It’s Wednesday at 1:00 p.m., and I am waiting for amateur mixed martial arts fighter Jaime Reyes at the Lakeside Cafe. When he walks past me, I don’t even notice. I am expecting someone beefy, tattooed, or, at the very least, goateed. Jaime is wearing a hoodie and shorts. Black socks peek out from under Adidas slip-on sandals. He is baby-faced and rail-thin and looks no older than 15.
Jaime Reyes: "My testicle swelled up to the size of a grapefruit."
Image by Howie Rosen
He orders a fruit salad and ice water. He calls our 20-something waitress “ma’am.”
“I have a fight in a few weeks,” he says. “I need to weigh 135.”“My girlfriend weighs more than me right now.” Jaime laughs. “I decided after my last fight to drop down ten pounds. The guys I used to fight against weighed 145. My natural weight is 140. They were bigger and tougher.”
Jaime started mixed martial arts fighting when he was 20.
Jason Stewart: “This may hurt some fighters’ egos, but mixed martial arts doesn’t even make it on the top five most dangerous sports list."
Image by Howie Rosen
“In the beginning, I was doing [it] for self-defense. Before then, I didn’t like any kind of punching. I wanted to try out martial arts to see what it was like. I didn’t want to cage fight or anything.”
Jaime began training in jiu-jitsu and muay thai. Six months later, his gym arranged a cage fight at Epic 3. At the time, Jaime didn’t know how to strike or take a guy to the ground.
Heather Hyatt, the matchmaker for Epic Fighting, places a small white digital scale in the center of the room.
Image by Howie Rosen
“I guess my coaches saw something in me. They wanted to show me I had the ability to fight at an amateur level. My coach said, ‘Test yourself. See where you’re at.’ I went for it. I was 20 years old. My opponent, Marcus Aven, was 25. He was undefeated.”
The atmosphere at Epic 3 was something Jaime had never experienced. The event was oversold, and Epic, the fight-promotion company, was forced to turn people away at the door. Jaime estimates that somewhere between 1000–2000 spectators filled the seats. The fire marshal had to come in and tell people to go home.
Don Murphin: “I use Google. I had a shoulder impingement. I looked it up and treated it myself."
Image by Howie Rosen
“I grew up in Lakeside,” Jaime says. “There’s not much action here. So it was pretty intimidating. That night, when my opponent stepped into the ring, I thought, Oh, my god, I am about to fight a full-grown man! He was stocky and so buff. I put my left hand out to engage him. He hit me. He grabbed my arm in a weird position. He put me down on my knees. He gave me an uppercut and pulled me up to my feet. He gave me a jab and a hook.
Chris invites me to the Arena to watch him spar. Inside, it smells like boys — body odor and dirty socks.
Image by Howie Rosen
That’s when I snapped into reality and realized that I was in a real, actual fight, right then. I started jumping up and down to get my jitters out. When the first bell rang, I was thinking, Oh, my god, this is the crazy! My legs felt like they were 100 pounds.”
Chris Cope: "When it comes time to retire, a lot of guys don’t know what to do anymore."
Image by Howie Rosen
Jaime lost that night by decision. But he and his opponent were awarded fight of the night.
Jaime has fought seven more fights since then. He won three by submission, lost three by decisions and one by armbar. He trains Monday–Friday for two hours each day. He goes to the gym in the evening, after working at Home Goods in El Cajon, where he stocks and carries furniture out to customers’ cars. Each week, he spends three days at the Dungeon mixed martial arts gym in Santee, and the other two at Marron’s Boxing Club in Lakeside. He takes the weekend off, with the exception of one hour of muay thai on Sundays.
Last year, Jaime lost four months of training due to an injury. It happened while he was sparring with a friend at the gym. Jaime failed to wear a cup and took a knee to the groin. He lay on the mat tossing and turning. He couldn’t get up for an hour.
“I felt a burning sensation. My testicle swelled up to the size of a grapefruit. It was crazy. I went to a doctor at Sharp [Memorial Hospital]. He told me I had to have surgery to drain it. I was too scared for that, so I went to a hole-in-the wall doctor’s office in Chula Vista. That guy wanted to stick a needle in my testicle. I was freaking out. I couldn’t eat, walk, or even get out of bed for four days. I didn’t have health insurance because I had been recently laid off. I decided to go to TJ. The doctor there told me all the same things that the other doctors said. ‘Or,’ he said, ‘I can give you pills, and you can pray to God.’ Two weeks later, I started seeing a reaction to the pills. The swelling went down. It took four months to heal. As soon as I got better, I started hitting the gym again.”
