The private chef was a mistake. Brendan Schaub realizes that, but now it’s too late. Now it’s two days before his fight at UFC 128, the chef is already here, and he’s already cut the check for his half of some of the most regrettable culinary choices he can remember. What he wonders now, as he sits down to a plate of chicken wings on St. Patrick’s Day in Newark, New Jersey, is why he ever let Nate Marquardt talk him into it in the first place.
Actually, forget that. He knows why. It’s because it sounded like a good idea in theory. He likes to eat clean, even though a 245-pound heavyweight doesn’t always have to (see also: tonight’s chicken wings, which would break the heart of someone like Urijah Faber, who is right now back at the hotel trying to sweat himself down to bantamweight). But Marquardt’s been watching his diet closely, and when he suggested that he and Schaub could split the cost of private chef to cook for them in the days leading up to their respective fights at UFC 128, it sounded like a good idea to Schaub.
After all, it’s not easy to eat clean on the road. You can either be the jerk who goes to the hotel restaurant and insists on being served a plain chicken breast, or you can plan ahead. Marquardt’s been doing this a lot longer than Schaub, and his weight is so low for his middleweight bout with Dan Miller that he hardly needs to cut. Clearly, he knows what he’s doing. Schaub hadn’t tasted this chef’s food when he agreed to it, but if Marquardt vouches for him, the guy must be good, right?
If he were, Schaub wouldn’t be at the Brick City Bar and Grill right now, eating chicken wings with his girlfriend while the guys from his management team get in the St. Patrick’s Day spirit with some cocktails.
"Nate’s like, ‘Just tell him what you want,’" Schaub says, shaking his head as he recounts his tale of woe from today’s lunch. This was after he’d become visibly displeased with the salad the chef had tried to serve him for dinner the night before. Not a side salad. Not a compliment to a larger meal. Just a salad.
"I’m like, bro, I’m a heavyweight," Schaub says.
So okay, he told the guy to make him a wrap for lunch. That’s all. A simple wrap. The chef did it, but again, the end result made Schaub wonder if they weren’t from two different planets with completely different ideas about what constituted food.
If he were a meaner person, he told himself, he’d send this guy downstairs to Subway to buy him a sandwich. But he can’t do it. As much as he hates to think of this so-called chef pocketing the money he’s about to bleed for, and all for throwing together a salad and a terrible wrap, maybe that’s what he gets for agreeing to hire him without first tasting his food.
And so chicken wings at the Brick City Bar and Grill it is. It's not an ideal dinner two days before he has to fight Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, a fighter Schaub used to worship back when he was a college football jock at the University of Colorado and part-time MMA fan. A fighter who, at 36 years old, showed up in New Jersey looking far from the washed up old relic people keep saying he is. A fighter who’s been walking around the hotel all week wearing Terminator sunglasses, surrounded by a few hard-looking dudes who could easily be mistaken for contract killers in the Croatian mob. Especially after months of killing himself in the gym in an attempt to grind his body down to a fine, cutting edge, bar food is probably the last thing Schaub should be eating. But he simply can’t take another one of those salads. He gives in. The professional athlete eats his chicken wings.
Schaub isn’t the only one with a lot on his mind this St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a big weekend for the whole Grudge crew, and as the Newark bars fill up and the fight week buzz builds somewhere just on the edges of everyone’s vision, they’re all off in their own separate corners preparing for their own battles.
For starters, there’s Eliot Marshall, the team’s lanky light heavyweight, who got himself back in the UFC recently by being the first to volunteer for a short-notice fight with Brazilian striking menace Luiz Cane. Marshall had been cut from the UFC a year earlier after losing a snoozer of a bout against Vladimir Matyushenko. Rumor had it that the bout was so unimpressive to the UFC brass that they’d already made up their minds to fire the loser before the judges’ scores were even read. The split decision went against Marshall, so back to the minor leagues of MMA he went.
And as much as some fighters might gripe about the UFC at times -- gripes that range from petty to valid, including such grievances as: how are they going to go and cut a guy like Marshall, who’d won three in a row, just because he had one bad (okay, awful) fight?-- life on the small circuit is much worse. After losing his job in the UFC, Marshall returned to Denver’s Ring of Fire organization, where he beat fellow Ultimate Fighter alum Josh Haynes. As nice as it might have been to be a big fish in a small pond again, the morale boost doesn’t make up for the difference in pay. It’s not just the fight night purse, either. While an undercard fighter like Marshall might not command a ton in sponsor money, he can make a lot more fighting on a Spike TV prelim than on a local show where the only people who’ll see the logos on his shorts are those guzzling beer at the VIP tables up front.
As if the financial hit wasn’t bad enough already, in his last fight he actually worked for free. It wasn’t his fault. He fought and won on a Nemesis Fighting event down in the Dominican Republic. Then it turned out that the promoters of the event didn’t actually have the money to pay their fighters, so they all went home empty-handed. The only way it could have been worse is if he’d lost for free.
It was the last thing Marshall needed at the time, especially since he and his wife just had their first child -- a baby boy. Now isn’t the time to be scraping by on the money he makes teaching jiu-jitsu at Amal Easton’s Colorado academies. Now is the time to make something happen, or else face some tough decisions about his life.
(Eliot Marshall weighs in. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
The good news is, he’s carried it well. Instead of moping around and bemoaning the bad breaks, Marshall got right back in the gym after the Nemesis debacle and trained like he had a fight coming up. When he read on the internet one afternoon that Cane was without an opponent less than a month out from UFC 128, he got on the phone to his agent and told him to call the UFC and ask for the fight. It turned out the UFC needed a light heavyweight willing to get punched in the face by Cane even more than it despised Marshall’s past work, so here he is, back in the big show, trying desperately to cut the weight in the hotel workout room.
