Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
"The Hurt Business" is a multi-part series that goes inside a professional MMA fight gym to examine the hidden lives of pro fighters and watch as fortunes rise and fall over the course of one calendar year. This is Part Four: Little Victories, Tender Mercies
At the end of the first round Shane Carwin sits down on the stool, takes a deep breath, and waits for his cornermen to do something about all the blood on his face. What a mess.
Officially, you get a minute between rounds. In actuality it’s more like ninety seconds from the point where one round ends and the next begins. You’ll probably spend five or six of those seconds just getting to your corner. You’ll spend a few more waiting for your cornermen to get in there and get busy, then you’ll lose the last ten or so when a voice in the darkness shouts ‘Seconds out!’ and they have to yank the stool out from under you and leave you alone again. You’ll spend the last few staring across the cage at the other guy as the referee takes a long look at the both of you before getting out of the way and letting you figure this thing out between yourselves.
In the end, you still get about sixty seconds to sit and breathe. Valuable time to think about something other than the big leathery fist that was crushing your nose, your eyes, your whole damn head in the seconds before the horn sounded. Just outside the cage, your boss is in the midst of a standing ovation. The Canadian crowd has stopped its hockey chants long enough to cheer your efforts. Your wife is cageside, covering her face as if she has to force herself not to look. The clock is ticking.
Sixty seconds to get it together. Sixty seconds to let the cut man work, to listen to your coach talk about all the things that you should and shouldn’t do. Sixty seconds to come to terms with the colossal difference between what was supposed to happen in the previous five minutes and what just did happen. Sixty seconds to think about how you ended up sitting on this stool on a Saturday night in Vancouver, bleeding out of holes in your face that you definitely did not show up with. Sixty seconds to wonder what the hell is happening.
How did you get here, anyway? How did you get here?
This was not the plan. That’s true in so many different ways. The plan -- the first plan anyway, the one his coaches would later say they never believed for an instant -- was to fight Jon Olav Einemo at UFC 131 in Vancouver. That’s what Carwin signed on for a few months ago, after his neck surgery had proved successful and his 36-year-old body had returned to something resembling its normal state. That’s what he was thinking about as he slowly ramped up his training in the mornings before work.
Einemo. Big guy, good jiu-jitsu. Looks tough on tape, but not unbeatable by any means. First time in the UFC, so he might be a little nervous. Training with the Golden Glory guys in Holland, so his kickboxing must be at least good enough to survive from one day to the next over there. Okay. So it’s Einemo. A decent enough choice for his first fight back, even if Carwin’s legion of fans had responded to the booking by asking: who?
Before surgery the neck was a constant issue. Sometimes the pain was minor, more of a discomfort than anything else. The C7 nerve made it feel like someone was always pinching him in the back. Other times it was worse. His fingers would go numb, which he knew was a bad sign. Training seemed to only make it worse. While grappling with teammate and best friend Brendan Schaub one day he got dropped to the mat and something felt off.
"I got up and I couldn’t move pretty much the whole right side of my body, or my right arm and my back. I went in and the doctor said the situation had gotten a lot worse."
He weighed some options, but surgery seemed inevitable. Might as well go ahead and get it over with. He was 35 years old when he went under the knife for the third surgery in four years. It worked, and he felt better as a result, but logging that much hospital time has a way of making some middle-aged athletes ponder their futures. How long can your body keep putting up with this stuff?
Carwin’s already got one deep scar on the inside of his left arm to remind him of the time he popped a tendon throwing a left hook, then popped it again when it was inside a cast. He’s got a nose that looks straight enough now, but after his whirlwind of a fight with Gabriel Gonzaga in 2009 he showed up to the post-fight press conference with it listing to one side as if pointing the way out. His knee, well, he managed to rehab that without surgery. Now the neck. It’s another long road back to fighting shape.
"It gets a little harder to come back from injuries and surgeries as you get older," he says one morning after a little one-on-one time with Grudge Training Center head coach Trevor Wittman. "I still want to jump back in there like a 22-year-old."
(Shane Carwin warms up before a training session. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
The UFC heavyweight is such a welcome sight inside the gym, even his sparring partners briefly forget what a nightmare it can be to get stuck inside the cage with Carwin for three, five-minute rounds. He has that effect on people, a kind of bashful charisma that he can’t quite hide. Like he’s embarrassed to have people look at him, which only makes them want to look at him more. He’s the favorite son. The big kid whose cheeks all the relatives can’t wait to pinch.
