View Full Version : The Hurt Business: Ben Fowlkes Spends One Year Inside a MMA Camp
03-16-2012, 03:04 AM
This is a new series that Ben Fowlkes (the Ariel Helwani of articles, IMO) has started on MMAFighting.com:
A Year in the Life of an MMA Fight Team
This was before. This was back when the old team was still together. Back before the night Trevor Wittman stayed up till dawn in a Canadian hospital with a friend whoíd been beaten beyond all recognition, his face swelling up like a beach ball as they documented its changing colors with their cell phones. This was before he had any reason to know or care what the testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of a healthy adult male was. Before the time he had to round up spare change just to pay his energy bill. Before he bounced a rent check to his parents. Before his gym became, in the words of one of his top fighters, "a ghost town."
This was January of 2011, and none of that had happened yet. The future was still a never-ending promise. The best of life was still to come. His friends would always be his friends and his fighters would always be his fighters. So he thought.
Maybe because he had no idea what was coming, or maybe because it was his natural state, Wittman had every reason to smile as he wheeled his desk chair around the cramped little office inside the Grudge Training Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo., using the pictures that covered all four walls as starting points for one story after another about his strange life in the fight game.
Each photo -- some framed, some just ripped from magazines and tacked to the wall -- was a story in itself. Each story led to another, which then led to another and another. Each story began with the same bursting enthusiasm from Wittman, who always seemed so full of energy he could hardly keep himself in his chair. Each story usually ended badly for someone, if you stayed with it long enough.
Here was the boxer who, after a fight, complained that his neck felt strange. When Wittman ran his hand over the guyís throat it felt like someone had crushed a bunch of potato chips and stuffed them inside his skin. Air bubbles, Wittman explained. Only later did they find out that the guy had suffered a punctured lung in the fight. Heíd gone the distance, too. Never even mentioned it to Wittman until the fight was over.
Or here was Verno Phillips, probably the most famous boxer Wittman worked with. Verno, who gave him his start. Verno, who won the WBO title with Wittman in his corner. Verno, who haunts these stories like a ghost with nothing better to do.
Verno used to piss blood after just about every fight. It became as normal as the repetitive locker room conversations Wittman never fully got used to having with him. Every time, it was some slight variation on the same theme.
Did I get knocked out?
No, Verno. You won a decision. Remember?
Thatís right. I did win. I remember. Hey, why is the floor so cold out there?
Itís a hockey arena, Verno. They had a game here last night.
Thatís right. I remember. Hey, did I get knocked out?
Tomorrow Verno would be better. His brain would return to whatever its new normal was. Everyone could go back to ignoring the slightly terrifying reality staring them in the face.
But that was life in the sweet science. You either made your peace with it, or else you moved on to something else. For Wittman, the something else was MMA, and it had been good to him so far. The Grudge gym was proof of that. More than 6,000 square feet and home to some of the best fighters in Colorado, from Shane Carwin to Brendan Schaub to Nate Marquardt.
I had come here because of a brief conversation I had with Wittman three months earlier in Anaheim, Calif. Sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, just down the street from Disneyland, Iíd mentioned to Wittman and his manager, Lex McMahon, my idea for a book. One year in the life of an MMA gym, following the ups and downs of the fight team and documenting what happened and how things changed.
"A lot," Wittman said. "Thatís what changes in a year."
He couldnít have known then how right he would be before it was all over.
My initial motivation was purely selfish. I wanted to write a book. Maybe I just wanted to have written a book. I knew I didnít want to throw together a hasty survey of the sport or ghostwrite some fighterís autobiography, which seemed to be the only book ideas publishers were interested in hearing about from me. I was sure there had to be some place for a story that took the time to get up close and examine the hidden parts of a fighterís life, the parts youíll never know about if you only talk to him right before and after a fight. I knew how fighters were in interviews and promo pieces. But who were they when they were alone with trainers and teammates? What were their lives like when they werenít polished and presented for mass consumption? What were we missing by going only the places that the publicists wanted us to go, and seeing only what they wanted us to see?
My goal was to become a part of the furniture in the gym, to watch and learn and compile it all into a book at the end. The fact that youíre reading this on a website means that I failed. Or at least, I failed to accomplish my original goal. What I ended up with was a yearís worth of stories, interviews, research, and observations that didnít quite form the cohesive narrative Iíd naively hoped they would. Instead, it was more like a series of snapshots documenting lives and careers in progress. It wasnít quite a book, in other words, but it was still a story worth telling, and one that taught me a great deal about the sport I thought I knew pretty well.
Over the next several weeks, I hope to tell that story to you. I hope that reading it will be as enlightening and entertaining for you as writing it has been for me.
When they rattle off the relevant info about a guy like Brendan Schaub on a UFC broadcast, they say Denver. They say Denver because no one who isnít local knows where the hell Wheat Ridge is, nor do they have much reason to. But itís there, just off I-70, about a twenty minute drive west of downtown Denver and into the wide open spaces that make Colorado feel expansive in that hopelessly optimistic pioneer sense. Like a new start is still possible, maybe, if you don't get lost and die along the way.
If you didnít know where the Grudge Training Center was youíd drive right by it. Of course you would. Whoíd even think to look for it there, nestled next to Walkerís Quality Cage and Feed in a little business park on Kipling Street? Up the street thereís a Winchellís Donuts where old men gather in the morning to complain about the temperature of the coffee. Keep going and youíll hit perhaps the most depressing Ramada Inn youíve ever seen, right next to a bar with a handwritten sign on the door forbidding "biker colors." Inside that bar, another sign next to the cash register reminds bartenders that all fights "must be reported to the Wheat Ridge Police Department." Itís the kind of sign that, simply by existing, suggests the likelihood of it going ignored.
January in Wheat Ridge, which sits nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, is an exercise in endurance. The snow falls in stinging pelts one minute and in thick sheets the next. A favorite pastime among Grudge fighters in winter is standing around the mats before morning training begins and trading harrowing tales from the drive over.
On this particular winter morning, however, the 35-year-old Wittman has concerns that go beyond the inability of his Hummer to brake properly on an icy downhill. Heís getting sick. Maybe the flu. Maybe strep throat. Maybe nothing at all, but he canít risk it. He also canít stay home from the gym -- not with so many of his guys getting added to the UFC 128 fight card in March -- so he shows up to work this morning wearing a long-sleeve shirt, winter gloves, and a face and neck gator to cover his mouth and keep his possibly imaginary germs from spreading. Itís the kind of get-up that understandably gets second looks from guys like UFC heavyweight Schaub, who pokes his head into Wittmanís office on his way to the main training room later that morning.
"What are you, a ninja now?" Schaub says.
It gets a laugh from Wittman, who grew up in strip mall karate dojos and, as a kid, would have probably put down Ďninjaí as his ideal profession. But one good crack deserves another, and these days the easiest way to rib Schaub is to crack on his rapidly swelling cauliflower ear, which bulges like an angry fist from the side of his head.
"Look at that thing," Wittman says. "Seriously, bro. It looks like a butt cheek."
Schaub smiles and reaches up to touch the mass of skin and fluid. Itís gotten so sensitive, he says, that it wakes him up in the middle of the night if he happens to roll over it. Itís just the latest casualty on a face that was once so handsome, Wittman says.
"Every girl who came in here would always say to me, ĎThat Brendan is fine,í" Wittman says, shaking his head. "Not going to happen anymore."
According to Schaubís best friend, fellow UFC heavyweight Shane Carwin, itís the natural progression of a fighterís face: "It just gets wider and flatter."
Schaub is only eight fights into his pro career, and has only gone out of the first round twice. Itís not the fights that are transforming his body so much as the training, which he engages in obsessively. Even now, when heís supposed to be just beginning his training camp for his fight with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in March, he admits heís "pretty wore out already."
And why shouldnít he be? On a typical day he might wake up early and drive the 40 minutes from his loft apartment in the Denver Tech Center up to Boulder to work with some wrestlers, then grab a quick bite to eat at Whole Foods before heading back down to Wheat Ridge to hit mitts with Wittman. After thatís over, maybe heíll head to the gym with a friend of his who now plays in the NFL and jack some weights in an attempt to, as he puts it, "get those meathead days back."
All this is why, a few weeks from now, his coaches will sit him down and give him an ultimatum: either take a few days off, or else find someone else to train you. Because the way heís working himself into the ground, theyíre tired of watching him take steps backwards. And heíll agree, even though it brings him almost to tears. Then heíll go home and do absolutely nothing, which both he and his girlfriend agree he is uncommonly good at.
"I shut it down like you wouldnít believe," he says. Wittman concurs, calling Schaub one of the laziest people heís ever seen..."when heís not training."
With a guy like Schaub, who asked the UFC for DVDs of all Cro Copís fights just so he could scare himself into the gym each day, overtraining is the biggest concern. Thereís no question that he has the work ethic, Wittman says, but heís killing himself in an attempt to become a champion overnight. The way Schaub sees it, he doesnít have much choice.
"Some days itís hard," he says. "Especially a sparring day where Iíve got Shane? I mean, Shane? Oh, man. Itís hard to get out of bed after that, but then I get up and drive an hour. Other guys miss it. Those are the guys working at Kinkoís and trying to be fighters, you know what Iím saying?"
But Schaub, despite his obsessive tendencies, isnít one of the guys Wittman really worries about. Neither is Carwin, who is so coachable that Wittman loves to tell the story of the day he brought a pink hula hoop into the gym and insisted that Carwin use it to improve his hip movement. The former NCAA wrestling champ put it around his waist and went to work without ever questioning it, Wittman says. Only when he looked up and saw that trademark grin on his trainerís face did he begin to suspect that there might be a joke he was missing.
These days, itís Marquardt heís most worried about. Itís Marquardt who, just last year, lost two number one contender bouts in two tries. And itís not just that he lost -- face it, thatís bound to happen from time to time. Itís how he lost, and itís his reaction, particularly to the decision loss against Yushin Okami in Germany, that worries Wittman the most.
"He just wouldnít pull the trigger," Wittman says. "I was yelling at him to throw that kick. My voice was hoarse by the end of the night, and he just wouldnít throw it. I was so upset."
When Wittman walked into the cage at the end of the fight, the first thing Marquardt asked him was whether he thought the decision would go his way. No, Wittman told him. You didnít win that fight. The look Marquardt gave him stopped him cold. A barely restrained frustration. A teenage boyís smirking anger. Moments later the judges, much to Marquardtís dismay, sided with Wittman.
"He told me after the fight, ĎT, I won that fight,í" Wittman says. "I told him, no you didnít. ĎYeah, but I got more takedowns.í Yes, you did. ĎI landed the better counter-punches.í Yes, but Okami looked like he wanted to fight more. He was pressing forward more. I told him, you canít win a championship going backwards."
In the locker room after the fight, Marquardt hung his head as the doctor peppered him with questions about how he felt, about what injuries he may have sustained in the fight. Marquardt didnít say a word.
"Nate, he needs to know how you feel," Wittman recalls telling him.
"I feel fine," Marquardt shot back.
"Nate, you still think you won that fight?" Wittman asked him.
"Yes," Marquardt snapped.
The Marquardt who Wittman sees in the gym come January is, in many ways, a man on a short fuse. Criticized by fans and media for a disappointing 1-2 showing in 2010, and called "a choker" by UFC president Dana White, heís beginning to get fed up with it all. Wittman sees it.
Marquardtís always been quiet, a little aloof, like heís drifting on the fringes of every conversation. Heís the one who, when Wittman tries his impossibly corny attempts at humor (like the day he wrote the word Ďvideoí on a piece of duct tape and walked around with it on his chest during sparring, saying, "Get it? Video tape!" in an attempt to lighten the mood) just looks at his long-time trainer and gives him a smile that seems stuck somewhere between confusion and pity.
Marquardtís the one who, when stopping by the gym after returning from a trip to New York to train for a few days, leaves his wife and baby out front while he goes in the back to say hello to the guys. One thing leads to another and he ends up keeping time for guys who are sparring, giving advice between rounds, trading MMA war stories, generally enjoying being at the gym without suffering there for a change. The next thing he knows heís been here for 40 minutes and his wife comes in, holding the baby in her arms, saying, "Did you forget we were out there?"
Marquardtís sheepish grin confirms that, yes, he did. Everyone but him breaks up laughing.
But lately heís seemed always right on the verge of frustration, like he's carrying the weight of all these missed opportunities and looking for a place where he can put them down and walk away. During training one day, Wittman shows him minor details to improve his work off the jab, and Marquardt returns moments later questioning it. Thereís that look again. As if maybe they donít quite trust each other the way they did six or seven years ago.
Later, as Marquardt sits on the battered old sofa in the Grudge gymís reception area (a sofa, by the way, that no one at Grudge seems to know the origin of, as if it was simply dropped off here one day by the sofa fairy) putting his socks and shoes back on, I make the mistake of asking whether itís difficult for him not to become discouraged after such a rough year and so much public criticism from his boss and the media.
"Yeah, especially when people like you are asking me those questions, yeah, it makes it hard," he says.
In fact, he explains, heís recently begun to think that itís all these interviews that are messing with his mental game. Not only does it take away valuable recovery time to do phoners with every MMA media dot-com in existence before each fight, it also requires exposing himself to the potentially harmful opinions of others.
"When you get asked the same question, it ingrains in you what everyone else thinks you should do. I donít care what people think. I canít worry about that," he says. "Thatís one of the things Iím going change from the last fight. I did so many damn interviews and I got reporters asking me the same stupid questions over and over. Honestly, I donít need that. I can do a few interviews and have the same impact as far as my media presence. They ask the same questions. Seriously. Every single one of my interviews I could have overlapped it with every other one."
Not that Wittman would ever argue with a fighter who feels like he could use a little less media exposure. But remarks like these only increase his concern that Marquardtís real problem might be his tendency to look for outside explanations for his troubles rather than looking within himself. Thereís perhaps no better example of this than "the TRT stuff."
As in, testosterone replacement therapy. As in, the TRT stuff that will eventually tear their working relationship and their friendship apart. The TRT stuff that will set off a chain of events that threatens both menís livelihoods. The TRT stuff that will make sure neither end this year in even remotely the same place as they started it.
But all that is still in the future, and they have no idea itís coming. For now, the goal is only to win, to find out whatever caused last yearís decline -- a year in which the gym lost two number one contender fights and one UFC heavyweight title fight -- and turn it around quick. Because the fights in March will be here before they know it. And in this sport, the only thing that seems to matter more than the last fight is the next one.
03-16-2012, 03:08 AM
Highs and Lows in the Brick City
The private chef was a mistake. Brendan Schaub realizes that, but now itís too late. Now itís two days before his fight at UFC 128, the chef is already here, and heís already cut the check for his half of some of the most regrettable culinary choices he can remember. What he wonders now, as he sits down to a plate of chicken wings on St. Patrickís Day in Newark, New Jersey, is why he ever let Nate Marquardt talk him into it in the first place.
Actually, forget that. He knows why. Itís because it sounded like a good idea in theory. He likes to eat clean, even though a 245-pound heavyweight doesnít always have to (see also: tonightís chicken wings, which would break the heart of someone like Urijah Faber, who is right now back at the hotel trying to sweat himself down to bantamweight). But Marquardtís been watching his diet closely, and when he suggested that he and Schaub could split the cost of private chef to cook for them in the days leading up to their respective fights at UFC 128, it sounded like a good idea to Schaub.
After all, itís not easy to eat clean on the road. You can either be the jerk who goes to the hotel restaurant and insists on being served a plain chicken breast, or you can plan ahead. Marquardtís been doing this a lot longer than Schaub, and his weight is so low for his middleweight bout with Dan Miller that he hardly needs to cut. Clearly, he knows what heís doing. Schaub hadnít tasted this chefís food when he agreed to it, but if Marquardt vouches for him, the guy must be good, right?
If he were, Schaub wouldnít be at the Brick City Bar and Grill right now, eating chicken wings with his girlfriend while the guys from his management team get in the St. Patrickís Day spirit with some cocktails.
"Nateís like, ĎJust tell him what you want,í" Schaub says, shaking his head as he recounts his tale of woe from todayís lunch. This was after heíd become visibly displeased with the salad the chef had tried to serve him for dinner the night before. Not a side salad. Not a compliment to a larger meal. Just a salad.
"Iím like, bro, Iím a heavyweight," Schaub says.
So okay, he told the guy to make him a wrap for lunch. Thatís all. A simple wrap. The chef did it, but again, the end result made Schaub wonder if they werenít from two different planets with completely different ideas about what constituted food.
If he were a meaner person, he told himself, heíd send this guy downstairs to Subway to buy him a sandwich. But he canít do it. As much as he hates to think of this so-called chef pocketing the money heís about to bleed for, and all for throwing together a salad and a terrible wrap, maybe thatís what he gets for agreeing to hire him without first tasting his food.
And so chicken wings at the Brick City Bar and Grill it is. It's not an ideal dinner two days before he has to fight Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, a fighter Schaub used to worship back when he was a college football jock at the University of Colorado and part-time MMA fan. A fighter who, at 36 years old, showed up in New Jersey looking far from the washed up old relic people keep saying he is. A fighter whoís been walking around the hotel all week wearing Terminator sunglasses, surrounded by a few hard-looking dudes who could easily be mistaken for contract killers in the Croatian mob. Especially after months of killing himself in the gym in an attempt to grind his body down to a fine, cutting edge, bar food is probably the last thing Schaub should be eating. But he simply canít take another one of those salads. He gives in. The professional athlete eats his chicken wings.
Schaub isnít the only one with a lot on his mind this St. Patrickís Day. Itís a big weekend for the whole Grudge crew, and as the Newark bars fill up and the fight week buzz builds somewhere just on the edges of everyoneís vision, theyíre all off in their own separate corners preparing for their own battles.
For starters, thereís Eliot Marshall, the teamís lanky light heavyweight, who got himself back in the UFC recently by being the first to volunteer for a short-notice fight with Brazilian striking menace Luiz Cane. Marshall had been cut from the UFC a year earlier after losing a snoozer of a bout against Vladimir Matyushenko. Rumor had it that the bout was so unimpressive to the UFC brass that theyíd already made up their minds to fire the loser before the judgesí scores were even read. The split decision went against Marshall, so back to the minor leagues of MMA he went.
And as much as some fighters might gripe about the UFC at times -- gripes that range from petty to valid, including such grievances as: how are they going to go and cut a guy like Marshall, whoíd won three in a row, just because he had one bad (okay, awful) fight?-- life on the small circuit is much worse. After losing his job in the UFC, Marshall returned to Denverís Ring of Fire organization, where he beat fellow Ultimate Fighter alum Josh Haynes. As nice as it might have been to be a big fish in a small pond again, the morale boost doesnít make up for the difference in pay. Itís not just the fight night purse, either. While an undercard fighter like Marshall might not command a ton in sponsor money, he can make a lot more fighting on a Spike TV prelim than on a local show where the only people whoíll see the logos on his shorts are those guzzling beer at the VIP tables up front.
As if the financial hit wasnít bad enough already, in his last fight he actually worked for free. It wasnít his fault. He fought and won on a Nemesis Fighting event down in the Dominican Republic. Then it turned out that the promoters of the event didnít actually have the money to pay their fighters, so they all went home empty-handed. The only way it could have been worse is if heíd lost for free.
It was the last thing Marshall needed at the time, especially since he and his wife just had their first child -- a baby boy. Now isnít the time to be scraping by on the money he makes teaching jiu-jitsu at Amal Eastonís Colorado academies. Now is the time to make something happen, or else face some tough decisions about his life.
The good news is, heís carried it well. Instead of moping around and bemoaning the bad breaks, Marshall got right back in the gym after the Nemesis debacle and trained like he had a fight coming up. When he read on the internet one afternoon that Cane was without an opponent less than a month out from UFC 128, he got on the phone to his agent and told him to call the UFC and ask for the fight. It turned out the UFC needed a light heavyweight willing to get punched in the face by Cane even more than it despised Marshallís past work, so here he is, back in the big show, trying desperately to cut the weight in the hotel workout room.
That kind of determination even impressed Grudge head trainer Trevor Wittman, who hasnít exactly been Marshallís biggest supporter recently. For whatever reason, the two seem to butt heads over and over again. Itís small stuff, mostly. Bickering over the training schedule. Sending one another passive-aggressive text messages (at Grudge, the text message seems to be the preferred method of communication for everything from arranging a ride to practice to consoling someone after a loss to ending friendships and business partnerships, all of which makes it both the best and worst thing to happen to gym relations). But when Wittman saw how Marshall volunteered for a tough fight just to get back in the UFC, he had to respect it.
