SALEM, MA – Rico DiSciullo is only two victories shy of signing a contract with the UFC.
DiSciullo advanced to the semifinals finals of The Ultimate Fighter bantamweight tournament with a victory against Hunter Azure. That bout aired on this week’s episode of The Ultimate Fighter, and the fight ended when DiSciullo delivered the knockout blow he has chasing for the past 13 years.
“It felt like it happened in slow motion,” says DiSciullo, 36. “It didn’t come overnight. There is nothing fast or easy about success in this sport. I’ve been working for it.”
DiSciullo’s victory was the lone win for Conor McGregor’s prospects on TUF, who dropped their first seven bouts to Michael Chandler’s team of veterans. Even though DiSciullo is five years older than Azure, he is on the prospects team because he has not fought in the UFC. Azure, who was Chandler’s number-one ranked bantamweight, has competed three times in the Octagon.
“My pro fights are from like 10 years ago, so none of Chandler’s guys knew who I was,” says DiSciullo (11-2). “I didn’t care. I still beat their number-one guy.”
All the first-round bouts on TUF run a maximum of two five-minute rounds, making it imperative to start at a strong pace. At first glance, it appeared Azure controlled the opening five minutes of the fight. Yet a closer look showed DiSciullo landing a number of impactful blows, even busting Azure open.
“I gave up position in the first round because I thought I was about to knock him out,” says DiSciullo. “I knew I could stuff his takedowns, but doing that against the cage was a lot harder. When he went for a takedown against the cage, I started ripping him with elbows. On the third or fourth elbow, when he was going for a double leg, I felt him go limp. I gave up position to finish him with the elbows, but the next elbow I hit seemed to wake him up, and he went super strong on the double [leg takedown].”
For DiSciullo, despite what unfolded, going for the finish was a risk worth taking. It didn’t work and he instead ended up on his back, so DiSciullo closed his guard and hit Azure with as many elbows as possible.
In the second round, DiSciullo seized control. The turning point was a picturesque calf kick that severely limited Azure’s mobility.
“After that kick, his demeanor changed,” DiSciullo. “He couldn’t take me down. He couldn’t get me to the cage.”
DiSciullo then set up the finish in precise fashion. He briefly went southpaw before returning to orthodox, providing him with the angle he needed to end the fight. Azure did not notice the distance change, or that DiSciullo had timed his jab, both indications that the end was rapidly approaching.
“Then I grabbed his lead hand and pulled it a little to bring his momentum toward me,” says DiSciullo. “That’s what I needed to get that knockout shot.”
DiSciullo ended the bout by etching his name into TUF history with a double hammer fist that put Azure to sleep.
“I’ve heard people call it a Donkey King blow or a Hulk smash, but all I call it is a f------ finish,” says DiSciullo. “I just wanted to get the job done.
“I had to get to him, so I jumped at him.That was a lot of years of pent-up aggression. Day-in, day-out training, people doubting me, it all came out in that moment.”
The victory changes the narrative for DiSciullo. Instead of being known for one bout on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018, which he lost, this fight keeps him alive in TUF and continues his pursuit of a UFC contract. His highlight reel now forever contains this knockout victory, as well as the ensuing victory ride in McGregor’s Lamborghini that took place across the sprawling UFC Performance Institute parking lot.
“I f------ floored it,” says DiSciullo. “The PI is like a drag strip. It’s huge, so I drove it as much as I could.”
The Ultimate Fighter was filmed in February, but the fighters are prohibited from speaking about the results of unaired episodes. So DiSciullo is back home in Massachusetts, where he spoke at the Rivalry sports lounge in Salem. Wearing his TUF shirt, sitting next to childhood friend Zak Sannizarro, sipping on a Heineken, and wearing an Italian horn medallion that his son gave him for a gift on Father’s Day, DiSciullo shared that he hasn’t had time to process everything that unfolded on The Ultimate Fighter, especially since all the results have not been revealed.
“When I came back, I thought I’d have time to decompress, but then my coach told me I was training,” says DiSciullo. “I worked with a world-class level kickboxer from Germany, Arian Sadikovic, who fights for One FC. He’s a striker at the highest level, and he had a fight coming up, so I worked with him. With a guy like that, my focus couldn’t be anywhere else but in the moment.”
Another positive from TUF is that DiSciullo was able to work with McGregor. Despite the fact that McGregor appears to be reckless in his actions, causing serious allegations of illicit activity, he was able to make a lasting impression on the show as a coach. DiSciullo continues to employ lessons from McGregor, who he credits–along with McGregor’s elite coaching staff–as being incredibly influential,
especially in his victory against Azure.
“I learned a lot from him,” says DiSciullo. “There is an intelligence to everything he does. I really wanted to be with him and not on Michael Chandler’s team.
“Ten years ago, I met Chandler in Bellator. He shook me off, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. He was great on the show, and he was there for his guys–but he knew when the cameras were on. Conor is still giving me advice. I spoke with him for a half-hour earlier this week about what he wanted me to work on in the gym. He even wants me to work with his coach, John Kavanagh, in Ireland. His wrestling coach, Sergey Pikulskiy, is amazing. I knew I was going to have to deal with a high-level wrestler, so he showed me some single leg defense the day before the fight–and it worked. He gave me little details that made a big difference.”
DiSciullo dedicated his victory to the late Chris Whyman, a childhood friend from Peabody who he considered a brother. Whyman was forced to fight a cruel battle against a fast-spreading cancer, and DiSciullo now honors his memory every time he steps in the cage.
“That win was for Chris,” says DiSciullo. “Chris, me, and [UFC fighter] Charles Rosa, the three of us were real tight. Chris would always say to me, ‘I don’t know how you haven’t got your moment yet.’ When I won that fight, I immediately thought of Chris.”
DiSciullo’s semi-final bout likely won’t air for a few more weeks. But for him, the waiting is not the hardest part. He already spent two months filming TUF without a cell phone or access to books or television, all in the pursuit of finally making the UFC roster.
No matter what occurs next, DiSciullo is determined that his win on TUF will only be a piece of his journey. Though the top of the mountain is in view, he knows this is not the time to loosen his grip.
“I’m fighting with my soul,” says DiSciullo. “This isn’t about highlight reels or finishes. I’m working to fight at the most elite level. For me, it’s all about reaching the UFC.”
The Pick ‘Em Section:
UFC Fight Night heavyweight bout: Tom Aspinallvs. Marcin Tybura
Pick: Tom Aspinall
UFC Fight Night women’s flyweight bout: Julija Stoliarenko vs. Molly McCann
Pick: Molly McCann
UFC Fight Night featherweight bout: Nathaniel Wood vs. Andre Fili
Pick: Andre Fili
UFC Fight Night middleweight bout: Paul Craig vs. André Muniz
Pick: André Muniz
UFC Fight Night lightweight bout: Jai Herbert vs. Farès Ziam
Pick: Jai Herbert
Last week: 4-1
2023 record: 76-47