When Wittman starts in on his list of nicknames for Carwin -- Shania Carwine, Negative Nancy Kerrigan Carwin -- the big man flashes that shy smile. This is how their relationship works. Wittman makes jokes and Carwin grins along, even when the jokes are about him. Eventually he fires back one of his own in that soft, low voice of his, so quiet you have to move in close just to hear what few words he feels like saying today.
And the words are few. In part because injuries and surgeries keep him out of action for much of the year, and in part because he prefers to communicate with MMA fans directly, via his Twitter and Web site, I only get to talk to Carwin a handful of times during my visits to Grudge. If you ask his manager, Jason Genet, to help you secure an interview, you usually get an offer to do one via e-mail. If you don’t like that idea -- and writers typically don’t, since e-mail interviews make follow-up questions difficult, and since you can’t even be truly positive that the fighter himself is the one answering your questions -- you usually get nothing at all.
Shane’s very busy, Genet will tell you. It’s not hard to believe, either. With his full-time engineer job in the North Weld County Water District, it’s almost hard to imagine where he finds the time to train. There are people with nine-to-fives and wives and families who will tell you that they can’t even find the time to stay in shape, much less prepare for a pro fight. You look around at the other UFC-level pros in the gym -- guys like Schaub and Eliot Marshall and Nate Marquardt -- and you don’t see too many who are holding down full-time jobs on the side.
It makes for an interesting and ubiquitous part of the narrative in any Shane Carwin story, but at times the UFC seems unsure what to make of this fighter who refuses to quit his day job. UFC president Dana White even offered him a sizable (though not life-changing) one-time payment to quit and be all MMA, all the time, but Carwin turned it down. Why would he want to quit his job?
"It’s part of who I am," he says. "It’s what makes fighting work for me. It’s what I do when I’m away from fighting. These other guys, I don’t know what they do. They go home, play video games, sit around in their underwear all day – I don’t know. That’s what it sounds like from all the talk they do around the gym. Like hey, rough life. But I’ve got a family to take care of. Engineering provides the base for my family to survive on, it provides benefits. There’s a lot that goes into it. Anything else on top of it is a bonus."
But Wittman -- who can’t help but psychoanalyze the lives and motivations of his fighters with the same obsessiveness that he applies to breaking down an opponent’s striking game -- has another theory. The way he sees it, Carwin’s already learned firsthand how quickly this pro athlete bubble can pop. He went through it in football, after his senior season at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. He was a two-time All-American and even had some scouts talking at the NFL combine. But there were concerns about past injuries. A Division II standout was already something of a risk in the draft. Was he healthy and sturdy enough for the NFL?
"I think he felt like, if it can be taken away that easily, it’s not something you can depend on," Wittman says.
At the same time, professional cage fighting is not the sort of thing you do as a hobby. Not at the UFC level. Not if you’re going up against guys like Brock Lesnar. If you don’t put in your time during training, it’s a good bet that someone who does view this as his one and only job will do something horrible and memorable to you on live TV. So Carwin is here, in the gym before and after work, doing what he has to do to make sure it’s Einemo who ends up reconsidering his career choices on June 11.
But Wittman? He’s not buying this Einemo stuff. No way. He doesn’t see why the UFC would put Carwin in against this newcomer. He suspects something is up, and one thing he’s learned in the fight game is that such suspicions should not be ignored. He doesn’t want to freak Carwin out by telling him to prepare for a change of opponents. And besides, it may be nothing. So he settles for dropping little hints here and there. He casually mentions how, hey, wouldn’t it be crazy if something happened to one of the guys in the UFC 131 main event? What if Junior dos Santos or Brock Lesnar got hurt and had to pull out? Wouldn’t it be great if they gave you that number one contender fight instead?
He’s careful to put it in a positive context each time. Wouldn’t it be great? He doesn’t want to scare his fighter, he explains, but rather to prepare him to see it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. That is, if it does happen.
At first it seems like wishful thinking on Wittman’s part. To him, Carwin is not only a special fighter, but probably his closest friend in the fight game. He wants Carwin to be UFC champion maybe even more, or at least as much, as Carwin wants it.