Because of injuries like those, Jaime’s mom is not a fan of mixed martial arts.
“My family trips out on the damage I get from fights and how many hours I put into training. They are skeptical of the sport, shocked that I’m a mixed martial arts guy. They saw me as a quiet guy that stayed out of trouble. No one expected me to do this. My mom worries about me getting hurt and not being able to take care of my six-month-old son. She does not like this sport at all, but she is so supportive. She’s my backbone. My mom, dad, and girlfriend go to every fight. ”
When I ask Jaime if he worries about brain damage, he wants to know if I think he should be.
“I would appreciate it if someone would tell me, because, if it’s true, I should probably think about a different career.”
The Fight Promoter
“Cheerleading is more dangerous than mixed martial arts fighting. So is figure skating,” says Jason Stewart, owner of Epic Fighting. “This may hurt some fighters’ egos, but mixed martial arts doesn’t even make it on the top five most dangerous sports list. It usually falls at 17, after golf and baseball.”
We are in Chula Vista, sitting on the patio of an Asian restaurant. Jason is wearing a crisp button-down shirt with boxing-glove cuff links, trousers, and expensive-looking shoes.
Jason created Epic Fighting two years ago. He saw a void in the San Diego amateur fighting world and decided to fill it. His goal with Epic is to offer an Ultimate Fighting Championship experience. Once a month, he showcases local fighters at cage fights held at places such as the Four Points Sheraton off Aero Drive in Kearny Mesa, and at 4th and B downtown. There are usually 10–15 fights per show.
When he first started, Jason would wake up in the middle of the night from a recurring nightmare in which his first show was empty. He began to post on Facebook about the event. He hung posters. By the fourth show, he was turning a profit.
Jason attributes a portion of his success to the large mixed martial arts culture in San Diego.
“San Diego is a haven for gyms. You could argue that it’s either us or Vegas that is the best in the nation for mixed martial arts. Some of it has to do with the fact that many jiu-jitsu guys are Brazilian. The climate in San Diego is similar to Brazil. They feel real comfortable here. All [these] gyms need jiu-jitsu guys.”
The fighters who compete at Jason’s shows don’t get paid. That’s the norm in the amateur world. Pro fighters are the only ones making a paycheck.
“The fighters do it because they love it,” he says. “They like the fame. Some of them just want to fight — they don’t care when or how.” But it can be risky for amateur fighters to turn pro. “For a lot of these fighters, once they go pro, their mixed martial arts careers are over. [There are more] pro fighters looking [for shows] than shows happening. I know pro fighters that haven’t fought in two years. They would die to get in the cage. Since most are only fighting once a year — and have to pay $1000 to get medically cleared for that year — they stop getting cleared. They go to the Indian reservations to fight, because those aren’t state-regulated.”
Jason makes sure that his amateur shows are safe for competitors. He sees this as a way to ease fighters into the pro mixed martial arts arena.
“My amateur fights have three two-minute rounds. In the UFC, it’s three five-minute rounds. [At my fights] there is no eye-gouging, pinching, poking, biting, or groin strikes. You can get deducted a point or kicked out for that. You can’t kick or knee a downed opponent in the head. You can’t hit the back of the head, either. You can elbow, though we have yet to allow knees or elbows to the face. We want our fighters to fight hard and fight often. We want them to stay healthy. If they do go pro, we want them fresh and free of scar tissue that will open up every time they fight. We do this so they have a good chance at a solid career.”
A few weeks later, I follow Jaime Reyes’s black Honda Civic around a curvy road, past an ostrich farm, and down a dirt alley to Marron’s Boxing Camp in Lakeside. Marked with a hand-painted wooden sign, the gym is constructed of tarp and metal pipes. It’s more like a tent than anything else; it’s even in a back yard. Two oversized flags flap in the wind. One is American, the other Mexican.
