Todd Duffee (9-3) was once considered a top prospect in mixed martial arts. At the age of 23, the heavyweight powerhouse had knocked out every opponent en route to his UFC debut in 2009. In that inaugural contest, he scored the fastest knockout ever clocked in the UFC heavyweight division (0:07).
Shortly after the impressive first fight with the organization, Duffee lost his next bout and was inexplicably released from his contract.
When Dana White was questioned on Duffee’s discharge, the UFC president simply stated that Duffee had a “horrible attitude.”
After a failed bid to capture the DREAM heavyweight belt on short notice against Alistair Overeem and a fleeting stint in India’s Super Fight League, Duffee returned to the UFC in 2012. He went 2-1 between 2012 and 2015, but injuries kept him from being as active as he hoped to be.
It’s now been four years since Duffee has stepped foot in the Octagon. In the fight game, that’s a lifetime. Champions have come and gone, fans have jumped off and boarded more bandwagons than can be counted and the heavyweight division looks different from when Duffee was poised to rise to the top of it.
Duffee, though, doesn’t feel like he ever left.
“I had that knee injury that messed me up. I had the shoulder [injury], but I’ve been involved. I’ve been around, but it’s different. It’s an entirely different division. It’s way more stacked. Uh, the guys that are coming in now are coming in with pedigrees and they’re coming in better. They’re better athletes; they’re better fighters in general,” Duffee told John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock.
It was more than just injuries that kept Duffee, now 33-years-old, from the limelight. His last fight was against former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. Mir emphatically won the fight in the first round which led to Duffee having a tough time with contract negotiations.
“Well, you can’t get starched and then go right back to it. I tried, but you’re not going to get the support you want. I mean, the reality is like that big time off was me negotiating a contract. I mean, they made fun of it on Joe Rogan for Christ’s sake. My coach and Jess and Joe [Rogan] they’re laughing like ‘this guy’s fighting the main event for 10 grand.’ You can’t get support to go fight when you’re not really making a living doing it. This is the heavyweight division; damage is done. No doubt. Guys get hurt. If you lose a fight, you’re hurt. You’re not just like, ‘Oh, I lost like, shucks.’ There’s damage.”
“So I negotiated with Joe [Silva] as long as I could. Joe ended up selling his portion and making a bunch of money. He got out of the game and then Mick Maynard came on and he gave me a much better contract. It made it possible for me to do this as a career. Joe added two grand on my contract, like, ‘Hey, great fight. Let me bump your contract up as well.’ I just did not have the support around me to support that. I wanted to fight, I told Joe, ‘Hey, I’ll be training every day. Let’s work on this.’ Thank god Mick got hired on and made it work for me.”
Those negotiations with Silva were taxing. There were days when Duffee wondered whether or not he could make a decent living competing in the sport. Duffee never thought of fully stepping away from martial arts, but he often pondered his role in MMA.
“It wasn’t, ‘I’m not doing this shit anymore.’ I love martial arts. But I was thinking ‘Oh, this is a hobby.’ This is not a career. It costs to play the sport. It just does. Pad sessions aren’t free. Coaching isn’t free. Sometimes you have to pay your training partners to get punched in the face. It’s just how the sport works. Guys aren’t just lining up for that.”
While the expenses were adding up, the UFC decided to get rid of sponsorships for fighters and force them to wear only Reebok fight kits. The first event where fighters weren’t allowed to have outside sponsors on their shorts was the Fight Night card where Dufffee faced Mir back in 2015. The Reebok deal left Duffee with a “bad taste” in his mouth but he still loved martial arts. He still loved fighting. He even still loved the UFC. But for a man who had won every fight in his career by KO, Duffee was a bit perturbed that the UFC wasn’t willing to pay him his worth.
Fans who were watching at the time of his rise remember the hype around Duffee. They were clamoring for him to return to the cage and to see his potential realized. Duffee didn’t want to make his personal dealings with the promotion public. He would often blame just injuries on his absence.
“You don’t want to like expose the sport for the realities,” Duffee divulged.
Duffee now has a contract he is much happier with and spends a lot of his time at the UFC Performance Institute. He feels he has the backing of the promotion and is excited to get back into the Octagon. Duffee will take that first step back on September 14 when he meets Jeff Hughes (10-2) at UFC Vancouver.
While Duffee thinks the fight is a good one for both him and Hughes, he isn’t crazy about fighting in another country.
“Nobody wants to find out of their country. You have to pay their taxes as well. And again, this is a business. I think that Canadian taxes are ridiculous. I don’t know, but I want to say they are going to get like half and they take it right off the top. So I’m not excited about that. No one is.”
Regardless of the taxes, Duffee just wants to beat Hughes then beat someone in the top-15 and move up the ranks as quickly as possible. He trusts his new manager, Ali Abdelaziz, to work out the details and steer his career.
Though things are finally looking up for Duffee, he still can’t help but feel he’s missed out on a lot these last four years. Many fighters he wanted to face and that he considered his peers have moved on from the organization.
“I hate that I missed [Josh] Barnett and I hate that I missed my rematch with Frank [Mir]. I hate that like there all these guys like [Fabricio] Werdum like is he coming back? I don’t know. I think he is. I would imagine Werdum does. Werdum loves this shit.
“I’ve got to train with a lot of those guys, but you want to fight, you know, I missed Mark Hunt. These are great fights that I should have had if I had a better-managed career. I allowed for certain things to occur and here we are. So I’ve got this new breed that’s probably a lot tougher, to be honest with you. The division is way more stacked. It’s way more difficult to get through, but I’m excited to do it, man.
“Being a part of the ESPN era is a big deal for me. Just knowing that I come from, I come from the 2006, 2005 era, and just to see us here on ESPN is exciting. It’s fun to be one of those guys. I kind of consider myself a pioneer up and doing this for 14 years.”
Brandon is a long-time fan of combat sports who has covered them for various outlets since 2017.