"Heís going out to find his destiny," Wittman remarked, and he was right in more ways than one. If he gets cut again, Marshall has decided, heís going to hang up the gloves. Heís only 30 years old and has less than 15 pro fights, but he says he doesnít want to be just another sad journeyman playing a game of diminishing returns on the small circuit.
"I mean, how many times have you seen the UFC bring someone back a third time after cutting them twice?" he counters when I ask whether heíll really stick to this vow. I have to admit he has a point.
Then thereís Marquardt, who, almost magically, seems to have turned his whole attitude around over the course of this fight camp. Gone is the moody, aloof Nate. Gone is the attitude and the teenager smirk. Somewhere in there, things started clicking again. He and Wittman started listening to each other and trusting each other the way they used to. His whole demeanor outside the gym changed, as well. Even during the hectic fight week, which is always a barely contained tornado of media obligations, photo shoots, and UFC-mandated schedules to keep -- all while still finding time each night to get a workout in -- he somehow remains calmer than anyone.
When his reps at Alchemist Management decide they need their staff photographer to get a few quick shots of him wearing his signature t-shirt in their newly launched Alchemist clothing line? Thatís fine. When his wife wants to hang out with the crew in the hotel bar, sipping on a margarita to celebrate St. Patrickís Day? He calmly enjoys a water until sheís ready to go. When someone at a nearby table in that bar points out Marquardt to a friend and the friend mutters just a little bit too loudly, "Whoís Nate Marquardt?" it doesnít faze him. Clearly, this is not the irritable Marquardt that those around him have come to know and fear recently.
"Itís a complete 180," Wittman says. "I love it."
Itís hard to discount here the role that "the TRT thing," as Wittman calls it, might be playing. As Marquardt and his defenders will say repeatedly once his use of testosterone becomes public knowledge months later, the hormone replacement therapy changed his attitude for the better. His marriage went from rocky to solid. His friends went from tolerating him to liking him again. Even after it results in his eventual dismissal from the UFC, heíll look back and point to these changes in mood as proof that he truly needed the testosterone.
The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, however, isnít so easily convinced. While the commission, the UFC, and his management are all willing to keep his secret at this point, behind the scenes there are still issues. The NJSACB isnít just going to take the 31-year-old Marquardtís word for it that he needs a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone, so itís been setting various hurdles for him to clear in the lead-up to the fight. As fight night nears, thereís growing concern among his trainers and management that the commission, which remains skeptical of his testosterone use, might not let him fight at all. Itís a secret that the Alchemist management team keeps even from its own staff publicist, Kelly Crigger. Later, when he eventually finds out whatís had his co-workers so concerned, Crigger will be told that he was kept in the dark in order to give him "plausible deniability" if the issue ever came up with the media.
It doesnít. Not yet. And after agreeing to undergo a series of post-fight tests to prove that he really and truly needs the testosterone, Marquardt will eventually be cleared to fight. Problem solved. For now, anyway.
On fight week, the official UFC host hotel becomes its own complex little ecosystem. Itís a delicate balance of tough guy bravado in public and one mini-crisis after another in private. Every elevator ride includes at least one passenger with a noticeable case of cauliflower ear, maybe that small red pin prick just visible in the bulbous mass, a souvenir from when he last had it drained. Future and past opponents greet each other with poker-faced nods. The testosterone is so thick you can almost feel yourself sprouting new chest hairs as you walk through the lobby.
Agents watch each other over their Blackberries. Is that a rival arguing with one of his fighters over by the gift shop? If so, is the fighter worth the trouble it would take to try and scoop him up, to risk being labeled a "poacher" by all the other agents who are bitter that they didnít get the chance to steal him first? Or would you be better off letting the this one go, waiting for a potential poachee who is either better paid or easier to work with?
Every time a fighter steps out of his hotel room, people are watching, listening. Theyíre waiting for him to betray which hand he injured in training, which knee has been feeling a little loose lately. Is he slow to get out of his chair after lunch with his coaches? Is he limping on his way to the front desk to ask why the in-room movie system doesnít seem to be working? When the answer they give him is unsatisfying, does he come unglued too quickly? Is he that stressed already?
Every trip into the open is another intel-gathering mission, and another chance to screw up. In the Penn Station Hilton, the hotel bar is the watering hole where the lions and zebras alike must gather for uneasy, temporary truces, trading and sometimes planting stories. Did you see how solid Cro Cop is looking? Have you heard about Faberís brutal weight cut?
Newark is one of the few American cities that the UFC will visit this year where even professional fighters need to be explicitly warned against walking around alone on the streets at night. For now, itís as close as the UFC can get to Madison Square Garden, and until the state of New York agrees to sanction mixed martial arts, itíll have to do. Itís close enough to turn up the heat on media and fan attention, at least. After a pre-fight press conference at Radio City Music Hall, fans have camped out just outside the Hiltonís doors to pester fighters for autographs and cell phone photos. For guys farther down the card, like Marshall, thereís always the dread that heíll walk right by these rabid fans and no one will care enough to stop him.
Without a doubt, the star this week is Jon Jones. Though heís the challenger in the main event title fight, everyone seems to be treating it more like a coronation than a test. All week he walks through the Hilton with his dog -- B.J., a seven-month old German Shepard mix -- on one side, and his agent, Malki Kawa, on the other.
As a barometer for Jonesí rising star-power, you canít do much better than the dog. Jones is a guy who took up MMA when his high school girlfriend got pregnant and he needed some extra money to pay the bills. For a normal person, thatís a comically poor career choice. For Jones, it couldnít have worked out any better. Thatís because he turned out to be preternaturally gifted at this, a sort of man-child prodigy of MMA, a Mozart of cage fighting. Thatís also why he can parade this dog through the Hilton without anyone complaining. Because whoís going to tell Mozart that he canít bring his dog in here?
One thing that never changes about fight week, no matter the city, are the workout rooms. Two separate hotel conference rooms, complete with the same ugly hotel conference room carpeting, covered only by a thin blue mat and turned into makeshift gyms for the week. By 9 p.m. each night the walls are dripping with dudesweat. Rap music thumps over the sound of fighters cracking pads with fists and shins as their coaches shout, ĎYes!í or ĎPerfect!í just a little louder than they need to. Because why try and coach a guy this close to a fight, at least in public? Better to build his confidence than risk trying to teach him something and shattering his notions of himself as an unstoppable killer.
By separating them into two different workout rooms, the UFC has granted fighters the illusion of a safe place. This way, no one is at risk of running into his opponent or unwittingly giving away a piece of his game plan. Still, itís an uneasy alliance. With as many as twelve fighters -- along with their trainers -- in any one room at any one time, everyone is subtly eyeing everyone else. Just because youíre not scheduled to fight a guy this weekend, that doesnít mean you wonít end up fighting him eventually.
The trick is to make it very clear that youíre not watching anyone elseís workout. Some guys are touchier than others about letting potential competitors see what theyíve got, despite the fact that these same competitors will soon have fight footage of them that they can rewind over and over again. As with so much that goes on between fighters, itís more psychological than anything else.
Itís that mental part of the game that Wittman understands better than most trainers. Especially with a fighter like Schaub, who tends to frighten himself as a form of motivation, Wittman stays in his ear all week, swatting away negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. Counter-thinking, he likes to call it. He remembers how well it worked for Schaubís second UFC fight, when he took on Chase Gormley this time last year. He noticed that Schaub seemed a little rattled after accidentally getting a glimpse of Gormley in action during the afternoon walk-throughs, when fighters are given free reign to step in the Octagon and get a feel for the cage and the arena. When they came back to the locker room, Wittman saw that Schaub was spooked.
Did he see how fast that guyís hands were? Schaub asked.
Yeah, Wittman told him, but youíre too quick for him.
Did he see what a good sprawl he had?
Sure, but he canít compete with your strength.
Wittman knows Schaubís psychological habits so well at this point, he doesnít even need to wait until he gets spooked anymore. He saw it in his face the first time they encountered Cro Cop in the hotel, along with that stoic eastern European entourage of his. Wittman could already see the thoughts taking shape in Schaubís head, and he was ready to counter them almost before Schaub could think them.
Yeah, he looks a little bigger in person, but itís those shoes that make him look tall.
Heís tough, but heís getting too old for this. Look at him. He doesnít want it like you want it.
Heís good, but youíre better.
Schaub believes it, because what choice does he have? Heís already here. The bout agreements are signed, the posters are hanging up, and the tickets are sold. Thereís no way out of it now. He and Cro Cop are going to have to fight each other on Saturday night.
Itís after the fighters are done with their workouts and headed up to bed that the real fun begins for the coaches and the managers. It is still St. Patrickís Day, after all, so they flock to the hotel bar for overpriced drinks. Crammed into one small table up against the back wall, the Alchemist management crew settles in for some serious drinking.
At first sight, they make for an odd picture. The two beefy ex-soldiers, McMahon and Crigger, look almost like they could be related, or at least gym buddies. Then thereís Alchemistís semi-secret financial backer, Jeff Aronson, a tall, overflowing bear of a man who doesnít look at all like what youíd expect from a multimillionaire. Even though heís been losing weight recently thanks to his jiu-jitsu training, he still tends to slouch to hide his bulk. Even when heís engrossed in what youíre saying, his face sags around the edges as if he might be on the verge of falling asleep from boredom. He favors jeans and untucked flannel shirts for almost all occasions, and thereís nothing about his thick New York accent that suggests an especially great mind for business or a dominion over an entrepreneurial empire.
Itís Aronson who gave the Alchemist management group its name, sort of a nod to his most famous business venture: Cash4Gold. You know the one. Itís the company that encourages people to send their old and unwanted gold through the mail in exchange for a payout to be determined later. Of course, once the payout is determined, itís usually a fraction of what the gold is actually worth per ounce, which is part of how Aronson got to be wealthy enough to finance his own fighter management team, complete with a clothing line, a staff photographer, a publicist, and even a statistician.
Aronson got into the game first as a sponsor, paying fighters a couple thousand bucks to splash his logo across their shorts. In reality, Aronson says, sponsoring fighters was his way of determining "the level of sophistication" of MMA managers. In other words, he wanted to find out whether there were pros or amateurs handling the negotiations, and the answer he got was enough to convince him to get in the business himself. He met McMahon while filming a Super Bowl commercial for Cash4Gold that featured both MC Hammer and McMahonís adopted father, Ed McMahon. Lex had never managed a fighter before in his life, but he did negotiate most of his fatherís contracts. How much harder could it be to do the same for pro fighters?
Soon they brought in another manager and lawyer, Nima Safapour, installed Hammer as CEO, and Alchemist was born. The company name seems apt to Aronson, considering his background. Whether any of the fighters are bothered by the fact that, for the purposes of the metaphor, they are the lead that is being turned to gold, remains unclear.
For Aronson, the management team seems like more than just a business venture. Itís a labor of love, he insists. A passion project. Itís also an opportunity to, at least in some small way, be involved in pro sports. The best part is, since he doesnít have to do any of the competing, he can stay out late boozing with the boys two days before the fight.
The hotel bar acts as a tractor beam at this time of night. Any trainer or cornerman or agent who happens by gets sucked in for at least one drink, which quickly becomes three or four drinks once the war stories start flowing.
"Kelly, tonight Iím going to teach you to drink like a gentleman," Aronson tells the publicist, holding up a martini with a twirl of lemon peel floating in it.
"Iím not really sure what that means," Crigger says, picking up a glass of Makerís Mark. "But okay."
In practice, what it means is that Aronson will order them four drinks each, all at once, as soon as he hears that last call is near. He will run up his bill with a flippancy that only a multimillionaire can muster, and he will insist that Crigger not move from his seat until heís taken his medicine. As long as theyíre there, they might as well bust some chops, too.
At the bar, thereís light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar being chatted up by a tipsy blond. What a perfect opportunity to shout out a veiled warning about the dangers of taking up with the women one meets in New Jersey bars.
And here comes lightweight Kenny Florian, who Crigger once tried to throw into a decorative pool at a pre-fight nightclub party in Las Vegas. Donít think Florian has forgotten that.
Of course, thereís Matt Lindland, the fighter-turned-coach whoís here to corner one of his young proteges on the prelims. You can spot him from across the room in his country boy pressed jeans and his ubiquitous baseball cap. They invite him to sit down for a beer and some small talk, but really they want to know about this lawsuit against him thatís been in the news lately. Some guy claims Lindland let him store some medical marijuana plants in his shed in Oregon, then locked them up and wouldnít give them back. In a twist that was just strange enough to take it from a local story to a national headline, the guy is actually suing him for the street value of the weed, which is to say, what heíd make if he sold it illegally.
Itís a source of great amusement for everyone who knows Lindland as a staunchly Republican hard-ass, and even Lindland lets his mouth curl up in a smile, revealing a chunk of chewing tobacco bulging from his upper lip and drifting down onto his two front teeth.
"Thereís way less to the story than people think," Lindland says. "Itís all about money. You have it; I want it. Thatís what every lawsuit is about, right?"
By the time everyone is good and drunk, Wittman makes an appearance to have his customary two beers -- which he exclusively refers to as "cold ones" -- before bed. Heís just come from Marquardtís room, where Wittman led him in a sort of guided meditation session. Itís exactly the kind of thing that makes him seem uncomfortably new age-y to some fans, but itís also the kind of thing he firmly believes in. At a certain point, he reasons, you donít get anything more from throwing one more punch or working one more round. You can have months of preparation, but when everything depends on how you perform for one fifteen-minute stretch, itís whatís going in your head that can make all the difference.
Thatís why, for roughly half an hour, he sat in Marquardtís hotel room and talked him through Saturdayís fight. Youíre glad to be here, Wittman reminded him. This is what you always wanted, and now you have it. This is not the time for fear or anxiety. This is a time for celebration. All those people screaming when you get in the cage, watching you like youíre an action movie come to life? They all work jobs that they donít particularly like. They do it just for the money, and then they spend the money so they can come see you work.
Thatís how great your job is.
Thatís why you wanted this to begin with.
Now go out there and enjoy it.
Just talking about it in the bar afterward brings the goofy grin back to Wittmanís face. The waiter comes around again to remind everyone that he was serious about that last call stuff. He practically has to shout just to be heard, but nobody is headed anywhere with any urgency.
Wittman sips at his cold one and smiles to himself. Itís been a long day. Heís going to take his time.
The arena is less than two blocks from the fighter hotel in Newark, but of course nobody walks. Itís an unseasonably warm afternoon in New Jersey and well before the doors open the crowd is out on the streets, lathering up for a festive pre-fight atmosphere. The fighters get carted in by van to avoid the scene early in the afternoon. Once inside the arena, the hours pass like the years in a jail sentence. Fight time canít get here soon enough.
No matter what happens tonight, the Grudge fighters are not to come back to the locker room after their fights. Not right away. While a win brings a carnival atmosphere back with it, a loss brings a funeral march. Neither is helpful for the fighter whoís still trying to keep his adrenaline in check until itís his turn to go out.
The first bout opens the show to an arena thatís still more empty than full at seven oíclock local time, and Marshall gets his call about two and a half hours later. He steps into the cage with jiu-jitsu coach Amal Easton and wrestling coach Leister Bowling behind him. Across the cage is the Brazilian, Luiz Cane, doing his best to look menacing. Marshall got him fired up at yesterdayís weigh-ins by getting right in his face during the customary staredown. It was unlike Marshall, according to Wittman, and the coach was encouraged by it.
"Thatís what he needs, is to be willing to go after someone," Wittman said after the weigh-ins. "Thatís what I havenít really seen from him."
Once the fight starts, however, that aggression is nowhere to be seen. Marshall reaches out for a takedown attempt thatís more optimism than technique, and he doesnít even come close to getting Cane to the mat. Cane circles away and fires off a punch combo that backs Marshall up.
"Letís go, Eliot," Easton says from the corner. "Get off the fence!"
But Marshall is almost all backward movement as Cane keeps coming forward, trapping him against the fence. Itís the left hand from Cane that first sticks him. Itís Caneís best punch, the one they knew he would rely on. It lands cleanly and Marshall stumbles forward as Cane places his right palm against Marshallís face and pushes him back. Marshall turns and collapses to the mat, wincing and holding his face. Later, Marshall will claim that he was poked in the eye by Cane at that moment. Watching the replay, no one will really disagree. Nor will they particularly care. What matters is that he gets hit, goes down, and suddenly has a 220-pound Brazilian standing over him, punching whatever part of his face he leaves even temporarily exposed.
"Come on, Eliot. Letís go!" Easton shouts.
Marshall moves just enough to show referee Dan Miragliotta that heís still conscious, but not nearly enough to halt the steady, but measured stream of punches coming down at him from Cane. One gets through his defenses and stuns him, which then leaves his defenses weakened as Cane keeps throwing and landing. Marshall rolls. He tries to attack one of Caneís legs. He tries to get Cane in his guard. No luck. Cane is one step ahead of him and picking his shots. Nearby, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan has all but given Marshall up for dead.
"Heís hurt. Heís turtling up," Rogan says.
Covered up in the fetal position, Marshall has no idea where the punches are coming from. He lays still and waits for it to be over. Miragliottaís in no hurry, though. He waits and lets Marshall get thumped just a little more before finally stepping in to wave it off. The official time is two minutes and fifteen seconds, which, when UFC announcer Bruce Buffer goes to relay it to the crowd a few minutes later, will become "two minutes fifteen seconds of the very first round." As if Marshall needed that extra little turn of the knife.
After getting a moment to collect his wits as the cageside doctor ensures that heís fit enough to make it back to the locker room under his own power, Marshall gets up and exits the Octagon with his team. Nearby, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva -- a man who has made it clear numerous times, and in not the most delicate of ways, that heís no fan of Marshallís fighting style-- chats with a member of Caneís team. He doesnít even turn around to give Marshall a glance as he makes his way to the back, cursing to himself.
Does it mean something? Is it a sign that Silva has already written Marshall off, that heís about to be cut from the UFC for the second time in two years? The final time? Thatís just one more thing to worry about tonight. But first, a short walk backstage, then a trip to a New Jersey hospital just to make sure the beating Cane gave him didnít do any serious damage.
Marshall has barely gotten off the arena floor and already itís Schaubís turn to head out. He enters to Eminem, while Cro Cop opts for a hauntingly operatic Ennio Morricone piece from the score to The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. Though Schaub can hardly stop himself from bouncing off the fence during the introductions, Cro Cop looks as if he might decide at any moment to lay down and take a nap. That eerie calm has become a calling card of his over the years, and now it seems to come easier to him than ever. Heís at least two inches shorter and around fifteen pounds lighter than Schaub, and the oddmakers all think heís in for a memorable beating at the hands of a younger, faster fighter. Yet there he is, waiting for the referee to give the signal to fight and looking about as nervous as a man whoís getting ready to mow his lawn. Behind Schaub, Wittman leans over the top of the cage.
"Itís your time!" he shouts in his ear. If Schaub can hear him over the swelling sound of the crowd, he gives no indication. The fans cheer Cro Cop, a legend from way back. They boo Schaub, which surprises and disappoints him more than he expected it to. His family is here. His girlfriend, his friends. No one wants to get booed in front of his father. Cro Cop is his hero, too. But whatís he supposed to do, not fight him?
Thereís the fight as you imagine it, as you suspect it will be after watching video of your opponent and thinking about him for months, and then thereís the shock of how it actually is. Schaub controls the first round without much trouble, landing solid uppercuts and trying to stay out of the clinch, where he suspects Cro Cop is resting more than heíd like him to, but heís surprised by the older manís strength. He may not be all that big or even terribly physically imposing, but when they tie up he feels like the strongest person Schaub has ever fought. His grip saps Schaubís energy. His kicks arenít all like the dull thudding Schaub is used to. It feels like someone is whipping him with a length of chain, a sharp sting that goes all the way through him even when he sees it coming in time and gets his defenses up. He decides to stay in and block rather than trying to get out of the way. Itís the only way to stay close enough to make Cro Cop pay for each one immediately after he kicks, when heís temporarily immobilized on one leg.
