Casey, a 1999 graduate of West Torrance High, took time to discuss life on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ without giving away too much since the Las Vegas-based series has wrapped taping and the finale has secretly been set.
The 31-year-old black belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, whose first-round fight against Collin Hart airs Tuesday on FX, has been involved in MMA since striking up a friendship with the late Rockson Gracie, son of Rickson Gracie. Among the topics covered were the Uriah Hall “knockout heard ’round the world,” being coached by UFC light heavyweight contender Chael Sonnen, living in the “TUF” house, winning his elimination fight despite getting cut, growing up around the Gracies, and how he feels post-“TUF.”
How’s the experience been on “The Ultimate Fighter”?
It was a phenomenal experience, especially being in this new season where they went with a new production company as far as the whole layout of the show and the look of the fights and how they filmed them. And also being part of a big season where (UFC light heavyweight champion Jon) Jones and Sonnen as the coaches, you know those guys did a really great job and it was amazing do be part of that season in particular.
So here you are, you’ve got this fight with Collin Hart coming up, but you guys have to follow up last week’s Uriah Hall knockout of Andy Cella. What was that like for you to see that, to actually be there for that knockout?
You know, that knockout was a devastating knockout. And watching it on the television, it didn’t come across as powerful as it did physically. But we knew going in that Uriah was the more talented athlete and we knew potentially that he could knock Adam out. But to see it happen in that devastating fashion was a shock to all of us. But, you know, myself and I think others included expected it to be that type of fight.
I know you can’t give much away on this fight that’s going to air Tuesday. Can you give us one to word to describe the fight versus Collin Hart?
Uh … one word. It’s hard to sum it up in one word. I can’t think of one word. Just a battle. A war.
What’s it like having Chael Sonnen as a coach?
You know, I felt that Chael was a phenomenal coach. Going into the season, I think we all expected Chael to be kind of a vocal promoter for himself and promoter for his fight with Jones and we expected a little back and forth with those two, but it was exactly the opposite. Chael was very supportive of the athletes and he seemed to be very sincere with our well being and what were going through because he was a guy who has been through similar situations coming up. It felt like he was there for us and wanted 100 percent to support us sincerely.
I thought that last show, the knockout was such a tremendous highlight, but the session Chael Sonnen had with Uriah Hall talking about dealing with self-doubt — that was such a great part of the show. And I think we’re seeing a lot different aspect of the show with the fighting and training and not guys playing grab-ass in the house. Is that true?
Definitely. You know I think that was a tribute mainly to the athletes this season. All the athletes this season were dedicated fighters and everyone was really there to be competitive and not there to just showboat in the house. I think that goes to the casting. They went and got the toughest guys from around the world in the (185-pound) divsion and put us all in the house. So everyone there is a tough person and a sincere competitior.
What was it like living in the house?
Being separated from society and just not knowing what’s going on day to day with your life and the people involved in it was difficult. You go into the situation with an expectation, but there’s no real way to grasp the concept of what you’re gonna walk into until you’re there. And then you’re in the middle of the action. I think this is the first time that I had an opportunity to sit back, looking at myself from the otuside in, and look at what I do for a career, and just say, “Wow, this is what I really do. This is what we really do.” It was just a crazy revelation.
Leading up to this fight, Bubba McDaniel of Team Jones was kind of calling you out. And it sure looked like it was going to be Kevin Casey vs. Bubba McDaniel. But then you guys threw a curve at him at the last second. You guys picked Collin Hart. Was that your decision? Was that Coach Sonnen’s decision? Was that a team decision?
It was 100 percent a coaching staff decision and ultimately Chael’s decision. When Bubba challenged me after the first matchup, immediately my ego was involved and I told Chael and the coaching staff that I wanted that fight next although I didn’t feel physically prepared for that fight due to the cut. My ego was involved and I wanted to fight. From there, Coach Chael advised me to play it smart and to look to the longevity of the tournament and look down the road as opposed to taking the bait of Bubba’s challenge that he issued. In one way, I felt disappointed that I didn’t just go with that fight right away. But in another way, I’m forced to really assess the longevity of really trying to be the champion of the tournament. Everyone in the house has some sort of idea who they want to fight and when they want to fight them. So for me to deviate from my initial plan because someone else called me out to try to implement their own strategy or their own agenda would be working against myself.
The elimination fight against Eldon Sproat to get into the house, you won by rear-naked choke but you did get cut over the eye. How concerning was that for you?
For one, it was definitely a devastating psychological effect the cut had on me. I’ve never been cut before. It sent me into the house feeling vulnerable. I knew that everyone there is looking for potential matchups. I knew I was potentially one of the favorites going in, I know it made the target on my back a little bigger. Even though it was a cut on the surface, there was still some damage underneath the eye to some of the bone around the orbit. I really felt very vulnerable at that point. It changed me a little bit psychologically. And also, in my training sessions, because of the cut I was forced to train with a kendo mask. which is basically this kind of face shield which prevents the cut from reopening. But at the same time, the mask restricted my breathing. So from the point that I got the cut, I had to wear this mask that basically exhausted me during my training. It just made my training hell.
How did you get your start in MMA?
I grew up in the South Bay and that’s where I met the Gracie family. I met Rockson Gracie, the son of Rickson Gracie. I grew up around those guys. And those guys were the ones who brought Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the states and also were involved in the start of the UFC. I remember growing up and being around Rickson Gracie and Royce Gracie and then they started to make their strategy for being in what they called the UFC. Being young and being impressionable, these were the guys I looked up to. And to watch Royce, a guy who I was in the backyard eating BBQs with, going to win the first (three of the first four) UFCs, it was very exciting for me. And I felt like I was a part of this. To watch the growth of the UFC and see what it has become today and to be so close and connected with the guys that were the pioneers of the UFC, I guess I feel honored to make it to “TUF” and to be working my way and getting into the UFC.
How do you feel about your career after this experience on “The Ultimate Fighter”?
I feel great about my career. I feel the exposure especially this season of “TUF,” will help open some doors for me. Also, the valuable experience I’ve gained from being involved in production and working with those coaches and being able to spar with guys like Chael Sonnen and Yushin Okami, guys like Vinny Magalhaes, it boosted my confidence and I’m looking forward to working my way up the ladder.
Without getting you in trouble and giving anything away, what can “The Ultimate Fighter” fans expect the rest of the way?
They can expect to see me give everything I have till I have nothing left.