Making weight for a prep wrestling match at Titusville High was always so easy for Muhammed DeReese.
“There were times I used to walk on the scale eating a sandwich, just rubbed it in their face,” he says with a laugh.
Now the 27-year-old unbeaten MMA fighter will need some of that bravado in Las Vegas, where he begins his quest Wednesday night in “The Ultimate Fighter,” a two-hour episode on Fox Sports 1 at 10 p.m., featuring 16 of the world’s top Ultimate Fighting Champion light-heavyweight contenders.
“This is the biggest thing of my career,” said DeReese, a former running back at the University of Central Florida and an unbeaten state champion wrestler at Titusville High. “There will be a lot of people watching.”
One of those will be his former wrestling coach, Dan Diesel, a bear of a man himself who taught DeReese the nuances of slams and takedowns, yet who always was impressed by him.
“This guy’s a beast,” Diesel said. “Nobody can tell him he can’t do something. When we got on the mats, he showed me it was time, after 15 years of coaching, I better get out of there before I get killed.
“I’ve never seen a guy so much as just look you in the eye and say, ‘I got you.’ He shot at me with a quickness and strength I’d never seen.”
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Although tonight’s Season 23 premiere was taped nearly two months ago, DeReese cannot divulge the results. If he survives his battle tonight, he’ll be among the final eight left in the UFC “house” where coaches Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha will match up future men’s and women’s matches for their teams in the octagon during the 12-episode reality TV series.
The finals take place July 8 in Las Vegas alongside UFC 200 with the winner grabbing $100,000 and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“That would mean the world,” said DeReese, who is engaged and has two little boys, ages 2 and 4. “It would mean I could keep training, keep earning income, not worrying about how I was going to keep my family comfortable and also go back to the youth in my area to tell them to keep pushing, keep working.”
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Football, he says, is “still my baby,” but after suffering a serious groin injury while playing for the semi-pro Orlando Rays, it cost him a shot at NFL combines in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
“When I realized I couldn’t sprint anymore, I got into MMA,” he said. “I took the hardest fights and started tapping people out.”
His experience as a wrestler paid off and he went on to earn a purple belt (intermediate level) in jiu jitsu.
“I’m a grappler,” he said. “But I can strike, too.”
He hasn’t lost on the mats, or in the octagon, since his junior year of wrestling. He’s 11-0 in amateur MMA fights, and 5-0 as a pro, fighting most recently in October at the World Series of Fighting in the Daytona Beach Ocean Center.
At 6-foot-1, he’ll have to drop 15 pounds off his 220-pound frame to stay in the light-heavyweight division.
“Just water,” he said. “I can lose 10 pounds in a day.”
And if that’s the only thing he loses in Vegas this summer, he’ll be one happy fighter.
Contact Grossman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 321-242-3676.