"A heavyweight championship fight, that’s the dream of any trainer," Wittman says. "I mean, a championship is a championship. I have twelve of them. I don’t have a heavyweight champion yet."
And Carwin could do it, too. He held the UFC interim title at one point, but the interim title is not the title, and everyone knows it. Then there was the Lesnar fight, the one that still hurts to think about.
"First time it’s ever happened to me in my life," Carwin says when he thinks about that night. That was the night he came within maybe one or two well placed punches of putting a wounded Lesnar away and becoming the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion. The night his body seized up on him, his legs and arms no longer obeying the commands of an increasingly frantic brain.
"I'm always in the zone in there,"he says now, looking back. "I don't see or hear the crowd at all. But I remember raining bombs down on him and then all of a sudden this whoosh came over my body, and then suddenly I could see people in the crowd. Like, individual people who I could see and hear. Then I felt my body slowing down."
He recalls barely making it to his corner after the first round. Barely making it off the stool for the second. Across the cage, Lesnar was grinning through the blood. That’s when Wittman knew they were in trouble.
"When you get done kicking a guy's ass and he gets up and winks at you, that's a bad feeling," Wittman says.
Those are the losses that eat at you later. The ones you should have had. If the other guy is simply a better fighter, or if he catches you with one big punch that shuts out your lights, hey, what can you do? It happens. But this, the Lesnar fight, those are the ones that are tough to live with. Those are the ones you might catch yourself thinking about months and years later, re-fighting the same old battle in your head as you drift off to sleep. What if you’d done this, or not done that? What might have changed? What might have been different? You’ll never know. The best you can do is let it go, if such a thing is even possible.
A month out from the Einemo fight the call comes. Carwin doesn’t answer it because Carwin is busy training. When he finally gets around to looking at his cell phone and he sees the missed calls from Genet and Wittman, he knows something’s up. At first, he thinks he must be in trouble.
"I was actually pretty concerned," he says. "But when I heard the news, I was just so excited."
The news is good, at least for Carwin. The news makes Wittman look like some kind of wizard, like he looked into his crystal ball and saw the future. Lesnar’s diverticulitis has returned, and he’s out of the fight with Dos Santos at UFC 131. Okay, so it’s not great news for Lesnar, but you know what they say. One man’s misfortune, and so forth. Now the main event fight is Carwin’s, and the winner gets UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez. In his first fight since losing a heavyweight title bout, he has the opportunity to fight his way right back into another one. Funny how the MMA pendulum swings sometimes, particularly in a relatively thin heavyweight division.
Almost over night, the feel in the gym changes. When you go from a mid-card bout against a no-name newcomer to a main event top contender bout -- and all with just about a month to promote the thing -- the hype machine is forced into overdrive. Camera crews start showing up out of nowhere. A few weeks ago it was just Carwin and Wittman alone in the gym early on a weekday morning. Then one morning there are two different camera crews pulling off their shoes and stepping onto the mats, dragging their cords and lights and cameras and boom mics into what is supposed to be a working training camp.
(Trevor Wittman gives a camera crew his two cents. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
One of the crews is from Carwin’s sponsor, Bud Light, which is putting together a viral video campaign in the lead-up to this fight. The other is from Spike TV’s UFC Countdown show, and it brings with it producer Paul Heyman, of pro wrestling fame. Heyman cuts a noticeable figure in a fight gym, in part because he’s the only one wearing a suit out on the mats. His presence here is at first a little confusing to Wittman, who only knows him as "Lesnar’s friend." And, fair enough, Heyman was originally scheduled to produce the segment on Lesnar, but when his old WWE running buddy had to pull out of the fight, he got sent to Wheat Ridge to get Carwin instead. Inviting the friend and confidante of your former (and possibly future) nemesis into your home is a little odd, but it’s part of the package deal that comes along with training a top UFC heavyweight. Camera crews might show up at any time, with any cast of characters in tow, and you’re not in a position to turn them away.
