Author, as told to
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we talk to a former Spanish teacher turned UFC fighter.
Growing up, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I got good grades and wrestled competitively in high school. As a wrestler, you can pretty much take things as far as college. I was fortunate enough to do pretty well on a divisional level. Unless you’re an Olympian—which one in a million wrestlers actually are—it’s a terminal sport.
After I graduated college, I thought I had completely exhausted my desire to compete. I got a job teaching Spanish to juniors and seniors at a high school in my hometown, in the high school I had gone to myself. I actually taught for three years total, but about midway through is when I started to seriously entertain a career in mixed martial arts.
The idea of hand-to-hand combat—grabbing hold of someone and wrestling them to the ground—was something that had been very appealing for me over ten years of competitive life. Then, suddenly it was gone, and I was looking for another avenue for channeling that energy. At the time, some of the kids I had wrestled with in college had started competing in mixed martial arts, in particular, Frankie Edgar, who became a UFC champion. I remember randomly surfing the internet during one of my class periods and seeing that he’d been signed to a UFC contract. The realization was almost instantaneous. I thought, “Woah, I could do that!” From that day on, the seed was planted in my mind.
Getting into the the UFC, or the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is the holy grail. It’s the biggest organization in the world for mixed martial arts. The UFC is basically the NBA or NFL of the sport.
After I had that epiphany, the actual transition probably took at least another full year. I had a dream, but the most important thing is having a plan—it’s the best piece of advice I can give young kids who are considering doing this for a living. When I made the decision to quit my teaching job and pursue fighting full-time, I talked it over with my family and decided to simultaneously get a master’s degree in education. It provided a safety net of sorts for my aspirations. Once I left my job and started grad school, it became a lot easier for me to pick up my training and move to where the best fighters were.
Initially, my family and friends were skeptical of my decision. But, at the end of the day, they came around and were supportive. At first it was like, “What the hell are you talking about? Are you crazy?” I had a job in my hometown at my old high school teaching Spanish and coaching wrestling, which was exactly what I wanted, so for me to give that up came as a big surprise to them. But after they saw that my mind was made up, they found a way to support me through it.
In 2001, the UFC was a, questionably legal, cash hemorrhaging fight club, when it was bought by Casino mogul brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who turned it into a billion-dollar sports empire.
I was highly enthusiastic but the transition itself was extremely difficult because I went from being a professional with a decent salary and good benefits to being a student again. I had a tough time being back in the classroom. The professors would treat me like a student and, granted, I was a student, but I was a nontraditional student. That was very hard for me to accept—the tremendous shift in mentality and lifestyle. When I was in grad school, I would wake up and drive an hour to New Jersey, train for a few hours over there, get home about 2:00 or 3:00 PM, teach wrestling from 3:00 to 5:00 PM, then go to class from 6:00 to 10:00 PM. It was a pretty jam-packed schedule. I literally had no time to rethink my decision.
Eventually, the thought began to dawn on me that I could make a career out of this. There was no one specific thing that made me realize I had “made it” as a professional fighter—it was a cumulative process—but there were certain instances and events that led me to believe I was getting there. I was very fortunate that early on I got into a tournament which paid a decent amount of money at the time. I made just under $15,000 for a fight. It was only my fourth fight, which is really atypical. I put the money in the bank right away. For the next year I could pretty much live off of that income, modest as it was.
I got signed to the UFC in 2010, which is every professional fighter’s dream. But as early as 2009 is when I started to realize, “Woah, this is real, there’s a good chance I’m gonna get into UFC and potentially make it big.”
Back then, there were only about 250 fighters on their entire roster. Just picture it: I was like a freshman in high school—the lowest guy on the totem pole. I fought matches that weren’t covered by the media against guys that the public didn’t know. It takes a while to work your way up the ladder before you start getting on TV, getting interviews, getting covers, all the other things that come with professional recognition. It was by no means immediate.
As a fighter, I was ranked number 7 in the world at one time. As a wrestler, I finished in the top 12 in the nation in division one. My fighting record is 19:8, which is pretty good. Oh yeah, and I won a reality show...
The UFC by the numbers
The price the Fertitta brothers paid for the UFC in 2001.
The value of the UFC in 2008.
the estimated sales of the UFC in 2008.
THE NUMBER of pay-per-view buys for UFC events in 2001.
the number of pay-per-view buys for UFC events in 2007.
the number of male viewers, age 18-49, drawn by the average pay-per-view UFC event in 2008.
THE NUMBER of fighters employed by the UFC in 2008.
THE base salary made by most UFC fighters in 2008.
THE average price of a ticket for a live UFC event in 2008.
The estimated percentage of the mixed martial arts industry owned by the UFC in 2008.
My mentality with training, as with competing, is that I’m a professional athlete. Not everyone operates that way, surprisingly. I train six days a week, twice a day for four or five of those days and once the other day. In total, I’m training about 10-15 times per week.
We have several coaches that each cover a particular discipline. So, for example, I would have a striking coach, a jiu-jitsu coach and a strength and conditioning coach.
I wake up relatively early, especially now that I’m a father, like at 6:00 AM. A typical day is normally an hour or two of some sort of personal development, read, listen to podcasts, etc. Then, it’s off to the gym. At this point I’m training twice a day. One of those training sessions will generally include some sort of live exercise, like sparring, wrestling or jiu-jitsu. The second workout would be something more technical, whether it’s strength and conditioning or using mitts or a heavy bag—something less taxing on the body. I’m also a proponent of therapy, massage, chiropractor, things like that. Sometimes I can even fit a third workout in during the evening!
