A professional mixed martial artist by trade, Mike Rio, a former contestant on season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter, has another battle to fight. Rio has waged his own personal war on autism.

“I’m highly active in a non-profit organization called Autism Speaks,” Rio stated in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “They try to bring awareness to autistic kids and autistic adults. This is the South Florida branch, so focusing more on South Florida.”

Autism can be used as a general term for a broad spectrum of characteristics caused by neurological disorders. As of current scientific discovery on the subject, there are three major forms of autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs. They are autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Characteristics of autism can include social and communication deficits, as well as repetitive behaviors.

Although the first documented diagnosis goes back to the mid-1700s, the science behind understanding autism and helping children and adults deal with it has a long way to go. Since the brain is such a complex organ, it is just one of many neurological studies, and there is greater need for understanding how to work with autistic people effectively. For Rio, autism research hits home, quite literally.

Rio (facebook.com/mikeriomma)

“My little brother is autistic, and he beat autism by graduating from high school and getting a full ride to college,” Rio explained. “So I’m trying my best to donate money. I sell these wristbands—they’re just simple wristbands with my name on them—and all the money I make on them I 100 percent give to Autism Speaks. My goal is simple. Let’s try to get enough money so the schools can be prepared for kids with special needs and train teachers to handle kids with special needs.”

A lot of TUF alumni gain fame that they use in different ways. Some guys use their fame like circus clowns, some use it to boost sponsorship, and some use their fame for the greater good. Rio has chosen the latter. However, he is all fighter at heart.

The 31-year-old Rio is a highly decorated high school and collegiate wrestler that had his pro MMA debut in 2008, winning by TKO. In his 10-fight career, he has only been to decision twice, one of which accounts for his only loss (to former UFC fighter and TUF alum Efrain Escudero). Rio has won four times by submission, four by knockout and won one by decision, so he is a very well-rounded fighter that has a big gas tank that allows him to go the distance. Having a wide background of training helps, but his current gym has been his home base for his most recent wins.

“My main gym is Zen Jiu-Jitsu out of Kendall, Fla., and my main coach is Enrico Cocco,” said Rio. “I have a bunch of training partners in my gym. No big superstar names, it’s just a bunch of guys who are super hungry and go balls-to-the-wall every single day. I get all the guys literally teaming up on me.

“It’s not like I’m just in there with my coach Enrico and he’s going one-on-one with me all the time. He does go one-on-one with me as much as I want, but then there’s days when he rotates seven or eight guys in on me and pushes me as hard as I can possibly go. Everybody is on the same page.”

One unique camp that Rio had the privilege of going through was during his stint on TUF. Looking like a possible favorite in the beginning of the season, Rio dropped his elimination bout to British fighter Andy Ogle. Ogle eventually made it to the semifinals, where he was knocked out.

Rio and Ogle had become good friends on the show and both were worried their dreams to be in the UFC were quickly fading away, until UFC President Dana White threw them a curveball.

“One day, Dana White walked in and said, ‘I love you guys. You guys are freaking awesome. I’m loving the show this season. I’m going to give everybody one more chance to fight. Whether you can fight or you can’t fight, I’m going to give you guys one more chance to fight in the UFC,’” explained Rio.

As can be expected, all of the eliminated fighters reacted quite favorably.

“That was a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Rio. “I was sidelined because of my ribs. Andy Ogle was sidelined because he got knocked out by Al Iaquinta. Me and Andy Ogle are great friends. We were sitting there talking, ‘Oh man, what if Dana White doesn’t give us a chance? What if we’re out?’ Andy couldn’t fight because he was on medical suspension. He wasn’t allowed to fight in the finale. We were both really freaking out about it.”

Ogle was the first to get his shot in a real UFC fight—two actually—and he dropped the first one in September 2012, but won his second one in February. Rio had to wait a little longer for his UFC shot, but in December 2012, he made a huge splash. At The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale, Rio submitted fellow TUF 15 alum John Cofer late in the third round.

“One thing I learned is [to] never count yourself out,” stated the native Floridian. “I thought it was one [round] to one [round], and then it was going to come down to the last round, whichever way the refs were leaning. Either one of us could’ve won that fight, but I put myself in the position where I thought I was down 2-0. So, I was like, ‘You know what? I need to go after it. Just go after it.’ I was persistent with it. I was taking a beating on the bottom, because I was trying to be persistent to get that submission and it ended up working to my benefit. I ended up pulling it out at the end.”