Shirtless, sweaty guys sit on plastic chairs; one guy has stitches above his right eyebrow. Inside, there are two boxing rings built up over the dirt floor. Plastic buckets have been placed strategically in various locations; from time to time, guys hack loogies into them. A sign reads “KEEP THIS GYM CLEAN! NO SPITTING ON THE FLOOR.” Gym rules are written out in Spanish and English. Boxing gloves hang on hooks from the window, and posters cover one wall, some of women in bikinis; others, the faces of boxers. Punching bags are in one corner, exercise equipment in another.
Jaime gets into a ring and begins circuit-training. He turns up the stereo and shadowboxes. He shuffles around the ring, kicking and punching. His rhythm is so perfect, he looks like a dancer. There are seven other guys in the room. One of them, Ramiro Rodriguez, a round-faced man in his early 30s, is Jaime’s boxing coach.
“How’s your weight?” he shouts.
Jaime shouts back, “137!”
Ramiro smiles. “Good!”
Jaime is the only guy here who is barefoot. He’s so thin he looks breakable. He is conditioning for a fight on September 8, at Epic 14. He’ll be competing in the featherweight category.
“I want to have 15 fights, a title belt, and be 24 when I go pro,” he says. “I’m young; I’m really young. Most mixed martial arts guys are a lot older. By the time I’m their age, I’ll be at a different level and have years of experience. That should help me out to where I want to be. I don’t even know what pros get paid or what kind of sponsors to expect. I’m not worried about that. People think I’m crazy because I don’t get paid to fight. I’ve never been paid by my sponsors, either. I get a discount at Marron’s because I’m an amateur fighter. Normally, this gym is $35 a month. I pay $25. As of right now, I’m not looking for money. I want people to acknowledge that I’m a good fighter. I just want fans.”
The lobby at the Four Points Sheraton is filled with mixed martial arts fighters waiting to be weighed in for Epic 13. They sprawl on couches. Some sit on tables, others on the floor.
A muscular-looking man addresses the fighters. “My goal is this: I want to get you on the scale as soon as possible. Fill out your pre-fight physical and bring it back to me with a photo ID. You must have a photo ID!”
One fighter whispers to another, “I really shouldn’t be fighting tonight. I hurt my back. We’ll see what happens, though…”
A young man sitting across from me diligently fills out his form. He’s small-framed, with a faux-hawk hairstyle. His name is Scott Morris. He’s fought in only one amateur fight. He lost.
“I was very pissed,” he says. “It was a good learning experience, though. I’m going to win tonight. I know I will.” Scott’s brother, Joey Radcliffe, is with him today. He pipes in: “It was embarrassing to watch. You don’t want to see your family lose.”
Scott Morris is only 21. By the time he’s 25, he’d like to be a pro mixed martial arts fighter. He tells me that he’s surprised his mom is coming to his fight tonight.
“She couldn’t watch last time,” he says.
Heather Hyatt, the matchmaker for Epic Fighting, a blonde woman wearing a bumpit, short-shorts, platform heels, and a tight tank top, places a small white digital scale in the center of the room.
“That’s really what they weigh you on?” I ask Scott.
“Uh-huh,” he says. “What were you expecting? One of those big ones they use in boxing?”
Within minutes, nearly everyone in the room has stripped down to boxer shorts for the weigh-in. A group of children walk past — they’re participating in a golf camp at the hotel — and gawk at the beefy fighters in their underwear.
Scott’s weight is 143. He’s fighting at 145.
“They’ll weigh us again in a few hours. Some guys are either going to go get a big meal or do some sprints around the block.” Scott laughs. “I’m going to eat Chinese food because it’s hard for my body to break that stuff down.”
Six hours later, I watch Scott fight. His opponent, J.W. Lee, knocks Scott clear across the ring during the second round. Scott falls to the ground and doesn’t get up. The ref waves his finger slowly in front of Scott’s eyes, testing his vision. Scott slowly sits up. Lee wins by TKO and is later awarded knockout of the night. I see Scott’s brother outside the cage. He looks more worried than disappointed.
I Get Angry and Punch Things
Don Murphin is on the promo flyer for Epic 13, pictured in the ring sitting on an opponent who lies flat on his back, scowling. As it turned out, at Epic 13, Don never made it into the cage. He had to pull out of the fight due to a fractured rib, an injury sustained on June 24, during Summerfist at the Del Mar Fair.