AT THE HEIGHT OF MY CAREER, I was competing in three or four matches a year. Currently, I'm between contracts, so as of now I haven’t fought all year, which is kind of a drag.
I think a lot about the idea of failing—it’s something that I welcome in my life as a learning experience. I’m preparing for my retirement from fighting and transition to being a speaker and a coach, and the two concepts I pay special attention are success and failure. Success is its own thing and has its own downsides. But to touch on failure, it took me a career—almost thirty years of competition—to start seeing it not as losing, but as giving up or, worse, not trying at all. It’s a cliche but it rings true. I’m a very strong believer in that. Losses and mistakes—those are setbacks not failures.
I’ve been fighting for a while, and have lost my share of matches, but every time is still as painful as the first. I’ve never really acclimated to it to the point where I can just let it roll off my back. It feels like losing a parent or a friend or a dog. There’s a period of mourning that you have to get out of your system. No matter what you do or what anyone says, you can’t change the fact that you’re heartbroken. The only thing that can heal you is time.
When I lose a fight, I don’t even try to fight it anymore. It’s two weeks of feeling like absolute garbage, two weeks of depression, despair and misery, two weeks of moping around the house. I make a timeline, like, “Okay, I have until such-and-such date to be a bummer. After that, I have to get back on the grind.”
The difference is that now I’m married with a child now, so it’s something I can no longer indulge in because my priorities are totally different. I mean, my wife still has to go to work on Monday and my daughter still needs to be babysat, so you’ve go to keep it in perspective. The hardest part of being married to someone like me is that I’m always striving for more in those transitional periods following a loss or a release from an organization. It’s extremely taxing on the family, so it’s up to me to deal with that on the inside as best I can, to compartmentalize it, essentially, and then be totally present and aware when I’m with my wife and daughter.
Women and the UFC
THE PERCENTAGE of UFC/MMA viewers who are female.
THE PERCENTAGE of female UFC/MMA viewers who are ages 18-34.
THE PERCENTAGE of female UFC/MMA viewers spend more than 10 hours a week online (which makes them 17% more plugged in than the average woman).
THE PERCENTAGE of female UFC/MMA viewers who identify as minorities.
THE PERCENTAGE of female UFC/MMA viewers spend who have a household income of more than $75,000.
THE NUMBER of female fighters currently employed by the UFC.
THE NUMBER of matches won by "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey, the UFC’s undefeated Women’s Bantamweight Champion and most recognizable female athlete.
Ups and downs
GETTING INJURED IS A NATURAL PART of any combat sport. In general, injuries are anything from broken digits, heavy bruising, cuts that require stitches, etc. The most serious one I’ve personally had is a fractured orbital socket. I temporarily lost vision in my left eye and ended up needing to get surgery. Concussions are also big deal in combat sports. I’ve had them in fighting but also in my regular life. You always have to be aware of the damage that your brain is taking because nobody really knows the long-term outlook of it. The way I see it is, you control the controllables: how you work out, who you work out with, how hard you spar, things that are within your grasp.
I don’t keep track of my injuries. There haven’t been that many—it’s not like that. That’s actually kind of a misconception. I’ve wrestled for 20 years of my life and I fought for almost 10, and wrestling was without a doubt more taxing on the body than fighting.
I’ve been fortunate that in the losses I’ve incurred in that I’ve never been totally beat up, like black and blue. Physically, you’re always a little bit sore and swollen. But it’s the emotional or psychological toll that is harder to deal with, whether it’s a high or a low. Like I said, it’s either the best feeling that you could ever imagine in your life, or it’s the most vacant, hollow feeling.
When I win a match, I’m high on the victory for the next two weeks. Unlike losing a match, where the feelings are crushing and acute, the comedown is a gradual thing. It’s a temporary high, and you recognize it as such. The innate desire of professional athletes, like entrepreneurs, is to always do bigger and better. By the time that high starts to taper off, I’m already looking forward to the next thing I can conquer. It’s just the beginning of another journey, and I’m extremely pumped for the next chapter.
Professional mixed martial arts is an anomalous sport, in that guys can fight into their late thirties, early forties and still be at the top of their game. I’ve already started public speaking and I’m putting together a mentoring program for young athletes. I’ll be doing that concurrently with fighting. But the retirement age is a bit older than people would expect.
Similarly, contrary to popular opinion, my job is surprisingly light on gossip and beef, unlike other forms of fighting, where the drama is often orchestrated. Mostly, as a public persona, you have to be wary of the dangers of social media, but that applies to any profession, really.
One time, I made an off-the-cuff statement about another professional fighter who had made a particular decision that ended up canceling an entire event. In the UFC, this is a big deal because these things are obviously expensive to produce and very time-intensive. I made the remark on Twitter, not thinking twice about it. It went viral and ended up on “SportsCenter.” My face and name were all over ESPN. The next time I was on location for a fight, this colossus of a man, who also happens to be the best fighter in the world, was also in the building. He walked right up and got nose to nose with me. He was venting all his grievances, some of which were not invalid. It really taught me the importance of watching what you say and when you say it, especially on the internet. He had reserved some choice words for me, but thankfully the situation didn’t escalate any further because, frankly, he’s a bigger, stronger, faster fighter.