That kind of determination even impressed Grudge head trainer Trevor Wittman, who hasn’t exactly been Marshall’s biggest supporter recently. For whatever reason, the two seem to butt heads over and over again. It’s small stuff, mostly. Bickering over the training schedule. Sending one another passive-aggressive text messages (at Grudge, the text message seems to be the preferred method of communication for everything from arranging a ride to practice to consoling someone after a loss to ending friendships and business partnerships, all of which makes it both the best and worst thing to happen to gym relations). But when Wittman saw how Marshall volunteered for a tough fight just to get back in the UFC, he had to respect it.
"He’s going out to find his destiny," Wittman remarked, and he was right in more ways than one. If he gets cut again, Marshall has decided, he’s going to hang up the gloves. He’s only 30 years old and has less than 15 pro fights, but he says he doesn’t want to be just another sad journeyman playing a game of diminishing returns on the small circuit.
"I mean, how many times have you seen the UFC bring someone back a third time after cutting them twice?" he counters when I ask whether he’ll really stick to this vow. I have to admit he has a point.
Then there’s Marquardt, who, almost magically, seems to have turned his whole attitude around over the course of this fight camp. Gone is the moody, aloof Nate. Gone is the attitude and the teenager smirk. Somewhere in there, things started clicking again. He and Wittman started listening to each other and trusting each other the way they used to. His whole demeanor outside the gym changed, as well. Even during the hectic fight week, which is always a barely contained tornado of media obligations, photo shoots, and UFC-mandated schedules to keep -- all while still finding time each night to get a workout in -- he somehow remains calmer than anyone.
When his reps at Alchemist Management decide they need their staff photographer to get a few quick shots of him wearing his signature t-shirt in their newly launched Alchemist clothing line? That’s fine. When his wife wants to hang out with the crew in the hotel bar, sipping on a margarita to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? He calmly enjoys a water until she’s ready to go. When someone at a nearby table in that bar points out Marquardt to a friend and the friend mutters just a little bit too loudly, "Who’s Nate Marquardt?" it doesn’t faze him. Clearly, this is not the irritable Marquardt that those around him have come to know and fear recently.
"It’s a complete 180," Wittman says. "I love it."
(Wittman and boxing coach Fareed Samad give Marquardt a few pointers. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
It’s hard to discount here the role that "the TRT thing," as Wittman calls it, might be playing. As Marquardt and his defenders will say repeatedly once his use of testosterone becomes public knowledge months later, the hormone replacement therapy changed his attitude for the better. His marriage went from rocky to solid. His friends went from tolerating him to liking him again. Even after it results in his eventual dismissal from the UFC, he’ll look back and point to these changes in mood as proof that he truly needed the testosterone.
The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, however, isn’t so easily convinced. While the commission, the UFC, and his management are all willing to keep his secret at this point, behind the scenes there are still issues. The NJSACB isn’t just going to take the 31-year-old Marquardt’s word for it that he needs a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone, so it’s been setting various hurdles for him to clear in the lead-up to the fight. As fight night nears, there’s growing concern among his trainers and management that the commission, which remains skeptical of his testosterone use, might not let him fight at all. It’s a secret that the Alchemist management team keeps even from its own staff publicist, Kelly Crigger. Later, when he eventually finds out what’s had his co-workers so concerned, Crigger will be told that he was kept in the dark in order to give him "plausible deniability" if the issue ever came up with the media.
It doesn’t. Not yet. And after agreeing to undergo a series of post-fight tests to prove that he really and truly needs the testosterone, Marquardt will eventually be cleared to fight. Problem solved. For now, anyway.
On fight week, the official UFC host hotel becomes its own complex little ecosystem. It’s a delicate balance of tough guy bravado in public and one mini-crisis after another in private. Every elevator ride includes at least one passenger with a noticeable case of cauliflower ear, maybe that small red pin prick just visible in the bulbous mass, a souvenir from when he last had it drained. Future and past opponents greet each other with poker-faced nods. The testosterone is so thick you can almost feel yourself sprouting new chest hairs as you walk through the lobby.
Agents watch each other over their Blackberries. Is that a rival arguing with one of his fighters over by the gift shop? If so, is the fighter worth the trouble it would take to try and scoop him up, to risk being labeled a "poacher" by all the other agents who are bitter that they didn’t get the chance to steal him first? Or would you be better off letting this one go, waiting for a potential poachee who is either better paid or easier to work with?
Every time a fighter steps out of his hotel room, people are watching, listening. They’re waiting for him to betray which hand he injured in training, which knee has been feeling a little loose lately. Is he slow to get out of his chair after lunch with his coaches? Is he limping on his way to the front desk to ask why the in-room movie system doesn’t seem to be working? When the answer they give him is unsatisfying, does he come unglued too quickly? Is he that stressed already?
Every trip into the open is another intel-gathering mission, and another chance to screw up. In the Penn Station Hilton, the hotel bar is the watering hole where the lions and zebras alike must gather for uneasy, temporary truces, trading and sometimes planting stories. Did you see how solid Cro Cop is looking? Have you heard about Faber’s brutal weight cut?
Newark is one of the few American cities that the UFC will visit this year where even professional fighters need to be explicitly warned against walking around alone on the streets at night. For now, it’s as close as the UFC can get to Madison Square Garden, and until the state of New York agrees to sanction mixed martial arts, it’ll have to do. It’s close enough to turn up the heat on media and fan attention, at least. After a pre-fight press conference at Radio City Music Hall, fans have camped out just outside the Hilton’s doors to pester fighters for autographs and cell phone photos. For guys farther down the card, like Marshall, there’s always the dread that he’ll walk right by these rabid fans and no one will care enough to stop him.
