From the Broncs’ Zoo to UFC octagon

Nick Catone, left, squares off against Mark Muñoz in a fight that took place on Aug. 29, 2009, in Portland, Oregon. Catone lost the fight by split decision.
Nick Catone, left, squares off against Mark Muñoz in a fight that took place on Aug. 29, 2009, in Portland, Oregon. Catone lost the fight by split decision.

By Thomas Albano

In April, Nick Catone, ’04, will enter the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, when it is filled with rabid Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fans and an opponent awaiting him in the octagon. The former Bronc wrestler’s mission is simple: Get a victory by knockout, technical knockout or submission.

For the man known as “The Jersey Devil” of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), when the lights are up and the pressure is on, the feeling is always indescribable.

“It’s just an adrenaline rush and really something that you can’t explain until you get in there,” Catone said. “I’ve wrestled hundreds and hundreds of matches, but in MMA you don’t have as many fights. So each time you get in there, you got to figure it’s your last.”

Rider days

Catone’s wrestling coach his last two years of high school was Jason Nase, ’97, an All-American who is now a volunteer assistant coach for Rider. Nase’s collegiate success influenced Catone to want to wrestle as a Bronc, but financial issues made Catone unable to attend originally.

He was at Rutgers for a year, but felt unhappy there.

“I just didn’t like the whole big campus thing,” Catone said. “It was just a bad experience there — bouncing around from campus to campus for classes.”

After transferring, Catone became a two-time conference champion at Rider. He holds Rider’s single-season record for takedowns with over 100 in his senior year, accumulated over 100 wins at the Division I level and was named Rider’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2004.

Catone credits current Associate Head Coach John Hangey and Head Coach Gary Taylor with not only developing his wrestling skills, but also helping him with normal college life troubles.

“[Division I wrestling] is definitely a step up from high school, and you need guys like John [Hangey] and Gary Taylor to kind of be there for you when you’re at that age and you’re looking up to someone and you need just a little bit of guidance,” he said.

Transition to MMA

After graduating, Catone started training in jiujitsu for about a year, and holds a black belt in the style under retired fighter Ricardo Almeida. Some of Catone’s friends dared him into doing an MMA fight, and he accepted, going straight into a professional fight with no experience in amateur MMA bouts.

Catone’s first fight took place on May 19, 2007, in Atlantic City. He won the fight by submission in only 1:23. Just a little over a month later, Catone was fighting at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. In front of nearly 10,000 people at an event broadcast on pay-per-view, he won again.

Catone continued his winning ways, having his next four bouts for the Ring of Combat promotion and going on to win its Middleweight Championship.

Hall of Fame Gym

Catone knew that in order to be competitive in MMA, he needed to focus on more than just jiujitsu and wrestling. On Sept. 18, 2010, Catone opened his own personal gym in Brick, New Jersey. The gym moved into an 8,000-square-foot facility about a year ago. Instructors, in addition to Catone, include Frankie Perez, who recently made his UFC debut back in January, and Corey Anderson, light heavyweight winner on the reality show The Ultimate Fighter: Team Edgar vs. Team Penn.

For his gym, Catone was recently initiated into the New Jersey MMA Hall of Fame.

“It’s nice to be noticed and inducted into the Hall of Fame after only being in business for four years,” Catone said. “So that just goes to show the people I have around me that have helped out through the years helped the gym to get where it is.”

Catone says even though nothing compares to being inside the octagon fighting, he’s getting ready to move on to be a full-time coach. Catone has visited Rider while training to help both himself and the wrestling team, and Hangey feels Catone will make a great coach.

“He’s got the right demeanor,” Hangey said. “Nick has the personality that is necessary to do that.”

The UFC

Just 16 months after his first MMA fight, Catone got an offer to compete with some of the best fighters in the world in the UFC.

“A guy was following me through the New Jersey circuits and heard about me and watched my fights,” he said. “He contacted me and said, ‘If I can get you into the UFC, could I manage you?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ Sure enough, a couple of days later he called up and said, ‘I got you a shot.’”

Catone made his UFC debut on Feb. 7, 2009, against middleweight Derek Downey. Catone got his first UFC victory, winning by submission in the second round.

Catone then went on a two-fight losing streak before picking up two more victories. After another two losses in 2012, including one fight at welterweight, Catone successfully made his return to middleweight with a split decision win at UFC 169 in February 2014.

His next fight is scheduled for April 18 against Vitor Miranda. Catone’s game plan will be to get Miranda, a kickboxer, down to the ground.

“I’m just going to do what I’ve done my whole life, and that’s look to take him down,” Catone said. “He’s got 34 pro kickboxing fights, so he’s more comfortable standing up, so it’s going to be that chess match of striker versus grappler. I want to take him down to my world.”

Injuries

Catone has had more than his fair share of injuries. Hangey said that Catone, in fact, had to go through many while at Rider.

“His hands were always the issue,” Hangey said. “He’d always mess up his thumb. He hurt his knee a couple of times.”

Injuries continued into his MMA days, as Catone says he’s been forced to pull from fights because of them, but they’re things a fighter just has to deal with.

“I’ve had a torn Achilles, shoulder surgery, some back issues,” he said. “The wear and tear over the years keeps building up. It’s definitely tough.”

To Hangey, Catone’s perseverance is what makes him not only a great fighter, but also a great role model.

“Injuries, family issues, setbacks — he’s persevered more than any athlete I have ever met and he’s never let it slow him down as far as pursuing his goals and dreams,” Hangey said. “There’s been so many chances for him to say, ‘I’m done. I can’t take it anymore,’ and he never did.”

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