In basketball, commentators spent years looking for the next Michael Jordan. Jordan was a transcendent player, simply the best and most famous athlete of his generation. Every player with a spring in his step and a semblance of a jump shot was christened the next Jordan. One after another, from Harold Minor to Vince Carter, they ran as far as they could from the comparison. “I don’t want to be the next Michael Jordan,” each would say, copying a template that would become familiar over the years. “I want to be the best Minor/Hill/Penny/Carter/Kobe/McGrady I can be.”
There is pressure being compared to the best. It can create false hopes and expectations. It can leave a talented prospect to seem wanting. No one wanted any part of being the next Jordan. But Bellator lightweight Mike Ricci is not afraid to be what trainer Firas Zahabi calls “the next Georges St. Pierre.”
“Those are some big shoes to fill,” Ricci told Heavy.com in an exclusive interview. “Training at all the gyms (St. Pierre) trains at and training alongside him, it’s really helped me evolve in my own weight class. I truly believe, along with my team, that I can accomplish everything he’s accomplished at welterweight in my own weight class. I believe I can accomplish that goal.”
For Ricci, a giant lightweight standing six feet and walking around at 180 pounds, being in St. Pierre’s orbit creates opportunities that might not be there for other 21 year old prospects with limited experience on the local scene.
“All these guys that come down, they are such a helping hand for the next generation like Ricci,” Zahabi said. “They’re some of the best in the world. When you train with them, you know exactly where you stand and what to work on. And you have these guys to look up to and model yourself after.”
In the last month, Ricci has had the chance to work with top talents like Nate Marquardt and Rashad Evans. Kenny Florian is also a frequent visitor, and of course there are constants at Zahabi’s TriStar gym like David “The Crow” Loiseau and Dennis Kang who have fought the best in the game. Top notch specialty camps also give Ricci a chance to perfect individual parts of his game.
“I wrestle with the Canadian Olympic team. My wrestling is very sharp and I usually end up winning that part of the fight. My striking is also very in tune. I do Muay Thai and boxing as well. I box here at one of the toughest gyms in all of Montreal, Grant Brothers, and I box with some of the best boxers they have. My hands are very good, as well as my feet,” Ricci said. “It’s a blessing. I’ve been blessed with great coaches all around at every gym I train in. I train in about four gyms. Firas is a great thinker. He has a great mind. And he’s so involved with the training, he’s bringing guys in from out of town and he’s shipping me out of town. He’s always making sure I am sharp.”
Zahabi believes Ricci is ready for international level competition, and when Bellator came knocking, the Canadians were ready to answer the call. Despite having just five fights, the belief is that strong training partners and superior athleticism will make up for a lack of experience.
“I feel like I’m ready for the competition at Bellator. That’s why I took this opportunity,” Ricci said. “When you are with Firas, you don’t get involved in things to do them halfway. It’s not to get exposure or get my face out there. We know we have a chance of winning this tournament. If I win this tournament and Eddie Alvarez (Bellator’s current lightweight champion) is the guy I have to fight, I think I’m prepared to fight him.”
Bellator’s second season debuts on Apr. 8, 2010 and will feature eight-man tournaments to crown contenders for the company’s current champions: Joe Soto (featherweight); Eddie Alvarez (lightweight); Lyman Good (welterweight) and Hector Lombard (middleweight).