Without a doubt, the star this week is Jon Jones. Though he’s the challenger in the main event title fight, everyone seems to be treating it more like a coronation than a test. All week he walks through the Hilton with his dog -- B.J., a seven-month old German Shepard mix -- on one side, and his agent, Malki Kawa, on the other.
As a barometer for Jones’ rising star-power, you can’t do much better than the dog. Jones is a guy who took up MMA when his high school girlfriend got pregnant and he needed some extra money to pay the bills. For a normal person, that’s a comically poor career choice. For Jones, it couldn’t have worked out any better. That’s because he turned out to be preternaturally gifted at this, a sort of man-child prodigy of MMA, a Mozart of cage fighting. That’s also why he can parade this dog through the Hilton without anyone complaining. Because who’s going to tell Mozart that he can’t bring his dog in here?
One thing that never changes about fight week, no matter the city, are the workout rooms. Two separate hotel conference rooms, complete with the same ugly hotel conference room carpeting, covered only by a thin blue mat and turned into makeshift gyms for the week. By 9 p.m. each night the walls are dripping with dudesweat. Rap music thumps over the sound of fighters cracking pads with fists and shins as their coaches shout, ‘Yes!’ or ‘Perfect!’ just a little louder than they need to. Because why try and coach a guy this close to a fight, at least in public? Better to build his confidence than risk trying to teach him something and shattering his notions of himself as an unstoppable killer.
(Marquardt hits pads with Wittman. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
By separating them into two different workout rooms, the UFC has granted fighters the illusion of a safe place. This way, no one is at risk of running into his opponent or unwittingly giving away a piece of his game plan. Still, it’s an uneasy alliance. With as many as twelve fighters -- along with their trainers -- in any one room at any one time, everyone is subtly eyeing everyone else. Just because you’re not scheduled to fight a guy this weekend, that doesn’t mean you won’t end up fighting him eventually.
The trick is to make it very clear that you’re not watching anyone else’s workout. Some guys are touchier than others about letting potential competitors see what they’ve got, despite the fact that these same competitors will soon have fight footage of them that they can rewind over and over again. As with so much that goes on between fighters, it’s more psychological than anything else.
It’s that mental part of the game that Wittman understands better than most trainers. Especially with a fighter like Schaub, who tends to frighten himself as a form of motivation, Wittman stays in his ear all week, swatting away negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. Counter-thinking, he likes to call it. He remembers how well it worked for Schaub’s second UFC fight, when he took on Chase Gormley this time last year. He noticed that Schaub seemed a little rattled after accidentally getting a glimpse of Gormley in action during the afternoon walk-throughs, when fighters are given free reign to step in the Octagon and get a feel for the cage and the arena. When they came back to the locker room, Wittman saw that Schaub was spooked.
Did he see how fast that guy’s hands were? Schaub asked.
Yeah, Wittman told him, but you’re too quick for him.
Did he see what a good sprawl he had?
Sure, but he can’t compete with your strength.
Wittman knows Schaub’s psychological habits so well at this point, he doesn’t even need to wait until he gets spooked anymore. He saw it in his face the first time they encountered Cro Cop in the hotel, along with that stoic eastern European entourage of his. Wittman could already see the thoughts taking shape in Schaub’s head, and he was ready to counter them almost before Schaub could think them.
Yeah, he looks a little bigger in person, but it’s those shoes that make him look tall.
He’s tough, but he’s getting too old for this. Look at him. He doesn’t want it like you want it.
He’s good, but you’re better.
Schaub believes it, because what choice does he have? He’s already here. The bout agreements are signed, the posters are hanging up, and the tickets are sold. There’s no way out of it now. He and Cro Cop are going to have to fight each other on Saturday night.
It’s after the fighters are done with their workouts and headed up to bed that the real fun begins for the coaches and the managers. It is still St. Patrick’s Day, after all, so they flock to the hotel bar for overpriced drinks. Crammed into one small table up against the back wall, the Alchemist management crew settles in for some serious drinking.
At first sight, they make for an odd picture. The two beefy ex-soldiers, McMahon and Crigger, look almost like they could be related, or at least gym buddies. Then there’s Alchemist’s semi-secret financial backer, Jeff Aronson, a tall, overflowing bear of a man who doesn’t look at all like what you’d expect from a multimillionaire. Even though he’s been losing weight recently thanks to his jiu-jitsu training, he still tends to slouch to hide his bulk. Even when he’s engrossed in what you’re saying, his face sags around the edges as if he might be on the verge of falling asleep from boredom. He favors jeans and untucked flannel shirts for almost all occasions, and there’s nothing about his thick New York accent that suggests an especially great mind for business or a dominion over an entrepreneurial empire.
It’s Aronson who gave the Alchemist management group its name, sort of a nod to his most famous business venture: Cash4Gold. You know the one. It’s the company that encourages people to send their old and unwanted gold through the mail in exchange for a payout to be determined later. Of course, once the payout is determined, it’s usually a fraction of what the gold is actually worth per ounce, which is part of how Aronson got to be wealthy enough to finance his own fighter management team, complete with a clothing line, a staff photographer, a publicist, and even a statistician.
Aronson got into the game first as a sponsor, paying fighters a couple thousand bucks to splash his logo across their shorts. In reality, Aronson says, sponsoring fighters was his way of determining "the level of sophistication" of MMA managers. In other words, he wanted to find out whether there were pros or amateurs handling the negotiations, and the answer he got was enough to convince him to get in the business himself. He met McMahon while filming a Super Bowl commercial for Cash4Gold that featured both MC Hammer and McMahon’s adopted father, Ed McMahon. Lex had never managed a fighter before in his life, but he did negotiate most of his father’s contracts. How much harder could it be to do the same for pro fighters?