“I won that fight,” he assures me, “but I couldn’t hide how much pain I was in. You can see it in my face [in the photo].”
Don admits that he got into mixed martial arts because he wanted to learn how to be a better street fighter. He used to watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship guys on TV: he thought he could beat them.
“Cage fighting is the closest thing to being a street fighter. Before I started training mixed martial arts, I got into a lot of fights. I felt like I had something to prove. I was like the Hulk. In my 20s, I used to freak out — I’d black out, and everything in my apartment would be broken. I’ve kicked down front doors, broken my hand on the TV, broken windshields. Mixed martial arts taught me self-control. I feel restrained by society, [so] it’s good to get in the cage and let it go. It’s like therapy.”
Don trains every day. He sees it as a necessity.
“Fighting is great, but the training is where I let it all out. If I’m not physically active, I get really depressed and suicidal. I feel aggressive toward society. Mixed martial arts is a huge, awesome thing for me. Showcasing my skills at an amateur level has answered my prayers.”
Don grew up fighting. He was in the foster-care system.
“Before I was 12, I had five or six concussions from fighting. The doctors say that’s a big deal, but a lot of time has elapsed since then. I don’t worry about brain damage. I’m always injured — it’s part of the game. Boxing is far more dangerous than mixed martial arts. In boxing, most hits go to your head. You’re working with a concussed brain. In mixed martial arts, you get knocked down and a guy gets on top of you and pounds you. It’s over. It looks more brutal, but it’s less damaging.”
Don rattles off some of his mixed martial arts injuries: broken bones in his feet, broken thumbs, fractured ribs, and shoulder injuries.
“I broke both my hands, but that was before I even started training. I get angry and punch things.”
Despite multiple injuries, Don says he doesn’t have medical insurance.
“I use Google. I had a shoulder impingement. I looked it up and treated it myself. I type in my injuries, and it tells me all I need to know. I looked up my fractured rib and learned everything the doctor would’ve told me. The only difference is a doctor would charge me and give me painkillers. I don’t like to take pills When I was a little kid, they forced me to take pills, because I was hyperactive and overly aggressive. I would rather have the pain.”
Dan says that his mom would like it if he gave up mixed martial arts fighting. “My mom hates it. She won’t come to my fights. She’s proud of me, though.” He shrugs. “It’s fine. I’ve always been the black sheep of my family.”
Dan plans on winning a few mixed martial arts belts before going pro.
“I am 2 and 1 right now. If I wanted to, I could go pro. I’ve learned so much in these last three fights. I’ve already changed my fighting style. Ten more fights of this, and I’ll be more than ready to go pro. My first fight sucked. I was choked out after 37 seconds. I was defeated before I could show my abilities. I don’t mind losing, if I can show what I can do. Cage fighting is a lot like being a rock star.”
Manny Murillo’s pro mixed martial arts fighting career is his family’s only source of income. He’s married and has two sons, aged eight and five. In 11 fights, Manny has yet to lose. His paycheck doubles when he wins.
“My first pro fight, I only got paid ten dollars. The promoter actually told me that I owed him money. But in the end, he gave me ten bucks. They pay us very little starting off. [Now] promoters pay me, but most pros get their money from sponsors. I need sponsors.”
I meet Manny and his family at a Denny’s in Murrieta. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and he has a fight at the Commerce Casino in L.A. in four days. He weighs 197 and needs to be down to 185 by Friday. Manny doesn’t order anything off the menu. His two boys eat kiddie pancakes with fruit salads. He eyes their plates.
“Every time I fight, I have to drop about 20 pounds for a perceived advantage. When you cut that much weight, sometimes you end up weaker than you were. As a wrestler, I’ve been fighting weight my whole life.”
“It’s his weakness,” his wife Celia laughs.
“Yeah, the diet is the hardest part. I love sweets, doughnuts, and soda.”
Manny became interested in mixed martial arts in 1995, when he was a Marine stationed in Hawaii. He saw a mixed martial arts fight on TV and was amazed. “At that time, there wasn’t much going on with the sport. It was still illegal in many places.”
During his time in the Marine Corps, Manny was on a wrestling team. “I did well. I won more than I lost. I only lost to the guys that were really good. I always placed at the tournaments.”
When he got out of the service, he ended up in Murrieta, five miles from one of the world’s best mixed martial arts gyms, Quest, run by Dan Henderson, two-time Olympic gold winner in wrestling and an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter.
