WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. – Enough about the ear. It's big, red, and it stings something fierce anytime someone touches it. When your job consists of hitting and being hit all day, that happens fairly often, so it's not as if Brendan Schaub
is any danger of forgetting about the mass of tissue hanging off the left side of his head.
Still, the remarks keep coming, mostly from Grudge's head trainer, Trevor Wittman
"Can you even hear through that thing?" he asks. Yes, Schaub can hear, perhaps a little too well when it comes to the non-stop cracks about his ear.
"Does it hurt?" Wittman wants to know. It hurts like hell, Schaub tells him, and talking about it doesn't seem to be helping all that much.
"Can you tell I've been fighting a bunch of wrestlers?" Schaub jokes, leaning down into the smaller man's face and pointing at the swollen mass of tissue that every hardcore jiu-jitsu practitioner in the gym has been imploring him to regard as a badge of honor.
And it's true – he earned this. He's not completely sure why its growth has taken off so rapidly lately, but he knows it's a result of his own compulsive work ethic.
For instance, here he is, roughly two months out from his fight with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic
at UFC 128
, and already he's deep into his training camp. It may be part of why he has this swollen, angry little fist growing out of his head, but it's also why he's riding a three-fight win streak in the UFC's heavyweight division.
"I love it," says Schaub. "I can't go light and I can't take days off. It's just not in me. I think that's why I'm at where I'm at so fast. I think the other guys who are vets and who have made their name in the UFC, they're chilling on the days I'm working."
To hear Wittman tell it, this has been Schaub's M.O. since the day he first walked into the gym in search of someone who would teach him to box. Right off the bat he'd do anything you told him to, says Wittman, and he soaked it all up like a sponge.
"Brendan had never had a fight, and then he entered the [Colorado] Golden Gloves and won it," says Wittman. "Do you know how rare that is? The only person I can think of who has done that is Mike Tyson."
Still, the early signs of great potential are little more than cautionary tales if they aren't followed by later success, which is why Schaub is among the most constant fixtures in the gym from day to day.
This morning he started early, driving an hour up to Boulder to work with his wrestling coach – cauliflower ear be damned. After a quick lunch at Whole Foods he zipped back down to the Denver area for some private time with Wittman. Now they hit mitts, work on some specific details for use against Filipovic, and then finish with some bag work before Schaub heads to the weight room next door to lift with one of his NFL buddies in an attempt, as he puts it, to "get those meathead days back."
But what motivates him to put so much time in on the mats and in the gym isn't just ambition, Schaub says, it's also fear.
For example, when he found out he was fighting Cro Cop he was ecstatic at first. Though he'd asked for former UFC champ Frank Mir, getting to fight the former Pride legend Filipovic still felt like a major opportunity, and when his manager called him with the news one day after practice, he says, "I just freaked out. I took my shirt off and was running around here, just going nuts."
Then the reality set in. He asked the UFC for a DVD with all of Filipovic's Pride and UFC fights, and he got it. He made copies for all his coaches and sent them around. Normally, he says, he only watches an opponent's last four fights. He wants to get an accurate picture of who the guy is today, instead of who he used to be.
"But with [Cro Cop], if I really want to get scared I watch him in K-1," says Schaub. "That's if I really want to get freaked out."
And yes, he does want to get freaked out sometimes. Some fighters may do everything in their power to make sure they only see opponents in a vulnerable state, or even as rarely as possible, but Schaub needs to be scared of them, he says.
"Every guy I fight, I create just this monster out of him. It doesn't matter who it is – [Chris] Tuchscherer, Chase Gormley – I just make them into these nightmares. It makes me train harder and makes me so much sharper in the cage. It gets me focused."
It's not just the fear of what the other guy might do to him, either. It's what happens after a loss that frightens him, too. The fame, the bandwagon-jumpers, the hefty paydays – all that can go away in a heartbeat in a sport where memories are short and you're only as good as your last fight.
"In MMA, it's weird," he says. "If a quarterback in football has a horrible game, he has next week to prove himself again. People jump on and jump off. In MMA you lose, especially if you're a vet and you're fighting maybe twice a year, but you lose and people write you off. Like with [Gabriel] Gonzaga. Gonzaga is an absolute nightmare. That guy, he lost to Shane [Carwin] and [Junior] Dos Santos, and to Randy Couture for a title. But when I beat him people were like, 'Yeah, but he's kind of at the end of his leg with the UFC.' Really? He beat, like, 98 percent of the UFC heavyweights. With Cro Cop it's the same thing. That guy's tough, man. That's why I train so hard. It's a lot of pressure."
Schaub's obsessive work ethic in the gym, however, becomes the exact opposite attitude when he goes home for the evening.
"That guy, he's one of the laziest people you'll see when it comes to doing anything but training," Wittman jokes.
Schaub doesn't disagree.
"I don't like to do anything," he admits. "My girlfriend doesn't like it, but I just chill. I shut it down like you wouldn't believe. You've got to. You have to be able to shut it down mentally and everything."
Because if you can't – if you don't recover from the beating you took today – how will you be able to make it into the gym tomorrow? How will you keep showing up and improving, ensuring that you stay ahead of the guys who are trying to come up from behind you, the way you've done to others?
It might sound like it's all part of the job description, but if it were easy everyone would do it. Just looking around the otherwise empty gym on this Wednesday afternoon, you can tell that's not the case.
"Some days it's really hard," says Schaub. "Especially a sparring day where I've got Shane [Carwin]? I mean, Shane? Oh, man. It's 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 Kinko's and trying to be fighters, you know what I'm saying?"