WAILUKU --- After winning ''The Ultimate Fighter'' reality show in 2006 and signing a contract to fight in the UFC, Kendall Grove said time and again that his dream was to come back to Maui and open a mixed martial arts school of his own.
Two weeks ago, lying on his back on the carpeted floor in the loft of I&I Training Center while sweat ran down his heavily tattooed skin, Grove attempted to catch his breath after an intense session of training for his Aug. 8 bout on the UFC 101 card in Philadelphia.
''I guess I have accomplished my dreams,'' the Baldwin High School graduate said while scanning the walls, covered with posters and news clippings that chronicle the MMA journey taken by him and his friend, trainer and business partner Troy Mandaloniz, a former UFC fighter. ''Not to be a champion, but to fight with the best the sport has to offer. And then, here we are, sitting in me and Rude Boy's (Mandaloniz's) school. It's kind of unreal.''
The Maui News / STARR BEGLEY photo
Wins in his last two fights upped UFC middleweight Kendall Grove’s record to 12-5 entering next week’s bout with Ricardo Almeida.
The Maui News / STARR BEGLEY photo
UFC middleweight Kendall Grove watches a mixed martial arts bout at War Memorial Gym in April.
Grove (12-5) is going into his middleweight fight against jiujitsu specialist Ricardo Almeida (10-3) on an upward swing that followed three losses --- a skid that nearly cost him his job in the UFC.
Going into his past two fights, UFC president Dana White said publicly that if Grove lost, he would be dropped from the circuit.
Grove answered with a split-decision win over the late Evan Tanner in The Ultimate Fighter season finale in June 2008 and a swift, first-round TKO of Jason Day at UFC 96 in March.
''There's times when I really question if the UFC is what I want,'' Grove said. ''I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to the UFC and what it's done for me and how it helped me pave the way for some of these other Maui boys, Hawaii up and comers, but win or lose, I'm just glad to fight.''
The UFC 101 card also includes a fight between UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn of Hilo and Kenny Florian, and a lightweight bout between ''Sugar'' Shane Nelson, also of Hilo, and Aaron Riley.
In the past, Grove has added a tattoo before every UFC fight. Prior to his bout with Day, the middleweight had the I&I logo tattooed on his abdomen. Fans often speculate about his design choices on Internet message boards and chat rooms.
''Not this time,'' Grove said about the Almeida bout. ''Funny, I was just thinking about that. I've always been really superstitious before fights, taping ankles, tattoos. But this time, I'm not getting one. Not so superstitious anymore.
''Not to mention, times are tough,'' he added with a laugh. ''Tattoos are expensive.''
Grove has spent the last few weeks recovering from a rib injury.
''Minors,'' he said of the injury. ''It hurts like hell, but by the time the fight comes, I should be good. I'm getting older, I guess. I figure I have a good five solid years left in me to fight. Over the years I've matured as a person, as a fighter. Yeah, if you put someone in front of me, I'll fight them, but the UFC isn't everything to me anymore. There's more.''
The 26-year old Grove does have many irons in the fire, including a young family --- his daughter Khloe had her first birthday last month --- and his new business.
Mandaloniz and Grove plan to train other fighters in the years to come.
At an MMA event in June at War Memorial Gym, I&I fighters won all of their matches but one, when illegal strikes after the bell resulted in a victory being taken away.
''I can honestly say that being with my boys at these Maui events, watching them do good and fight with all their hearts, that's more fulfilling to me at this point than me being in the ring,'' Grove said. ''But at the same time, when they're in that ring or the cage, and I'm on the other side watching them, it makes me want to fight real bad, so it's this vicious cycle. Seeing them makes me hungry.''
Grove said his gym's fighters are devoted to MMA.
''If you don't have a true passion for the sport, then you're not right for our gym,'' he said. ''But I tell you, not to sound full of myself, but for real, when one of my guys wins I feel so proud.''
Grove and Mandaloniz have now been in California for a week in the final stretch of training for next week's fight, and according to Mandaloniz, Grove is ready.
''Here in Cali, working with B.J. guys, Kendall really clicked,'' Mandaloniz said. ''He saw a specialist for the rib he's injured and it's much better. It shouldn't affect the outcome of the fight. Mentally he's strong. Everything has really come together. B.J. guys complimented on how good he looks, how he's focused and as a trainer that makes me feel good. It's validating.''
The fight against Almeida will be Grove's first while training extensively at I&I.
''It's not really where you train, but who you train with,'' Mandaloniz said. ''You know, we've brought in a lot of the same guys that Kendall's been training with these past few fights. The only difference is that we brought them to Maui instead of Hilo.''
Grove is 6-foot-6 and lanky, which could be to his advantage against Almeida.
''The thing is, I doubt Almeida's found someone to train with that's built like Kendall. You just don't find many people with his build,'' Mandaloniz said. ''So working on using his height and reach to his advantage is going to be key. Almeida can train all day, and yes, he's excellent on the ground, but if you've never rolled with a guy like Kendall it's a totally different game. I think that's going to really work in (Grove's) favor.''
Grove, meanwhile, may be considering what the future holds beyond fighting, but he still sounds focused on the upcoming bout.
''I'm at a hundred percent,'' he said. ''I train, I rest. I have nothing on my mind but next Saturday.''
Starr Begley is at firstname.lastname@example.org