“I joined Quest and got really into mixed martial arts.”
Manny’s next career goal is to secure a contract with Ultimate Championship Fighting. He believes it hasn’t happened to him yet due to a lack of star power. “I’m not real outgoing,” he says, “but it’ll happen.”
He hasn’t had any bad injuries yet, though he did break his nose during a fight. “The funny thing is that, the next week, I sparred against Dan Henderson at practice. He hit my nose and rebroke it. That ended up fixing it.” Manny laughs.
Brain damage isn’t something he worries about.
“In terms of long-lasting injuries, football is much worse. You never see mixed martial arts fighters carried out on a stretcher, like football players are. In mixed martial arts, there are a lot more bruises. You may get banged up, but if you win, it’s easy to overlook all of that.”
Manny doesn’t like to talk about losing. He knows that, at some point, there will be a fighter able to defeat him in the cage. But he’s optimistic it won’t happen anytime soon.
“I don’t worry about losing. If I ever do, there’s nothing I can do about it. I know it’s going to happen eventually. Before I fight, I always believe that I will win.”
A week later, I meet him in Murrieta for Team Quest pro practice. He’s still recovering from his Saturday-night fight. He lost by decision. His record is now 12-1. He shows me a big, round ugly bruise on his arm.
“He was really depressed,” his wife says. “But the best way to lose is by decision.”
“I was disappointed,” Manny says, “but I have nothing to be ashamed of.” He studies the water bottle in his hands.
The pros are practicing ground work on the mats. Manny is paired with a stocky guy with a missing front tooth. They roll around on the ground; at times, it looks like they are spooning.
Two girls are on the team. One is blonde, the other brunette. Both have their hair styled in sloppy Princess Leia buns.
The brunette, whose name is Ashley, has frosty-pink fingernails and a black eye. I overhear her telling her grappling partner, “One of the guys accidentally threw an elbow last practice.”
The partner, twice her size, pins her down and smacks her butt.
Ricardo Feliciano, the jiu-jitsu coach, jokes, “Slap her face, she likes that.”
To my left, Team Quest member Fernando Gonzalez sits at the edge of one of the boxing rings, watching the guys practice. Fernando has the worst case of cauliflower ear I’ve ever seen, the flesh so lumpy you can’t see the hole that leads to his ear canal.
He wears a thick black band with a green light on it around his ankle.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“House arrest,” he explains. “I can come here because I work at the gym. I’m a pro fighter, a trainer, and I clean the equipment and pads at Quest, so the guys don’t get ringworm or staph infections.”
Fernando’s arrest stemmed from an attempted carjacking charge. He tells me he is innocent and that the judge showed him leniency by putting him on house arrest. He’s allowed to go to and from the gym, and he can take off his ankle monitor during fights.
“When I do that,” he says, “I have to tack on an extra day of house arrest.”
Fernando went pro a year and a half after he started training in mixed martial arts. He tried out for Spike TV’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter and has fought with the Strike Force, a stepping stone to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“My goal is to be in the UFC and fight for the title. I’m confident that I will get there. Most Team Quest guys are almost there. Once you get wins in the Strike Force, you can get into the UFC.”
Fernando says his mom supports him in his mixed martial arts career.
“My mom is the most supportive in my family. She got my brothers and me into wrestling to keep us out of trouble. I have home videos of her at my wrestling matches, screaming, ‘Get him! Get him!’ My dad is the one who worries. He wants me to do something else. He feels like the better I get, the higher caliber the guys I fight against will be. He worries about my safety. I understand that there could be brain damage. Once you love something, you just have to do it. The thrill is better than the worry.”
Fernando is considering becoming a pro boxer as well. He hasn’t been able to fight as much as he’d like.
“It gets slow with mixed martial arts. There are only so many pro fights. I’m primarily a striker, so boxing works for me. At the lower level of pro mixed martial arts, I get between $1500 and $3000 to fight and another $1500 to $3000 if I win. In the UFC, you start at about $3000 to fight, with another $3000 to win. By your third fight, most guys are making $20,000. They go up from there.”
Before I have a chance to ask another question, Fernando motions behind me. “That’s Dan Henderson over there. He has a UFC title fight on September 1, against John Jones.”