While itís happening though, the fight is something of a blur to him, as if heís in a prolonged car wreck. He has some control over what heís doing, but thereís also a sense of being on auto-pilot, of reacting more on conditioned reflex than on rational thought. Itís only when he goes back and watches this fight weeks later, at my insistence and on my laptop in Wittmanís cramped little office, that heíll appreciate the little things. Like how odd it was that Cro Copís cornermen shouted their instructions in English rather than Croatian, or how surprised he was to be able to hear the crowd chanting Cro Copís name for what felt like the entire fight.
Then there are the good things, too, the few moments that even a perfectionist like Schaub can sit back and appreciate about his own performance, like the series of rapid-fire right hands he lands after easily taking Cro Cop down.
"Thatís just some straight ass-whooppiní right there," heíll tell me back in Denver, grinning through the bruises that, by then, will have finally started to disappear, even though the short temple strikes that Cro Cop landed throughout the fight, which look like nothing on video, are still aching. "But it didnít faze him. Look at his face. He doesnít care."
Watching it this way is also a valuable opportunity to find out what the UFC broadcast team -- Rogan and play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg -- were saying about him. The commentary can shape peopleís perceptions of a fight more than even the most ardent fans realize, but the fighter is mostly oblivious to it all while itís happening just a few feet outside the cage. Going back and hearing them later, Schaub canít escape the feeling that they werenít exactly on his side.
"That guard pass was a little bit sloppy," Rogan says between rounds, looking at the replay of Schaub nearly getting swept onto his back by Cro Cop.
As if he didnít still win the first round, Schaub thinks. How about a little credit for that?
In the corner between rounds, Wittman shoves a water bottle into Schaubís gloved fist and tells him to work his own water and listen. Heís letting Cro Cop get too close, Wittman tells him. Heís hopping in and jamming his own punches, taking the power off them and letting Cro Cop off the hook. All Schaub can think is, I pay this guy a lot of money to work my own water.
Schaub bounces around in his corner before the second round starts, something he always makes a conscious decision to do in order to show his opponent that heís not tired. Cro Cop sees him, this rookie attempt at a psych-out, and he winks. Okay, Schaub thinks. Guess heís not tired either.
As they start the second Schaub is careful to keep his right hand up to protect his head against Cro Copís left high kick. Heís felt the power of it when it thwacks his legs, and the last thing he wants is to catch one across the face. Again Schaub manages to take him down easily, but once theyíre on the mat Cro Cop launches an illegal upkick off his back that catches Schaub cleanly in the left eye. Thereís a white flash of pain, then he loses all vision in that eye. Referee Herb Dean calls timeout to warn Cro Cop about the kick as Schaub staggers to his feet and tries to hide his panic. Heís down to the use of one eye. There goes his depth perception, his ability to see whatís coming at him from the left side. The vision in his left eye might come back in a few seconds, or it might take all night. As Cro Cop argues with Dean and complains about Schaub punching him in the back of the head, Schaub concentrates on not letting either of them see how worried he is.
Once Dean calls time in, Cro Cop goes right back to trying to clinch with Schaub against the fence. On one hand, itís flattering for Schaub. Hereís this fearsome striker, a former professional kickboxer with a highlight reel full of headkick knockouts, and he doesnít want to stand toe-to-toe with the kid from Denver. On the other hand, this isnít making for a very exciting fight. Already the crowd is getting restless. Schaub can almost hear the reporters at cageside hammering away at their keyboards about what a boring fight it is, not to mention all the jerks on Twitter at home. When he won a decision over Gabriel Gonzaga it was the same. Fans came at him online, telling him how he wasnít worth their money, how he couldnít finish anybody decent. Heíd done his best to play the nice guy -- ĎCome on, I fought hardí -- and sometimes it worked on them. They felt bad and gave him some credit. Sometimes it didnít.
Either way, if heís going to shut them up now he needs an exciting fight and a finish. He doesnít need this clinching crap. He cannot afford this. Cro Cop, on the other hand, doesnít care. Heís not trying to make a name for himself, Schaub thinks. Heís got his money, his fame. Heís just trying to get to the end of the night and collect his paycheck. Itís up to Schaub to make this look interesting.
Just as this thought occurs to him, Cro Cop leans back and slices his right elbow in one swift motion across Schaubís face. His nose makes a sound like a dead tree branch cracking in half. Right away he knows itís broken, and from an elbow he never saw coming, thanks to that illegal kick in the eye. The blood comes pouring out of his nose, forcing him to open up his mouth just to breathe. Moments later he catches another elbow, opening up a cut over his eye. Great. So now heís two rounds deep, blind in one eye, blood pouring down his face, and he canít breathe out of his nose at all.
And yet, heís strangely calm. He should be freaking out more, and he knows it, but for some reason he isnít. He finds himself thinking that at least all this blood must look cool on TV, and then heís surprised at himself for having the thought. The things that go through your mind during a fight.
Before the round is over he turns the tables on Cro Cop, clinching him against the fence and landing short hooks in close. Cro Cop, though, ever the savvy veteran, keeps turning his head as the punches come in, taking them on the back of the head, and then glancing at the referee as if to say, You seeing this? Amazingly, it works. Dean calls timeout and walks Schaub to the middle of the cage, signaling to the three judges at cageside to take one point away from Schaub for strikes to the back of the head.
Come on Herb, Schaub thinks. But it doesnít matter, he tells himself. Let Herb take ten points away. This oneís not going to the judges.
"You gotta stay out of the clinch," Wittman tells him between the second and third round. Schaub knows heís right, because thatís where Cro Cop broke his nose, but thatís precisely why Schaub wants to clinch now. How else is he going to pay him back?
By the time the third starts heís exhausted, but at least the vision in his left eye is starting to return. He canít breathe, and his arms are feeling slow and heavy. When Cro Cop tosses out a leg kick that lands a little too high up on the inside of his thigh at the start of the final round, Schaub seizes the opportunity to point out the groin shot, if only to grab a few seconds rest.
"That was a veteran move by me right there," heíll say later with no small amount of pride. Cro Copís not the only one who can game the system.
But even though the kick did catch the edge of his cup, sending the dull ache of a wounded testicle up through his stomach, Schaub, like nearly every other fighter, doesnít take more than 60 seconds of the allotted five-minute recovery period before telling Dean heís ready to continue.
"It definitely hurt, but Iíll never take the whole five minutes," he says later. "No one wants to sit there and watch you walk around the cage for five minutes."
He knows what they do want to see though, and time is running out. After another double-leg takedown that has Bowling, his wrestling coach, practically crying tears of joy in the corner, Schaub takes a moment to reflect on how this must look to fans.
"I swear to God I thought this: man, Iím like Jon Fitch! Look at me, bleeding and grinding out a decision? This is not me. I canít let this go to decision."
It would also be a risk, what with the point deduction. If the judges give even one round to Cro Cop, the loss of a point for strikes to the back of the head could result in a disappointing draw. So Schaub decides to take a chance. Instead of holding Cro Cop down on the mat, he opens up to purposely give his opponent an escape route, hoping maybe heíll leave himself open for a choke. When it doesnít work, theyíre back to their feet with less than two minutes left in the fight. Time to make something happen.
Somewhere off in the darkness, he can hear Wittman shouting for him to throw his punches from a distance, not to jump in and jam himself. Heís watching for Cro Copís kick, telling himself to throw the right hand as soon as he sees one coming at him. When he pumps the jab, his arm feels like itís filled with wet cement. Heís not sure if he could even hurt anyone now, as tired as he is. But he spots that slight turn of the hips, the tell for Cro Copís low kick, and he throws the right hand without thinking about it. As soon as it lands, he already knows itís over.
"Iíve never hit anybody that hard before in my life," heíll say later, watching the replay of Cro Cop crashing to the mat head-first.
For a moment, Cro Cop doesnít move. Neither does Schaub and neither does Dean. Itís as if theyíre all three waiting to see whether itís really over. Then, like a groggy sleepwalker, Cro Cop slowly rolls and begins to sit up. Standing over him, Schaub can see that his eyes are still unfocused, swimming around in his head. The guy is done fighting, but Schaub doesnít want to take a chance and let him get his wits back. He steps forward and plants another right hand on Cro Copís skull, bouncing his head off the mat just as Dean lunges in to stop it. The cheers from the crowd mix with an almost sympathetic moan. That one extra blow that their aging hero really didnít need to take after a lifetime of punishment for pay. Watching his head bounce off the canvas on the slow-motion replay, you could practically diagnose his concussion right then and there.
Later, Schaub will almost wish that he hadnít done it. Or maybe heíll just wish that he hadnít needed to. But what else could he do? With Cro Cop looking like something out of a zombie movie, he wasnít about to let him have a chance to get back into the fight.
"That oneís on Herb," Schaub will say with a shrug. "He should have gotten in there quicker."
In the cage, a grinning Schaub walks over to one of the UFC cameras and playfully wipes the blood away from his eyes. See? He's still an okay looking guy. Not so ugly just yet. Once Wittman is allowed in there with him, the first thing he tells Schaub is, "Go hug your wrestling coach." It was Bowling's takedowns that kept planting Cro Cop on his back, after all. Fights are not won by right hands alone.
By the time he leaves the cage and gets backstage, that current of relief and elation and adrenaline pulling him past the crowd in one quick swoop, the reality starts to set in. First, a couple quick pictures for the UFC documenting exactly what he looked like when he came out of the cage. Then the athletic commission doctor -- a man with great, bushy eyebrows who looks to be about two hundred years old from what Schaub can tell -- wants to stitch up the cut over his eye. As the old man raises a needle with a local anesthetic to numb the area first, Schaub can see his hand trembling.
Perfect, he thinks. As if he hasnít already done enough damage to his face tonight. After the eye is done, the doc grabs his nose and wiggles it from side to side. Schaub can hear that clicking in his head again as the doctor tells him, "I think you broke your nose," as if it wasnít obvious. As if tweaking it like one of the Three Stooges helped the situation any.
The doc tells him he also needs to stitch up the cut on the bridge of Schaubís nose. Schaub tries to tell him it isnít necessary. The nose is clearly broken, but the cut is superficial, no more than a quarter-inch across and not at all deep. The last thing he needs is an ancient doctor with shaky hands making it any worse than it is. But the athletic commissions arenít in the business of seeking medical advice from fighters. If the old man says he needs to stitch it, thatís the last word. Schaub argues, then Bowling -- a stocky fire hydrant of a man with a face like he was born to hurt people for fun --joins the fray. Soon, UFC officials are in the room, as are people from the New Jersey commission, and eventually Schaub realizes that his options are to either let the doc stitch his nose or let Leister body slam a path to freedom, and either way this isnít going to end well. He tells he doc to go ahead and get it over with. Heís had enough fighting for one night.
Moments later the doc plunges a needle through Schaubís nostril and into his septum -- easily the worst pain heís felt all night, and on a night where he had his nose broken and his face gashed open by a Croatian kickboxer. Unbelievable.
"Itís a good thing youíre not a tattoo artist," Schaub tells the doctor.
Later, when he gets home to Colorado and goes to see his personal physician, heíll have the stitches redone after learning that the athletic commission doc used the wrong kind of thread in addition to doing, in his doctorís words, "the worst stitch job Iíve ever seen." If left in, his doctor will tell him, the scarring could unnecessarily result in the kind of damaged tissue that would open up again and again, causing him problems throughout his career. Again, this was the guy the athletic commission chose as their fight night doctor? Who are these people?
After heís finally cleared, UFC employees urge Schaub to go get an MRI at the hospital, just to be on the safe side, but he absolutely refuses. After that finish, there is no way he isnít making an appearance at the post-fight press conference to revel in the glory. The way he sees it, he did all those interviews before the fight to help the UFC sell the event. Now that heís victorious, heís not going to miss out on a chance to do an interview or two to help sell himself. He knocked out Cro Cop. You better believe heís going to soak up some praise in that post-fight press conference.
Last up for the Grudge team on this night is Marquardt, who follows the game plan perfectly and methodically en route to a unanimous decision win over Dan Miller. He really only slips up once in the entire three rounds, and thatís when he starts feeling a little too good about his own striking and bounces back not quite far enough out of range with his mouth still hanging open. Miller tags him with one good punch that gouges a large chunk out of his lower lip. That cut will also need stitches, leaving him looking like a scene out of The Nutty Professor when he goes to enjoy a celebratory beer later.
After the press conference the team heads across the street to the same Brick City Bar and Grill where Schaub ate his chicken wing dinner. They commandeer several tables among the hard-partying post-fight crowd. At one table, MC Hammer, who has flown in today for this very special fight night, tries to eat a plate of pasta in between requests to pose for pictures. Meanwhile, McMahon, Alchemistís working agent, rushes around making sure everyone has everything they need.
Somewhere in the mess of humanity that has crowded around their tables, McMahon ends up face-to-face with a drunk and unruly fan who he pointed out to arena security earlier in the night. The fan -- still drunk, still unruly -- shouts at him. It seems the guy was escorted out of the arena after McMahon pointed him out to security staff, and now he looks like heís been in the bar ever since. Pushing and shoving ensues, with the exhausted fighters looking on but showing no interest in getting involved. Of all the Grudge and Alchemist crew at the table, the only one who gets up is Hammer, and heís simply moving his pasta to the other side of the table so he wonít have it bumped onto his expensive suit in the melee.
After the barís bouncers intervene and the drunk has been escorted out of yet another Newark establishment thanks to McMahon, his friend stays behind to try and smooth things over.
"Heís the worldís fastest drummer," the friend says over and over again, as if that somehow explains everything. "Seriously, heís all over YouTube. Look him up."
No one intends to look him up, and eventually the man gives up arguing in his drunk friendís defense. Hours later, when Marquardt and what remains of the Alchemist crew have had enough of the bar scene, they will begin the short walk back to the hotel only to quickly remember that perhaps 4 a.m. is not the time for even pro fighters to be out on the streets of Newark. A man pulls up to offer them a ride and -- what do you know? -- itís the friend of the worldís fastest drummer. A ride is a ride, they figure, so they take it.
Back at the hotel, Marshall has returned from the hospital. His brain seems fine, but heís not so sure how his career will hold up. It's up to McMahon to try and smooth it over with the matchmaker Silva, to "get out in front of it," as he says, before the UFC decides on a course of action.
"In my experience, if you wait for them to call you, it's already too late to plead your case," he says.
Schaub, meanwhile, stays at the bar just long enough for his family to bring out a birthday cake. Oh yeah, thatís right. It was his birthday yesterday. 28 years old. He barely had a chance to think about it, and now heís too tired and too beat up to feel like celebrating. His eye is already turning the color of rotten fruit. The swelling makes him feel like heís carrying some alien being around on his face. He still canít breathe through his nose, so he sits there sucking air through his mouth like a catatonic while his parents and girlfriend sing ĎHappy Birthdayí to him. He tries to force a smile, appear grateful. The professional athlete blows out his candles.
He made $14,000 to show tonight and another $14,000 to win. That low figure is thanks to his post-reality show contract, which he is now in the final year of. Add in his $70,000 bonus for Knockout of the Night, plus another $40,000 in sponsors, and his take for tonightís work is $138,000. Of course, thatís before taxes. Also before he pays everyone he owes.
As his head trainer, Wittman gets a ten percent cut of the contracted show and win money, though Schaub is so grateful for his help that he rounds up from $2,800 to $4,000 -- none of which is written anywhere on paper or in anything resembling a contract between fighter and trainer. Itís strictly a handshake deal.
As his agent, McMahon (and, by extension, Alchemist) gets ten percent of his purse, 20 percent of his sponsors, and ten percent of his KO bonus -- which, Schaub will note later, the management had nothing to do with. Sponsorships? Fine. That was all them. But McMahon didnít knock Cro Cop out.
"When I write that check," heíll say later, "it hurts. Iím like, yo, what have you got for me?"
But like a good agent, McMahon will have something for him. While Schaub is healing up from surgery to fix his broken nose, McMahon will book him a trip to Los Angeles to make an appearance for clothing company Five Star. That will earn him an easy three grand just to show up and shake hands. Already this year Schaub has made more money than he did in all of 2010, when he grossed just over $100,000. He has his trainers and sparring partners (whoíll also get a small, friendly cut) to thank, but he also has his management, and the exposure he got on The Ultimate Fighter, even if the contract that followed wasn't so great. Without all that working together, there wouldnít be 40 grand in sponsor money. He wouldnít have both a Hummer and a Challenger in the garage at home. And all when heís just turned 28.
Thatís stuff to think about later. Right now, itís all he can do to pretend to be as excited about this birthday celebration as everyone else is. Right now it hasnít even sunk in that he just knocked out Cro Cop -- freaking Cro Cop -- on live TV. That wonít hit home until days later, when heís back in Denver, driving around by himself. For now, he has his face to think about, which isn't going to feel good in the morning. He has his hands, which are already throbbing from a night spent pummeling another manís skull. He has a body that is finally, all at once, allowing itself to feel the inhuman amount of punishment heís subjected it to recently.
If you saw him there, bruised and stitched and swollen, looking like heíd rather vomit than eat cake right now, would you ever guess that he was the winner of a fight? Would you guess that this is exactly what he wants his life to look like, what he hopes heíll get to keep doing with it for the foreseeable future? Would you guess that tonight is a great night for Brendan Schaub, maybe even one of the greatest?
The professional athlete stares at his cake. Happy birthday.
03-17-2012, 04:04 PM
These are awesome Ben, thanks for posting!
03-17-2012, 07:23 PM
Yeah, Ben Fowlkes is kind of the Elvis of MMA journalism.
03-19-2012, 06:30 AM
I'd rather watch a 60 or 90 minute film about this. It's going to take me 5 hours to read that. :laugh:
03-23-2012, 04:53 PM
The Hurt Business: A Big Night On Small Scene
Mar 22, 2012 - A few minutes before the first bout a woman walks up the steps to the cage and through its open doors, shedding her clothes effortlessly as she goes. She is in no particular hurry. She removes her top in one clean motion and hardly seems to break stride as she ditches her pants. By the time sheís in the cage she is completely naked. The sparse crowd whistles nervously, like they feel itís expected of them, and the woman puts her arms up like a gymnast who has just stuck the landing. Look at me. Iím naked.
No one -- including her -- seems to know what to do next.
It is not quite 7 p.m. on a Saturday night in Denver, Colo. The spring rain has been falling in buckets all day long. Outside there are people still lined up in front of the National Western Complex box office, huddling forward to try and get under some sort of cover as they decide whether itís worth it to pony up the extra 20 bucks and upgrade from general admission to the $50 seats up front. The fighters are crowded into one backstage area, trying to untie the knots in their stomachs and resisting the urge to look around the flimsy partition for a glimpse of their opponents. The ring girls on loan from the local Hooters jab at their cell phones with perfectly manicured fingernails.
No one has even had the chance to get properly drunk on seven-dollar beers yet, but somehow there is already a naked woman in the cage.
Itís a situation that the local security team seems unprepared for. What are you supposed to do about a female streaker, anyway? Youíre not going to tackle her to the ground. That could easily be taken the wrong way. Besides, nobody seems particularly upset about her presence here at all. The naked woman pauses awkwardly inside the cage, as if she hasnít thought even a second past this very moment. She leaves through the opposite door, walks a few feet to an open space in the floor and stops, as if waiting to be scooped up by smirking security guards. But no, still nothing. Might as well put her clothes back on and head out. The night is still young.
No one is in any danger of confusing Denverís Fight to Win organization with the big time. Itís one of two regional fight promotions in the area, but thanks to the prevalence of MMA gyms throughout Colorado -- where the Grudge Training Center is still the juggernaut that other gyms despise and envy and emulate -- thereís now more than enough talent to go around. Tonightís "Outlaws" fight card will feature 12 total fights, including at least one former UFC fighter and a female main event featuring a former Strikeforce (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/promotion/strikeforce) womenís title challenger.
It will also feature a Johnny Cash tribute band that plays during intermission, and a horrible sound system that blares garbled club mixes the rest of the time. Itís the kind of event where, backstage, youíll see one fighter warming up with a little shadow-boxing just a few feet away from another whoís getting his head stitched up after things didnít go his way. Itís the kind of event where itís not at all uncommon to see a fighter go straight from the locker room to the concession stand for a beer after his fight, then down it shirtless and with handwraps still on, grinning through the bruises and just waiting for some girl to happen by and say, ĎHey, arenít you one of those fighter guys?í as if he could make it any more obvious. Itís the kind of event where tomorrowís hangovers and concussion-related headaches take shape before your eyes. Where every winning fighter seems to have an after-party at a downtown bar that he canít wait to tell the crowd about, despite a P.A. system that cuts in and out during his big victory speech.
