mike-dolce-1.jpgMike Dolce has it pretty good these days.

His diet and fitness books are flying off the shelves. His services as a coach and weight-cutting guru to the MMA stars are in such high demand that his phone hardly stops ringing, and his reputation as a conditioning and healthy lifestyle expert made him the top choice for the recently launched UFC Fit program.

All the dreams he envisioned when he quit his high-paying job as a New Jersey tax assessor and moved to Oregon to work with pro fighters at Team Quest have now come true.

So why does he still have this urge to get punched in the face by a trained professional?

It’s not because he dreams of athletic glory, Dolce said. And it certainly isn’t for the money, though back when he started out as an MMA fighter it absolutely was. Now it’s about something different, something that’s harder to name. Maybe it’s the glowing coals of his competitive fire, or maybe it’s all that time he spends training and working and living with professional fighters.

Whatever the root cause may be, the urge won’t go away. Nearly three years after his last professional bout – a split-decision loss to J.T. Taylor – Dolce is starting to think he might have a few more left in him.

“I’m still an athlete,” Dolce told MMAjunkie.com (mmajunkie.com). “I still like to fight. I never retired, so I’m not saying a comeback, but I’m just a guy who likes to go in there and challenge myself. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I’m not trying to be the UFC champion. I’m just going out there and having some fun.”

The problem is, when you’re already as well-known in MMA circles as Dolce is, where do you go to have a little fun in the cage without it turning into a bigger deal than you were hoping for? Who do you fight? How do keep the bullseye off your back, especially when every up-and-comer would love to get a little free press by beating the man behind the “Dolce Diet?”

That’s the part Dolce hasn’t figured out yet. He also hasn’t figured out exactly when he’d have the time to train for his own fight, but he hopes to get at least one in some time between now and next summer, he said, “and then maybe do a fight a year for the next couple years.”

But those are the practical concerns, the “how” of this developing plan. The “why” is a little trickier.

On one had, sure, he’s competitive. Whether he was wrestling in high school, training as a power lifter or an MMA fighter, Dolce’s whole life has been marked by one athletic pursuit or another. Training others and improving their lives has always been a passion, he said, and lately it’s become a career, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost the desire to test himself against others.

“It’s good, as I enter this next phase of my life, to challenge myself and stay in shape,” Dolce said. “I have to practice what I preach.”

Lurking under that veneer, however, is at least a little bit of regret over how things turned out for him back in his fighting days. In four years as a pro, Dolce racked up a 5-10 record. Back then, what he really wanted to do was coach. Trouble was, there was hardly enough money in the sport for the fighters to live on. Paying top dollar for quality trainers simply wasn’t an option, which left Dolce essentially coaching for free and fighting just to scrape by.

“I was fighting to pay the bills,” Dolce said. “I was a strength coach working with [no-holds-barred] athletes in 2002 before it was officially MMA, so I was a coach in this industry well before there was an ability to earn a living, even a humble living, doing it. I was fighting as a way to pay the bills, because I was making more money as a fighter than I was as a coach.”

That meant that when he was offered short-notice fights against more experienced opponents, he had to accept. When his affiliation with Team Quest led to him being offered a spot on the gym’s IFL squad just two fights into his pro career, he jumped right in and took his best shot.

“I should have retired officially after my IFL run,” Dolce said. “I had far exceeded any expectations I had for myself. I won by first-round knockout in my first fight, but I had no business being there. I was a coach.”

Against fighters like Delson Heleno, Antonio McKee and later Mike Pierce, Dolce was in over his head. When he made it onto Season 7 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he seemed more concerned with the poor diet available in the reality TV show house than with fighting his way to the top in the UFC. Even after the show he found himself pulled in multiple directions. Should he continue to fight for meager paychecks, or focus on building a brand as a coach and trainer, which so far hadn’t paid off financially?

“I felt like I lost fights that I should have won, just because of lifestyle, circumstances, and even in my head I was focused on other things instead of fighting,” Dolce said. “As a coach, I’d tell my athletes to do the exact opposite.”

Maybe that’s why the allure of fighting seems so strong now, when his business is booming and he no longer has to strap on the gloves. Now that he can actually afford to take his time and train for the right fight, rather than taking whatever he can get, there’s some part of Dolce that wonders if the story of his fighting career couldn’t have a happier ending.

“Now I wouldn’t be going in there with broken ribs, like I did against Lyman Good on four weeks’ notice because, well, I had to pay the bills,” Dolce said. “I’d be going in against an equally skilled, equally experienced athlete, with no worry about my family not eating if I didn’t get the win bonus.”

Does he need to do it in order to feel good about himself as a fighter or an athlete or a man? Not really, he said. He doesn’t need to run marathons, either, though he’s planning on giving that a try soon, too.

It might just be that, now that he no longer has to fight, Dolce is remembering why he wanted to do it all those years ago. Back then, when he quit his job as a tax assessor to move to Oregon and spend his days in a sweat-soaked old barn of a gym, he wasn’t doing it for the money – he did it because he loved the sport and wanted to be involved in it.

Dolce loves it still, he said. Maybe there’s still time to remind himself what it felt like to love it on the inside of the cage, even if it’s just for one night.

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