I turn my head. Dan stands three feet away. I stare at his ears — they are big and cauliflowered. Dan looks just like he does in the posters: scary and serious.
Ultimate Fighting Championship Fighters
When I interview Shannon Gugherty on a Monday night at the Boxing Club in Kearny Mesa, he cycles on a stationary bicycle the entire time. Beads of sweat form on his forehead, but his tone remains even. At one point, he zips up his sweatshirt and covers his head with the hood.
“I want to keep sweating,” he says.
Shannon weighs 155 and needs to be down to 145 for a fight on Saturday night in Dublin, Ireland.
Among his accomplishments is a black belt in jiu-jitsu, a 12-3 pro mixed martial arts record, and a short-lived Ultimate Fighting Championship career.
When 30-year-old Shannon started fighting mixed martial arts, there were no amateur venues: mixed martial arts wasn’t legal in California until December 28, 2005. Shannon had his first pro fight at the age of 19. He drove down to Tijuana for that.
Once he’d amassed a 9-2 mixed martial arts record, the Ultimate Fighting Championship contacted him.
“They were throwing together a show quickly and asked me to fight,” he says. “That was in 2009.”
Shannon’s first fight was at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. Anderson Silva was fighting, and a bunch of other guys Shannon watched on TV.
“That night, I beat Dale Hartt by a rear naked choke during the first round. His record was 6-0. Later, I fought at the UFC 100. It was the hugest card ever. It was a sold-out event at the Mandalay Bay. There were 18,000 people there. I won by a guillotine choke. After that fight, I got to throw out the first pitch for the San Diego Padres.”
Shannon’s voice gets quiet when he tells me that in mixed martial arts the highs are high and the lows are low.
“I lost my next two UFC fights against top-ten contenders. The UFC released me. I went through a depression. I was told to win a couple more fights and they would take me back. If I win my fight on Saturday in Dublin, that will be my third consecutive win. I feel like being released made me a stronger fighter. When I get back into the UFC, I’ll be better.”
Shannon’s parents are supportive of his career choice, although his mom can’t bring herself to go to his fights.
“I could have taken a bunch of other paths. I have friends from my Chula Vista high school that are in jail or are drug addicts. Some of them are dead. I’m not like my two brothers. They did the college thing and have professional jobs. But my parents are so proud of me, as if I’m a doctor or something. A few weeks ago, they came into my gym to watch me train.”
Shannon acknowledges that, at 30, he’s getting up there in age. He’s aware that he can’t fight forever.
“My window for fighting is open for another five years. After that, I will stay in the mixed martial arts world. It’s my life. It’s my destiny.”
The Ultimate Fighting Championship Is a Traveling Circus
“The problem with mixed martial arts fighting is that we get addicted to it,” says Chris Cope, an Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran. We’re sitting at a coffee shop in the Midway District, across the street from the Arena, his mixed martial arts gym.
“If we don’t fight, we get depressed. Our sport becomes our identity. When it comes time to retire, a lot of guys don’t know what to do anymore. You take Junior Seau, for instance; a lot of athletes face what he did. Sometimes that depression gets the most of us. That’s why I’m so adamant about doing other things. Fighting will never define me. It won’t become who I am; it’s just something I do.”
Unlike many pro fighters, Chris has a full-time job. He is a paralegal for a law firm in San Diego.
“When I am introduced to new people, they’re always told ‘This guy is a fighter.’ I could cure cancer, join the Peace Corps, be a multimillionaire, but all people want to talk about is fighting.”
It’s hard for me to picture Chris cage fighting. He is wearing khakis and a black three-button shirt with a Lacoste label. He has on round glasses. His hair is short. The only thing that gives him away are his cauliflower ears. Apart from that, he looks average, not like someone whose fight name is C-Murder.
“The name started out as a joke that stuck. It comes from the most ghetto rapper of all time. I think he’s in prison for murdering someone. When he gets out, he’ll probably kill my ass.” Chris smiles. “It’s funny, because that’s not really what I’m about. It’s a psych-out.”
Chris has been involved in martial arts since he was seven. But he didn’t get into mixed martial arts fighting until college. He signed up for a cage fight hosted by a fraternity at his college, UC Santa Barbara.
“I was going to do a cage fight just that one time. But I got such an adrenaline rush, I decided to keep doing it.”