(A Johnny Cash tribute band does its best to hold the crowd's attention. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)
In the MMA food chain, Fight to Win is somewhere in the lower-middle portion. Inside the stark and dreary National Western Complex, which from the outside looks more like a prison than an events center, you feel light years away from the UFC. Still, itís not out of the question for a fighter to go from here to the Octagon with a couple impressive performances. It happens, even if it doesnít happen all that often. Itís also not out of the question for a fighter recently released from one of the big promotions to return home to the local scene and make a couple grand off a name that, however briefly, still sparks a flicker of recognition when the hardcore fight fans see it on a poster in some bar two weeks before the event.
But for a fighter trying to make a career out of this, the middle is a tough place to be. The money simply isnít there. The winner of tonightís main event will make $2,000 to show and another $2,000 to win -- an uncommonly good payday for any fighter on the small circuit. The rest will consider themselves extremely lucky if they can break into the low four figures, and thatís before paying a trainer or manager (if they have one) his meager cut of the proceeds.
Most of tonightís fighters -- while technically professionals -- will be doing this as a side gig, their incomes supplemented by one or more other jobs. Many of them will have taken these fights on two or three weeks notice. Most will have no real hope of making it to the UFC, and some will be honest enough with themselves to realize it. While a few might be trying to make the long climb from the local circuit to the big show, some will just be in it for the thrill and the girls.
Ricky Vasquez, who trains at Grudge and manages many of the small-time (or, if you're feeling generous, Ďup-and-comingí) fighters in the region, has seen people get in the cage for all sorts of reasons.
"I remember one kid, I think he was a paramedic or something, and he had a record of like 14-16," Vasquez says, standing just outside the oven that is the backstage prep area for his fighters. "He wasnít that great, but even though he worked full-time he would take literally any fight, so they just kept giving him fights."
What a lot of people donít understand is why a guy would put his body through the ringer like that, over and over again, and all for a few hundred bucks a pop. Vasquez isnít sure he always understands it either, but heís also not sure anyone besides the person whoís doing it really needs to.
"Maybe he just wanted to be able to say heíd fought some of these guys before they got big," he says. "I donít know. Maybe he just really, really loved it."
You probably have to, if youíre going to fight here, in front of a half-drunk crowd that wonít even bother to learn your name as they shout for the guy in the red shorts to kick your teeth in. You also have to have a kind of unreasonable faith in yourself to believe that youíll be one of the few to fight your way out of the National Western Complex and into a pay-per-view bout at the MGM Grand some day -- hopefully some day soon, before your youth has been spent on no-name ambulance drivers and girls who just want to date one of those fighter guys, without being too picky about which one.
In the meantime, these people have paid good money to come out on a rainy Saturday night and see you jokers beat each other up. Theyíll drink the overpriced beers and catcall the over-tanned ring girls, but what they really want is to see some action. They want blood, and they donít particularly care whose it is. They want knockouts they can tell their friends about. They want their 50 bucks worth and they want it now. Now get out there and give them a show.
(Many fighters. One wide-open locker room. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)
A day before the local fights a man comes into the Grudge Training Center. Tall guy, thick Dutch accent. Heís got his wife with him. Theyíre on holiday in the U.S, he explains, and theyíve recently come to Denver from Los Angeles, which they enjoyed very much. Theyíre headed back to the Netherlands soon, he says, but heís a huge MMA fan and so he just had to stop in and see the Grudge gym where UFC fighters like Nate Marquardt (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/fighter/122561/nate-marquardt) and Shane Carwin (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/fighter/122488/shane-carwin) train. His wife, she humors him. She doesnít say much. The tall guy does most of the talking.
The front desk at Grudge is the province of Jen "Lil' Ice" Berg, a fighter herself who also runs the gymís front end with an obsessive precision that the Grudge staff wonít even realize they depended on so heavily until sheís gone. At 5í2" and weighing just barely over 100 pounds, she can almost never find anyone her size to train with at Grudge, so she does her best to mix it up with the guys between answering phones and sweet-talking drop-ins who may or may not become members. Itís a job she can do in her sports bra and yoga pants most days, which seems just fine by the male members of the gym, who by now have learned that while Jen is bubbly and friendly to just about everyone, she is not in the habit of taking crap from anyone.
Jen tries to make the tall guy happy, but sheís not sure what heís expecting, really. Itís early Friday afternoon, the day before a local event, so thereís not much in the way of actual training going on. He can look around the front of the gym if he wants, browse through the pro shop where the t-shirts and gloves and handwraps are all for sale, but other than that...
What about Trevor Wittman, the tall man wants to know. He has seen Trevor Wittman on the UFC shows, and he would very much like to meet Trevor Wittman.
Thatís a simple enough request, so Jen rousts Trevor out of his office and the two take a picture together. They talk shop for a minute -- MMA, K-1 (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/promotion/k-1), how the kickboxing scene is doing over in the Netherlands -- Trevor is happy to chat. The tall man would like to buy a pair of Grudge MMA shorts, and just to make sure they fit heís going to take off his pants and try them on right here in the middle of the pro shop. Jen quickly turns away and makes the Ďokay, thení face to herself. Weíll chalk this one up to cultural differences.
The tall man likes the shorts. The tall man will purchase them. He and his wife wave goodbye, thank Jen and Trevor for their hospitality, and with that they are out the door and headed back to the Netherlands, where we will likely never see or hear from them ever again.
Only no, not really. We see the tall man the very next night. We see him when Grudge heavyweight "Skinny" Vinny Pallone (at six feet and around 250 pounds, his is one of those ironic nicknames) steps into the cage at the Fight to Win event in the National Western Complex and there he is standing across the cage.
"That f---er!" says Jen Berg. And hold on, is he -- could he be? -- yes, the Dutch bastard is even wearing the shorts that he bought at Grudge yesterday. Is he even Dutch? Was that even his wife?
"Oh, I hope Trevorís not mad at me," says Berg.
But how could she have known? And what could the guy have been hoping to get out of that little reconnaissance mission, anyway? It wasnít like his opponent was going to be sitting there on Friday afternoon, loudly discussing his game plan for Saturday nightís fight. He didnít see any training, didnít even see the main room where the training is done. He met Wittman, but Wittman doesnít even corner Grudge fighters at these local shows. Heís cageside at a VIP table with his wife and assistant coaches, enjoying a few cold ones. Really, all the tall man -- who we now know is really George Ashauer, a 6í5" heavyweight making his pro debut for Aurora, Colo.ís Denver Judo club -- got out of the deal was the shorts, which he is now wearing as he prepares to do battle with Grudgeís Pallone.
("Skinny" Vinny waits his turn. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)
Funny story about Pallone: a couple weeks ago Wittman watched as he took a direct, though not particularly brutal-looking shot to the nose in sparring. Pallone made a noise like a wounded animal and went running for the bathroom. When Wittman went to check on him, Pallone was in a frantic state, holding his bloody nose with both hands, standing on a bloody tile floor.
"Whatís wrong?" Wittman asked. Pallone gestured to his nose. What if it was broken? They wouldnít let him fight with a broken nose, would they?
"Sure, why not?" Wittman said. A slightly broken nose was one of the few broken bones you could totally fight with, since it wasnít like you needed it to be in tip-top working order. Either you were going to get hit in the nose during the fight or you werenít, and either way you were going to have to deal with it. A doctor could set it, but most wouldnít even bother to do much with a fighterís nose since, as they saw it, he was probably just going to break it again very soon. So Pallone was fine. He could still fight, Wittman told him.
"Really?!" he said. His spirits instantly improved. He cleaned up the blood on the floor, stuffed some tissue up his nose, and went right back onto the mats.
But tonight isnít "Skinny" Vinnyís night. He and Ashauer waste no time wading into each other with power strikes, and sure enough his nose gets clipped. The blood flows freely, but Pallone gamely battles back against an opponent whoís nearly half a foot taller. Pallone is certainly made of denser stuff, and he proves that he can take a punch as well as he can give one. Eventually, however, the height difference comes into play. Ashauer grabs Pallone in a Thai clinch up against the fence, and his knee has only a short trip to make before it finds Palloneís chin. Pallone goes down and Ashauer drums a few more punches to the side of his head before the ref finally decides to call it off. The whole thing takes just a shade under five minutes.
After the fight, Ashauer gets on the mic and thanks the usual cast of teammates and trainers, but he also thanks Wittman for the shorts. Wittman has no idea what the guy is talking about, nor can he even really be sure that the guy is talking to him over this terrible sound system, where all but the most emphatic statements are lost in the crackling feedback. Later, when he finally finds out that this is the same man who he was grinning in pictures with just yesterday, heíll be far more amused than upset. The whole thing is actually pretty hilarious, when he thinks about it. Pallone, meanwhile, is too busy bleeding to appreciate the humor in it.
For Grudgeís in-house fighter manager Vasquez, the focus tonight is on another Grudge heavyweight, Jeremiah Constant. "Hacksaw," his friends call him. And itís true, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to pro wrestler "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, but with a mischievous gleam in his eye that suggests he might be up for whatever brand of all-night trouble you have in mind.
Everyone at Grudge agrees that Constant is a hell of a fighter. At least, he could be. If he got serious about his training, if he didnít like to drink and party quite so much, maybe he could really do something. His wrestling is top notch, and for the first couple minutes of every fight heís an absolute terror. He was taking it to former UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/fighter/122504/cain-velasquez) when they fought in a Bodog Fight event back in 2006, his friends will tell you. That is, until he gassed out.
("Hacksaw" and his manager, Vasquez, head for the locker room. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)
Constantís the kind of fighter who can tell you a lot about the difference between good and great. Talent? Heís got it. Raw ability, the kind you just canít teach? Sure. But heís missing something else, and everyone around him can see it, even if no one can help him fix it. Maybe itís not a lack of work ethic so much as it is an overabundance of energy, pointed in all the wrong directions. Grudge wrestling coach Leister Bowling can tell you all about when Constant was staying at his place, how heíd get drunk and out of hand some nights, how Bowling would have to lock him in the backyard just to keep his ranting and raving out of the house. But Bowling lives in a nice neighborhood with nice neighbors, so he couldnít have that around for long. Eventually he sent Constant out to Oregon to train with Matt Lindland (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/fighter/122559/matt-lindland) and the Team Quest guys -- a favor that Lindland sarcastically thanked Bowling for when he saw him at the UFC event in Newark.
But now Constant is slipping into his late 30s, carrying a pro record of 9-7, and itís now-or-never time. Itís time to get serious, according to Vasquez. Itís time to try and string a few wins together and maybe get noticed by Bellator, Strikeforce -- who knows? He should get off to a good start tonight against Xavier Saccomanno, who is 1-2 and not expected to be much of a challenge for Constant, who, rumor has it, is actually in shape for this fight.
As it turns out, this is one fight where it wouldnít have mattered what kind of shape Constant was in. He clinches Saccomanno against the cage right away, gets him down, and is just starting to get to work with punches from the top when Saccomanno taps out. Itís over in less than a minute, and even Constant, who the announcer has been incorrectly referring to as "Josiah," seems confused by how quickly his opponent gave up. Afterwards, he invites the crowd to his after-party at the Jet Hotel nightclub down the street and announces his intention to get absolutely hammered. Itís a promise that no one who knows him doubts he will make good on.
The last bout of interest for the Grudge team on tonightís card features lightweight Luke Caudillo -- an eight-year veteran of the sport whoís clinging to a career that might be headed into dangerous territory. Wittman is conflicted as he watches from cageside tonight. Heís asked Caudillo to retire twice already, he says. He took a bad knockout in his last fight for Denverís other regional promotion -- Ring of Fire -- and heís already had his shot at the big time. Caudillo fought twice in the UFC and once in Strikeforce, and he lost all three during a six-fight losing streak that stretched on for more than two years.
For his own health and safety, Wittman would like to see Caudillo hang up the gloves, but he canít make him. He tried that with boxers in his old life, and it never worked. They just went and found someone else to train them. Maybe if this one doesnít go his way, the 30-year-old Caudillo will see the light. Not that Wittman wants him to lose. Not exactly. But he also doesnít exactly want to see him win if winning means that heíll decide to keep taking the beatings.
Caudilloís opponent is a tough wrestler named Steve Granieri, and right away itís clear that he came here tonight ready to get messy. Caudillo is the better striker early on, tagging him with straight punches and opening up a small cut around Granieriís eye. Granieri signals for more and the crowd eats it up. At cageside, Wittmanís wife, Christina, whoís a big fan of Caudilloís, gets to her feet and cheers him on passionately. Wittman himself watches quietly from his seat. Heís not sure what he wants to see happen here, but it doesnít seem like any ending can be an entirely happy one.
In the second round the wrestler has gained confidence. He stings Caudillo with his jab several times, and he starts to get cocky. Heís talking to Caudillo between punches, almost mocking him. He shoots for a takedown and Caudillo sprawls. As theyíre both scrambling back to their feet he tags the wrestler with a good knee and down he goes. He looks to be already out, but Caudillo adds a few more punches just to be sure. The guy isnít mocking anyone now.
Maybe the year-long layoff between that last loss and this fight actually did Caudillo some good, Wittman says afterward. "But I still donít want to see him fight again."
Sure enough, when Caudillo gets on the mic after his big win he declares himself "reborn in the fight game." Does that sound like a man whoís planning on hanging it up soon?
The main event ends with local favorite Cat Zingano (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/fighter/131293/cat-zingano) slamming her way to a knockout win over Takayo Hashi (http://www.sbnation.com/mma/fighter/131284/takayo-hashi), and with that the crowd is given one last adrenaline rush before being sent back out into the rain after more than four hours inside the National Western Complex. Zinganoís $4,000 payday will be the biggest on the night, with fighters like Constant just glad to make $750 to show and $750 to win.
Hacksaw? Heíll go to the bar tonight. Others, like Pallone, might be better off going to the hospital. Wittman and his wife will go home to relieve the babysitter.
Nobodyís life is dramatically changed by tonight, and yet nobody is exactly the same as when they walked in. Outside of Colorado, few fight fans will even know or care about what happened here between the time the one woman took her clothes off and the other woman got knocked out. The money wasnít great and the sound system was positively awful. Crowds have been better but theyíve also been worse.
The ER nurses who examine their broken hands and the after-party girls who listen patiently to their war stories might not understand how it could possibly be worth it, all this sacrifice and suffering for less money than you could make with a decent paper route, but it doesnít matter. At the end of the day either you got in the cage and you fought or else you didnít. And they did. Long after the moneyís been spent, theyíll still have the faint scars and the creaking joints and the not-quite-straight noses to prove it. Whoís to say thatís not enough? And what did you expect, anyway?
04-03-2012, 04:20 PM
The Hurt Business: Little Victories, Tender Mercies
Mar 29, 2012 - At the end of the first round Shane Carwin sits down on the stool, takes a deep breath, and waits for his cornermen to do something about all the blood on his face. What a mess.
Officially, you get a minute between rounds. In actuality itís more like ninety seconds from the point where one round ends and the next begins. Youíll probably spend five or six of those seconds just getting to your corner. Youíll spend a few more waiting for your cornermen to get in there and get busy, then youíll lose the last ten or so when a voice in the darkness shouts ĎSeconds out!í and they have to yank the stool out from under you and leave you alone again. Youíll spend the last few staring across the cage at the other guy as the referee takes a long look at the both of you before getting out of the way and letting you figure this thing out between yourselves.
In the end, you still get about sixty seconds to sit and breathe. Valuable time to think about something other than the big leathery fist that was crushing your nose, your eyes, your whole damn head in the seconds before the horn sounded. Just outside the cage, your boss is in the midst of a standing ovation. The Canadian crowd has stopped its hockey chants long enough to cheer your efforts. Your wife is cageside, covering her face as if she has to force herself not to look. The clock is ticking.
Sixty seconds to get it together. Sixty seconds to let the cut man work, to listen to your coach talk about all the things that you should and shouldnít do. Sixty seconds to come to terms with the colossal difference between what was supposed to happen in the previous five minutes and what just did happen. Sixty seconds to think about how you ended up sitting on this stool on a Saturday night in Vancouver, bleeding out of holes in your face that you definitely did not show up with. Sixty seconds to wonder what the hell is happening.
How did you get here, anyway? How did you get here?
This was not the plan. Thatís true in so many different ways. The plan -- the first plan anyway, the one his coaches would later say they never believed for an instant -- was to fight Jon Olav Einemo at UFC 131 in Vancouver. Thatís what Carwin signed on for a few months ago, after his neck surgery had proved successful and his 36-year-old body had returned to something resembling its normal state. Thatís what he was thinking about as he slowly ramped up his training in the mornings before work.
Einemo. Big guy, good jiu-jitsu. Looks tough on tape, but not unbeatable by any means. First time in the UFC, so he might be a little nervous. Training with the Golden Glory guys in Holland, so his kickboxing must be at least good enough to survive from one day to the next over there. Okay. So itís Einemo. A decent enough choice for his first fight back, even if Carwinís legion of fans had responded to the booking by asking: who?
Before surgery the neck was a constant issue. Sometimes the pain was minor, more of a discomfort than anything else. The C7 nerve made it feel like someone was always pinching him in the back. Other times it was worse. His fingers would go numb, which he knew was a bad sign. Training seemed to only make it worse. While grappling with teammate and best friend Brendan Schaub one day he got dropped to the mat and something felt off.
"I got up and I couldnít move pretty much the whole right side of my body, or my right arm and my back. I went in and the doctor said the situation had gotten a lot worse."
He weighed some options, but surgery seemed inevitable. Might as well go ahead and get it over with. He was 35 years old when he went under the knife for the third surgery in four years. It worked, and he felt better as a result, but logging that much hospital time has a way of making some middle-aged athletes ponder their futures. How long can your body keep putting up with this stuff?
Carwinís already got one deep scar on the inside of his left arm to remind him of the time he popped a tendon throwing a left hook, then popped it again when it was inside a cast. Heís got a nose that looks straight enough now, but after his whirlwind of a fight with Gabriel Gonzaga in 2009 he showed up to the post-fight press conference with it listing to one side as if pointing the way out. His knee, well, he managed to rehab that without surgery. Now the neck. Itís another long road back to fighting shape.
"It gets a little harder to come back from injuries and surgeries as you get older," he says one morning after a little one-on-one time with Grudge Training Center head coach Trevor Wittman. "I still want to jump back in there like a 22-year-old."
(Shane Carwin warms up before a training session. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
The UFC heavyweight is such a welcome sight inside the gym, even his sparring partners briefly forget what a nightmare it can be to get stuck inside the cage with Carwin for three, five-minute rounds. He has that effect on people, a kind of bashful charisma that he canít quite hide. Like heís embarrassed to have people look at him, which only makes them want to look at him more. Heís the favorite son. The big kid whose cheeks all the relatives canít wait to pinch.
When Wittman starts in on his list of nicknames for Carwin -- Shania Carwine, Negative Nancy Kerrigan Carwin -- the big man flashes that shy smile. This is how their relationship works. Wittman makes jokes and Carwin grins along, even when the jokes are about him. Eventually he fires back one of his own in that soft, low voice of his, so quiet you have to move in close just to hear what few words he feels like saying today.
And the words are few. In part because injuries and surgeries keep him out of action for much of the year, and in part because he prefers to communicate with MMA fans directly, via his Twitter and Web site, I only get to talk to Carwin a handful of times during my visits to Grudge. If you ask his manager, Jason Genet, to help you secure an interview, you usually get an offer to do one via e-mail. If you donít like that idea -- and writers typically donít, since e-mail interviews make follow-up questions difficult, and since you canít even be truly positive that the fighter himself is the one answering your questions -- you usually get nothing at all.
Shaneís very busy, Genet will tell you. Itís not hard to believe, either. With his full-time engineer job in the North Weld County Water District, itís almost hard to imagine where he finds the time to train. There are people with nine-to-fives and wives and families who will tell you that they canít even find the time to stay in shape, much less prepare for a pro fight. You look around at the other UFC-level pros in the gym -- guys like Schaub and Eliot Marshall and Nate Marquardt -- and you donít see too many who are holding down full-time jobs on the side.
It makes for an interesting and ubiquitous part of the narrative in any Shane Carwin story, but at times the UFC seems unsure what to make of this fighter who refuses to quit his day job. UFC president Dana White even offered him a sizable (though not life-changing) one-time payment to quit and be all MMA, all the time, but Carwin turned it down. Why would he want to quit his job?
