Paul Bradley was 24 at the time, two years out of college and in his first season as an assistant coach at Buffalo University when he took his first shot at UFC glory.
The former Iowa wrestler left his job to accept a spot on the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter, the mixed martial arts reality television series that Bradley hoped would lead him to a lucrative contract in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Bradley’s stay on the show came to an abrupt end when a contagious skin condition flared up and UFC president Dana White told the teary-eyed two-time All-American he had to leave show.
“I was pretty much at the bottom of where I could be,” Bradley said. “I had to start 12-to-15-hour days landscaping to make ends meet.”
Bradley spent three years working his way back to the big leagues of MMA, winning 18 of his 20 fights until his phone rang last month with the invitation he’s been anticipating — an opportunity in the UFC.
Bradley, 28, signed a contract for four fights in the UFC. His debut is Saturday against Rafael Natal in the first bout of UFC 133 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“I’ve been waiting three years to get back in after the whole Ultimate Fighter debacle,” Bradley said. “It’s perfect timing. I’m coming off a fight two weeks ago (a first-round win by submission against Eddie Larrea), so I’m in great shape. I didn’t take any bumps or bruises, so it’s pretty much the perfect situation as far as where I’m fighting, too.”
Bradley said it’s a good setting, too. After his departure from the Ultimate Fighter, Bradley landed in State College, Pa., where he trained for a year with the Lionheart Fighters. He met his girlfriend during his stay in Pennsylvania and he said her family should provide him with a big fan following.
Bradley said he received an invitation to fight in UFC 133 on July 25. He was a late addition to the preliminary card after Alessio Sakara withdrew from the main card after suffering a knee injury and Natal’s initial opponent, Costa Philippou, took Sakara’s place.
“As far as the contract goes, I know I have a four-fight contract, but at the same time, I’ve seen them cut contracts after one fight for putting on bad performances … or not putting any action on,” he said.
Bradley was a three-year starter for the Hawkeyes at 184. He compiled a 77-37 career record, placing fourth at the NCAA Championships as a sophomore and fifth as a junior.
“The mentality I learned in the Iowa wrestling room is something you can’t learn unless you’ve been through it,” he said. “Tom Brands, Jim Zalesky instilling the drive and the work ethic that goes into MMA, I couldn’t be where I’m at without those guys.”
Bradley said he’s taken other lessons from his time at Iowa and applied them to his career in the cage. He said he has made some lifestyle and training changes that have helped him get down to his regular fighting weight of 170 and increased his endurance.
“I probably wasn’t training the right way in college,” Bradley said. “I wasn’t even lifting the right way. I was lifting like a bodybuilder instead of lifting like an athlete, which I finally learned when I got out of college. The big muscles are great an all for the beach, but when conditioning comes into play they aren’t.”
Bradley will fight at 185 pounds on Saturday night. It’s not his optimal weight class, but he’s not complaining.
“Once they called, it was either take the fight or possibly wait another six months to a year to get in,” he said. “This is my way to get in and I took advantage of it. You take the opportunities when they’re presented to you.”