TAMPA — It was 1999, and senior Luigi Fioravanti was dabbling in judo but mostly cutting weight, winning a district title and getting ready for the state wrestling championships with his Pinellas Park High teammates.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship was sputtering along, yet to find sanctioning and holding its premier event in outposts such as Dothan, Ala.
It would be another year before Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White bought the struggling entity.
Ten years later, the UFC is a growing sport with a strong following, its event tonight — UFC Fight Night 17 — at the USF Sun Dome will be televised live on cable television, and Fioravanti will step into the Octagon and be beamed across the country.
Back then guys would be like, "What are you doing?" when he messed around with mixed martial arts, Fioravanti said.
"But I never thought I'd ever be a UFC fighter."
The St. Petersburg native, 28, takes on the favored Anthony Johnson, a top-notch striker with some buzz after some impressive knockouts.
Fioravanti is 13-4 overall. He won his first MMA fight in 2004; in fact, fighting on cards for regional MMA organizations such as Tampa's Real Fighting Championships and Absolute Fighting Championships, he started his career 7-0.
He rose to the biggest and most successful U.S. league in 2006, losing his UFC debut to Chris Leben.
In eight UFC fights, the 170-pound Fioravanti is 4-4, winning two of his past three, including a unanimous decision over Brodie Farber in his last fight in December.
Despite his wrestling background, Fioravanti is known more as an aggressive standup fighter who goes for the knockout, as does the taller Johnson.
"He's tough, man. He might be 5-8, 5-9, and I'm 6-2, but he's about as tough as they come for our weight class," said Johnson, who has a 6-2 record. "He can take a punch, and he can give a punch."
Johnson is coming off a wicked knockout of Kevin Burns in December, his third in five UFC fights, and is generating some buzz.
"He's dangerous. He's got some knockouts," Fioravanti said. "But I hit hard, too. It's something he needs to worry about, too.
"Keys to the fight? Just keep my hands up, chin down and just be smart."
Fioravanti has a small but loyal local following, namely his father, Roberto, mom Tina and sister Gabriella.
Instead of worrying about getting enough tickets for friends, he's trying to figure out how to get one of his back from his dad, who won two tickets this week by calling a local radio station.
"I could use it to give to a friend," he said, laughing.
A Marine who was in the first group sent into Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, and who had friends killed, was shot at and ducked for cover from incoming rocket-propelled grenades, Fioravanti is a hardened and determined fighter.
Though he attended college in Orlando when he returned in 2004 and thought about becoming a police officer, ultimately he returned to his first love full time.
He moved to the elite American Top Team Gym in Coconut Grove in 2007.
"I've improved a lot, in every facet," he said. "It was harder (in Orlando), working until 4, 5 a.m. at a bar, training at 11 a.m., girlfriends."
He is still learning, a rookie by most standards, but he has one ambition — to get a title shot and one day become a UFC champion.
"I've gotta work my way to the top, to get into title contention," he said. "I'm still young at 28. I know there's a lot of guys ahead of me.
"I just have to keep winning."
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.