"Itís part of who I am," he says. "Itís what makes fighting work for me. Itís what I do when Iím away from fighting. These other guys, I donít know what they do. They go home, play video games, sit around in their underwear all day Ė I donít know. Thatís what it sounds like from all the talk they do around the gym. Like hey, rough life. But Iíve got a family to take care of. Engineering provides the base for my family to survive on, it provides benefits. Thereís a lot that goes into it. Anything else on top of it is a bonus."
But Wittman -- who canít help but psychoanalyze the lives and motivations of his fighters with the same obsessiveness that he applies to breaking down an opponentís striking game -- has another theory. The way he sees it, Carwinís already learned firsthand how quickly this pro athlete bubble can pop. He went through it in football, after his senior season at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. He was a two-time All-American and even had some scouts talking at the NFL combine. But there were concerns about past injuries. A Division II standout was already something of a risk in the draft. Was he healthy and sturdy enough for the NFL?
"I think he felt like, if it can be taken away that easily, itís not something you can depend on," Wittman says.
At the same time, professional cage fighting is not the sort of thing you do as a hobby. Not at the UFC level. Not if youíre going up against guys like Brock Lesnar. If you donít put in your time during training, itís a good bet that someone who does view this as his one and only job will do something horrible and memorable to you on live TV. So Carwin is here, in the gym before and after work, doing what he has to do to make sure itís Einemo who ends up reconsidering his career choices on June 11.
But Wittman? Heís not buying this Einemo stuff. No way. He doesnít see why the UFC would put Carwin in against this newcomer. He suspects something is up, and one thing heís learned in the fight game is that such suspicions should not be ignored. He doesnít want to freak Carwin out by telling him to prepare for a change of opponents. And besides, it may be nothing. So he settles for dropping little hints here and there. He casually mentions how, hey, wouldnít it be crazy if something happened to one of the guys in the UFC 131 main event? What if Junior dos Santos or Brock Lesnar got hurt and had to pull out? Wouldnít it be great if they gave you that number one contender fight instead?
Heís careful to put it in a positive context each time. Wouldnít it be great? He doesnít want to scare his fighter, he explains, but rather to prepare him to see it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. That is, if it does happen.
At first it seems like wishful thinking on Wittmanís part. To him, Carwin is not only a special fighter, but probably his closest friend in the fight game. He wants Carwin to be UFC champion maybe even more, or at least as much, as Carwin wants it.
"A heavyweight championship fight, thatís the dream of any trainer," Wittman says. "I mean, a championship is a championship. I have twelve of them. I donít have a heavyweight champion yet."
And Carwin could do it, too. He held the UFC interim title at one point, but the interim title is not the title, and everyone knows it. Then there was the Lesnar fight, the one that still hurts to think about.
"First time itís ever happened to me in my life," Carwin says when he thinks about that night. That was the night he came within maybe one or two well placed punches of putting a wounded Lesnar away and becoming the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion. The night his body seized up on him, his legs and arms no longer obeying the commands of an increasingly frantic brain.
"I'm always in the zone in there,"he says now, looking back. "I don't see or hear the crowd at all. But I remember raining bombs down on him and then all of a sudden this whoosh came over my body, and then suddenly I could see people in the crowd. Like, individual people who I could see and hear. Then I felt my body slowing down."
He recalls barely making it to his corner after the first round. Barely making it off the stool for the second. Across the cage, Lesnar was grinning through the blood. Thatís when Wittman knew they were in trouble.
"When you get done kicking a guy's ass and he gets up and winks at you, that's a bad feeling," Wittman says.
Those are the losses that eat at you later. The ones you should have had. If the other guy is simply a better fighter, or if he catches you with one big punch that shuts out your lights, hey, what can you do? It happens. But this, the Lesnar fight, those are the ones that are tough to live with. Those are the ones you might catch yourself thinking about months and years later, re-fighting the same old battle in your head as you drift off to sleep. What if youíd done this, or not done that? What might have changed? What might have been different? Youíll never know. The best you can do is let it go, if such a thing is even possible.
A month out from the Einemo fight the call comes. Carwin doesnít answer it because Carwin is busy training. When he finally gets around to looking at his cell phone and he sees the missed calls from Genet and Wittman, he knows somethingís up. At first, he thinks he must be in trouble.
"I was actually pretty concerned," he says. "But when I heard the news, I was just so excited."
The news is good, at least for Carwin. The news makes Wittman look like some kind of wizard, like he looked into his crystal ball and saw the future. Lesnarís diverticulitis has returned, and heís out of the fight with Dos Santos at UFC 131. Okay, so itís not great news for Lesnar, but you know what they say. One manís misfortune, and so forth. Now the main event fight is Carwinís, and the winner gets UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez. In his first fight since losing a heavyweight title bout, he has the opportunity to fight his way right back into another one. Funny how the MMA pendulum swings sometimes, particularly in a relatively thin heavyweight division.
Almost over night, the feel in the gym changes. When you go from a mid-card bout against a no-name newcomer to a main event top contender bout -- and all with just about a month to promote the thing -- the hype machine is forced into overdrive. Camera crews start showing up out of nowhere. A few weeks ago it was just Carwin and Wittman alone in the gym early on a weekday morning. Then one morning there are two different camera crews pulling off their shoes and stepping onto the mats, dragging their cords and lights and cameras and boom mics into what is supposed to be a working training camp.
(Trevor Wittman gives a camera crew his two cents. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
One of the crews is from Carwinís sponsor, Bud Light, which is putting together a viral video campaign in the lead-up to this fight. The other is from Spike TVís UFC Countdown show, and it brings with it producer Paul Heyman, of pro wrestling fame. Heyman cuts a noticeable figure in a fight gym, in part because heís the only one wearing a suit out on the mats. His presence here is at first a little confusing to Wittman, who only knows him as "Lesnarís friend." And, fair enough, Heyman was originally scheduled to produce the segment on Lesnar, but when his old WWE running buddy had to pull out of the fight, he got sent to Wheat Ridge to get Carwin instead. Inviting the friend and confidante of your former (and possibly future) nemesis into your home is a little odd, but itís part of the package deal that comes along with training a top UFC heavyweight. Camera crews might show up at any time, with any cast of characters in tow, and youíre not in a position to turn them away.
But Heyman knows the drill. He hangs back and watches the Bud Light crew at first, and you can almost see him mapping out his own shoot with his eyes. Carwin, meanwhile, has to worry about giving everyone what they came for. Would he mind hitting some mitts with Wittman while Wittman wears a headcam to capture the action? Of course not. Then over here for some shadow-boxing. Slower. Okay, now faster. Itís the kind of footage that, when cut together for the final product, will make it look like the cameras simply captured a typical day of training. In reality, they made a typical day of training all but impossible. Carwin manages to get a decent sweat going during the various B-roll scenarios, but this valuable day of pre-fight preparation is largely sacrificed to the gods of marketing.
Not that there arenít still plenty of good days left. On one Saturday morning heíll step in the cage for a sparring session with Schaub that many fight fans would have eagerly bought tickets to see. Schaub is almost exactly the same height as Dos Santos, so itís good practice for getting inside his reach and trapping him against the cage. Of course, the best friends canít let each other off without a bit of free-swinging fun in the center of the cage here and there, knocking one anotherís headgear sideways before the round is up.
(Brendan Schaub [left] and Shane Carwin go at it in practice. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
How many times have these two done this? How many rounds have they sparred against one another? They lost count a long time ago. In the version of the story that Schaub tells, he first met Carwin after he swore off football for good. After college heíd bounced from the Buffalo Bills to the Arena Leagueís Utah Blaze, but his heart wasnít in it the way it had been in college at the University of Colorado.
"I was [with the Blaze] literally two weeks and I was just like, man, Iím over this," Schaub says. "I jumped in my car and drove home to Colorado and drove straight to Nate Marquardtís gym. Literally, straight from Utah to Nateís gym."
Marquardt got a look at Schaub and told him there wasnít much they could do with a heavyweight just then, but if heíd come back tomorrow theyíd have another big guy there for him to spar with.
"I came back the next day and thereís Shane, who I think was about 300 [pounds] at the time," Schaub says. "They were like, okay, you two are together."
Friendships have certainly been built on less. And make no mistake, Carwin and Schaub are friends -- not just training partners. Thatís why it bothers Schaub when he hears other people -- occasionally even his own coach -- suggesting that he and Carwin might have to fight each other some day. Itís not that they mind punching one another in the face; Schaub has hit and been hit by Carwin more than by anyone else on the planet at this point. No, itís not the pain or the violence. Itís what it would signify. Itís how one of them would necessarily advance his career on the back of the other. Itís how one of them would have to fail -- most likely in spectacular, bloody fashion -- so the other could succeed.
"This isnít basketball," Schaub likes to say. "Someoneís getting f----ed up."
June finds the city of Vancouver gripped by hockey fever. The Canucks are in the Stanley Cup Finals, and the downtown bars are filled to capacity an hour before the puck drops for each and every game. Summer is just beginning to spread out its arms in the Pacific Northwest, and it stays light well into the evening as the Canuck faithful pour out into the streets in either elation or seething, drunken anger, depending on how that dayís game turned out.
Itís not the easiest environment for promoting a fight. The attentions of the media and the citizenry are focused so intensely on these next few hockey games that they can hardly be bothered to think about anything else. Canucks flags fly out the windows of apartment buildings and high-rise offices. On a game day itís more or less accepted that all work will be done extremely half-assed. Hangovers are part of the following dayís uniform.
Fortunately, Canada still loves its MMA. The relationship with hockey is committed and long-term, a marriage that sports fans here would never consider leaving. But the UFC is a tempting mistress when in town. Just as long as it doesnít conflict with Stanley Cup date night.
Being one half of the main event doesnít just mean cameras in your gym. It also means a full plate of media responsibilities and dozens of competing distractions on fight week. On Wednesday, itís the open workouts in a little gym on Hornby Street. There, Carwin turns into the bashful kid again, flashing that effortless charisma in the media scrums, as if heís just a little embarrassed on behalf of all these people who have showed up with recorders and cameras in the middle of the day to talk about his side job.
Carwinís wrestling coach, Leister Bowling -- the man every member of the Grudge team will tell you over and over is the best wrestling coach in the business -- tries to find a quiet corner to stand in and wait this out. He doesnít like this part of fight week any more than Carwin does, but at least he doesnít have to answer the same questions over and over again.
"I don't think it's a distraction for Shane; I think it pisses him off," Bowling says. "Nothing against reporters, but he hates doing interviews. Shane told me the other day that the thing he hates most about MMA is the fame that comes with it, being at the top. He would rather no one recognize him. He would rather he just got to fight, and got paid to do it."
(Ariel Helwani interviews Shane Carwin. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
Through it all, the only time Carwin seems the least bit uncomfortable is when MMA Fightingís Ariel Helwani asks him about that statement he and his camp were planning to release when his name came up in a federal steroid distribution case a year earlier. Carwin was never charged with anything, and the dates that linked him to J. Michael Bennett -- the Applied Pharmacy Services supervising pharmacist who was convicted in 2010 of conspiracy to illegally distribute steroids -- came well before he was in the UFC. Still, the Carwin camp quieted the initial storm in the MMA community by promising to release a statement at a later date. No statement ever came, and itís Helwani who steps up to ask about it.
"No comment on that," Carwin says with a slight smile. "Nothing right now."
Will a comment ever be forthcoming? Helwani presses.
"Thereís nothing for me to comment on that," Carwin answers.
It gets him out of the line of fire for the moment, but as a media strategy it leaves something to be desired. Some fans will undoubtedly hear Ďno commentí and take it as the worst kind of admission of guilt. If an athlete cops to steroid use, explains what happened, and offers even the most tepid apology, fans usually tend to forgive and sometimes even forget. After all, who hasnít screwed up? Who doesnít know what itís like to look back on a past mistake and cringe at the thought of it? At the very least, the athlete who opens up about it gets some points for honesty. If he says Ďno comment,í itís almost always assumed that he did it, but no such honesty points are rewarded.
Then again, offering up a Ďno commentí response does have a neat little way of ending the exchange and refusing the internet its sound byte. This way at least, fight week can roll on, and the fight itself can remain the focal point. On to the next interview. The next media event. The outdoor press conference at Robson Square on Thursday, the weigh-in on the edge of Vancouver Harbour on Friday where heíll break from his normally trash-talk resistant demeanor -- just slightly -- to declare that somebodyís getting knocked out on Saturday night "and itís not going to be me."
But a UFC fight week places demands on the organizationís extended family, as well. Itís not just the fighters on the card who have to show up and play their role. Schaub is here too, both to support his teammate and to make some promotional appearances before he has to fly off to Brazil next week to fulfill media responsibilities for his own fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Rio de Janeiro later this summer. Heíll be in the UFCís "Octagon Nation" trailer this week, signing autographs and pressing the flesh with fans. Heís surprisingly good at it, too. Some fighters are so stiff and stilted at these things itís impossible for fans not to notice that theyíre hating every minute of it. Schaub actually seems like he wants to be here, even if a part of him might rather be at home in the gym.
Itís not always easy to get your regular training in on the road, and Schaubís starting to look just a little bit frustrated when he shows up at one of the guest hotelís workout rooms to find that his team isnít all there. Wittmanís been tasked with getting Carwinís fight night sponsor banner approved, which means presenting both the banner and the shorts he plans to wear to UFC officials, who just happen to be in the hotelís other workout room right now. When he walks in, Dos Santos is hitting mitts and working on his sprawl with his trainers. Wittman is very careful to keep his back to the big Brazilian at all times, even when it requires him to move in ways that seem almost ridiculous. Itís a show of respect and sportsmanship that is never commented on. Wittman wants Dos Santos and his team to know that heís not here to spy. Hereís here only because he has to be, even if the timing is unfortunate. He never glances in Dos Santosí direction for even a moment, never even allows his body to be in a position where he could see whatís happening on the small mat. Instead, he busies himself with the sponsor situation, which of course requires at least one phone call to Carwinís manager to clear up a discrepancy over whether this logo promoting a new metal album has been cleared through all the right channels.
When Wittman finds Schaub, heís waiting in the other workout room, watching Jon Olav Einemo -- Carwinís original opponent -- work on his jiu-jitsu. Einemo politely offers Schaub some mat space, but the Grudge heavyweight is content to wait. Once Einemo finally gets up to leave, his full height and size makes the room feel suddenly smaller.
"That is a big dude," Schaub says of the 6í6" Norwegian. "You donít want to mess around on the ground with that guy if you donít have to."
Is this Schaub doing his trademark Schaub thing, scaring himself into obsessive preparation, even with regards to an opponent who he may never have to fight? Unclear, but heíll get no argument from Wittman on this one. That was one very big dude, whose ground game one would probably be best to steer clear of entirely.
Just after the weigh-ins wrap up on Friday, the puck drops for game five of the Stanley Cup Finals at Rogers Arena just down the street from the UFC host hotel. The bars have been brimming all afternoon. When the hometown pulls off a 1-0 victory to take the lead in the series, the streets instantly flood with happy hockey fans. On one downtown street, a man parks his pickup in the exact middle of the road and cranks up the stereo. Within seconds an impromptu dance party has effectively cut off the street to all traffic, and the smell of celebratory marijuana smoke fills the air.
This is just the beginning. The party goes on like this all night, as if the Canucks have actually won the cup itself rather than just a single game in the series. Even in the downtown hotel you can hear the car horns and shouts and sirens and wails drifting up from the street and into your hotel room. You wake up at three or four in the morning and you hear it still, invading your sleep. The noise whirls at the edges of your dreams. The city refuses to go to bed. As if it doesnít know that tomorrow is fight day.
By the time the main event arrives, the crowd is in a lather. And what better way to end the night than with two big heavyweights? Carwin enters to Eminem, Dos Santos to the Rocky theme. The man in the tux makes all the same announcements. The people in their seats make all the same noises in response. Here we are again, ready to find out whose life is about to change in sudden, violent ways. Less than a half hour from now it will all be over, these same frantic fans already turning their attention toward beating the traffic out of here.
For the first few minutes of the fight, things seem as if they might go exactly according to plan for Carwin. Just like in sparring, he looks for a takedown and uses it to pin Dos Santos to the fence. But Dos Santos doesnít panic. Heíd have been a fool not to prepare for this, both when he thought he was fighting Lesnar and then when he found out he was fighting Carwin. He breaks Carwinís grip and pivots away. He returns to the open space of the Octagon and gets his jab working. His left hand smacks Carwin on the forehead and a red welt comes up almost immediately. Seconds later he lands a right hand that sounds like someone dropping a raw steak on the supermarket floor.
(Junior dos Santos trades blows with Shane Carwin. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
Itís the left that really starts to get to Carwin. Once Dos Santos figures out he can land it almost at will, Carwin starts reacting to the feints, unwittingly inviting a more aggressive attack. Carwin is bloodied and covering up as the first round enters its final minute. A right hand and left hook from Dos Santos brings him to his knees. There are still more than forty seconds left in the round. A lifetime, when you have a big puncher like that leaning on your back, hammering away at your face with a stream of short hooks.
With around twenty seconds left, Dos Santos glances up at referee Herb Dean. Got a good view, Herb? But Deanís been doing this too long to be baited into stopping a fight. Heís content to let Carwin take his medicine for now. A few more hooks from Dos Santos, and he lets Carwin up with ten seconds to go. No sense in punching himself out if Dean isnít buying it. He backs up and begins his recovery time early. Carwin, meanwhile, blinks through the blood as he plods forward in a fighting stance, still trying in vain to look as confident as when he walked in here. The horn sounds and Dos Santos offers Carwin a little fist bump on his way to his corner. Carwin returns it as an automatic gesture.
Now to that stool. Now to figure out just what in the hell is happening.
Later, Wittman will say that he entered the Octagon after the first round with the intention of focusing on technical advice. Fixes for Carwinís defense, perhaps. A solution to Dos Santosí jab might be nice.
"I started to say something and I looked in his eyes and could just see him thinking, ĎI donít need this s---,í" Wittman will say. "ĎIíve got a job, a family. What am I doing?í"
Carwin had just barely survived the first round, and Wittman already knew what was on everyoneís mind. Maybe what was even on Carwinís mind. Is he going to collapse again, like he did against Lesnar? Now that itís his turn to be on the business end of the first-round beatdown, does he have what Lesnar had, that ability to pull it together and charge on? After all, thatís been the only knock on him so far. Carwinís a terror in the first round, people say. But what about the second? Now that his nose is broken and his eyes are cut and swollen, what will he do?
Thatís what theyíre all wondering, Wittman decides. So okay, letís find out.
"Show me what you have inside, Shane," Wittman says into his fighterís ear as the cutman tries to do something -- anything -- about the mess that is his face. "Show me you have it."
Then they take that stool away and heís alone again. Just him and the big Brazilian and the referee who doesnít mind a little blood. What now? How are you supposed to get back in this fight now that you can barely see or breathe? With what could you hope to threaten your undamaged, unfazed opponent?
(Shane Carwin battles on through the blood. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
But Carwinís not out of it yet. He comes out of his corner for the second looking, if not eager, then at least willing. He experiments with a couple leg kicks, which not many people know he really does have in his arsenal. He backs Dos Santos up and tags him with a left hook that makes the Brazilianís legs go wobbly for just a moment. Hold on. Carwin is actually in this fight. In the final minute of the round he takes a kick above the ear that halts his advance only briefly. He keeps moving forward, firing back. Thereís that horn again. Thereís that polite little glove touch on the way to their respective corners.
This time, Wittman offers a little more technical advice in the corner, and a little less ra-ra. He calls for more movement from Carwin, who got stung when he became too stationery a target.
"Letís make a fight out of this," he says. "Youíve taken everything he gave you."
"Can I blow my nose?" Carwin asks in the voice of a man with the worldís worst cold.
"No!" comes the answer. No, no, no, no, no. If he did, his eye would be swollen shut in seconds. Not that itís much good to him now, but still. With a broken nose, blowing the blood out of it is the one thing that seems most tempting. Itís also the thing you absolutely should not do.