But Heyman knows the drill. He hangs back and watches the Bud Light crew at first, and you can almost see him mapping out his own shoot with his eyes. Carwin, meanwhile, has to worry about giving everyone what they came for. Would he mind hitting some mitts with Wittman while Wittman wears a headcam to capture the action? Of course not. Then over here for some shadow-boxing. Slower. Okay, now faster. It’s the kind of footage that, when cut together for the final product, will make it look like the cameras simply captured a typical day of training. In reality, they made a typical day of training all but impossible. Carwin manages to get a decent sweat going during the various B-roll scenarios, but this valuable day of pre-fight preparation is largely sacrificed to the gods of marketing.
Not that there aren’t still plenty of good days left. On one Saturday morning he’ll step in the cage for a sparring session with Schaub that many fight fans would have eagerly bought tickets to see. Schaub is almost exactly the same height as Dos Santos, so it’s good practice for getting inside his reach and trapping him against the cage. Of course, the best friends can’t let each other off without a bit of free-swinging fun in the center of the cage here and there, knocking one another’s headgear sideways before the round is up.
(Brendan Schaub [left] and Shane Carwin go at it in practice. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
How many times have these two done this? How many rounds have they sparred against one another? They lost count a long time ago. In the version of the story that Schaub tells, he first met Carwin after he swore off football for good. After college he’d bounced from the Buffalo Bills to the Arena League’s Utah Blaze, but his heart wasn’t in it the way it had been in college at the University of Colorado.
"I was [with the Blaze] literally two weeks and I was just like, man, I’m over this," Schaub says. "I jumped in my car and drove home to Colorado and drove straight to Nate Marquardt’s gym. Literally, straight from Utah to Nate’s gym."
Marquardt got a look at Schaub and told him there wasn’t much they could do with a heavyweight just then, but if he’d come back tomorrow they’d have another big guy there for him to spar with.
"I came back the next day and there’s Shane, who I think was about 300 [pounds] at the time," Schaub says. "They were like, okay, you two are together."
Friendships have certainly been built on less. And make no mistake, Carwin and Schaub are friends -- not just training partners. That’s why it bothers Schaub when he hears other people -- occasionally even his own coach -- suggesting that he and Carwin might have to fight each other some day. It’s not that they mind punching one another in the face; Schaub has hit and been hit by Carwin more than by anyone else on the planet at this point. No, it’s not the pain or the violence. It’s what it would signify. It’s how one of them would necessarily advance his career on the back of the other. It’s how one of them would have to fail -- most likely in spectacular, bloody fashion -- so the other could succeed.
"This isn’t basketball," Schaub likes to say. "Someone’s getting f----ed up."
June finds the city of Vancouver gripped by hockey fever. The Canucks are in the Stanley Cup Finals, and the downtown bars are filled to capacity an hour before the puck drops for each and every game. Summer is just beginning to spread out its arms in the Pacific Northwest, and it stays light well into the evening as the Canuck faithful pour out into the streets in either elation or seething, drunken anger, depending on how that day’s game turned out.
It’s not the easiest environment for promoting a fight. The attentions of the media and the citizenry are focused so intensely on these next few hockey games that they can hardly be bothered to think about anything else. Canucks flags fly out the windows of apartment buildings and high-rise offices. On a game day it’s more or less accepted that all work will be done extremely half-assed. Hangovers are part of the following day’s uniform.
Fortunately, Canada still loves its MMA. The relationship with hockey is committed and long-term, a marriage that sports fans here would never consider leaving. But the UFC is a tempting mistress when in town. Just as long as it doesn’t conflict with Stanley Cup date night.
Being one half of the main event doesn’t just mean cameras in your gym. It also means a full plate of media responsibilities and dozens of competing distractions on fight week. On Wednesday, it’s the open workouts in a little gym on Hornby Street. There, Carwin turns into the bashful kid again, flashing that effortless charisma in the media scrums, as if he’s just a little embarrassed on behalf of all these people who have showed up with recorders and cameras in the middle of the day to talk about his side job.
Carwin’s wrestling coach, Leister Bowling -- the man every member of the Grudge team will tell you over and over is the best wrestling coach in the business -- tries to find a quiet corner to stand in and wait this out. He doesn’t like this part of fight week any more than Carwin does, but at least he doesn’t have to answer the same questions over and over again.
"I don't think it's a distraction for Shane; I think it pisses him off," Bowling says. "Nothing against reporters, but he hates doing interviews. Shane told me the other day that the thing he hates most about MMA is the fame that comes with it, being at the top. He would rather no one recognize him. He would rather he just got to fight, and got paid to do it."
