Older, wiser O’Neil ready for next step

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What others might consider a passing fancy or status symbol means far more to Bridgewater, Mass., welterweight Chuck O’Neil.

“I’m not doing this to be cool or have pictures on Facebook,” O’Neil said matter-of-factly.

O’Neil, ranked No. 1 by his peers in the northeast, is instead continuing a journey to get back to the stage most fighters only dream of reaching. A former contestant on the Ultimate Fighting Championships’ The Ultimate Fighter reality television series in 2011, O’Neil has won his last two bouts inside the cage and is perhaps one or two more victories from another date with destiny. This time, O’Neil hopes to stick around for a while – perhaps the rest of his career if things go well.

“I want to get back there and stay there,” said O’Neil (11-5, 3 KOs), who’ll face 10th-ranked Brazilian Gil de Freitas (14-5, 4 KOs) on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013 on the undercard of Jimmy Burchfield’s Classic Entertainment & Sports’ “Gold Rush” mixed martial arts event at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I.

“So many guys are concerned with going to the UFC, but won’t take the tough fights. They just want to get there. That’s not me. I’m going to keep pushing, whether I’m a fill-in or I get back there the normal way. There’s still that same fire under my butt.”

O’Neil’s road back to the top hasn’t been easy; in December, he made his Twin River debut with a hard-fought win over local fan-favorite Keith Jeffrey, one of the top welterweights in the northeast, and then survived an early scare in June against last-minute replacement Ralph Johnson, who caught him on the chin in the opening seconds before eventually tiring out and succumbing to O’Neil’s ground game. With Johnson on his back unable to defend himself, O’Neil won by knockout (excessive blows) a minute and a half into the fight, escaping Twin River with another much-needed win.

The uncertainty between who and where he’d be fighting prior to the bout against Johnson (several potential bouts fell through before the event in June) took its toll on O’Neil, but the early scare also reminded him to never take anyone – or anything – for granted, a lesson he won’t need to learn the hard way against de Freitas.

“I remember sitting in the locker room [before the fight in June] thinking, ‘Let’s just get this over with,'” O’Neil said. “It was a weird situation going through so many different opponents and changing venues, but there’s no excuse.

“I came out stupid, and Ralph came out with guns blazing. Luckily, I had the wherewithal to grab him on the way down and finish him. Even though he might not have been a top-ranked guy, you have to treat everyone like they are.”

That same rule will apply to de Freitas, a member of Team Link in Ludlow, Mass., and arguably the toughest opponent O’Neil has faced since he battled the UFC’s Chris Cope and Marcus Davis in back-to-back fights in 2011. Though de Freitas has lost three of his last five fights, he’s faced some of Brazil’s premier welterweights; the three opponents he’s lost to during that stretch have 72 combined wins, including Erick Silva, who’s appeared on five UFC cards since April of 2011 with three wins to his credit.

“This fight is exactly what Gil is looking for,” said de Freitas’ trainer, Marco Alvan. “He’s at the point in his career where he needs to challenge the guys who’ve been there to prove he belongs there, too. Chuck is as good as it gets. He’s No. 1 for a reason.

“Gil needs to win this fight and win it convincingly to put himself in the conversation. Being a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, I predict he’ll win by submission late in the second round or early in the third. His Jiu-Jitsu skills will show up in the fight.”

Stamina worked in O’Neil’s favor when he fought Johnson, who took the fight on short notice and ran out of steam midway through the opening round, but de Freitas has gone the distance 12 times in 19 fights, so he’s accustomed to the workload.

“He won’t gas out,” O’Neil said of de Freitas. “He’s super tough. He comes from a great camp and has a fought a laundry list of tough opponents. He’s a power-puncher who loves to get your back to the cage and dirty-box you. He won’t back down, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. We’ll put on a good show. I’m really looking forward to this fight.”

O’Neil’s aware the UFC is always right around the corner, and there’s always a possibility of the right people watching on fight night, as evident by the fact Boston’s John “Doomsday” Howard recently punched his ticket back to the big stage after winning four consecutive fights under CES’ promotional guidance. If he makes it back, O’Neil will do so as a stronger, more mature fighter both in and outside of the cage. As much as his experience on TUF made him a household name, he credits his outside influences with helping him develop through the years.

“Honestly, it’s about having the right people around you,” he said. “My coach, Nate Ryan, doesn’t just make me a better fighter, but he helps me in my career as a person, too, helping me mature. Having a guy like that around me is huge.

“I went through that phase in 2005 and 2006 when I first started training mixed martial arts walking around talking about, ‘Oh, yeah, I fight!” but that means nothing. I’ve grown up in this sport. I know what it takes now and I’m more concerned about winning and growing as a fighter, not trying to be a jackass.”

Along with the O’Neil-de Freitas showdown, “Gold Rush” will also feature a historic featherweight battle between prospects Rob Font (6-1) of Boston and Chris Foster (7-2, 4 KOs) of Meriden, Conn., for the vacant CES MMA title.

Tickets for “Gold Rush” are $36.00, $56.00, $101.00 and $126.00 and can be purchased by calling CES at 401.724.2253/2254, online at www.cesmma.com or www.twinriver.com, at the Players Club booth at Twin River, or through any TicketMaster location. Doors open 6 p.m. with the first bout scheduled for 7.

The undercard also features the Rhode Island debuts of UFC veteran Tom Egan (5-3, 4 KOs) of Dorchester, Mass. (by way of Ireland), and Delray Beach, Fla., welterweight Charles Rosa (3-0), who will fight in separate three-round bouts. Egan will face Framingham, Mass., middleweight Aldo Santos (3-1, 1 KO) while Rosa will battle Silvester Murataj (0-1) of Rocky Hill, Conn.

Fan-favorite Dinis Paiva Jr. (3-4, 1 KO) of East Providence, R.I., will face Rob Sullivan (1-1) of Baltimore, Md., in a bantamweight bout and Springfield, Mass., lightweight Damien Trites (6-5, 1 KO) will return to Twin River against Fayetteville, N.C., veteran Andrew Osborn (6-5, 1 KO). Also returning to Twin River, Salem, Mass., bantamweight Matt Doherty (1-0, 1 KO) will battle Johnny Campbell (5-4, 3 KOs) of Plymouth, Mass., while Brazilian Juliano Coutinho (3-1, 2 KOs) clashes with Providence’s Eric Bedard (5-3, 3 KOs) in a highly-anticipated heavyweight bout. Bantamweight Sophanarith Am (1-0) of Revere, Mass., will face Johnston, R.I., newcomer Devin Pilkington and Cheyenne Vasquez (0-0) of Boston will battle Framingham’s Terrell Clark (1-0, 1 KO) in a middleweight bout. All fights and fighters subject to change.

(Twin River has waived its 18+ rule for “Gold Rush.” Anybody under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult and must enter through the West entrance).

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