA is an unforgiving sport. Fighters sometimes jump into opportunities before they are ready. Sometimes, they lose frequently and see their stock tumble.
“It humbled me out quick,” Murphyadmitted. “It was hard. You gotta understand it. Listen, a lot of fighters have stories. I’m not sitting here trying to make it off of ‘Oh ’cause I fought on the streets.’ That’s not the story I’m playing, but it is a fact that it was hard coming home after fighting as an amateur and losing all the time when I started. The street rep was ‘He can’t cut it as a real fighter. He can beat up everybody on the block and he can beat up people at the park, but when it came down to it, he can’t do it.’
“It was a tough road, and a lot of people in my life definitely kept me motivated. My brother, Brandon. Tons of my friends. I’ve always had a good support system, but I think that goes both ways, because they know that I’ve always had their back too. I owe everything to them, because there was some times, man — I’m not a quitter, but damn it got real hard a couple times going on three [fight] losing streaks and shit. It just got tough.
Murphy’s coaches knew the value of all of this adversary. They told him that the losses would make him better. He didn’t believe them, though. He just wrote it off as their way of making him feel better.
“But they’re right,” said Murphy. “I’m only sitting at 2-0, but I can tell you right now, I just feel like I have so much experience and confidence. My level is just out there. I’m in there to win, but I don’t care about losing either. You know what I mean? If that makes sense. I didn’t say I’m going in there to lose now; I’m just saying I don’t fear what’s gonna happen. I’m just gonna go in there and do it, because I know that no matter what, you can always come back.”
It’s been said, by no one person in particular, that it’s how you rebound from a loss that shapes you into a great fighter.
“I agree,” Murphy said. “I guess my amateur career kinda reflects that. I’m not saying that losing — God forbid something ever happened later in my career and I was to come up short — I’m not saying it’s not gonna hurt. It’s gonna hurt, and I’m that type of person that’s gonna be sunk in a little while. But I do know that I can come back from that. It’s not the end. As long as I go in there and do what I’m supposed to do, that’s all I can do for myself to be happy.”
In today’s MMA world, fighters change camps regularly. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is a great example of how leaving a longtime gym and finding a new home can revitalize a career. However, it’s easy for fighters coming up to get complacent and find a local gym.
“When I got to ATT, I knew right away what kind of operation they were running,” Murphy explained. “You could feel it. It’s all business, but make no mistake about it, there’s definitely that ‘One Team’ friendly thing going on, and I think it’s growing with the times of MMA, because MMA has changed so much since even [during] the time I’ve been in it. It’s a sport. We are a sport. We’re on ESPN. We’re a team, and I think the team aspect is coming into play a lot more, where[as] the guys who paved the way were more Independent. It was about yourself, [but now] you can definitely feel that kind of team structure being built up. I wrestled and I fought and all that, but I come from football. That was my main love in life when I was growing up. So that team kind of atmosphere — I live for that shit. I truly live for it, and you can feel it when you’re at ATT.
“[The coaches] have so much on their plate. It’s honestly amazing how they can get to everybody and how they do it. Watching Mike Brown, Coach Conan [Silveira] or Steve Mocco — all these guys, watching them — they’re literally on a schedule, whether it’s helping out the whole organization or a private lesson or maybe they’re running a camp or maybe they got other people they’re trying to tend to, like summer camps. Like I said, it’s business when you come to that gym. You get that feel as soon as you walk in.”
American Top Team, which is based in Coconut Creek, Fla., is no stranger to success and knowing how to take fighters from the middle of the pack and turn them into champions. From unknown to superstar. Take a look at UFC 239. Jorge Masvidal, who just scored a record-setting fastest UFC knockout, and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, who put on a clinic against Holly Holm, are both staples of ATT.
“You talk about Masvidal going out there and handling that,” said Murphy. “The energy at the gym this week has been amazing. When he did that, I don’t think he realizes what kinda energy he brought to the gym. I noticed it right away, and what a perfect time to be there when I’m about to fight. I’ll tell you what. Amanda dots up dudes in the gym. That is a beast right there. She is a lioness for a reason. Best ever.”
Usually, there’s one training partner that gives a fighter a push. Whether it’s in one specific aspect or all around, that training partner is essential to a successful training camp. That’s not the case at ATT, though.
“I think it’s a group effort,” Murphy said. “It’s been more of a group thing, and that’s how I wanted it to be. I don’t deserve any singled-out attention right now. I’m working my way up. But they do a great job of sharing that attention and making every one of us better. I think that everyone knows at this level, it’s more about who you’re training with. Don’t get me wrong — the coaches go a long way. I’m not saying you don’t need coaches, because where would we be without them. When you’re sparring day in and day out, it’s really the rounds that you are getting, and I’ve had some really good rounds with some really good guys. The list goes on, but I appreciate every one of them. Din Thomas, Steve Mocco, Mike Brown, Coach Conan, [Ryan] Quinn, all of them. They’ve all helped me, as well as helped the team.
“You’re always challenged too, and that’s what I love. When we train, you’re not supposed to be in a position to do right. You’re supposed to be in a position to do wrong and figure out how to get away from it. That’s the structure. I don’t know if I did a good job describing that, but that’s how I see it. They just do a good job of pushing you and putting you in places where you’re uncomfortable. It’s not always gonna be a pretty fight, even if you trained your ass off and you’re a billion times better than the guy. The chances of being in an uncomfortable position is still there, and we train for that.