Carwin is cut under both eyes and on the bridge of his obviously broken nose as he extends his fist to Dos Santos to start the third. The doctor takes a closer look midway through the third, but clears it to continue. Dos Santos gets a takedown in the final minute, as if just to prove to future opponents that he can do it. He gets one more before itís over, and this time Carwin threatens with a choke at the final horn. After the thrashing he took in the first frame, no one could have guessed that Dean would be forcing Carwin to let go of Dos Santos at the end, rather than the other way around.
As decisions go, this is about as obvious as it gets. You could look at the two men from a block away and know who won the fight. Schaub is seething as he makes his way out of the arena. This isnít about the team looking bad; he just watched his friend get beat up, and he wants revenge.
"Best boxer in MMA my ass," he says of Dos Santos. "Iíll f--- that guy up."
A group of twenty-something women stop him for his autograph on the way out. Even in his agitated state, Schaub puts on that PR face and does his duty. And of course one of them wants him to sign her breast. Something she saw in a movie, maybe. A character she feels obliged to play.
Carwin will go to the hospital, where Wittman will sit with him all night, joking and laughing and trying to keep his spirits up as they document his rapidly swelling face with their cell phones. Itís an ending to the night that they didnít even allow themselves to consider before the bout, and yet there they are.
"Honestly," Wittman will say later, "I couldnít have been more proud of him. Not even if heíd won the fight. I was just so proud."
Odds are Carwin will wear the souvenirs from this bout on his face for the rest of his life. Odds are heíll look back at this one years from now and remember the night he could have quit and didnít. The night he took everything Dos Santos had and was still there at the end, clinging to his neck. The night he proved something that you canít possibly fake.
But did the fans see it? Will they look back on this one and think, Oh yeah, I remember that fight. That JDS sure beat the hell out of poor Carwin. Will they remember it as an L for one guy and a W for another? Isn't this sport, at least some of the time, about more than just winners and losers?
Who knows. Who even cares?
It happened. It was right there in front of their faces. A man took a beating and -- whether out of desperate hope, sheer defiance, or just a desire to silence his critics -- kept coming forward. He endured more than he had to, and all for money he didn't especially need. He took it. He dished it out. He kept getting off that stool every time they took it away. Certainly, they had to see that. Didnít they? Even through all that blood? Especially through the blood? They had to know what heíd done that night in Vancouver, what he'd given them. What he'd given himself. They just had to.
04-09-2012, 12:20 PM
Big Tests in Pittsburgh, PA
Apr 6, 2012 - So you want to run a fight gym, huh? You want the glamorous life of an MMA trainer. You want to drop thousands of dollars on wall-to-wall mats, punching bags of all shapes and sizes, a full-size boxing ring and MMA cage, all so you can spend your days breathing in that stale smell of damp leather and other peopleís feet.
You want to worry about mold in the vents and staph infection on the mats. Want to go through miles of athletic tape and buckets of disinfectant. Want to hear that sharp dinging of the round timer in your sleep. Want to spend the better part of your waking hours around the kind of people who essentially saw a sign that read, ĎGet Punched in the Face Here!í and couldnít pull over fast enough.
Really? Youíre sure this is the life you want for yourself?
Okay, but youíve got some decisions to make. For starters, you need to decide exactly how youíre going to make enough money to keep the lights on. Because you can be an honest-to-goodness, blood-on-the-floor and belts-on-the-wall fight gym, or you can be a glorified Tae Bo studio that caters to hobbyists who want to lose weight and learn a little self-defense they hope theyíll never have to use. Thereís a whole spectrum in between, but the first thing you need to know is that itís not easy to serve the real fighters and the casuals at the same time. Some might even say itís impossible, or at least impossible to do well. Others might say that you better think of something that doesnít include depending on professional fighters to pay your bills. Even when they mean well, so many of them are struggling just to pay their own.
Working stiffs have money. The people who sit in a cubicle all day and desperately want to hit someone at night? The people who want to blow off steam in the morning before they get behind the wheel of a delivery truck all afternoon? Those people can afford $150 a month on the unlimited plan, or $75 a month for just a few days a week. Even some of the lower-level, but still competitive fighters with day jobs and big, violent dreams can swing it. You can sign those people up and feel reasonably sure that theyíre going to pay you. You get enough of them, you might even start making some real money.
You wonít get famous, though. You wonít get the satisfaction of taking a raw talent and molding him into a champion. You wonít get to hang on the cage behind your protege while Bruce Buffer booms out his name on a UFC pay-per-view. You wonít get that high when he wins with the left hook you created for him. You wonít get to smile in the victory posedowns. You wonít get thanked in his post-fight speech. And if no one has heard your name in interviews or seen your face on TV, why do they want to train with you in the first place? Whatís so special about your gym?
This is the catch-22 for every working fight gym, and the Grudge Training Center is no exception. The up-and-coming pros give you that sense of satisfaction, and the big-timers give you a name. Itís because of guys like Nate Marquardt and Shane Carwin that Grudge can attract new members despite doing almost nothing that could be called advertising. No radio spots. No billboards. No coupons in the Denver Post promising a free month if you sign up now to get in shape for summer. Nothing. Oh, thereís a sandwich board around here somewhere that they can put out on the sidewalk when they think of if, but they usually donít. Thatís because they donít have to. If you know anything about the MMA scene in Colorado, then you already know Grudge. And the reason you know it is because of the guys who fight on TV, in the UFC, which is also the reason those guys pay no monthly dues at all, according to head trainer Trevor Wittman.
"Their value, the attention they bring to the gym, thatís enough," says Wittman. "People know, ĎOh, Brendan Schaub? He trains at Grudge.í"
At the same time, Grudge makes certain sacrifices in order to serve its pro fighter clientele. When a guy like Schaub shows up for a 10 a.m. training session with Wittman, he doesnít want to share the mat with some cardio kickboxing class. He doesnít want to sign autographs in the locker room or small-talk with a paying member who wants to know, seriously, what Dana White is really like. The gym is his place of business. When he walks through the front door of Grudge and gives Jen Berg that football jock nod of his on his way past the front desk, he is officially at work. Heís got a fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira coming up in August. He doesnít need some guy with a nine-to-five getting in his way. He needs his own time and space. He needs personal attention from Wittman, and he gets it. In exchange, Wittman gets a walking advertisement for his gym, and a ten percent cut of Schaub's fight purse.
Trouble is, there are only so many Schaubs out there, and he can only fight so many times a year. As of June, heís fought just once in 2011. A ten percent cut of his purse for the UFC 128 bout with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic comes to just $2,800. He rounded up to $4,000 when he wrote the check, he says, but still, is it worth the tradeoff? Is it worth effectively closing the gym to non-pros all morning and most of the afternoon? Is it worth ignoring the paying members in order to spend time with the non-paying ones?
Because those cubicle jockeys who come in here at night, they might hardly ever see Wittman. When theyíre learning the jab from one his assistant coaches, heís at home shadow-boxing across the kitchen floor as he makes dinner for his wife and daughter. What if those members decide theyíre not getting the full Grudge treatment, and decide to go somewhere else for their martial arts needs? Forget about winning and losing fights for just a second. How are you supposed to pay your rent from one month to the next?
(Grudge fighters ease into a Saturday morning sparring session. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
Heading into the summer of 2011, this is the question on Wittmanís mind. His pro fight team is plugging right along, but heís losing more and more dues-paying members every month, and there arenít enough new ones walking through the door to make up for it. This leaves Wittman to make some difficult choices.
One thing he can do is take time away from the pros to cultivate a relationship with the general population. He can give the average enthusiasts more time and space, and let the pros work with his assistants. But then, he didnít get into this to be an aerobics instructor. He wants to work with fighters. He wants to be where the real action is. And besides, every head trainer knows how that story ends. You let somebody else handle your fighters often enough, pretty soon itís someone else in that corner, making that ten percent. Pretty soon the fighter you took from amateurs to the big time is sending you a text message goodbye. Or no goodbye at all. It happens all the time. A trainer has to watch his back.
Instead, he could put the squeeze on some of the lower-level pro team members who have been allowed to get a little lax in their payments. But itís never fun to hassle your friends about money. It leads to uncomfortable situations, such as the one that occurs one Saturday when Wittmanís wife, Christina, who helps run the gymís front end, is obligated to have an awkward conversation about monthly dues with one Grudge team member and Bellator fighter who looks positively stricken when asked to pay a fee for sparring privileges. It also leads to situations where talented, promising young fighters -- guys who, with some top-notch training and a few lucky breaks, might actually get somewhere -- are told to either sign a gym contract and pay their monthly fee or else find somewhere else to train.
And how are you supposed to groom new prospects this way? Computer programmers and middle managers might have $150 a month to spend on gym dues, but a lot of the young men chasing this crazy dream of professional pugilism are doing just enough bar-bouncing or drywall-hanging to get by. They need that money for rent and groceries. If you like their chances to be somebody some day, sure, go ahead and let them ride for free. But then what are you supposed to tell the other guys, like the Bellator fighter? What, you donít think heís a worthy investment? And what are you supposed to tell the dues-paying members, who are already subsidizing the careers of some of the people who first attracted them to the gym, whether they realize it or not? The pros are the whole reason they canít come in and get a workout during their lunch break. Now theyíre paying for that privilege, just so they can tell their friends that they use the same heavy bag as these UFC guys?
Itís a system with plenty of built-in inequities, and one that every gym struggles with. Itís a unique situation in pro sports. NFL teams donít share their weight rooms with fans. Major League Baseball teams donít have to clear off the field to let part-timers get a little batting practice in. But a gym has to make money, and fighters rarely bring in enough of it on their own.
On a personal level, Wittman gets by in part thanks to a generous monthly stipend from the Alchemist Management group, which represents him as well as fighters like Schaub, Marquardt, and Eliot Marshall. Officially, the money comes from an endorsement deal with the Alchemist clothing brand, which produces a line of t-shirts that look almost exactly like every other t-shirt brand in the MMA space, and which one almost never sees on anyone except those who are paid to wear them. Wittman also depends on his percentage of fighter purses from the likes of Schaub, Duane Ludwig, Carwin and, of course, Marquardt, who just so happens to have a fight coming up in Pittsburgh at the end of June. Just in time, considering the precarious financial situation.
(Nate Marquardt chats with Trevor Wittman and Fareed Samad after a workout. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
For Marquardt, this is shaping up to be a career turning point. After his decision win over Dan Miller at UFC 128 in New Jersey, he announced heíd be dropping to welterweight. That meant, at least temporarily, that heíd be setting aside his hopes for a rematch with UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva, who beat him back in 2007. But Marquardt was already a relatively small middleweight whoíd had possibly the easiest weight cut of his career before the Miller fight. It was his pal, UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, who suggested he consider a move down in weight.
Before the UFC would sign off on such a move, however, they wanted an assurance from Marquardt. The UFC wanted to know that, if the situation called for it, heíd be willing to face his friend and occasional training partner for the 170-pound strap. The last thing the UFC needed was another contender who refused to fight a teammate and thus made matchmaking even more of a headache. Marquardt could make the move, the UFC told him, but only if heíd promise upfront to fight GSP if and when the time came.
"I basically called Georges and told him thatís what they were saying," Marquardt explains after one Saturday morning sparring session at Grudge. "He told me, ĎDonít worry about it. Say whatever you have to say.í"
According to Marquardt, GSP said he planned to be retired or in a new weight class himself by the time such a fight might materialized, so there was no real risk that theyíd actually have to fight some day.
"So I basically had to tell the UFC, ĎOkay, Iíll fight Georges St-Pierre,'" he says.
For his first fight at welterweight, Marquardt says he volunteered to step up and take an injured Jon Fitchís spot against B.J. Penn. When that fight didnít materialize, the UFC offered him Anthony Johnson, who heíd trained with when they were both filming the MMA movie Warrior. Heíd fought guys heíd trained with before, but that was different. That was mostly when he was competing in Japanís Pancrase organization, and there you knew youíd probably end up fighting your training partners eventually, so you could be careful about what to show them and what to keep under wraps in the gym.
"Training with Anthony, he was in a different weight class so I didnít even think about it," he says. "Hanging out with the guy over the five weeks, itís kind of weird. Heís a cool guy. I like him a lot."
Still, business is business. You canít be friends with everybody, and if heís willing to take the fight then he must not be overwhelmed by fellow-feeling. As it turned out, it wouldnít even matter in the end. Johnson would pull out with an injury weeks before the fight, and Rick Story would step up as a replacement opponent for Marquardt. Problem solved. Sort of.
For Marquardt, the weeks following his victory in New Jersey arenít just about dropping weight and training for the next fight. Instead, theyíre about testosterone. Specifically, theyíre about proving to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board that he truly needs the testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT) heís been undergoing since August of 2010.
Itís all part of a complicated dance thatís been happening behind the scenes since February of 2011, when Marquardt first alerted the New Jersey commission to the fact that he was undergoing TRT. He applied for a therapeutic-use exemption -- in other words, official permission to use testosterone to bring what his doctor said were chronically low hormone levels to within a "normal" range -- on Feb. 11, according to NJSABC counsel Nick Lembo. But the New Jersey commission was skeptical at first. In part because Marquardt had begun the treatment with his personal physician, who was not a board-certified endocrinologist, and in part because his initial application for a TUE was deemed "incomplete," the New Jersey commission laid out a series of requests that Marquardt had to agree to in order to be licensed for the fight against Miller.
For starters, he had to see an actual endocrinologist, and undergo tests both before the fight and on fight night to ensure that he was within acceptable hormone levels. He also had to go off the TRT for two months following the fight, during which he would be tested several more times in order to establish baseline testosterone levels and determine whether he was truly in need of the TRT.
Up to this point, things had gone relatively well. Marquardt had met the New Jersey commissionís requirements and passed all the tests. Though his testosterone use was no great secret inside the gym -- and though Wittman was no fan of it -- it was far from public knowledge. He seemed on course to quietly put the New Jersey situation to rest and move on to his next fight in Pennsylvania.
But now thereís a problem. After more than two months off TRT, Marquardt starts to feel "even worse than I did the year before," as he will later say in an interview with MMA Fightingís Ariel Helwani. Itís exactly what many experts warn of with hormone-replacement therapy. Testosterone might not have the side effects that other substances do, but as anti-doping pioneer Dr. Don Catlin says, when you begin taking it, "you take it for life." After being on it for several months, getting off of it in order to satisfy an athletic commission can take a physical toll.
And yet, Marquardt doesnít look like a man depleted during this TRT-free period. During one sparring session, he keeps trying to get Wittman to watch his rounds and give him feedback, but Wittman keeps getting pulled in several directions at once. Marquardt doesnít seem to feel heís getting the attention he needs, and his sparring partner, Vinny Lopez, feels the brunt of his frustrations.
"Sorry about that," Wittman tells Lopez afterward.
Lopez, a heavily-tattooed, gregarious middleweight whoís loved by all inside the Grudge gym, just smiles and shrugs. After all, you could do a lot worse than to get beat up by Marquardt.
(Marquardt [right] spars with Vinny Lopez as Wittman looks on. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
With about three weeks to go until the Story fight in Pittsburgh, Marquardt is cleared to resume TRT treatments. But instead of going to an endocrinologist who would use World Anti-Doping Agency protocol in treating him, Marquardt goes back to his personal physician, the man who helped him get started on testosterone in the first place, and whose expertise the New Jersey commission had been wary of. Because Marquardt has gone so long without TRT as a condition of the New Jersey licensing issue, this doctor recommends a more "aggressive" treatment to get his levels back up in time for the fight, according to Marquardt.
Instead of pills this time, itís injections. Three of them. All administered by a doctor who is not a board-certified endocrinologist. In hindsight, itís the kind of thing that seems like such an obviously bad idea, you wonder what anyone was thinking. At the time, however, no one sounds any alarms. Itís not until a blood test reveals high testosterone levels that Marquardt and his management team begin to sweat. Thatís when their focus turns to Pittsburgh, to the Story fight, to all the things they need to do to keep this potential crisis contained. Little do they know that their worst-case scenario is about to become a reality.
If you ask Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission executive director Greg Sirb now, heíll tell you that his commission doesnít do therapeutic-use exemptions (TUEs) for testosterone.
"It wonít happen in PA," he says when, well after the Marquardt episode, I ask him about the protocol for getting a TUE in his state. "There is no such thing."
That is to say, there is no such thing in the usual sense. The Pennsylvania commission doesnít give TUEs, according to Sirb, which also means it doesnít require or even accept applications for them. Even if the Pennsylvania commission finds out that a fighter has been using testosterone during his training camp -- even if it is told by another commission that this same fighter applied for a TUE there -- it doesnít matter in the state of Pennsylvania, according to Sirb.
"As long as he came in underneath what we consider the normal range, heís fine," Sirb says. "Heíd have to come in under the normal range. That means heíd have to be off of it, depending on how much heís taking, but at least a week [before the fight]."
Hereís where the careful reader might ask, what about the weeks before that? What about a month out from the fight, when the hard training is taking place? What about the fighter who is using testosterone that he doesnít necessarily need, simply to recover faster from those grueling days in the gym? Does he just get a pass?
The answer seems to be: pretty much, yeah. As long as heís stopped using it in time for his levels to come back down to the upper limit of what the PSAC medical board has determined as a "normal range," he can fight. That might be baffling from a regulation standpoint -- Sirb himself admits that testosterone use is a "very, very tough issue for commissions," even if the PSAC has decided to do very little to regulate it -- but it also makes Pennsylvania one of the best states in the union for a fighter like Marquardt to compete in. All he has to do is get his levels down to normal in time for the pre-fight drug test -- something he managed to do in New Jersey with no trouble -- and he gets the green light. In the days leading up to the Story bout on June 26, Marquardt and his team have reason to be optimistic.
Though his testosterone levels were high in a blood test earlier that month, once the team is in Pennsylvania for the fight those levels begin to come down in a hurry, according to several sources.
"We were looking at the numbers and making our own little graphs in our minds, plotting the points and looking at where heíd be by when, and we were like, man, heís got it," says Kelly Crigger, the staff publicist for the Alchemist Management team at the time. "No problem."
Even Wittman, who up to this point has remained mostly in the dark about the details of Marquardtís testosterone use, is amazed at how quickly the levels change in subsequent blood tests throughout fight week.
"Seeing how fast those numbers came down really made me think," heíll say later.
Even Sirb, who says he heard from the New Jersey commission about Marquardtís testosterone use "probably a few weeks before the event" (other reports say it was more like the week of the event), admits he thought it wouldnít be an issue by the time of the final test on the day of the weigh-ins.
"I think everybody was pretty confident," says Sirb. "I think something all parties learned was that his levels were definitely coming down, according to the levels we were getting, but he was also cutting weight. When he stopped drinking fluids and heís trying to cut weight, I think the levels stopped coming down as fast."
The Alchemist crew isnít content to leave something this important to chance. Marquardtís levels still need to come down, since this is a situation where getting close to the mark doesnít help. According to Crigger, this is when Alchemist takes a holistic approach to solving the problem.
"They had me running all over town to get anything they could find, like in Google searches and online, that was supposed to bring down testosterone," says Crigger. "I was running back and forth to the grocery store. It was Brazil nuts and coconut water and almond milk -- all these homeopathic cures for high testosterone."
At the same time, this is still Marquardtís first fight at welterweight in the UFC. Back when he was a small middleweight, maybe he would have had the luxury of some almond milk in the days before the weigh-in. But this is something he hasnít factored into his weight-cut regimen.
"I take all this [expletive] to Nateís room, and he hasnít opened the first item," says Crigger. "Like, if Brazil nuts bring your levels down, youíd think heíd be chawing on them like thereís no tomorrow. He hadnít even opened the pack. Coconut water and almond milk and all this stuff I bring back, he hadnít even touched."
To make matters worse, the team has to keep going back and forth from the hotel to the hospital for blood tests, and all in downtown Pittsburgh traffic. Itís an added fight week stress that nobody needs. As the day of the weigh-ins approaches, itís clear that this is going to be a tight. Marquardtís wife and kids are there. So are his sponsors. The whole Alchemist team is in crisis mode, and CEO MC Hammer is flying in for this.
"To [Alchemist manager] Lex [McMahonís] credit, he was cool under pressure," says Crigger. "There was a lot going on, and he was handling it, staying cool."
The day of the weigh-ins, McMahon is calling for test results every few minutes. The lab is working on it, they say. The final numbers -- the ones that will determine whether Marquardt gets to fight or not -- arenít in yet. Hold please.