Soon they brought in another manager and lawyer, Nima Safapour, installed Hammer as CEO, and Alchemist was born. The company name seems apt to Aronson, considering his background. Whether any of the fighters are bothered by the fact that, for the purposes of the metaphor, they are the lead that is being turned to gold, remains unclear.
For Aronson, the management team seems like more than just a business venture. It’s a labor of love, he insists. A passion project. It’s also an opportunity to, at least in some small way, be involved in pro sports. The best part is, since he doesn’t have to do any of the competing, he can stay out late boozing with the boys two days before the fight.
The hotel bar acts as a tractor beam at this time of night. Any trainer or cornerman or agent who happens by gets sucked in for at least one drink, which quickly becomes three or four drinks once the war stories start flowing.
"Kelly, tonight I’m going to teach you to drink like a gentleman," Aronson tells the publicist, holding up a martini with a twirl of lemon peel floating in it.
"I’m not really sure what that means," Crigger says, picking up a glass of Maker’s Mark. "But okay."
In practice, what it means is that Aronson will order them four drinks each, all at once, as soon as he hears that last call is near. He will run up his bill with a flippancy that only a multimillionaire can muster, and he will insist that Crigger not move from his seat until he’s taken his medicine. As long as they’re there, they might as well bust some chops, too.
At the bar, there’s light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar being chatted up by a tipsy blond. What a perfect opportunity to shout out a veiled warning about the dangers of taking up with the women one meets in New Jersey bars.
And here comes lightweight Kenny Florian, who Crigger once tried to throw into a decorative pool at a pre-fight nightclub party in Las Vegas. Don’t think Florian has forgotten that.
Of course, there’s Matt Lindland, the fighter-turned-coach who’s here to corner one of his young proteges on the prelims. You can spot him from across the room in his country boy pressed jeans and his ubiquitous baseball cap. They invite him to sit down for a beer and some small talk, but really they want to know about this lawsuit against him that’s been in the news lately. Some guy claims Lindland let him store some medical marijuana plants in his shed in Oregon, then locked them up and wouldn’t give them back. In a twist that was just strange enough to take it from a local story to a national headline, the guy is actually suing him for the street value of the weed, which is to say, what he’d make if he sold it illegally.
It’s a source of great amusement for everyone who knows Lindland as a staunchly Republican hard-ass, and even Lindland lets his mouth curl up in a smile, revealing a chunk of chewing tobacco bulging from his upper lip and drifting down onto his two front teeth.
"There’s way less to the story than people think," Lindland says. "It’s all about money. You have it; I want it. That’s what every lawsuit is about, right?"
By the time everyone is good and drunk, Wittman makes an appearance to have his customary two beers -- which he exclusively refers to as "cold ones" -- before bed. He’s just come from Marquardt’s room, where Wittman led him in a sort of guided meditation session. It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes him seem uncomfortably new age-y to some fans, but it’s also the kind of thing he firmly believes in. At a certain point, he reasons, you don’t get anything more from throwing one more punch or working one more round. You can have months of preparation, but when everything depends on how you perform for one fifteen-minute stretch, it’s what’s going in your head that can make all the difference.
That’s why, for roughly half an hour, he sat in Marquardt’s hotel room and talked him through Saturday’s fight. You’re glad to be here, Wittman reminded him. This is what you always wanted, and now you have it. This is not the time for fear or anxiety. This is a time for celebration. All those people screaming when you get in the cage, watching you like you’re an action movie come to life? They all work jobs that they don’t particularly like. They do it just for the money, and then they spend the money so they can come see you work.
That’s how great your job is.
That’s why you wanted this to begin with.
Now go out there and enjoy it.
Just talking about it in the bar afterward brings the goofy grin back to Wittman’s face. The waiter comes around again to remind everyone that he was serious about that last call stuff. He practically has to shout just to be heard, but nobody is headed anywhere with any urgency.
Wittman sips at his cold one and smiles to himself. It’s been a long day. He’s going to take his time.
The arena is less than two blocks from the fighter hotel in Newark, but of course nobody walks. It’s an unseasonably warm afternoon in New Jersey and well before the doors open the crowd is out on the streets, lathering up for a festive pre-fight atmosphere. The fighters get carted in by van to avoid the scene early in the afternoon. Once inside the arena, the hours pass like the years in a jail sentence. Fight time can’t get here soon enough.
No matter what happens tonight, the Grudge fighters are not to come back to the locker room after their fights. Not right away. While a win brings a carnival atmosphere back with it, a loss brings a funeral march. Neither is helpful for the fighter who’s still trying to keep his adrenaline in check until it’s his turn to go out.
The first bout opens the show to an arena that’s still more empty than full at seven o’clock local time, and Marshall gets his call about two and a half hours later. He steps into the cage with jiu-jitsu coach Amal Easton and wrestling coach Leister Bowling behind him. Across the cage is the Brazilian, Luiz Cane, doing his best to look menacing. Marshall got him fired up at yesterday’s weigh-ins by getting right in his face during the customary staredown. It was unlike Marshall, according to Wittman, and the coach was encouraged by it.
"That’s what he needs, is to be willing to go after someone," Wittman said after the weigh-ins. "That’s what I haven’t really seen from him."
Once the fight starts, however, that aggression is nowhere to be seen. Marshall reaches out for a takedown attempt that’s more optimism than technique, and he doesn’t even come close to getting Cane to the mat. Cane circles away and fires off a punch combo that backs Marshall up.
