One day Dustin Pague and Chris Merritt, high school pals from Harrisburg Pa., discovered a DVD at the video store of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Like most kids, Dustin and Chris started dreaming. They made plans to own a gym in the future—Pague would compete in mixed martial arts, and Merritt would coach him all the way to the biggest fighting stage in the world, the UFC.
Now living in Centreville, Pague is working hard to make his childhood dream come true. On Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Spike TV, The Ultimate Fighter debuts its 14th season with a two-hour premiere. Pague and 31 other fighting hopefuls will compete to earn 16 spots in the Ultimate Fighter house in Las Vegas and a chance to earn a six-figure contract with the UFC. This season's coaches, UFC middle-weight contender, Micheal Bisping, and MTV Bully Beatdown star Jason “Mayhem” Miller will watch the first round of fights and choose their teams.
Pague's path to reality TV didn’t occur overnight. “In high school I played football and boxed, but I didn’t really know anything about martial arts. When we first saw a UFC DVD at the video store I thought it was fake, like wrestling," he said. "After watching it, it was all I wanted to do.”
Soon after his 18th birthday, he joined Blackman Mixed Martial Arts in Harrisburg and entered his first amateur fight six month later in 2006, winning by triangle choke. Amateur fights brought him to Virginia, where he competed in Scott Howard’s Valhalla fight promotion.
“I actually fought one of Scott’s students, Siyam Yousefi, and afterwards we became good friends," Pague said. "Scott invited me to come down and cross-train at his old gym, Evolution, in Sterling.”
But training with Howard was totally different from what he was used to, he said. In Pennsylvania, he didn't have the right training partners or the right kind of instruction.
“Now, every day I wish I had wrestled in high school," Pague said. "And I work all the time to make up for that training regularly with Neil Johnson, national qualifier wrestler for George Mason University and one of the coaches at Disciple MMA Academy.”
Pague went on to have a successful amateur career becoming the North East regional 145 and 155 pound WKA MMA champ as well as the amateur Total Cage Combat feather-weight champ and Valhalla feather-weight champion. In 2008 Pague turned professional and is currently on a five-fight win streak. He won the Ring of Combat Bantam weight title with a victory in Atlantic City this past February. He’s been out of the public eye since June 6th, when he flew to Vegas for the fight to get in the Ultimate Fighter house.
The Ultimate Fighter show gives fighters the opportunity to train with some of the sport’s biggest stars while they live in a group house in Las Vegas. Episodes end with a match between two fighters to see who moves on in the competition to be this season’s Ultimate Fighter. The seasons end with a live event where each division’s finalists face off for a six-figure contract in the UFC. Also, the two coaches eventually will face off in the Octagon and after a season of coaching opposite each other on the show there’s usually a little animosity built up.
Outside of the cage, Pague's high school dreams are also becoming a reality. His high school pal, Chris Merritt, went on to get his B.S. in Kinesiology from Penn State and is now a strength and conditioning coach. They’re partnering with striking coach Scott Howard to open Disciple MMA Academy in Sterling, which opens in October. The brand-new gym has a full cage, boxing ring and all-new equipment, and coaches include a former opponent of Pague's, Siyam Yousefi.
Pague wants people to understand that he's just an ordinary guy, too, not the stereotype of an angry fighter.
“People often have the wrong idea about fighters. I’m a Christian and I glorify God with the good spirit he’s given me to make people laugh, and the skills he given me in the cage," he said. "People think fighters have to angry to fight, but I respect my opponents and treat them like a brother. It’s just a sport.”