Back at the hotel, Marquardt waits to hear his fate and tries to keep going about his normal pre-fight preparations. As Crigger and McMahon are driving to the hospital one more time, McMahon gets the email on his phone. It is not good news. The levels are too high. Still too much testosterone. Itís a no-go.
(Lex McMahon consoles Marquardt backstage at the UFC on Versus 4 weigh-ins. Photo courtesy of Kelly Crigger)
McMahon doesnít want Marquardt to hear it over the phone. Better to do it in person. At the weigh-ins at Heinz Field later that afternoon, the Marquardt team and Pennsylvania commission officials all come together with the UFC. Something has to be done. The PSAC isnít budging from its standard. The number (which no one will reveal, citing medical privacy laws) remains the number. Marquardt is still above it, and this all that matters as far as the state of Pennsylvania is concerned.
"Like a good manager should, [McMahon] tried everything he could to get Nate to fight," says Crigger. "I mean, everything. Sirb said no. [McMahon] even went to the doctor who was doing the medical checks for all the fighters and said, ĎHey, what do you think of these testosterone levels?í This doctor was like...ĎThatís nothing. I deal with professional football players whose testosterone is triple that.í I was like, first of all, really? Are they rhinos? But still, suddenly there was hope."
That hope is quickly dashed by Sirb and the Pennsylvania commission. Theyíd set their number and Marquardt missed. Heís out. No fight for him. That means no paycheck. That means no ten percent for Wittman. That means angry sponsors. That means confused and disappointed fans. That means the uncomfortable questions are only just beginning, and he still has to face the UFC president.
Oh, God. Dana White. Whatís he going to say? Backstage at the weigh-ins, Marquardt and McMahon wait to find out. The day before, when Crigger and Marquardt discussed the possibility that he might be pulled from the bout, the fighter was "shaking and in tears." Now he seems numb, like it hasnít completely sunk in. What will they tell the fans? Exactly how mad is White going to be?
McMahon tries to keep everyone calm as they wait to find out. Maybe he can still talk his way out of this. Then there he is, the UFC president, and heís on his way over here. Does he look pleased? He does not. The team braces itself and waits. This is going to be bad. That much they can tell just from looking at White. What they donít know yet is how bad. What they canít possibly know is just how much things are about to change.
04-13-2012, 04:41 PM
The Price of Principles
Apr 12, 2012 - The pictures on his office wall are beginning to get to Trevor Wittman. He never thought they would. But then, maybe he never thought about it at all. Maybe that’s what’s starting to get to him. Maybe that’s what’s got him sitting around his office as another summer begins to bake its way into the pavement outside, and here he sits looking at old pictures, wondering things he never bothered to wonder before.
Here’s Nate Marquardt on the cover of a magazine, looking like a statue of Hercules with his airbrushed muscles and his impossible abs. Here’s Nate in a supplement ad torn out of a different magazine, posing shirtless next to some supposedly magic fitness powder.
"Man," Wittman says and shakes his head. "Here I thought that stuff actually worked."
It’s not that he didn’t know Marquardt was using testosterone. Wittman’s known for months, even if he didn’t like it and didn’t mind saying so. Still, what does he know about nutrition? What does a guy so skinny he could turn sideways and disappear behind one of his own heavy bags know about things like hormone levels?
"Look at me," Wittman likes to say, pulling up his shirt to expose a rail-thin physique. "I don’t know s---."
Verno Phillips didn’t need testosterone. That’s one thing Wittman does know. Verno used to eat two grapefruits a day when he was cutting weight. How’s that for nutrition? Verno was one of the best boxers he ever worked with, if not the best, and he did it on a pre-fight grapefruit diet. Surely that has to mean something, right?
In the weeks after Marquardt’s testosterone use becomes public, there are so many more questions than answers, and not just for Wittman. After UFC president Dana White made it very, very clear that Marquardt was no longer welcome in the UFC -- according to sources who were present for the conversation, White told the fighter that "in ten years of doing this, no one has ever f---ed me worse than you’ve just f---ed me" -- the Alchemist Management team had to figure out what to do next.
White had already beat them to the punch in the court of public opinion, announcing first on the internet and then on the Versus pre-fight show that Marquardt had been fired and that White was personally "disgusted" with him. What White couldn’t divulge, thanks to medical privacy laws, was why. If Marquardt chose to keep his testosterone use secret, the UFC and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission would have to honor that. So there was one option for Alchemist to consider. Marquardt could always say nothing. He could wait this one out and hope that would people would either forgive or forget.
But then, that was a risky strategy for many reasons. After White’s remarks, fans were ready to assume the worst. Marquardt already had one failed drug test on his record from his UFC debut in 2005. The less he said now, the worse fans might make it out to be in their minds.
No, he had to talk, but he had to choose his venue carefully. Alchemist only wants to do this once, and with the greatest possible impact. A video interview would be best. Not only would his quotes be less likely to be taken out of context, but it would give people a chance to see him as an actual human being rather than just words on a page. MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani hosts a weekly internet show in New York City that would give him as much time as he could possibly need to show up and tell his side of the story. Plus his manager, Alchemist’s Lex McMahon, can go with him in case he gets into any tricky territory. Then, once it’s done, Marquardt can go into seclusion while McMahon figures out where his career will go next. See? Now they’ve got something resembling an actual plan.
But while Marquardt is sent to New York City with McMahon to do Helwani’s MMA Hour, Wittman is sent back home to Colorado with very clear instructions: say nothing, give no interviews, get out of town and lay low. From a PR standpoint, it makes sense. But to Wittman it starts to feel an awful lot like he’s being asked to hide in shame, as if he’s done something wrong. He hasn’t. None of them have, or at least that’s what they’ve been saying to one another for months now. TRT is perfectly legal, and they went through the right channels to get it. So why do they have to do so much damage control now? And why does it feel so much more like an apology than an explanation?
Wittman wants to be a good soldier. He ignores the calls and texts that are lighting up his cell phone. He goes back to Wheat Ridge, back to his gym, back to the office with the pictures on the wall. Back to the questions that don’t have answers. Back to the doubts that won’t leave him alone.
Verno ate grapefruits. Verno was a champion.
Somewhere in here, it begins to dawn on Wittman that Marquardt isn’t going to be the only one who suffers as a result of TRT gone wrong. For starters, he’s already out his ten percent cut of Marquardt’s purse -- money he was counting on -- and all because of a situation he had no control over. After all, he did his job. He got the fighter ready to fight. So where’s his money?
And then there’s the problem of perception. Those UFC fighters that serve as free advertisement for the gym, helping to bring in new, paying members just by getting the Grudge name out there? That sword cuts two ways. When those same fighters screw up, it has a way of sticking to the Grudge gym and even to Wittman himself. Already he’s gotten Facebook messages from people who say they’d rather cancel their gym membership than train at a place where there’s any form of doping going on. And that’s just the general public. What are his peers saying about him behind his back right now? What did they think when he had to hide under the hood of his sweatshirt at the weigh-ins and slip out like some kind of criminal? He already knows what fighters and trainers say about the gyms that seem to double as black market pharmacies. What will happen if they come to think of his place that way? Such a brand, once applied, isn’t easily removed.
This is why Wittman wants to talk. He wants to get his side of the story out there, to let people know that he doesn’t condone testosterone use and certainly never recommended it. When I call him after Marquardt’s MMA Hour appearance (http://www.mmafighting.com/2011/06/28/nate-marquardt-breaks-silence-on-suspension-ufc-firing), which Wittman says he did not watch, he’s eager to get his views on TRT out to the general public. First, he says, he has to get clearance from Alchemist, which he does. Exactly who he gets that clearance from will become a subject of some debate, but that’s later. At the moment, all he’s thinking about is getting his point across, and quickly, while he still has a chance to change some people’s minds
When the interview first runs on MMA Fighting (http://www.mmafighting.com/2011/06/29/nate-marquardts-coach-still-struggling-with-questions-but-find), it seems like a minor development in the ongoing Marquardt testosterone saga. Wittman goes to great lengths to stress that while he personally doesn’t agree with TRT, he doesn’t think Marquardt intentionally did anything wrong.
"Nate Marquardt is a guy who's never been untruthful with me," Wittman says in the interview. "Everything that he tells me, and everything he told me going into this fight and back before New Jersey, it's something that he truly believes in. He went and had his testosterone checked. And when I spoke to him about it, I could tell he really believes he'd done the right thing, because the doctors are telling him, 'Your levels are low. You need this. This is why you're tired. We'll give you this and you'll perform like you're young again.' Man, you start telling a guy that, he's going to believe you.
"His honesty from the beginning -- doing these tests, asking for permission to do this -- that's what hurt him. His honesty got him put in this situation. It's so hard to watch one of the most honest guys I've ever trained -- the biggest family man, the guy who signs every autograph -- get scolded and cut and lose his career and get this brand on him, all because he felt like he was doing the right thing."
At the same time, Wittman also makes it clear that he doesn’t agree with the use of TRT, referring to it as "an enhancing kind of thing." He vows to step away from any of his fighters who are engaging in it or anything similar.
"To me, if your testosterone levels are getting lower over the years, that's normal," he says. "You're getting older. As you get older in this sport, it's common sense you're not going to have the same testosterone levels as a 21-year-old man. But the big disadvantage a 21-year-old has when he comes into this is the knowledge and experience.
"If you have a 21-year-old come into this with those naturally high testosterone levels, and then you've got an older fighter -- I'll just pick an age, say, 35 -- who has lower testosterone levels, the advantages of the older man are knowledge, experience. He's seen it in all different aspects. He's a veteran. To me, that's a huge disadvantage for the younger man. Yeah, he's going to be able to go, go, go. But that's his advantage. Let him have it. And let's outwork him. Let's beat him with our experience. But if we make a 35 or 40-year-old fighter as strong as a 21-year-old, to me, that's cutting corners."
(Trevor Wittman watches sparring. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
This interview, to put it mildly, does not go over well. Not with Marquardt, and not with the Alchemist crew. Marquardt and Wittman exchange a series of heated text messages over it, with Marquardt accusing Wittman of all manner of betrayal. As Marquardt would later explain to me in a text message, the interview "killed" him. It also effectively ended a long and successful partnership, as far as he was concerned. The way Marquardt saw it, Wittman was out of his depth when it came to issues like TRT. He was a striking coach, not a doctor. What did he know about it? To jump out in the press and call what his own fighter had done a form of enhancement, and all at an incredibly sensitive time, is very nearly unforgivable in Marquardt’s eyes.
But it’s not just Marquardt who’s upset by the interview. Though Wittman is technically Alchemist’s client just as much as Marquardt is, the management team has no difficulty figuring out who to side with in this conflict. It’s nice to have a trainer on your client list. It gives you inroads to the young talent at his gym, and it can even be a selling point for acquiring new fighters. But practically speaking, even a top trainer is nowhere near as profitable as having an active pro fighter in the prime of his career. It’s Marquardt who can still earn the big money in the cage. It’s Marquardt who can -- at least once this all blows over -- sell lucrative sponsorships. If Marquardt is mad at Wittman, so is Alchemist.
At first it seems like both Marquardt and Alchemist might content themselves with simply being mad. Then Wittman’s monthly checks from Alchemist stop showing up. At first he thinks that maybe they’re just late, so he waits a couple weeks. When he calls, he gets the old ‘check is in the mail’ routine. Couple days go by, still no check. The mail isn’t that slow. He texts McMahon, who assures Wittman that he’ll look into it. Nobody wants to tell Wittman what he’s pretty sure he already knows.
This is the last thing he can afford right now. He already missed out on his cut from the fight in Pittsburgh that didn’t happen. He took time away from the gym’s flagging business to get Marquardt ready, and now he’s got nothing to show for it. A couple weeks from now his fears will be confirmed. He’s no longer an Alchemist client. The bad news just keeps on coming.
Even with all that his stance on TRT has already cost him, Wittman makes good on his promise to stop being so naive about what his fighters may or may not be putting into their bodies. Before now, he’s always told himself that it wasn’t his business. These guys gets in their cars after practice and disappear. He doesn’t know where they go, what they do. It’s not like it was back in the days with Verno, when sparring and mitt work and conditioning all took place under the same roof. This is a different world. If you want to know -- really know -- how these guys get those muscles they show up with, you have to ask.
So Wittman asks. He sends out text messages to all his fighters, asking them if they’re on anything he needs to know about.
For most guys, the response is a simple no. Don’t worry about me coach. I’m all natural. Then there’s heavyweight Todd Duffee, who’s been an enigma to Wittman ever since he first showed up at Grudge. There’s no question about Duffee’s physical gifts. The man had some truly brilliant sparring sessions. When he’s on -- which is to say, when he shows up -- he might easily be the best heavyweight in the building. But, to hear Wittman tell it, the guy’s a head case. He’s his own worst enemy. He’s got all the ability anybody could ask for, but he can’t stop thinking about where he should be by now, what he should have accomplished. Even after getting released from the UFC for what could most charitably be described as ‘attitude problems,’ he still can’t seem to get out of his own way.
You know those cartoons where the character has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other and he walks around talking to them both? That’s Duffee, Wittman says. So talented. So tough to figure out.
When Duffee gets Wittman’s text explaining that he’s asking all the guys whether they’re on anything, his response is non-committal at best.
Got it, he tells Wittman. As if the coach just wanted to know whether he understood the question.
So are you on anything? Wittman replies.
No, Duffee tells him, despite the fact that he’s one of the few MMA fighters who’s widely known to have applied for and received a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone in the state of Nevada. Not that it will matter in the end. He’ll leave Grudge of his own volition soon enough and move on to the American Kickboxing Academy. Yet another new gym for Duffee. Maybe somebody else can help him where Wittman couldn’t.
Perhaps the most bizarre part about Wittman’s falling out with Marquardt is that, even after everything that’s happened, Marquardt hasn’t gone anywhere. Text message quarrels aside, he still shows up at Grudge fairly regularly, either to train or just hang out. He asks Wittman (again, via text message) not to mention this fact on Twitter or Facebook, lest people think the two of them have made up and decided to be friends again. But in every meaningful sense, Marquardt is still very much a part of the Grudge team.
It’s not as if Marquardt’s life is unchanged, however. He has, after all, been fired from his job and berated on TV by his former boss. Some fans took the extra time to hear his side of it on The MMA Hour, but many others probably didn’t. Many probably heard the UFC president say he was "disgusted" with Marquardt, and that was that. Even those who heard his tale of woe -- especially the part where he admitted to going back to the same doctor whose expertise in matters of hormone-replacement therapy had already been called into question by the New Jersey commission -- likely didn’t conclude that Marquardt was blameless in this saga. His punishment might have been overly harsh or inconsistent with how the UFC had treated other fighters in similar situations, but the consensus among most MMA fans was that Marquardt had at least some role in crafting his own demise.
This makes it difficult to know how to handle himself in public. On the weekend of a Fight to Win event in Denver, Marquardt has agreed to be one of many Grudge fighters at a pre-fight autograph signing to benefit the family of a recently deceased doctor who was well known in the Denver fight community before his sudden death. But with the wound of his UFC firing still fresh, and the reaction of the local fans uncertain, now that doesn’t sound like such a great idea.
Get out of town for a little while, his management tells him. Go camping with your family. Get out on the lake and relax a little. Turn the cell phone off and forget about this stuff while we figure out what’s next for you. And sure, that sounds like a good enough idea. But he doesn’t want to skip out on the autograph signing altogether, so the afternoon of the event he brings a stack of signed photos and other Marquardt memorabilia to the Grudge gym.
Do me a favor, he says to Brendan Schaub. Take this stuff over there when you go. Tell them I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.
Schaub has to admit that it’s a veteran move. Truth be told, he was thinking of doing the same thing to Marquardt. Now what’s he supposed to do, give both his stuff and Marquardt’s stuff to Shane Carwin? Nope, he’s stuck. Marquardt beat him to it.
"It’s just that, if I go to this thing, you know," Marquardt says and then trails off. He doesn’t have to finish. Schaub knows. Everybody knows.
Heading into another hot Colorado summer, all this gym drama is the last thing Schaub needs. He has a fight of his own to worry about. He has to go to Brazil and fight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in August. Can’t everybody just get along well enough to help him out until then? Is that so much to ask?
But that’s life. It’s messy and it’s inconvenient and it doesn’t stop just because you have a big fight coming up. You’ve got to make the best of it.
Things are about to get even messier in Schaub’s life, however. Wittman is fed up with his chronic tardiness and general bad attitude, he says. Maybe this isn’t working out so well anymore, he decides. Maybe it’s time for Schaub to find someone else to train him.
In Wittman’s version of events, it’s an emotional break-up that he can’t fully put into words. When I track down Schaub at one of Amal Easton’s downtown jiu-jitsu gyms a couple weeks later, he shrugs it off. Sometimes you just need to mix things up, he explains. Keeps your training from getting stale.
As for Wittman’s comments about Marquardt’s testosterone usage? To Schaub, it’s an issue of unity.
"I don’t care if Shane robs a bank," he says. "I’m not saying anything bad about him."
However you want to explain it, it’s one more curveball in an already atypical training camp for Schaub. Wittman’s been in his corner since his first fight. Now he has to figure some things out for himself. Things like where he’s going to train, and who’s going to train with him.
Easton’s Jiu-Jitsu is a start. On a sweltering Friday afternoon, he’s there getting some Big Nog scouting notes from one of Easton’s grappling proteges. On a mat a few feet away, a class of sloppy white belts gets put through their paces by an Easton purple belts. Anybody could hear, but it’s not like this is top secret information anyway.
Nogueira likes this guard pass, that sweep. He used to do this in his Pride days, but hasn’t done it since. If Schaub gets here, he should just get up and start over. That goes for pretty much anything related to the ground game, actually. If he’s not in an absolutely perfect position, raining down a righteous wrath on a nearly unconscious Nogueira, why even mess with it? He’s going to win this fight on his feet, with speed and strength and striking skill.
Still, Schaub’s a perfectionist. Schaub likes to scare himself. Schaub likes to play those ‘what if’ games in his head, just to keep himself sharp and ready for everything. That’s why Schaub’s going to spend this time on a Friday afternoon working on the jiu-jitsu that he has no real intention of using. This is Nogueira we’re talking about, after all. They say he’s old and slow and a fraction of the man he used to be, but they said the same thing about Cro Cop. Schaub has a scar over his eye and a recently repaired nose to remind him just how much experience counts for in this game.
In the morning, he and Marquardt will head over to a local boxing gym to work on the tools that he does plan on using. Or at least, that’s the plan until the boxers call them up at the last minute and tell them it’s off. They’ve got a thing. You know how that goes. Can’t make it after all. And so -- what else? -- they head over to Grudge for Saturday morning sparring. Wittman’s there with his team of non-superstars when Schaub and Marquardt come walking through the door.
"Boxers," Wittman shrugs when they tell him the story.
Is it cool if they use the cage to spar a few rounds? Schaub wants to know.
Sure, Wittman tells him. His guys aren’t using it. He even intends to stay out of their way and keep himself from doing any coaching. They aren’t his fighters, after all, even if they are using his gym. Even if the guy who accused him via text message of selling him out in the media is now here acting like everything’s cool, like it’s just another Saturday sparring session. As if he isn’t only here because his other plans fell through. This business makes for funny situations like that sometimes. Wittman’s been doing it too long to get worked up over it. Let them use the cage and beat each other up if they need to.
But, what do you think? Of course he ends up coaching them from outside the cage. He can’t help himself. They might not be the best of friends right now. They may have quarreled and fallen out and all said things that the others won’t ever forget, but hey, he’s still a fight trainer. They’re still fighters. They all have at least one thing they still remember how to do together without thinking about it.
You don’t request a fight against a Brazilian legend in Rio de Janeiro unless you at least think you know what you’re doing. After two years in the UFC, one thing Schaub knows is that it’s better to ask for a specific fight than to sit around and wait to find out what UFC matchmaker Joe Silva dreams up for you. Because Silva, well, let’s just say he doesn’t give many freebies. And when he calls, as Schaub says, "that’s your destiny." Do you want to have some say in the matter or not?
When Schaub first asked for Nogueira in Brazil, he knew he’d have to play the bad guy. What he didn’t know was what kind of state his team would be in by the time the fight rolled around. Months ago, after he’d asked for it and before the UFC offered, he and Wittman joked about it. How Wittman thought it was suicidal to go down there and beat up on one of their heros. How Schaub was so busy thinking about how he’d win that he never stopped to consider what would actually happen on the ground in Rio when he won. How the only way Wittman would agree to walk out with him on fight night is if he could come down to the cage in one of those bulletproof enclosures like the Pope has. Otherwise, Wittman crowed, he was keeping his skinny ass home in the U.S. of A.