"Let’s go, Eliot," Easton says from the corner. "Get off the fence!"
But Marshall is almost all backward movement as Cane keeps coming forward, trapping him against the fence. It’s the left hand from Cane that first sticks him. It’s Cane’s best punch, the one they knew he would rely on. It lands cleanly and Marshall stumbles forward as Cane places his right palm against Marshall’s face and pushes him back. Marshall turns and collapses to the mat, wincing and holding his face. Later, Marshall will claim that he was poked in the eye by Cane at that moment. Watching the replay, no one will really disagree. Nor will they particularly care. What matters is that he gets hit, goes down, and suddenly has a 220-pound Brazilian standing over him, punching whatever part of his face he leaves even temporarily exposed.
(Cane continues his assault on Marshall. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
"Come on, Eliot. Let’s go!" Easton shouts.
Marshall moves just enough to show referee Dan Miragliotta that he’s still conscious, but not nearly enough to halt the steady, but measured stream of punches coming down at him from Cane. One gets through his defenses and stuns him, which then leaves his defenses weakened as Cane keeps throwing and landing. Marshall rolls. He tries to attack one of Cane’s legs. He tries to get Cane in his guard. No luck. Cane is one step ahead of him and picking his shots. Nearby, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan has all but given Marshall up for dead.
"He’s hurt. He’s turtling up," Rogan says.
Covered up in the fetal position, Marshall has no idea where the punches are coming from. He lays still and waits for it to be over. Miragliotta’s in no hurry, though. He waits and lets Marshall get thumped just a little more before finally stepping in to wave it off. The official time is two minutes and fifteen seconds, which, when UFC announcer Bruce Buffer goes to relay it to the crowd a few minutes later, will become "two minutes fifteen seconds of the very first round." As if Marshall needed that extra little turn of the knife.
After getting a moment to collect his wits as the cageside doctor ensures that he’s fit enough to make it back to the locker room under his own power, Marshall gets up and exits the Octagon with his team. Nearby, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva -- a man who has made it clear numerous times, and in not the most delicate of ways, that he’s no fan of Marshall’s fighting style-- chats with a member of Cane’s team. He doesn’t even turn around to give Marshall a glance as he makes his way to the back, cursing to himself.
Does it mean something? Is it a sign that Silva has already written Marshall off, that he’s about to be cut from the UFC for the second time in two years? The final time? That’s just one more thing to worry about tonight. But first, a short walk backstage, then a trip to a New Jersey hospital just to make sure the beating Cane gave him didn’t do any serious damage.
Marshall has barely gotten off the arena floor and already it’s Schaub’s turn to head out. He enters to Eminem, while Cro Cop opts for a hauntingly operatic Ennio Morricone piece from the score to The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. Though Schaub can hardly stop himself from bouncing off the fence during the introductions, Cro Cop looks as if he might decide at any moment to lay down and take a nap. That eerie calm has become a calling card of his over the years, and now it seems to come easier to him than ever. He’s at least two inches shorter and around fifteen pounds lighter than Schaub, and the oddmakers all think he’s in for a memorable beating at the hands of a younger, faster fighter. Yet there he is, waiting for the referee to give the signal to fight and looking about as nervous as a man who’s getting ready to mow his lawn. Behind Schaub, Wittman leans over the top of the cage.
"It’s your time!" he shouts in his ear. If Schaub can hear him over the swelling sound of the crowd, he gives no indication. The fans cheer Cro Cop, a legend from way back. They boo Schaub, which surprises and disappoints him more than he expected it to. His family is here. His girlfriend, his friends. No one wants to get booed in front of his father. Cro Cop is his hero, too. But what’s he supposed to do, not fight him?
(Cro Cop stings Schaub with a good punch. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
There’s the fight as you imagine it, as you suspect it will be after watching video of your opponent and thinking about him for months, and then there’s the shock of how it actually is. Schaub controls the first round without much trouble, landing solid uppercuts and trying to stay out of the clinch, where he suspects Cro Cop is resting more than he’d like him to, but he’s surprised by the older man’s strength. He may not be all that big or even terribly physically imposing, but when they tie up he feels like the strongest person Schaub has ever fought. His grip saps Schaub’s energy. His kicks aren’t all like the dull thudding Schaub is used to. It feels like someone is whipping him with a length of chain, a sharp sting that goes all the way through him even when he sees it coming in time and gets his defenses up. He decides to stay in and block rather than trying to get out of the way. It’s the only way to stay close enough to make Cro Cop pay for each one immediately after he kicks, when he’s temporarily immobilized on one leg.
While it’s happening though, the fight is something of a blur to him, as if he’s in a prolonged car wreck. He has some control over what he’s doing, but there’s also a sense of being on auto-pilot, of reacting more on conditioned reflex than on rational thought. It’s only when he goes back and watches this fight weeks later, at my insistence and on my laptop in Wittman’s cramped little office, that he’ll appreciate the little things. Like how odd it was that Cro Cop’s cornermen shouted their instructions in English rather than Croatian, or how surprised he was to be able to hear the crowd chanting Cro Cop’s name for what felt like the entire fight.
Then there are the good things, too, the few moments that even a perfectionist like Schaub can sit back and appreciate about his own performance, like the series of rapid-fire right hands he lands after easily taking Cro Cop down.
"That’s just some straight ass-whooppin’ right there," he’ll tell me back in Denver, grinning through the bruises that, by then, will have finally started to disappear, even though the short temple strikes that Cro Cop landed throughout the fight, which look like nothing on video, are still aching. "But it didn’t faze him. Look at his face. He doesn’t care."