Well, with Rio fresh in their minds, the UFC brass wasted no time getting him on another card. This Saturday night, at UFC on FX: Belfort vs. Rockhold, live from the Arena Jaragua in Jaragua do Sul, Brazil, Rio will face the equally up-and-coming and extremely dangerous Brazilian fighter, Francisco Trinaldo.

“I got the call about a month back,” Rio revealed. “I got a good heads-up on it. I thought it was a good match-up. I didn’t know anything about Francisco. The first thing I do when I get any call about any opponent, I instantly text the guy’s name and info to my coach. My coach watches him and tells me if he thinks it’s a good match-up or a bad match-up. If he thinks it’s a good match-up, he tells me to watch out for certain things. I’m really, really looking forward to this fight. He’s going to test my will.”

A veteran of Brazil’s Jungle Fight promotion and a TUF Brazil alum, Trinaldo is a nasty fighter. As opposed to the typical BJJ pedigree that most Brazilian fighters bring to the cage, Trinaldo’s background is in kickboxing and Greco-Roman wrestling. He is very strong for a lightweight and will be a handful for Rio.

“I know he’s a very tough, tough, forward-pressure, dynamite-in-his-hands type of fighter,” admitted Rio. “He’s dubbed ‘Hector Lombard of the lightweight division’ for a reason. He’s going to try to rip my head off every single punch and every single kick. I’m ready for a fight right from the bell.”

However, in addition to his five knockouts, the Brazilian also has four submissions and three decision wins. His only two losses were by submission and decision. But Rio has never been finished and he is looking to hand Trinaldo—and every other opponent for that matter—a loss by stoppage.

“Since my first fight came by submission, one of my goals in the UFC is to finish every fight,” explained Rio. “My goal is not to let any fight go to decision, ever. So I’m going to go out and finish the fight as fast as I can.”

With his eyes focused on beating Trinaldo, Rio isn’t really paying attention to what will be next in his career. For now, he just wants that win.

“I don’t really have any guys in front of me right now,” he said. “It’s all 100 percent focused on Trinaldo. After this fight, whoever’s going to benefit my career, I’m great. I’ll fight anyone Dana White wants to put in front of me.”

Rio (facebook.com/mikeriomma)

“Technically, I’m still on The Ultimate Fighter contract, because it’s going to continue on for a few more fights. After a few fights—and I fight tough of course—Dana White is going to come in with a different contract and tell me now that I’m done with my Ultimate Fighter contract, ask me if it’s reasonable, and I’ll either accept it or decline it. But if Dana White gives you something, you take it.”

As long as he keeps up his winning ways, Rio should have no problem keeping the contracts going. He has little distractions outside of the gym, but does have a new special someone in his life.

“I do have a girlfriend,” he said. “We just started, so I’m taking it slow. I already told her I’m 100 percent focused on this fight, and after that, I’m 100 percent hers. I have to keep this thing in front of me, no distractions. She totally understands. I told her, she’s real smart, and she understands what I do for a living.”

Rio may seem very guarded to the outside world, but in reality, it’s just laser-like focus on his task at hand. But he does love to talk to people, especially fans, about an unusually wide array of topics.

“I try to keep myself as humble and as grounded as possible,” explained Rio. “I try to answer back to everybody. So if anybody wants to get a hold of me about anything, training tips, weight tips, you want to train but don’t know where to start—I’ve even been going on a running joke, since I have this luscious, long, awesome hair, if you want any hair care tips—let me know. Anything you want to get a hold of me about, my Twitter handle is @MikeRioMMA, or you can find me on Facebook or Instagram.”

Rio will be facing his second opponent in the Octagon this Saturday night in what is sure to be a barnburner of an affair. He will bring his love of fighting and his motivation to battle autism. And, of course, he’ll also bring his long, luscious hair.

Mike would like to thank his coaches, primarily Enrico Cocco, his team at Zen Jiu-Jitsu, and his sponsors, Autism Speaks, Lexani, Knights of the Octagon, Venum Fightwear, Rolling Big Power, Buymyautograph.com, Da App, and ML Management.

Top Photo: Mike Rio (MMA Junkie)