Chris’s parents were surprised how into mixed martial arts he became. For a long time, his mom thought it was a hobby, like Pop Warner football.
“My mom went to my first Strike Force fight. She got so nervous she was shaking. She had to walk out. She goes to fights now and doesn’t have as much of an issue. She wants me to stop, but she’ll never say it. She knows it’s my passion.”
When Chris started in mixed martial arts, pro guys in California fought in Tijuana.
“I never did that. I cornered a buddy of mine down there. Everyone got paid cash — the rings were crooked. The guy that used to put on those fights was murdered in TJ during all that drug violence a few years ago.”
Shortly after Chris went pro, he was cast in Spike TV’s reality program The Ultimate Fighter.
“I showed up to that audition in Vegas in a full spandex jumpsuit. I acted like an idiot. I was still drunk from partying the night before. That was my fourth audition. The other times, I went in there begging for them to cast me. That time, I didn’t care. They looked at me and saw ratings.”
A few weeks later, they locked Chris in a house with 15 other guys. No music, radio, cell phones, or books.
“We were off the grid. I lived in a house with the people I fought against. It became normal. I would eat breakfast with my opponent and say, ‘See you later when we fight.’ Your whole sense of reality is skewed. In the end, you fight people that you started off on a team with. There are 16 competitors in the house and only one ultimate fighter.”
Despite losing to an opponent on one of the last episodes, Chris was invited to fight on the finale show. He won. As a result, he wound up with a contract.
“The UFC is like a traveling circus. Those guys are like carnies; they’re constantly on the road — round and round they go.”
After three losses, Chris was cut in February 2012. “My last fight with the UFC earned me 22,000 dollars for 15 minutes of work.” But Chris says he wasn’t disappointed. “So many guys, when they make it to the UFC, they hold on to that. It becomes their identity. They do whatever it takes to stay with it. The way I see it is, I will always be a UFC vet. No one can take that away from me.”
When he was let go, Dana White, part owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, told Chris’s manager that, if he wins three consecutive fights, they will take him back.
“My first comeback fight after being dropped by the UFC was on an Indian reservation. I only made $50. There were only, like, 100 people there. It’s okay. I’ve never cared about the money.”
Chris admits that brain damage is a heavy concern.
“I worry about brain damage all the time. I’m paranoid. I always ask people if I’m slurring my speech. I’m constantly checking Johns Hopkins’ studies. I won’t do sparring sessions back to back. It’s not the initial blow that causes damage, it’s the hits after that. The times I get knocked out, I don’t spar for three weeks. A lot of guys will come to the gym and spar the next day. I’m not going to do that. I only have one brain.”
A week later, Chris invites me to the Arena to watch him spar. When I arrive, a bulldog is sitting outside the gym. Inside, it smells like boys — body odor and dirty socks. I take a seat on a bench next to a half-full bottle of Jim Beam whiskey. The guy standing next to me is talking to another fighter, describing in full detail how he took a razorblade to a staph infection on his arm. He points at two round scars near his elbows.
“I didn’t have health insurance, so I went to town on it myself. You should’ve seen the amount of pus that came out.”
When Chris arrives, he’s still in his work clothes: khakis, a tucked-in button-down shirt, and sensible shoes. He emerges from the locker room a few minutes later in black shorts and a yellow shirt.
“I compare it to being like Batman,” he says. “I go to work and wear the suit, and then I come home and fight.”
All the other guys in the room, six in total, have tattoos snaking up their arms and legs. Chris doesn’t. “My girlfriend isn’t a stripper, either.” He laughs. “I don’t know what it is, but mixed martial arts fighters love strippers, and strippers love them.”
Moments later, Chris is on the mats sparring with another fighter. I watch him pound and kick. He seems like a different guy than the one I met at the coffee shop. I’m reminded of something he said that night: “Every time I fight, it’s like a near-death experience. When that cage door closes, I don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s why I do it. It’s a rush. Every time I walk to the cage, I think, Why the hell am I doing this? It doesn’t make sense. I’m about to fight some guy in a cage while people cheer me on. We’re going to be trying to kill each other. But when I win, I understand why I do it. Everyone loves to watch a good fight. I don’t care how peaceful you are, once you watch a mixed martial arts fight, you become hooked. People love violence.”