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Andre Fili: The Fight Inside

 
As far as auditions go, this wasn’t one for the memory book, though Andre Fili doesn’t forget October 2, 2010.

While not an official tryout by any means, Fili, then 20 years old, wanted to train with the Team Alpha Male squad in Sacramento, just 20 minutes away from where he lived and home – even back then – to the top lighter weight fighters in the game. Fili was 4-0 and he knew that when he faced Derrick Burnsed in Roseville, the team’s founder and leader - Urijah Faber – was going to be in attendance. It was a golden opportunity, one that resulted in a fifth round loss when Fili injured his knee.

“In the back, I told Urijah ‘I’m sorry I lost. I’ve really been looking forward to fighting in front of you and I really want to come train with you guys,’” Fili recalled. “From there, he invited me to try the team out.”

More than four years later, Fili is 24, a UFC fighter getting ready for his fourth Octagon bout this Saturday in Rio de Janeiro against Godofredo Pepey, and he’s still a member of Team Alpha Male. Sounds like a smooth ride, right? It wasn’t, at least not for the first year.
“Everyone was really welcoming and cool, especially Urijah,” Fili said. “But I’d be lying if I said it was an easy transition. It was actually a pretty rough transition. (Laughs) I think it took me almost a full year to get my head out of my ass.”

Simply put, Fili was acting like a 20-year-old, which is fine in most walks of life, but in professional fighting, it’s just not going to work, at least not for long.

“I was training three, four times a week, still partying with my friends, still getting into trouble, and getting into fights,” he said. “I just wasn’t living a lifestyle that would let me keep up with the rest of the guys in the room.”

Especially when the guys in the room include Faber, Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez, TJ Dillashaw and Danny Castillo, just to name a few.

“I’m not like Chad or TJ and Urijah, those guys who have just always been studs, always been winners,” Fili said. “They’re Type A personality guys that have been good at wrestling, they’ve been winners. I wasn’t that. I was a guy doing a lot of negative stuff and I was surrounded by a lot of negative stuff.”

Faber, always with an eye on future, as well as everything happening in his gym, saw the potential in Fili, but it was going to take some tough love for the Washington state native to realize it.

“If you want to come in every Wednesday and spar the guys and get your ass kicked, then you can do that,” Faber finally told him. “But if you really want to make this sport a lifestyle like you say you do, then you’ve got to start making some changes.”
Surprisingly, Fili agreed, and he straightened his act out.

“Once I started making those changes, it started paying off and I can’t thank the team enough,” he said. “They lit a fire under me. I changed a lot of habits, a lot of things in my life, and it started paying dividends.”

Now Fili is making business trips to Brazil, his second in less than six months. Last October, he went over the .500 mark in the Octagon, scoring a three-round unanimous decision over Felipe Arantes. Now he gets another aggressive veteran in Pepey, and all that comes with it, including chants from the Brazilian crowd screaming for his head. But he likes that stuff.

“That kinda hypes me up,” he laughs. “I enjoyed it a little bit. I know that probably sounds weird, but I really enjoy that intensity. It really does the fight justice, with people screaming these crazy intense things. Obviously I love all MMA fans, but sometimes fans will watch a fight, get up and take a break, they’ll go get some snacks at the snack bar or if they’re not interested in a fight, they’ll check their phones. But when there’s a fight on in Brazil, every person in the stadium is watching. It’s packed from the first prelim to the main event. These fans live and breathe the event, and that’s a pretty cool experience. It validates how really big what you’re doing actually is.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t those moments before he gets the call to the Octagon where he wonders what it’s all for.

“Every fight is scary, every fight is a pretty nerve-wracking process, but that’s what makes us fighters,” he said. “We look at that and push forward. I think a lot of people, myself included, you have that question where you go, ‘why the hell do I do this to myself?’ (Laughs) and you get rid of that and you just get excited. You get ready and you go on autopilot and you fight.”
> Watch Fili's UFC debut fight against Jeremy Larsen

And Fili does it better than most, with an exciting style and affable personality marking him for future stardom if he keeps winning and keeps putting in the hours in the gym. But let’s go back to the question he’s asked himself in the tunnel before fights. Why does he do this?
“I don’t know if there’s one exact reason,” he said. “There are all these things that factor into it, but I guess it would have to be that I love it. Like anything you love, there are a lot of days I don’t like it, but I always love it. I think this is just who I am, and some people are just born with it. You’re born with something inside you that makes you love to fight. Since I was a kid, all I wanted to do was fight. Before I ever saw MMA, I loved pro wrestling, I loved the Ninja Turtles, I loved everything that had to do with fighting. I had that in me already. If you’ve ever coached kids’ MMA, you can see some kids are there just because their dad made them come. (Laughs) But there are other kids, their eyes light up. They’ve got a fire in them when you teach them something and they love to fight. Certain people are born with that fight inside them.”

Andre Fili has that. He always has. But now he’s honed it and turned that fire into a career that can take him further than he ever thought he’d go. Dare we say that he’s matured?

“I hope not,” he laughs. “I’m about to be 25 this year and that’s a terrifying thing to think about. But I think I have matured. As much as I’ve tried to fight it, it’s still managed to drag me along. I’m still the same person, I just make better choices.”

Such as?

“You can’t go out, party all night, eat a breakfast burrito at 4am and wake up at 9:30 and spar Chad Mendes. It’s not gonna work.”

Can’t argue with that logic.

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