Watching it this way is also a valuable opportunity to find out what the UFC broadcast team -- Rogan and play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg -- were saying about him. The commentary can shape people’s perceptions of a fight more than even the most ardent fans realize, but the fighter is mostly oblivious to it all while it’s happening just a few feet outside the cage. Going back and hearing them later, Schaub can’t escape the feeling that they weren’t exactly on his side.
"That guard pass was a little bit sloppy," Rogan says between rounds, looking at the replay of Schaub nearly getting swept onto his back by Cro Cop.
As if he didn’t still win the first round, Schaub thinks. How about a little credit for that?
In the corner between rounds, Wittman shoves a water bottle into Schaub’s gloved fist and tells him to work his own water and listen. He’s letting Cro Cop get too close, Wittman tells him. He’s hopping in and jamming his own punches, taking the power off them and letting Cro Cop off the hook. All Schaub can think is, I pay this guy a lot of money to work my own water.
Schaub bounces around in his corner before the second round starts, something he always makes a conscious decision to do in order to show his opponent that he’s not tired. Cro Cop sees him, this rookie attempt at a psych-out, and he winks. Okay, Schaub thinks. Guess he’s not tired either.
As they start the second Schaub is careful to keep his right hand up to protect his head against Cro Cop’s left high kick. He’s felt the power of it when it thwacks his legs, and the last thing he wants is to catch one across the face. Again Schaub manages to take him down easily, but once they’re on the mat Cro Cop launches an illegal upkick off his back that catches Schaub cleanly in the left eye. There’s a white flash of pain, then he loses all vision in that eye. Referee Herb Dean calls timeout to warn Cro Cop about the kick as Schaub staggers to his feet and tries to hide his panic. He’s down to the use of one eye. There goes his depth perception, his ability to see what’s coming at him from the left side. The vision in his left eye might come back in a few seconds, or it might take all night. As Cro Cop argues with Dean and complains about Schaub punching him in the back of the head, Schaub concentrates on not letting either of them see how worried he is.
Once Dean calls time in, Cro Cop goes right back to trying to clinch with Schaub against the fence. On one hand, it’s flattering for Schaub. Here’s this fearsome striker, a former professional kickboxer with a highlight reel full of headkick knockouts, and he doesn’t want to stand toe-to-toe with the kid from Denver. On the other hand, this isn’t making for a very exciting fight. Already the crowd is getting restless. Schaub can almost hear the reporters at cageside hammering away at their keyboards about what a boring fight it is, not to mention all the jerks on Twitter at home. When he won a decision over Gabriel Gonzaga it was the same. Fans came at him online, telling him how he wasn’t worth their money, how he couldn’t finish anybody decent. He’d done his best to play the nice guy -- ‘Come on, I fought hard’ -- and sometimes it worked on them. They felt bad and gave him some credit. Sometimes it didn’t.
Either way, if he’s going to shut them up now he needs an exciting fight and a finish. He doesn’t need this clinching crap. He cannot afford this. Cro Cop, on the other hand, doesn’t care. He’s not trying to make a name for himself, Schaub thinks. He’s got his money, his fame. He’s just trying to get to the end of the night and collect his paycheck. It’s up to Schaub to make this look interesting.
Just as this thought occurs to him, Cro Cop leans back and slices his right elbow in one swift motion across Schaub’s face. His nose makes a sound like a dead tree branch cracking in half. Right away he knows it’s broken, and from an elbow he never saw coming, thanks to that illegal kick in the eye. The blood comes pouring out of his nose, forcing him to open up his mouth just to breathe. Moments later he catches another elbow, opening up a cut over his eye. Great. So now he’s two rounds deep, blind in one eye, blood pouring down his face, and he can’t breathe out of his nose at all.
And yet, he’s strangely calm. He should be freaking out more, and he knows it, but for some reason he isn’t. He finds himself thinking that at least all this blood must look cool on TV, and then he’s surprised at himself for having the thought. The things that go through your mind during a fight.
Before the round is over he turns the tables on Cro Cop, clinching him against the fence and landing short hooks in close. Cro Cop, though, ever the savvy veteran, keeps turning his head as the punches come in, taking them on the back of the head, and then glancing at the referee as if to say, You seeing this? Amazingly, it works. Dean calls timeout and walks Schaub to the middle of the cage, signaling to the three judges at cageside to take one point away from Schaub for strikes to the back of the head.
Come on Herb, Schaub thinks. But it doesn’t matter, he tells himself. Let Herb take ten points away. This one’s not going to the judges.
"You gotta stay out of the clinch," Wittman tells him between the second and third round. Schaub knows he’s right, because that’s where Cro Cop broke his nose, but that’s precisely why Schaub wants to clinch now. How else is he going to pay him back?
By the time the third starts he’s exhausted, but at least the vision in his left eye is starting to return. He can’t breathe, and his arms are feeling slow and heavy. When Cro Cop tosses out a leg kick that lands a little too high up on the inside of his thigh at the start of the final round, Schaub seizes the opportunity to point out the groin shot, if only to grab a few seconds rest.
"That was a veteran move by me right there," he’ll say later with no small amount of pride. Cro Cop’s not the only one who can game the system.
But even though the kick did catch the edge of his cup, sending the dull ache of a wounded testicle up through his stomach, Schaub, like nearly every other fighter, doesn’t take more than 60 seconds of the allotted five-minute recovery period before telling Dean he’s ready to continue.
"It definitely hurt, but I’ll never take the whole five minutes," he says later. "No one wants to sit there and watch you walk around the cage for five minutes."
He knows what they do want to see though, and time is running out. After another double-leg takedown that has Bowling, his wrestling coach, practically crying tears of joy in the corner, Schaub takes a moment to reflect on how this must look to fans.
