Interview and photos by Dan Skye
Life is simple of family men: They work to pay the bills and support their fails. For Matt Riddle, 27, that means battling it out in the “cage” as a top-ranked mixed martial arts fighter. In his career, he’s gained a reputation as an aggressive, lightning-quick opponent. But he’s no fool. He’s fully aware of the sport’s dangers and wants out of the brutal profession by age 30.
Riddle has had his battles outside the ring as well. The Ultimate Fighting Championship suspended him last February for testing positive for pot, despite the fact that he’s a state-sanctioned medical marijuana user in Nevada. He went public, extolling the benefits of cannabis while also pointing out the UFC’s hypocrisy when it comes to “performance-enhancing drugs”: Pot is forbidden; but testosterone replacement therapy isn’t.
We caught up with Riddle while he was training for his next fight. He now fights under the aegis of the prestigious Bellator MMA organization. His punches have lost none of their power. Neither have his opinions.
Were you an aggressive kid?
The first fight I ever got into, this bigger kid just beat the crap out of me. I didn’t even throw one punch. My family wasn’t into sports -- definitely not wrestling. I didn’t play football or anything. But I was athletic and high-strung. I was diagnosed with ADHD, like every other kid.
Did they medicate you?
In third grade they gave me Ritalin, which is basically speed. It slows you down if you’re a little hyper to begin with. It made me a zombie. It made me sit there and focus. I ended up getting better grades, but at what cost? I stopped taking it in my sophomore year. The medication was eating away my stomach; I was getting ulcers on my esophagus. I was smoking weed at that point, and my parents knew -- they saw that I was calm and collected. They told me: “Matt, you can smoke weed, and you don’t have to take Ritalin anymore. You can do your own thing.”
What led you into wrestling?
I wasn’t aggressive, but I was still wild. One night my dad turned on the WWF, and Hulk Hogan was wrestling. I fell in love with it right away. I started wrestling, and my first year I go 8-1. I pinned mostly everybody. I got serious about it and started going to clubs. By the time I was a senior, I’d won state and national championships in high school. I placed second in the world championships.
I got a scholarship to East Stroudsburg State and wrestled two years there, but I partied a lot, did everything I shouldn’t have been doing. I had a horrible season and left school. Then a buddy called me. He was doing jujitsu. We’d always talked about fighting. He was training for a tournament in two weeks and asked if I wanted to train with him. So I moved to New York and started training full-time for the tournament.
With just two weeks of jujitsu training, you were ready?
I was in shape. I was still wrestling. So I hopped into that tournament and beat everybody on points and submitted the guy in the finals. It was a good day...and I kept going. I won the North American grappling championship, took second at the world championship of jujitsu, and won three more national championships in grappling.
Then I wanted to fight. My first fight, I took this guy down in the first round -- just schooled him. I had a choice: I could either keep doing the grappling tour or I could try out for the UFC. I was 21 on a roll, The worse they could say was no.
How did you apply?
There’s a bunch of paperwork. You make a video, put your highlights on it. Then you show up live. They take you in a room, 50 at a time, and you grapple for like two minutes. The winner goes to the next round -- or they both suck and nobody goes through.
The next round is striking: You hit pads. They’re looking for speed, accuracy and how hard you hit. If you make it past that round, there’s the interview round, which gets you in the house. A lot of people have got the physical part but can’t talk. They want people they can market. I did the interview process, and a couple weeks later they called and said: “Hey, Matt, you wanna be a TV star?” I was like: “Of course, I do!”
What does being a UFC fighter entail?
They basically own you -- you sign yourself away. When you’re on the TV show, you get paid like a couple hundred bucks a week and don’t get paid for the fights. The UFC is so big, everybody wants to get there. It’s got the biggest money and the most publicity. People will fight for free to get there, even though they might get their jaw broken.
I got accepted on the show, and now I’m fighting. In the second round of my first pro fight, about 10 seconds in, I threw a right hook -- a devastating right hook. I broke the guy’s jaw in three spots. It was the most brutal knockout in history, a lot of people said. It solidified my career in the UFC.