(Ariel Helwani interviews Shane Carwin. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
Through it all, the only time Carwin seems the least bit uncomfortable is when MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani asks him about that statement he and his camp were planning to release when his name came up in a federal steroid distribution case a year earlier. Carwin was never charged with anything, and the dates that linked him to J. Michael Bennett -- the Applied Pharmacy Services supervising pharmacist who was convicted in 2010 of conspiracy to illegally distribute steroids -- came well before he was in the UFC. Still, the Carwin camp quieted the initial storm in the MMA community by promising to release a statement at a later date. No statement ever came, and it’s Helwani who steps up to ask about it.
"No comment on that," Carwin says with a slight smile. "Nothing right now."
Will a comment ever be forthcoming? Helwani presses.
"There’s nothing for me to comment on that," Carwin answers.
It gets him out of the line of fire for the moment, but as a media strategy it leaves something to be desired. Some fans will undoubtedly hear ‘no comment’ and take it as the worst kind of admission of guilt. If an athlete cops to steroid use, explains what happened, and offers even the most tepid apology, fans usually tend to forgive and sometimes even forget. After all, who hasn’t screwed up? Who doesn’t know what it’s like to look back on a past mistake and cringe at the thought of it? At the very least, the athlete who opens up about it gets some points for honesty. If he says ‘no comment,’ it’s almost always assumed that he did it, but no such honesty points are rewarded.
Then again, offering up a ‘no comment’ response does have a neat little way of ending the exchange and refusing the internet its sound byte. This way at least, fight week can roll on, and the fight itself can remain the focal point. On to the next interview. The next media event. The outdoor press conference at Robson Square on Thursday, the weigh-in on the edge of Vancouver Harbour on Friday where he’ll break from his normally trash-talk resistant demeanor -- just slightly -- to declare that somebody’s getting knocked out on Saturday night "and it’s not going to be me."
But a UFC fight week places demands on the organization’s extended family, as well. It’s not just the fighters on the card who have to show up and play their role. Schaub is here too, both to support his teammate and to make some promotional appearances before he has to fly off to Brazil next week to fulfill media responsibilities for his own fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Rio de Janeiro later this summer. He’ll be in the UFC’s "Octagon Nation" trailer this week, signing autographs and pressing the flesh with fans. He’s surprisingly good at it, too. Some fighters are so stiff and stilted at these things it’s impossible for fans not to notice that they’re hating every minute of it. Schaub actually seems like he wants to be here, even if a part of him might rather be at home in the gym.
It’s not always easy to get your regular training in on the road, and Schaub’s starting to look just a little bit frustrated when he shows up at one of the guest hotel’s workout rooms to find that his team isn’t all there. Wittman’s been tasked with getting Carwin’s fight night sponsor banner approved, which means presenting both the banner and the shorts he plans to wear to UFC officials, who just happen to be in the hotel’s other workout room right now. When he walks in, Dos Santos is hitting mitts and working on his sprawl with his trainers. Wittman is very careful to keep his back to the big Brazilian at all times, even when it requires him to move in ways that seem almost ridiculous. It’s a show of respect and sportsmanship that is never commented on. Wittman wants Dos Santos and his team to know that he’s not here to spy. Here’s here only because he has to be, even if the timing is unfortunate. He never glances in Dos Santos’ direction for even a moment, never even allows his body to be in a position where he could see what’s happening on the small mat. Instead, he busies himself with the sponsor situation, which of course requires at least one phone call to Carwin’s manager to clear up a discrepancy over whether this logo promoting a new metal album has been cleared through all the right channels.
When Wittman finds Schaub, he’s waiting in the other workout room, watching Jon Olav Einemo -- Carwin’s original opponent -- work on his jiu-jitsu. Einemo politely offers Schaub some mat space, but the Grudge heavyweight is content to wait. Once Einemo finally gets up to leave, his full height and size makes the room feel suddenly smaller.
"That is a big dude," Schaub says of the 6’6" Norwegian. "You don’t want to mess around on the ground with that guy if you don’t have to."
Is this Schaub doing his trademark Schaub thing, scaring himself into obsessive preparation, even with regards to an opponent who he may never have to fight? Unclear, but he’ll get no argument from Wittman on this one. That was one very big dude, whose ground game one would probably be best to steer clear of entirely.
