Three fighters take a shot at ultimate stardom

Jack Encarnacao

It’s not often that a fighter rises at the crack of dawn to go into battle before the sleep is even out of his eyes.

A trio of mixed martial artists from the South Shore of Massachusetts took the day off from work, packed into a car and drove to the Sheraton Hotel in Boston last week to take a stab at a one-of-a-kind audition.

Eric Magee, Eric Foley and Matt Johnson tried out for The Ultimate Fighting Championship's popular Spike TV reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter.”

The program, now in its seventh season, is a tournament-style show where 16 fighters from across the country room together and fight one another in pursuit of a contract with the UFC, the leading organization in the sport.

“I have no idea how this is going to go to be honest with you,” said Magee, of Whitman, Mass., shortly after arriving at the hotel and being assigned a number. “I don’t care. I’m just going to go in there and do my thing like I always do. I go in there, overpower guys, try to get on top, get good position and pound their face in for the win. ... I’ll take any opportunity to try to get discovered. Do what I got to do.”

Contestants had the chance to grapple, kickbox and interview before UFC President Dana White and Spike TV producers. Hundreds of fighters turned out, and many went to great lengths to leave an impression.

One fighter wore an absurd pink leotard during his grappling exhibition, another a jock strap outside of his shorts. There were tattoos on a foot and a skull stenciled into a haircut.

“We look for energy, anything that says they’ll be interesting to watch,” said “The Ultimate Fighter” co-executive producer Andrea Richter. “There’s just something about people that makes you want to watch them or doesn’t.”

The local fighters, who all train at South Shore Sports Fighting in Rockland, Mass., were soft-spoken and poker-faced. They didn’t appear nervous. After all, Magee, 23, and Foley, 38, of Marshfield, Mass., have performed under pressure.

Magee recently returned from tours as an Army ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foley has rubbed elbows with danger as a K-9 officer in the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office.

Masking nervousness, grappling feverishly and standing out are not three things easily done at the same time. But, as the popularity of mixed martial arts grows in the area, more want to see if they have what it takes to make it to the UFC.

“When we first started, seeing a lot people from New England was unusual. Now, it’s not at all,” said White, the UFC president and a former Boston hotel bellboy.

“This thing here today, there’s people from everywhere. There’s people from California, New Mexico, Oregon. There’s a guy from Ireland here. There’s people from not only all over the country but all over the world.”

This made it even harder to stand out. Johnson, 35, of Holbrook, Mass., a father of four who works on telephone poles as a technician, said he expected Magee’s dramatic background in the military to play well as a personality hook.

“We’re all looking for a certain storyline to tell them, something that may interest them,” Johnson said. “Eric’s got a pretty good one. I don’t have anything as gripping as he does.”

It worked. After showing producers his grappling and kickboxing, and telling producers about his life experiences, Magee was the only one of the three put into a pool of applicants who could be flown to Las Vegas for a more intensive screening.

He cancelled a fight he had scheduled in Plymouth to make sure he’s healthy if the call comes. The next season of “The Ultimate Fighter” is set to premiere Sept. 17.

“I think this was the hardest thing to do,” Magee said after meeting the show’s producers. “I’m pretty confident.”

Patriot Ledger writer Jack Encarnacao may be reached at