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Joining the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster has been a dream of Billy Quarantillo’s since he was 16 years old. He came close to reaching that goal as part of the cast on Season 22 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Now, four years removed from that brush with his ultimate goal, the UFC contract brass ring is once again in reach. During week five of the latest season of Dana White’s Contenders Series, Quarantillo, 30, will return to the Octagon at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 23.
“My goal has always been to fight in the UFC,” Quarantillo told Sherdog. “I didn’t grow up watching Bellator. I grew up watching the UFC and The Ultimate Fighter. I was really drawn to it from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter when I was like 16. We didn’t miss an episode of Season One, Two and Three. I watched that, and it was kind of in the back of my head as something I was really interested in [doing one day].”
Quarantillo’s affection for the UFC goes back more than a decade. The Lewiston, New York, native – who now resides in Tampa, Florida – is the youngest of five siblings. With three older brothers, competition between the boys was commonplace. On the hockey rink, on the football field and on the basketball court, they were often looking to prove who was the toughest. Competition between the siblings even included tests of toughness in fights.
“I was always drawn to fighting,” said Quarantillo. “Me and my brothers would always get into fun ‘mess around’ fights. And we would get into some fights at school, like on the school bus.”
They would also get into fights at local bars as they grew into young men. However, bar fighting was not going to help Quarantillo transition to becoming the professional fighter he always wanted to be, competing in the same cage as The Ultimate Fighter pioneers like Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans. After he finished high school, he finally took up his first martial art – Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Although he was a long-time fan of MMA, and dreamt of competing in it, Brazilian jiu-jitsu offered him his first real taste of organized combat sports. That was when his true love for MMA began.
A few years would go by during which Quarantillo modestly progressed through the various checkpoints on the road to becoming a mixed martial artist. In 2010, he would make his amateur debut. In 2013, he would turn pro at Fight Time 13 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Two years after that, he earned a spot on The Ultimate Fighter as a seven-fight veteran with stoppages over all but one of his opponents. At the time, he thought he was ready for the momentous opportunity in front of him. Now, however, Quarantillo is aware that he was not yet where he needed to be to succeed at what he considers one of the most difficult tests in the sport.
“Looking back, I don’t think I was as completely prepared as I could have been,” Quarantillo acknowledged. “I was 26 years old, but I only had seven fights. It was a tough lesson learned, losing on that show [to Saul Rogers in the opening round]. It’s a crazy experience you can’t really imagine until you do it: Not having that cell phone, not being able to talk to your girlfriend, not being able to talk to anyone in your family and basically being on their schedule.”
Being in a house where he was unable to talk to his family or be with his own coaches at his home gym was difficult for the Gracie Tampa South fighter, especially when his hopes of reaching the UFC were dashed early on by Team Europe’s Rogers. However, despite falling short of his goal, Quarantillo feels that the experience was worthwhile, as he was able to work with uber-talented UFC fighters like Team USA head coach Urijah Faber, T.J. Dillashaw, Cody Garbrandt and Josh Emmett. Even though he admits that he would pass on a second go-around if offered, he feels the show is an experience from which any fighter can benefit.
“I learned so much from it,” affirmed Quarantillo. “I met so many cool people that I still stay in contact with. I realized where I was at [as a fighter at the time]; I found out what I needed to work on. But I also realized on my best day I was able to beat some of these guys. That was refreshing, because I would watch a lot of these guys on TV, and you think they’re superhuman. Then you get to role with them, spar with them [and] train with them every day. It made me realize I was at some of their levels, and then I knew what I had to work on to get to [the level] of the best guys in the world. I do think it’s something a lot of fighters can benefit from, because it’s a crazy experience. It’s almost like a rite of passage.”
Since the show, Quarantillo has won five of six and earned a King of the Cage championship at featherweight. His toughest test in the intervening years, though, was likely having to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, an injury that cost him a year of his MMA career. But the persistent competitor did not take the situation lying down.
After rehabbing his knee in the two months following his surgery, he trained his hands exclusively for the next six. This allowed his leg to continue to heal while at the same time allowing him to be active and to even improve his boxing. Eight months after his surgery, he competed in a boxing match and earned a four-round decision victory. In Quarantillo’s opinion, the fighter that enters the Octagon on July 23 will be a very different fighter compared to the one fans may remember from four years ago.
“What I’ve been able to do over the last four years, to get back to this point, has been the true test of my career so far,” Quarantillo remarked. “I’m just a totally different fighter now. I’ve had as many fights since The Ultimate Fighter as I did before. I basically doubled my career time, and I’m really excited to show what I’ve been working on.”
Although he admits he feels nervous energy heading into his bout with Kamuela Kirk, it’s no different from the nervousness he’s had in any other fight. However, he does understand how important the moment in front of him is, especially after having been so close to his dream job once before.
“The last few fights [have] been make or break for me,” said Quarantillo. “I put a lot of pressure on myself, because I know one loss [can change a lot]. That Saul Rogers loss put me back years from another opportunity. It’s taken me four years to get back to this position. I know what a win [or a] loss means.”
The four-stripe Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, who owns a Florida real estate license obtained during his ACL rehab, knows that winning does not guarantee a contract at the end night. Alliance MMA fighter Brendan Lougnane found that out in week. He was not granted a contract despite a decisive win over fellow talented prospect Bill Algeo. UFC President Dana White was critical of Loughnane’s late-fight strategy on fight night, and to ESPN days later, saying, “You don’t double-leg when the 10-second thing claps [in the final round]. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
Quarantillo doesn’t feel any added pressure in relation to White’s preference for “killers” – another assertion made by the UFC figurehead in the first week of this season. Quarantillo believes that he offers a fan-friendly fighting style and that he will have a leg up on a UFC contract with a win.
“Luckily for me I have a pretty exciting style,” Quarantillo commented. “My game plan is pretty simple: When the bell rings, I am trying to hurt you [and] trying to be exciting. Winning is great, but I never wanted to be one of those fighters where you just lay on the guy, or you’re just going for takedowns over and over and riding it out. I understand you have to sell tickets. You have to be exciting. It’s a sport, but if you’re not exciting, no one wants to watch you. I’ve always wanted to be exciting.”
Quarantillo expects fireworks between himself and “The Jawaiian” inside the UFC Apex on fight night. He also expects to give Kirk the stiffest test of his 11-fight career. He thinks he has competed under a much bigger spotlight previously, faced better competition, and has the talent to hand the Siege MMA fighter his first loss inside the distance.
“I’m used to that spotlight,” Quarantillo said. “He’s never been finished, but he’s never fought someone at my level – being 11-2. I think the guys I’ve fought are a little bit tougher. It’s a huge test for him. I feel pretty comfortable wherever this fight goes. I think we’re going to put on a show, and I think I am going to be the first one to finish him.”