To this day, James Head doubts he is the most intimidating person his family has produced, a fairly ridiculous notion considering his 9-2 record as a professional fighter. But for now, he says, that honor goes to his grandfather, who had the fear of the whole neighborhood by the time he was in his early teens, was an Army boxing champion, and served in World War II.
"He was a scary dude," Head said. "When he yelled at you, his mouth didn't move because his teeth were clenched. In my eyes, he was 17 feet tall."
While his grandfather passed away when James was still young, he would no doubt be impressed by his grandson's accomplishments in the tough guy field of mixed martial arts, an unexpected life detour that has Head excelling in two diverse yet equally demanding careers.
By Tuesday night, The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale participants were holed up in their Las Vegas hotel, focused on their matches. All of them, that is, except Head, who had things to do back home in Oklahoma, things about as different from cagefighting as one might imagine. While he's publicly known for a job that requires physical prowess above all else, he has a second career that is completely dependent on his intelligence. Head is a petroleum engineer for Chesapeake Energy, an $11 billion oil and natural gas company, and his job is to supervise drilling rigs in the search for "liquid gold."
Meanwhile, in the UFC, he hunts for the real thing. A welterweight, Head opened eyes in July when he halted Brian Ebersole's lengthy 11-fight win streak. The win, the biggest of his career, has propelled him into a Saturday night bout with another well-regarded veteran, Mike Pyle.
His dueling pursuits no doubt leave him with one of the most challenging schedules in mixed martial arts. On a typical weekday, Head wakes up at 5 a.m. and is in the gym within a half-hour for conditioning work. His day doesn't end until 17 hours later, and with no real breaks aside from eating. In between there is a full day of work, a lunchtime gym session for strength, wrestling or perhaps jiu-jitsu, and then after leaving the office, his regular fight training. One more thing: due to the volatile nature of drilling, he's basically on call 24/7 to solve any unexpected problems that arise.
In that way, his job in the UFC octagon isn't so different. It's non-stop action, and when he sees a problem, he addresses it through strategy, but must always be open to shifting his approach on the fly.
"It’s a really cognitive process," he said. "You have to think, and that helps me in my training. I approach everything scientifically, from the weight cut to the way I train. And I surround myself with experts in everything. In my industry, whenever there's a big problem that can cost millions and millions of dollars, we get the experts involved. That's the kind of the approach I take to fighting. Surround yourself with the best people and you really can't help but get better."
If his story sounds similar to that of Shane Carwin, another engineer turned mixed martial artist, there is one key difference: Carwin was a collegiate All-American in football and wrestling, and was projected as an NFL player before an injury sidelined that dream. He seemed destined for a life in sports. Head, meanwhile, never had an inkling he would grow up to be a professional athlete.
"Less than zero," he says.
Like most kids from the midwest, the Illinois-born Head grew up playing traditional stick-and-ball sports football, basketball and baseball.
By the time he got to college at the University of Missouri-Rolla, he was almost completely focused on academics due to the demanding standards of an engineering degree. Almost.
"One day I realized I wasn't competing anymore and I'd been competing my whole life at something," he said.
Head had always been intrigued by his grandfather's boxing stories, some of his own tales as an Army champ, others of all-time greats like undefeated heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. As a result, he'd become a fan himself, particularly of the ferocious Mike Tyson, as well as the Hall of Fame talents Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler. It was something he just toyed with us a kid, lacing up gloves and hitting a heavy bag.
One day during a break from his college classes, he walked into a local gym expecting to learn the sweet science. Instead, he began a crash course on mixed martial arts. That crash course has turned into a lifelong pursuit.
By his third career fight, he knew he was on to something. In that fight, he earned a TKO over Eric Bradley, a former two-time collegiate wrestling All-American at Penn State who also won the National Collegiate Boxing Association championship in 2003. In his eighth pro fight, he beat former UFC middleweight Gerald Harris, leading to his signing with the UFC.
Since moving to welterweight, Head is 2-0. He had first toyed with the idea of shifting divisions a few years ago, after trying out for The Ultimate Fighter. Head sought out advice to make the drop, but the UFC didn't end up using him. Still, the knowledge he'd gained was applicable at the right time.
On Saturday, for the first time in five fights, Head will be facing an orthodox fighter, though Pyle is as well-rounded as they come, with 16 career submissions and KO's in each of his last two bouts.
"I think he's going to get hit one time and try to take me down," said Head. "That's just how all my fights have been. Not very many people are going to stand with me. I hope he does. I hope he believes he has the power in his hands to knock me out, but I don't see that happening. So I'm prepared to fight him anywhere and beat him up everywhere."
More than anything, Head said he's looking for a "dogfight," a scrap that will raise eyebrows and establish his reputation as one of the division's tough guys. It may be a departure from his day job, but it's right in line with grandpa's reputation.