That was just a joke a few months ago. Somehow, in a bizarre way, it came true.
Schaub doesn’t have Wittman at his side when he lands in Rio in late August, but he’s far from alone. He’s got Easton, his jiu-jitsu coach. He used to live here, and he knows some tricks to make fight week in a foreign country a little easier. For instance, while Forrest Griffin may be griping about the weird food with incomprehensible labels, Schaub has a local restaurant making all his meals for him. He’s also got his trusty wrestling coach, Leister Bowling, which is like traveling with your own personal pitbull to help chew your way out of any sticky situations. He’s also got a football buddy of his, and his father, who is the kind of proud, supportive dad with the healthy glow of a certain income tax bracket that we’re often led to believe simply doesn’t exist in the fight game, where it’s all broken homes and childhood sob stories.
Outside of that cheering section, however, there isn’t much support waiting for him in Ipanema when the fighters make their first public appearance at the UFC 134 open workouts. The Brazilian crowd has come out in a light drizzle to dance on the beach and sing their battle songs as the fighters go through the motions on a giant, damp mat set up just off the main drag.
"It’s actually not that bad," Schaub says of his early fan reception. Okay, so there aren’t a lot of Schaub fans making their voices heard, but it’s nowhere near as vitriolic as he expected. Griffin, on the other hand, smirks as he tells reporters that, upon entering, one fan told him he was going to die.
"But he said it in very poor English," he says. "So I was able to ignore him."
Griffin might be content to play the villain in a foreign land -- and why not, when he seems equally unconcerned with being liked back home? -- but Schaub can’t quite embrace that role. When he hears no death threats at the workouts, he seems to light up just a bit. As if, maybe, this won’t be so bad after all. He’s making an effort, at least. When he came down here for the press conference a couple months ago, he visited a kids’ Muay Thai academy in a nearby favela. This time he’s brought them several bags of free gear from his sponsors, along with more Ecko t-shirts than any single group of children has ever wanted or needed. Who else is taking the time to do something like that right before the fight?
But the trip to the favela is no small excursion. The UFC’s host hotel for this event is the Rio Sheraton. It’s a beachside resort with all the finest amenities -- a place where you can actually stand on your balcony at night with an overpriced cocktail in hand as you smell the cooking and listen to the barking dogs of a different favela just across the road. The plan is to meet down in the lobby at 7 p.m., but somehow it seems as if the entourage just keeps growing. Reporters, photographers, sponsors -- more and more join the caravan, which means more and more waiting as people get their collective act together.
In the meantime, McMahon hands Schaub his cell phone so he can do a quick phone interview with a reporter back in the U.S. Same questions. Same answers. How many different ways can you say that you think you’re ready? How many times do you need to be asked what it’s going to feel like to have that many people screaming for your blood before you finally snap?
Finally, everyone’s here and we can go. After a slow crawl through Rio traffic, the cityscape begins to change. Professional signs give way to hand-painted ones. People on street corners give you that ‘Are you here on purpose?’ look as you drive by. When we get out of the cars in front of a fenced-in basketball court, the humidity of the jungle presses in close. It’s not exactly a shanty town like you see in the movies. More like a poor neighborhood. A place where at least someone realizes that you can either teach the kids something or else abandon them to the worst impulses of their surroundings.
When Schaub and his entourage stroll onto the paved court where the kids are practicing their punching form in street clothes and bare feet, you can almost see the culture shock on both sides. The big foreigner looks lost as he comes walking in with his backwards baseball cap on, surrounded by photographers and video cameras. He’s brought gifts. Gloves and shinguards and hand wraps. All the stuff they might not have even realized was missing from their kickboxing training up until now. But what are they supposed to make of this person who doesn’t speak their language and will never know their names? What world did he even come from?
(Brendan Schaub visits a Brazilian favela with his team. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
From Schaub’s perspective, it’s an act of goodwill. He doesn’t have to do this, but he can do it, and so here he is. At the same time, it has the unmistakable air of a photo op. Here he is, watching the kids, and there’s the multitude of cameras, watching him watch them. Does it change the fact that he’s genuinely trying to do something nice for people he doesn’t even know? That the net result here tonight will be an act of kindness toward people who were grateful for it? It does not. The kids really could use this stuff. They really are glad to have it.
Still, when trying to snap a picture for an MMA Fighting article (http://www.mmafighting.com/2011/08/27/postcards-from-rio-part-ii-a-visit-to-the-favela), the real difficulty I have is getting a shot of Schaub that doesn’t have another photographer in the background. One thing no one can say about tonight’s charity work is that it was poorly documented. No good deed goes unrecorded.
Soon Schaub and his team will load back up and head out to a restaurant to eat. He’ll sleep in a big bed in a hotel beside the sea. Tomorrow he’ll walk out in the HSBC Arena to the same chant of ‘vai morrier!’ -- you’re going to die! -- that greets every foreigner on this fight card. Some free stuff in the favela won’t change that.
When his work here is done, he’ll fly back to Colorado and those kids will still be here. Now they have the gloves, the shinguards, the hand wraps. They’ll have free t-shirts whose origin will be slightly difficult to explain. Schaub and his management? They’ll have the photos and the videos, at least. And plenty of them.
Wittman doesn’t watch Schaub’s fight when it airs live. He doesn’t order the pay-per-view, doesn’t sit down to see how one of brightest young pupils makes out in his first pro fight without the same old grinning striking coach in his corner. He doesn’t watch Schaub come bopping down to the cage as 14,000 Brazilians hurl venom at him like he’s come to repossess their cars. He doesn’t watch as Bowling and Easton set up shop in his corner. Doesn’t watch as Schaub stares across the cage at the decrepit former champion who, just two days ago, was limping around the Copacabana Palace Hotel as he admitted that he’d rushed his return from hip surgery because he wanted to fight in Rio so badly.
Wittman isn’t at home to see it when Schaub lands an early uppercut that Nogueira takes with surprising ease. He doesn’t see when Schaub begins to fall in love with that uppercut, throwing it like it’s going to take Big Nog’s head off any second, when really all a fighter like Schaub needs is a jab and right straight and he’s a problem for anyone, as Wittman has told him time and time again.
(Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira lands a heavy right hand that puts Schaub in trouble. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
He doesn’t see when Nogueira times a perfect one-two off yet another Schaub uppercut, sending the younger man’s head bouncing back at a troubling angle. He doesn’t see Schaub faceplant into the mat. Doesn’t see him end his night in a bear hug from referee Herb Dean as his eyes bounce around in their sockets just like Cro Cop’s did that night in New Jersey.
Funny, Herb was there for that night too. That was another one that ended with the two of them locked in an awkward embrace. Now it’s Schaub’s turn to wonder what happened. As if the fact that Dean is holding on to him while an entire building full of Brazilians loses its collective mind doesn’t say it all. The cups of beer go sailing effortlessly through the night and land with a plastic crack and sudsy splash on the Octagon apron. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
If Schaub had thought that this was possible, he probably wouldn’t have booked several extra days in Rio after the fight. Those were supposed to be days of celebration and relaxation, and now what? When he’s collected his wits and gone back to the Sheraton for the night, he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. He knows the friends and family he brought along probably want to get out and see the city, even if they’re mostly too polite to say it. And he feels bad, but he just can’t right now. Even three days later, when the crew finally heads to the airport for the long flight home, he’s still thinking about it. He got knocked out by Nogueira and everyone saw. Just thinking about it makes him curse out loud at himself.
Later there’ll be plenty of time for second-guessing. What if the Grudge team hadn’t been so shaky during his camp? What if he’d still had Wittman in his corner? What if he’d thrown just one or two fewer uppercuts?
You could do this for the rest of your life and it wouldn’t get you anywhere. Maybe you will do it for the rest of your life, whether it helps or not, just out of reflex. Schaub has a ten-hour flight back to the U.S. to think about it. The couldas and shouldas he can leave for later. For now he just hopes Nogueira goes on a run, racks up a decent winning streak. Then, with a little time and perspective, this loss might not look so bad anymore.
He’s seen it in action before in this sport, how the future can shape the way we think of the past. The hope of a Nogueira winning streak is perfectly reasonable for someone who doesn’t know that, a little less than four months from now, Big Nog will walk right up to the edge of fulfilling that wish when he nearly knocks out Frank Mir at UFC 140 in Toronto. He has no way of knowing that, instead, Nogueira will get himself stuck in a kimura seconds later. Or that, his pride being what it is, the Brazilian won’t be able to bring himself to tap out before his arm snaps in half.
How could he know any of that then, on that long night flight back to his familiar American life? As Schaub cruises at 35,000 feet over the dark blankness of the Amazon, all that is still in the future. All that, plus much, much more. And who’s to say what may come, or what, if anything, you’ll be able to do about it? Who’s to say where you’ll be this time next year? So much can change. It does. It has.
05-03-2012, 03:38 AM
Apr 26, 2012 - The easiest way for me to end this is to admit that very little turned out the way I planned. Because I was dumb or naive or both, I thought Iíd spend a year following a fight gym, beginning in January and ending in December, and by the end of it something would become clear to me. I thought the stories of all these lives and careers would somehow open and close according to the calendar, and by the time it was all over Iíd be able to present them as fully formed, complete narratives. I wonder now what I was thinking.
Peopleís lives almost never work this way, and the life of a fight gym is, in many ways, as complex and incomprehensible as the life of a person. The story is messy and complicated. A lot depends not only on what you see but where youíre standing and what else happens to be going through your mind when you see it.
Even after youíve seen what you came to see, then there is the problem of telling people about it. Here we are at the end of this series, and thereís so much I still havenít told you.
For instance, I never got to tell you about Duane Ludwig, a UFC welterweight and one of the Grudge gymís true old-school hardasses. The first time I saw Ludwig in the gym, I almost mistook him for a Mormon missionary. He showed up one weekday morning in a short-sleeved collared shirt and tie, exchanging department store slacks for Muay Thai trunks just in time for a little mitt work with head trainer Trevor Wittman. Heíd come to the gym straight from his new babyís baptism, he explained once his workout was over. The new baby was the reason he kept fighting hurt, Wittman told me after Ludwig had finished a training session punctuated with multiple painful pauses. Clearly, he wasnít feeling great, and yet he couldnít afford to sit home and let his injuries heal while his bank account dwindled. A familiar story, and one that Ludwig lived without complaint, even when he had to fight Amir Sadollah with a neck so badly injured he couldnít even spar during his training camp. He won the fight anyway, then had surgery (the UFCís fighter insurance covered it) and soon enough he was back in the gym, this time in a T-shirt and jeans, leaning up against the ring with a cup of coffee in his hand during one Saturday morning sparring session, yelling at his teammates to "Stop taking it easy; itís time to fight now, mother----ers!"
(Duane Ludwig gives a little encouragement to his teammates. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
I also never told you about Justin Salas, the Grudge lightweight who got the skin on the bottom of his foot burned off by an overheated mat at a local MMA event in Denver to start the year, then spent much of the rest of 2011 in a frustrating purgatory as he tried to find a fight big enough to get him noticed by the UFC. Salasí struggle was representative of what many up-and-coming fighters go through when they get stuck between the minor leagues of MMA and the big show of the UFC. When youíre good enough to beat most people in your division outside the big show, and yet not famous enough to make it worth the risk of losing to you, fights suddenly become tough to come by. Salas fought just twice in 2011 -- a decision victory over Rob Emerson in the foot-burning incident in January, then a decision over Joe Ellenberger in October -- but he was a fixture in the gym during all the long, fightless months in between. One thing I could always count on when I walked through the doors at Grudge is that Salas would be there, training as if he had a fight in two weeks, even though he spent most of his year waiting and hoping.
Then there are the little moments, the snapshots of life in the fight game that come into focus for a few minutes at a time. Like when Wittman and Nate Marquardt spent a post-workout stretching session trading oddly lighthearted stories about the dangers out getting hit in the head for a living. Wittman, of course, told about Verno Phillips, who would not only ask the same questions over and over after a fight, but would occasionally even start hitting on women at the post-fight celebration, forgetting that his wife was only a few feet away.
This prompted Marquardt to recall a story about Japanese fighter Akihiro Gono, who, he said, got rocked so badly during a fight that he returned to his corner at the end of the round unsure of where or even who he was. According to Marquardt, Gono later recounted the strange look on his coachesí faces when he sat down on the stool and asked, in all seriousness, "Am I here to fight? Am I a fighter?"
They went back and forth this way for a long time, like men will do when they get to trading and comparing stories. One anecdote after another about the funny things people say and do after suffering minor brain trauma in the ring. As if that world wasnít also their world. As if the risks were something for other people to worry about, but never them.
And then there are the moments that, months later, you still arenít sure what to do with. Like the day one of Grudgeís own came home from the wars after being blown up by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Wittman and a few others gathered around as he shuffled inside and sat down on the tattered sofa in the gymís front room for an impromptu reunion. His wife stood nearby holding their six-month-old baby as he told his old training partners the story of a deployment so violently unlucky it was noteworthy even by military standards.
"Heís been feeling pretty negative about a lot of things lately," his wife said to Wittman, as if imploring the coach to give one of his pep talks. But this wasnít like losing a fight or getting dropped from the UFC. This was a whole different realm of bad. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in the blast, the soldier explained. He had burns up his arms. When he came to in the dirt several yards from his exploded vehicle, the first thing he asked the fellow soldiers who came to his aid was whether he and his manhood were still acquainted. They were, his comrades told him, and one can imagine the relief that must have washed over him in the seconds before he moved on to worrying about everything else.
Days later, Wittman was still shaken by this encounter. The eager young fighter who went away to war and the wounded veteran who came home were in no way the same person. Sitting there on that couch, the soldier had talked almost optimistically about the possibility of doctors amputating one of his damaged fingers, because at least then he might be able to make a fist again. Then he might be able to return to the gym and hit the bag a little, he said, and the idea alone seemed to lift his spirits ever so slightly.
Sure, Wittman had told him, nodding along and trying to seize on the positive. You never know what you might be capable of with a little time, some physical therapy. But later, when thinking back on it, Wittman would find himself at a loss. Even with his relentless positivity, how do you begin to cheer up someone whose best-case scenario now begins with losing a finger? How do you even make sense of a world that takes healthy young men and blows them up along the side of a dirt road in a foreign land? What were you supposed to say to make this one better?
(Trevor Wittman works the mitts with Ludwig. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
Wittman had his own struggles to deal with that year. After being released by the Alchemist Management team and effectively severing his working relationship with both Marquardt and Brendan Schaub -- two of his biggest, most profitable fighters -- the financial health of the gym became his chief concern. He was no longer getting a percentage of big fight purses, no longer getting a regular check in the mail from the Alchemist clothing line. Just a few months ago there had been talk of opening a whole chain of Grudge gyms. The next thing he knew Wittman was cashing in coins just to pay his utility bill.
But in some ways this reversal of fortunes was a good thing for Wittman, and for the Grudge gym. Beginning in the summer of 2011 and into that fall, Wittman went from pouring all his attention into a few top guys to spreading it out more evenly within the gym. He cornered some Grudge representatives at a local Fight to Win event in Denver -- something he almost never did before -- and made changes to the practice schedule in an attempt to promote greater team unity.
Before, the team had split training sessions between lightweights (welterweight fighters and below) and heavyweights (middleweights and above). The star power on the team was disproportionately tilted in favor of the heavyweight half, meaning the lightweights often got less attention from the gymís cadre of coaches. No more of that, Wittman decreed, and from then on the team practiced together, as one unit.
One Saturday morning I watched as Wittman lined all the Grudge fighters up against the wall before sparring and lectured them on the importance of being there for one another. Whenever a Grudge team member fought, he said, whether it was in the UFC or on a local card down the street, he wanted everyone showing their support, even if it was just via text message.
"And donít just text him if he wins," Wittman added. "I hate that s--t. If he loses, you pick him up. Thatís when he needs you."
Perhaps out of pure financial necessity, Wittman also began paying more attention to attracting and retaining paying members -- even the kind who would likely never, ever fight outside the gym. He made it a personal mission, he said, to make the gym into a financial success, if not for him than for his brother, who was the official owner of the Grudge Training Center. By the time 2011 came to a close, the gym might have had fewer UFC stars carrying the flag on pay-per-view fight nights, but it certainly had a healthier, more unified team behind closed doors.
Which is not to say that Grudge became one big, happy family without a few casualties along the way. By the end of the year, Wittman had parted ways with a number of his staff, and he was never known as a man who parted ways on the best of terms. Gone was front desk fixture Jen Berg, who had a bitter split with Wittman that ended acrimoniously on both sides. Gone was Ricky Vasquez, who managed the careers of many lower-level Grudge fighters until a dispute over money turned ugly in a hurry, as such disputes tend to do. Even boxing coach Fareed Samad found himself on the outs with Wittman after a fairly innocent tweet attempting to cheer Ludwig up after a loss to Josh Neer in January of 2012.
As for Wittman and his fighters, the relationship with Schaub eventually improved after the loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Brazil. The relationship with Marquardt mostly didnít, which seemed just fine by both men. Shane Carwin spent much of the year out of action with injuries, but whether he was on the mats or not he always seemed to hover above the fray, as if he simply didnít have time for these petty squabbles.
Grudge light heavyweight Eliot Marshall managed to hold on to his UFC contract after the loss to Luiz Cane, thanks in no small part to his manager, Alchemistís Lex McMahon, who was quick to remind UFC officials that Marshall had done them a favor by stepping up to take the bout on short notice. But then Marshall lost a heartbreaker of a decision to Brandon Vera in October, and though it was perhaps the best performance of his UFC career, he was cut soon after.
Marshall had vowed to retire from MMA if the UFC cut him a second time, since the organization almost never granted third chances to fighters whoíd already been cast off twice. At first I doubted heíd stick to this promise if it came down to it, but it seems like he has, at least so far. He hasnít fought since the Vera loss, and claims he has no desire to. As he explained to me once, with a young son at home who was growing up far too quickly, he couldnít justify missing any more important moments in his childís life just so he could fight for a couple grand on some Indian casino fight card somewhere in as part of a desperate attempt to hold on to a dream that had most likely slipped through his fingers already. Heíd begun to think about it while he was still in the UFC, he said. Heíd come home exhausted from training, wanting to do nothing but lay on the couch until it was time to go back to the gym, but then heíd open his eyes and his son would be standing there, wanting to play, wanting his fatherís attention. How could he say no to that? How could he explain to a toddler that daddy needs to save his energy for beating people up?
"Being a fighter doesnít define me," he said when I pressed him on whether he could really give this up so easily. "Being a father and a husband defines me. My life will go on after this."
It struck me as an incredibly healthy attitude for a fighter to have, and yet one incompatible with success in a business like MMA. How could you reach the top and stay there if it didnít mean absolutely everything to you, the way it almost certainly would to the people youíd be locked in a cage with on Saturday night? And yet, if it did mean everything to you, what kind of life was that? How could you know for sure whether all those sacrifices -- the time away from your family, the time spent hurt and tired and sore and cranky -- were really worth it?
The conclusion I eventually arrived at was: if youíre the type of person to seriously consider the question, you already have your answer. If it even seems like a choice to you, itís probably best to go do something else. Because that guy whoís going to be standing across from you when the moment of truth comes? He doesnít have a plan B. He is not considering any other career path or wishing he was home playing with his kids. He wants only to hurt you. He wants it more than heís ever wanted anything, and if you donít feel the same about him then youíre in the wrong place.
Itís a hell of a way to make a living, when you think about it in those terms, and yet it is not a job. A job demands some things -- things like time and energy and a little bit of focus -- but this is so much more than that. This business will take everything you have, and even if youíre willing to give that thereís no guarantee that it will give back. You spend weeks and months laboring out of sight, only to show up on fight night and take your shirt off before an arena full of people who have all been looking forward to seeing what will become of you. You will give them someoneís pain -- yours or the other guyís, maybe a little bit of both -- and in return they will give you money and something resembling love.
Is it a fair trade? Tough to say. Sometimes the exchange rate seems more favorable than others, but either way itís the only deal youíre going to get, so you take it. You take it for as long as itís offered, or for as long as you can stand it. Whichever comes first. Whenever it comes.
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