My next fight, I go out swinging against a guy who’s 34, a veteran, and I lose. He arm-bars me in the second round. Everybody from that show, except for the guys who were in the semi-finals, got fired -- except me. They kept me because of that knockout finish.
So tell us about your UFC career.
I started 3–0, winning my first three fights decisively. I’m getting paid good money. My first fight I got paid 8/8 [$8,000 for the appearance, $8,000 for the win.]
My first loss came in my fourth fight, in Manchester, England -- one of the worst experiences of my life. I was jetlagged. I’d cut a lot of weight and was a little sick -- probably just from flying with a bunch of people. It was a horrible experience getting my ass kicked; people in the crowd were calling me names. He just held me down in the third round and punched my face. I’m holding his arms, but I can’t stop them. I’m holding his biceps, and he’s just punching me in the face. He can’t hit too hard because I’m pushing on him, but I can’t stop him. They ended up stopping the fight.
But it ended on a good note: I’d planned a vacation in Amsterdam. Went to Barneys, had a good time. When I came back, I found out my future wife was pregnant with my twin daughters. I’m like, “Shit! I’ve got to get on the ball!”
So I fight Greg Soto next in New Jersey. I won the first two rounds decisively, and I’m beating him up in the third. I’m on top, elbowing him in the face, punching him. He goes for a submission and I push back. Now, I’m still on my knees, and he kicks me directly in the face, which is illegal. I was unconscious for a little bit. They stopped the fight, but I won because I won the first couple rounds. But even though I won, I wanted to redeem myself next fight.
Had you become a dad yet?
Amy and Alison had just been born. I’m engaged; we’re doing the family thing. So, next, I fought a guy who beat the guy that beat me in England -- my only loss. I trained hard and I decimated this guy.
I made good money on that fight. I’m making 18/18, so when I win a fight, I take home about $36,000. I play like three times a year, so I’m doing really well. The biggest perk of the UFC is the bonus system:
If you get “fight of the night,” “knockout of the night” or “submission of the night,” you get an additional $50,000 to $100,000. I’m now 5–1 in the UFC.
My next match is against Sean Pierson, a good boxer -- a kick-boxer -- well-rounded and a dangerous dude. Dana White [UFC president] comes in the locker room and says, “This is the biggest crowd in his- tory: 25,000 people [in the arena] and millions at home.” He says $100,000 for any of the bonuses. I’m 24. I got the kids, you know? I’m thinking, “I could buy a house! I could change my life! I want that $100,000!”
If you watch the fight, there’s no technique. I throw the whole time -- kicks, punches, elbows, takedowns, anything. If he’s in striking distance, I’m whipping it at him. He’s tagging me and moving away, but I keep chasing him. I want to hurt him.
We’re in Canada; he’s from Canada, and he ends up winning the fight in a unanimous decision. He’s bleeding, I’m swollen up, the crowd’s going wild -- it’s one of the best fights of the year. But that night, the fans voted and Georges St. Pierre -- who’s the world welterweight champion; he’s from Montreal -- got “fight of the night” and “best” everything. So he got all the money. Basically, I got all beat up and didn’t get the bonus. Later, they gave me a $20,000 check, because it was a sweet fight. But I wanted that $100,000.
Next, I fight in New Orleans. We fight and I don’t get a mark on me. But I make a couple of mistakes where he gets takedowns and position, so he ends up winning the decision. But I break his nose, cut both his eyes -- hurt him really bad. It gets “fight of the night,” and I get a $65,000 bonus check, even though I lost. I paid off my back taxes, moved to Vegas and bought a house cheap after the market crashed.
That’s when I got a medical marijuana license. I moved to Nevada so I could use medical marijuana.
That’s when your problems started with the UFC, right?
Yeah -- their problems! I took a fight on a week’s notice, which I never do. I’m in good shape, but I’m smoking pot. I worried about failing a drug test. But Lisa, my wife, is pregnant again. I need the money, so I take the fight against Chris Clements in Calgary, Canada.
