It often seems like the days where Jon Koppenhaver wasn't a controversial figure in mixed martial arts never happened. Sure, they existed. Many remember them. 'War Machine' was a noteworthy cast member on season 6 of 'The Ultimate Fighter'. But since then? It's been TMZ headlines, run-ins with the law and missed opportunity after missed opportunity.
And yet, there appeared to be a brief moment when Koppenhaver was righting the ship. After earning a year-long jail sentence in a San Diego jail on felony assault charges as well as three years of probation in 2010, the former UFC welterweight used the experience and a 2011 release to begin forging a new, more responsible path in life.
But no matter the newfound attitude or lessons learned, he couldn't outrun all of the many mistakes of his past.
In an attempt to settle a two-year litigation battle over another previous physical altercation in Las Vegas, Nev. gone wrong, Koppenhaver accepted a plea deal with the local district attorney: in exchange for no jail time and a restitution fine of $60,000, he'd plead guilty to the charges of assault. Finally, he'd be done. Everything was finally going right and he was putting the ugliness behind him. That's precisely where it all went wrong.
After seven months free, Koppenhaver was unexpectedly sent back to jail by an angry judge, sentenced to another year in jail.
Released just last week early for good behavior, the Bellator welterweight is now telling his story as a cautionary tale of how bad decisions and bad luck can make for a toxic cocktail.
Here's what went wrong: as he later found out, plea deals between a guilty party and a district attorney are not legally binding for sentencing judges to honor. As a practice they almost always do, but also have the legal discretion to ignore them. For reasons that Koppenhaver says are still unclear, the new sentencing judge threw the book at him. She threw out the terms of the plea agreement and put him in jail.
Koppenhaver was gobsmacked and devasted.
"I signed [the plea deal]. I went in front of the judge," Koppenhaver told Ariel Helwani Wednesday on The MMA Hour. "She just looked at me. She was like, 'Look at you! You look like you're going to pop! I think you're on steroids! She started going after me. She goes, 'You know what? I'm not going to honor this plea agreement. You need to go to jail!' I was shocked. I didn't even think it was possible. I thought there was no chance of that happening. It hurt a lot. I think it was irresponsible on her part because I just did a year. I changed my ways. I don't know what she was doing. She's crazy."
In Koppenhaver's mind, the punishment wasn't only gratuitous. He also had no idea how to even begin processing the idea that all the lessons learned would have to be painfully taught to him again. For what reason? He believed he'd already turned a corner in his adult life. He was trying right old wrongs, in this case proactively settling the previous litigation battle so nothing would be hanging over his head. Despite his best intentions, it all blew up in his face.
"It was devastating. I just did the year. Got out; I was out for seven months, I was doing very well. I beat [Roger] Huerta. I had the Bellator tournament coming up. My probation officer, I had no problems with him. I was just living my life."
The first stint in jail had a silver lining. It served as a painful but valuable lesson on how poor decisions in life can impact a person. As Koppenhaver soon found out, the second term just inflicted extra pain. He wasn't only missing out on career opportunities; he also lost people who were the closest to him without ever having the opportunity to put closure on those key relationships.
"I had a lot of bad things happen while I was in jail," he told Helwani. "My wife got deported to Hungary while I was in there; I couldn't say bye. My grandma died. My grandma lived 10 minutes away, I couldn't say bye. So I had a lot of crappy things going on. It was depressing. I never came to terms with the fact that I was back in jail. That's hard to believe maybe, but it doesn't feel real in there. You don't even realize how much time really passed until you get out and realize, 'Man, I was really in there for a year. All these things really did happen. My grandma's really dead. I'm really alone again.' I don't know. It's a trip man. It's really like a time warp."
He did whatever he could to pass the time in administrative segregation. He didn't have much, but if he had anything it was time. Koppenhaver spent 23 hours a day in his cell on the weekdays, the entire day locked up on the weekends. The first go-round in jail taught him reading could be an engrossing escape, though, so he again sought that out. Koppenhaver claims he read 117 books in nine months in the Las Vegas jail. His favorite book from the last nine months is "Forbidden Science" by Douglas Kenyon, a conspiracy theorist's take on scientific discoveries and theories.
There was occasionally time for other things. Even luxuries like television. But where reading shielded him from the truths of the outside world, television reinforced it. It brought heartache and a reminder of all that had happened to him. A chance showing of UFC on FOX 3 caused a moment of reflection about where he was and what it all meant.
"It's depressing because I should be fighting," he lamented. "I knew I was missing the Bellator tournament; missing an opportunity to make money and further my career. You're locked in there and you feel worthless. You see these guys out there fighting and you think 'That should be me out there, man.' It made me depressed to see it, actually."
Depressed or not, Koppenhaver kept his head down and stayed out of trouble. His obsessive reading of books kept him on good terms and nine months into a year-long sentence, he was released early.
Through all the tumult, Bellator held onto him. Koppenhaver says they were sympathetic to his plight, that they agreed with him he'd been abused by an overzealous judge while trying to do the right thing in settling a longstanding dispute. As a consequence, he's still on track to fight for them in January as part of their season 8 'Vote for the Fight' effort. He - along with fellow welterweights Paul Daley, Ben Saunders, and Douglas Lima - will serve as a group fans can pick from as they play matchmaker by voting for the match-up they want to see.
That doesn't mean he's completely over the hump. How could he be? Yes, he spared for the first time Monday and says he did better than expected, but believes the hardest part about jail is confronting and picking up the pieces of everything you left when you went in. As Koppenhaver notes, they're all still waiting for you when you get out.
"The first couple of days [free] was tough," he said. "Super anxiety. Super depressed and just sensory overload. It was pretty much hard, but now it's been a week and I feel a lot better. My head's straightened out and I'm back on my medication. I'm back in the swing of things. Right now I'm training. It feels good."
"It's a hard thing to explain," he continued. "Jail is easy, man. You just sit there and rot. It's not hard. The hardest part is getting out. You get out and everything is uncertain. You don't really have anything. Jail kind of insulates you like a bubble and nothing's real. When you get out, you realize what really happened. It's just overwhelming."
Overwhelming as it may be, Koppenhaver has help and friends close to him. He has the support of Bellator and the opportunity to make up for lost time. He's also got the experience of nearly two years behind bars to remind him what the right path looks like. Perhaps most importantly, he also has the clean slate: all of his previous legal disputes are settled.
"Now there's nothing that can come back and haunt me. These two things that happened, they're gone. They're done. There's no way they can screw me now. I got my probation. I abide by the terms, whatever they tell me to do. They can't screw me," he said.
"I'm not going to go back. There's no way I'm going to do nothing new. I'm cool. I'm just going to train, get back in shape, lay low and just do my thing."