“When these guys look at me and tell me, ‘You’re the future,’ yeah, that kinda lights a fire under you that I can’t describe. I’ve always had that fire burning, and I don’t think that’s ever been an issue as far as me being fueled. But again, when you got some of these guys, I’ve been kinda looking up to as, like, the captains of the team or the coaches, and they tell you, ‘Hey, you’re the future and you got all this talent,’ you feel like a train that can’t be stopped.”
That’s quite the insight from a fighter with a professional record of 2-0. Murphy, 27, also had an opportunity to help train another well-known member of the ATT team. That man is current UFC welterweight Colby Covington, who is probably one of the most disliked men in all of MMA. Murphy is one of three or four guys selected to help out the UFC contender, and it has meant a lot to him.
“We both won the midtown title in Oregon, so that’s kinda funny that here we are now and I’m working with him,” said Murphy. “I’ve been watching him forever, because obviously Colby’s been known now, and so to be working with him side-by-side and we’re both in the same weight class — he brings so much attention to the division as well — I couldn’t be any more grateful.
“We’re doing Coach Mocco’s class, and [Covington will] just stop and show me, ‘Hey, you could do this or this.’ He don’t have to do that. He’ll stop, and he’ll show me things — like, damn man, that’s really cool. Sometimes you don’t get that all the time. It’s no one’s responsibility to help me. Everyone’s gotta worry about their own. But when someone does stop to show you… There’s a lot of people who look up to this guy because he’s in the UFC. He is a top welterweight in the world, and he’s on his way to a huge fight with [Kamaru] Usman, if that goes down. I don’t know. It is kinda humbling. I have the same attitude and swagger about me, but when you’re around these guys, you definitely have to respect them when it’s due, and I definitely respect him.
“He’s one of the coolest dudes you could ever be around. And you know what’s funny? He knows how to get under people’s skin, but he knows how to sell pay-per-views. I don’t blame the guy for trying to take… He’s got the light on him — or partial light, however you want to see it — but what I’m trying to say is, he’s trying to do what he can with that light and not let it just burn out on him. It’s funny, ’cause even when he was in Brazil, he had stuff thrown at him and he made some comments, but it’s all for the business side of it. For entertainment.
At the gym, Conan loves him. Brazilians work with him. I mean, like I said, team atmosphere. Anything that’s said or that’s online is all just to hype things up, because, in the gym, I see how he acts on a day-to-day basis, and he’s been nothing but a leader to me. And I’m not just blowing smoke or kissing ass, I mean the man has been open arms with me and Lucas [Cortes] coming up. He’s been a great leader, and he’s totally chill, man. I never really hear him say anything at the gym. I’m not saying he’s not being real, ’cause that is him. I’m just saying he knows how to respect people that deserve the respect. I just wanted to throw that out there, ’cause to me, he’s been nothing but a leader.”
Over. Those are four of the scariest letters for a fighter. It’s a word no fighter wants to hear ever, because that means their dream has to end. What then? What comes next?
“I would love nothing more than to be a coach one day,” said Murphy. “I honestly could see myself doing that. I don’t really look to ball, but I think any person that’s after something, they want it at the highest level they can get it. So, if I can get to that level of baller money and invest it, that’s the goal. But I’m never gonna be upset at where my career does end. I’m never gonna look back and regret it. While I’ve got the moment, I’m gonna put my name out there and do everything I can to be that guy.
“You always want more, and I’m hungry for more. You gotta keep pushing. But I truly am so happy with my life, and I look back and think, ‘What if I gave up when I was an amateur and I was losing and I heard shit from everyone that was out there that I can’t cut it as an MMA fighter or he does this or he always gets submitted?’ Well, guess what? We fixed that, didn’t we?
“No matter where I end up, I’ll try and remember some of these days as the best days of my life. I mean, training with the top guys in the gym day in, day out — it’s crazy. When I started, I didn’t think I’d ever get this far. I’ve always believed, but the side of me that has to be kinda real too was like the chances are not in your favor.”
Murphy gets to test his skills again when he takes on another relatively unknown fighter, Eric Alequin at Combat Night Pro 14.
“I’ve never heard of Eric before, but I’ve heard since the camp started about his jiu-jitsu background, and I know he’s high level,” said Murphy. “I know he’s competed against some dudes that I know from the Gracie chain and stuff like that. Obviously, he had a pretty good run as a fighter as well. I don’t really put much thought into what he’s capable of. I’m just gonna go in there and do me. Obviously, I’m sure he believes he’s gonna win, as he should, and I know I believe I’m gonna win, so we’re really just gonna both go at it and see who ends up with that third win to go 3-0.”
The more that a promotion cares about a fighter and their career, the more successful the two will be. Promotions that do not allow their fighters out of contract to pursue their UFC dream will not keep the morale needed to boost their name. Organizations that understand their role and look at it in a positive light will truly stay successful. That’s the goal of Combat Night, run by Mitchell Chamale.
“The way they run their amateur shows and their pro shows is just phenomenal when you’re a guy just trying to get your name out there. They’re killing it over there,” Murphy said. “I like Mitchell. We get along well. He’s been nothing but good to me, as well as Lucas, coming up. You can tell right away he ain’t gonna take no shit. He wants everyone to be on their paperwork and everything. They just do such a professional job. They really do. To me, whether it’s his job to do that or not, he does put on a great sense of care. When I’m around him, I know he cares. To me, that’s big.”