I had the fight of my life -- took him down three times. In the third round, he throws a spinning back fist and as I duck it, I locked up a submission hold while still standing. The crowd goes crazy. I got “submission of the night” and walked away with over $100,000.
But three months later, I got a call from the Calgary Athletic Commission: “Matt, you failed your drug test, and we’re going to have to let the UFC know.’’I told them that I’m a mediical marijuana patient in Nevada. We had a hearing and I made my case. They didn’t fine me; they didn’t suspend me or anything.
And they didn’t make my fight a “no contest,” which is unheard of. Then the UFC calls: They’re sorry, but that’s not happening. My fight was made a “no contest.” I wasn’t fined, though, which is funny because every UFC fighter who’s been caught usually gets like 20 percent of their purse taken.
If you weren’t fined or suspended, what went wrong? I talked about medical marijuana, and the UFC didn’t mind. But I talked about testosterone replacement therapy -- the fact that I got a “no contest” for smoking weed, while other fighters are allowed to take TRT, which is steroids. It’s bullshit. The UFC was like: “You need to shut up about that.”
I gained a reputation, but I was just telling the truth.
Did you fight for the UFC again?
Yeah, I fought John Maguire. But the UFC made me take a drug test a week before the fight to make sure I pissed clean or they wouldn’t let me fight.
I quit smoking three weeks before the fight and I pissed clean. I beat the guy in a unanimous deci- sion. I’m on a win streak. Next, they want me to fight Che Mills, a Top 20 fighter. If I beat him, I’m in that spot. And I know I can beat him.
So I quit 21 days before the drug test. I win decisively, take the drug test and think I’m good. Two weeks later, I get a call: I failed. I’m like, “You’re kidding me!”
Were you skeptical of the test results?
I don’t want to be that guy who believes in con- spiracy theories, but this was a UFC-run drug test, and I was already on their radar.
This happened last February. Where do you stand now?
I’m not out of the UFC forever. They tell me if I win a couple of fights, pass a couple of drug tests, they’ll let me back in. But right now I’m fired.
Honestly, I thank the UFC for the experience. We stand on different ground. They’re about Bud Lite, testosterone, gas-guzzling cars and whatever. I think marijuana should be legal, and I don’t think fighters should be taking steroids. I’m highly ranked in the world, and they knew I was build- ing credibility. They found a way to get rid of me. I don’t look at it past that.
Does marijuana help you as a fighter?
I’d never go into the ring high -- I wouldn’t even want to get high the night before a fight. Marijuana just helps me relax. They classify it as a performance-enhancing drug. I wouldn’t say that. I’m high-strung. When I don’t smoke marijuana, I’m aggressive. I’m not fun to be around. It makes me relax, increases my appetite a little, and it’s got no side effects. How can it be categorized as a performance-enhancing drug?
Technically. But don’t vitamins do that? What about grain supplements? I don’t get in trouble for those. But with pot, I get in trouble and they take my money.
What makes a good fighter?
At first, I wanted just to take people down and submit them. That was because of jujitsu. Now I wanna hurt them, make ’em quit. I want them breathing hard; I want them to know they can’t keep going as hard as I can. I just wanna break them. I don’t care if you beat me on points; I want to cut you open. We train to knock people out and choke them unconscious. A lot of us won’t tap out. We won’t quit until there’s nothing left. The money’s on the line.
What are your goals now?
I fight to pay the bills. I’ve been on the grind for almost 10 years. I’ve seen what the end of that road is. I’ve seen what being past 30 or past 35 looks like: It’s you getting knocked out. We’ve all seen somebody who just can’t hang it up. I don’t want to be that guy.
You’re definite about that?
Oh, yeah. The second I make enough money, I’m done. I’m 27. I’m a free agent, on a win streak, and I’m the top 15th fighter in the world. It gives me a lot of negotiating room outside the UFC. I still have the ability to become number one in the world -- regardless of the UFC. And even if the rankings don’t say it, if I win my next couple of fights, honestly, I don’t care if I’m ranked number one. I just want to make money fighting and get out. I’m not going to let people beat me up. I have pride.