"I swear to God I thought this: man, I’m like Jon Fitch! Look at me, bleeding and grinding out a decision? This is not me. I can’t let this go to decision."
It would also be a risk, what with the point deduction. If the judges give even one round to Cro Cop, the loss of a point for strikes to the back of the head could result in a disappointing draw. So Schaub decides to take a chance. Instead of holding Cro Cop down on the mat, he opens up to purposely give his opponent an escape route, hoping maybe he’ll leave himself open for a choke. When it doesn’t work, they’re back to their feet with less than two minutes left in the fight. Time to make something happen.
Somewhere off in the darkness, he can hear Wittman shouting for him to throw his punches from a distance, not to jump in and jam himself. He’s watching for Cro Cop’s kick, telling himself to throw the right hand as soon as he sees one coming at him. When he pumps the jab, his arm feels like it’s filled with wet cement. He’s not sure if he could even hurt anyone now, as tired as he is. But he spots that slight turn of the hips, the tell for Cro Cop’s low kick, and he throws the right hand without thinking about it. As soon as it lands, he already knows it’s over.
"I’ve never hit anybody that hard before in my life," he’ll say later, watching the replay of Cro Cop crashing to the mat head-first.
(Schaub's right hand spells the beginning of the end for Cro Cop. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
For a moment, Cro Cop doesn’t move. Neither does Schaub and neither does Dean. It’s as if they’re all three waiting to see whether it’s really over. Then, like a groggy sleepwalker, Cro Cop slowly rolls and begins to sit up. Standing over him, Schaub can see that his eyes are still unfocused, swimming around in his head. The guy is done fighting, but Schaub doesn’t want to take a chance and let him get his wits back. He steps forward and plants another right hand on Cro Cop’s skull, bouncing his head off the mat just as Dean lunges in to stop it. The cheers from the crowd mix with an almost sympathetic moan. That one extra blow that their aging hero really didn’t need to take after a lifetime of punishment for pay. Watching his head bounce off the canvas on the slow-motion replay, you could practically diagnose his concussion right then and there.
Later, Schaub will almost wish that he hadn’t done it. Or maybe he’ll just wish that he hadn’t needed to. But what else could he do? With Cro Cop looking like something out of a zombie movie, he wasn’t about to let him have a chance to get back into the fight.
"That one’s on Herb," Schaub will say with a shrug. "He should have gotten in there quicker."
In the cage, a grinning Schaub walks over to one of the UFC cameras and playfully wipes the blood away from his eyes. See? He's still an okay looking guy. Not so ugly just yet. Once Wittman is allowed in there with him, the first thing he tells Schaub is, "Go hug your wrestling coach." It was Bowling's takedowns that kept planting Cro Cop on his back, after all. Fights are not won by right hands alone.
By the time he leaves the cage and gets backstage, that current of relief and elation and adrenaline pulling him past the crowd in one quick swoop, the reality starts to set in. First, a couple quick pictures for the UFC documenting exactly what he looked like when he came out of the cage. Then the athletic commission doctor -- a man with great, bushy eyebrows who looks to be about two hundred years old from what Schaub can tell -- wants to stitch up the cut over his eye. As the old man raises a needle with a local anesthetic to numb the area first, Schaub can see his hand trembling.
Perfect, he thinks. As if he hasn’t already done enough damage to his face tonight. After the eye is done, the doc grabs his nose and wiggles it from side to side. Schaub can hear that clicking in his head again as the doctor tells him, "I think you broke your nose," as if it wasn’t obvious. As if tweaking it like one of the Three Stooges helped the situation any.
The doc tells him he also needs to stitch up the cut on the bridge of Schaub’s nose. Schaub tries to tell him it isn’t necessary. The nose is clearly broken, but the cut is superficial, no more than a quarter-inch across and not at all deep. The last thing he needs is an ancient doctor with shaky hands making it any worse than it is. But the athletic commissions aren’t in the business of seeking medical advice from fighters. If the old man says he needs to stitch it, that’s the last word. Schaub argues, then Bowling -- a stocky fire hydrant of a man with a face like he was born to hurt people for fun --joins the fray. Soon, UFC officials are in the room, as are people from the New Jersey commission, and eventually Schaub realizes that his options are to either let the doc stitch his nose or let Leister body slam a path to freedom, and either way this isn’t going to end well. He tells he doc to go ahead and get it over with. He’s had enough fighting for one night.
Moments later the doc plunges a needle through Schaub’s nostril and into his septum -- easily the worst pain he’s felt all night, and on a night where he had his nose broken and his face gashed open by a Croatian kickboxer. Unbelievable.
"It’s a good thing you’re not a tattoo artist," Schaub tells the doctor.
Later, when he gets home to Colorado and goes to see his personal physician, he’ll have the stitches redone after learning that the athletic commission doc used the wrong kind of thread in addition to doing, in his doctor’s words, "the worst stitch job I’ve ever seen." If left in, his doctor will tell him, the scarring could unnecessarily result in the kind of damaged tissue that would open up again and again, causing him problems throughout his career. Again, this was the guy the athletic commission chose as their fight night doctor? Who are these people?
(Schaub enjoys some face time at the post-fight presser. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
After he’s finally cleared, UFC employees urge Schaub to go get an MRI at the hospital, just to be on the safe side, but he absolutely refuses. After that finish, there is no way he isn’t making an appearance at the post-fight press conference to revel in the glory. The way he sees it, he did all those interviews before the fight to help the UFC sell the event. Now that he’s victorious, he’s not going to miss out on a chance to do an interview or two to help sell himself. He knocked out Cro Cop. You better believe he’s going to soak up some praise in that post-fight press conference.
Last up for the Grudge team on this night is Marquardt, who follows the game plan perfectly and methodically en route to a unanimous decision win over Dan Miller. He really only slips up once in the entire three rounds, and that’s when he starts feeling a little too good about his own striking and bounces back not quite far enough out of range with his mouth still hanging open. Miller tags him with one good punch that gouges a large chunk out of his lower lip. That cut will also need stitches, leaving him looking like a scene out of The Nutty Professor when he goes to enjoy a celebratory beer later.
(Marquardt stings Miller with one of many straight rights. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
After the press conference the team heads across the street to the same Brick City Bar and Grill where Schaub ate his chicken wing dinner. They commandeer several tables among the hard-partying post-fight crowd. At one table, MC Hammer, who has flown in today for this very special fight night, tries to eat a plate of pasta in between requests to pose for pictures. Meanwhile, McMahon, Alchemist’s working agent, rushes around making sure everyone has everything they need.
Somewhere in the mess of humanity that has crowded around their tables, McMahon ends up face-to-face with a drunk and unruly fan who he pointed out to arena security earlier in the night. The fan -- still drunk, still unruly -- shouts at him. It seems the guy was escorted out of the arena after McMahon pointed him out to security staff, and now he looks like he’s been in the bar ever since. Pushing and shoving ensues, with the exhausted fighters looking on but showing no interest in getting involved. Of all the Grudge and Alchemist crew at the table, the only one who gets up is Hammer, and he’s simply moving his pasta to the other side of the table so he won’t have it bumped onto his expensive suit in the melee.
After the bar’s bouncers intervene and the drunk has been escorted out of yet another Newark establishment thanks to McMahon, his friend stays behind to try and smooth things over.
"He’s the world’s fastest drummer," the friend says over and over again, as if that somehow explains everything. "Seriously, he’s all over YouTube. Look him up."
No one intends to look him up, and eventually the man gives up arguing in his drunk friend’s defense. Hours later, when Marquardt and what remains of the Alchemist crew have had enough of the bar scene, they will begin the short walk back to the hotel only to quickly remember that perhaps 4 a.m. is not the time for even pro fighters to be out on the streets of Newark. A man pulls up to offer them a ride and -- what do you know? -- it’s the friend of the world’s fastest drummer. A ride is a ride, they figure, so they take it.
Back at the hotel, Marshall has returned from the hospital. His brain seems fine, but he’s not so sure how his career will hold up. It's up to McMahon to try and smooth it over with the matchmaker Silva, to "get out in front of it," as he says, before the UFC decides on a course of action.
"In my experience, if you wait for them to call you, it's already too late to plead your case," he says.
Schaub, meanwhile, stays at the bar just long enough for his family to bring out a birthday cake. Oh yeah, that’s right. It was his birthday yesterday. 28 years old. He barely had a chance to think about it, and now he’s too tired and too beat up to feel like celebrating. His eye is already turning the color of rotten fruit. The swelling makes him feel like he’s carrying some alien being around on his face. He still can’t breathe through his nose, so he sits there sucking air through his mouth like a catatonic while his parents and girlfriend sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. He tries to force a smile, appear grateful. The professional athlete blows out his candles.
He made $14,000 to show tonight and another $14,000 to win. That low figure is thanks to his post-reality show contract, which he is now in the final year of. Add in his $70,000 bonus for Knockout of the Night, plus another $40,000 in sponsors, and his take for tonight’s work is $138,000. Of course, that’s before taxes. Also before he pays everyone he owes.
As his head trainer, Wittman gets a ten percent cut of the contracted show and win money, though Schaub is so grateful for his help that he rounds up from $2,800 to $4,000 -- none of which is written anywhere on paper or in anything resembling a contract between fighter and trainer. It’s strictly a handshake deal.
As his agent, McMahon (and, by extension, Alchemist) gets ten percent of his purse, 20 percent of his sponsors, and ten percent of his KO bonus -- which, Schaub will note later, the management had nothing to do with. Sponsorships? Fine. That was all them. But McMahon didn’t knock Cro Cop out.
"When I write that check," he’ll say later, "it hurts. I’m like, yo, what have you got for me?"
But like a good agent, McMahon will have something for him. While Schaub is healing up from surgery to fix his broken nose, McMahon will book him a trip to Los Angeles to make an appearance for clothing company Five Star. That will earn him an easy three grand just to show up and shake hands. Already this year Schaub has made more money than he did in all of 2010, when he grossed just over $100,000. He has his trainers and sparring partners (who’ll also get a small, friendly cut) to thank, but he also has his management, and the exposure he got on The Ultimate Fighter, even if the contract that followed wasn't so great. Without all that working together, there wouldn’t be 40 grand in sponsor money. He wouldn’t have both a Hummer and a Challenger in the garage at home. And all when he’s just turned 28.
That’s stuff to think about later. Right now, it’s all he can do to pretend to be as excited about this birthday celebration as everyone else is. Right now it hasn’t even sunk in that he just knocked out Cro Cop -- freaking Cro Cop -- on live TV. That won’t hit home until days later, when he’s back in Denver, driving around by himself. For now, he has his face to think about, which isn't going to feel good in the morning. He has his hands, which are already throbbing from a night spent pummeling another man’s skull. He has a body that is finally, all at once, allowing itself to feel the inhuman amount of punishment he’s subjected it to recently.
If you saw him there, bruised and stitched and swollen, looking like he’d rather vomit than eat cake right now, would you ever guess that he was the winner of a fight? Would you guess that this is exactly what he wants his life to look like, what he hopes he’ll get to keep doing with it for the foreseeable future? Would you guess that tonight is a great night for Brendan Schaub, maybe even one of the greatest?
The professional athlete stares at his cake. Happy birthday.