Just after the weigh-ins wrap up on Friday, the puck drops for game five of the Stanley Cup Finals at Rogers Arena just down the street from the UFC host hotel. The bars have been brimming all afternoon. When the hometown pulls off a 1-0 victory to take the lead in the series, the streets instantly flood with happy hockey fans. On one downtown street, a man parks his pickup in the exact middle of the road and cranks up the stereo. Within seconds an impromptu dance party has effectively cut off the street to all traffic, and the smell of celebratory marijuana smoke fills the air.
This is just the beginning. The party goes on like this all night, as if the Canucks have actually won the cup itself rather than just a single game in the series. Even in the downtown hotel you can hear the car horns and shouts and sirens and wails drifting up from the street and into your hotel room. You wake up at three or four in the morning and you hear it still, invading your sleep. The noise whirls at the edges of your dreams. The city refuses to go to bed. As if it doesn’t know that tomorrow is fight day.
By the time the main event arrives, the crowd is in a lather. And what better way to end the night than with two big heavyweights? Carwin enters to Eminem, Dos Santos to the Rocky theme. The man in the tux makes all the same announcements. The people in their seats make all the same noises in response. Here we are again, ready to find out whose life is about to change in sudden, violent ways. Less than a half hour from now it will all be over, these same frantic fans already turning their attention toward beating the traffic out of here.
For the first few minutes of the fight, things seem as if they might go exactly according to plan for Carwin. Just like in sparring, he looks for a takedown and uses it to pin Dos Santos to the fence. But Dos Santos doesn’t panic. He’d have been a fool not to prepare for this, both when he thought he was fighting Lesnar and then when he found out he was fighting Carwin. He breaks Carwin’s grip and pivots away. He returns to the open space of the Octagon and gets his jab working. His left hand smacks Carwin on the forehead and a red welt comes up almost immediately. Seconds later he lands a right hand that sounds like someone dropping a raw steak on the supermarket floor.
(Junior dos Santos trades blows with Shane Carwin. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
It’s the left that really starts to get to Carwin. Once Dos Santos figures out he can land it almost at will, Carwin starts reacting to the feints, unwittingly inviting a more aggressive attack. Carwin is bloodied and covering up as the first round enters its final minute. A right hand and left hook from Dos Santos brings him to his knees. There are still more than forty seconds left in the round. A lifetime, when you have a big puncher like that leaning on your back, hammering away at your face with a stream of short hooks.
With around twenty seconds left, Dos Santos glances up at referee Herb Dean. Got a good view, Herb? But Dean’s been doing this too long to be baited into stopping a fight. He’s content to let Carwin take his medicine for now. A few more hooks from Dos Santos, and he lets Carwin up with ten seconds to go. No sense in punching himself out if Dean isn’t buying it. He backs up and begins his recovery time early. Carwin, meanwhile, blinks through the blood as he plods forward in a fighting stance, still trying in vain to look as confident as when he walked in here. The horn sounds and Dos Santos offers Carwin a little fist bump on his way to his corner. Carwin returns it as an automatic gesture.
Now to that stool. Now to figure out just what in the hell is happening.
Later, Wittman will say that he entered the Octagon after the first round with the intention of focusing on technical advice. Fixes for Carwin’s defense, perhaps. A solution to Dos Santos’ jab might be nice.
"I started to say something and I looked in his eyes and could just see him thinking, ‘I don’t need this s---,’" Wittman will say. "‘I’ve got a job, a family. What am I doing?’"
Carwin had just barely survived the first round, and Wittman already knew what was on everyone’s mind. Maybe what was even on Carwin’s mind. Is he going to collapse again, like he did against Lesnar? Now that it’s his turn to be on the business end of the first-round beatdown, does he have what Lesnar had, that ability to pull it together and charge on? After all, that’s been the only knock on him so far. Carwin’s a terror in the first round, people say. But what about the second? Now that his nose is broken and his eyes are cut and swollen, what will he do?
That’s what they’re all wondering, Wittman decides. So okay, let’s find out.
"Show me what you have inside, Shane," Wittman says into his fighter’s ear as the cutman tries to do something -- anything -- about the mess that is his face. "Show me you have it."
Then they take that stool away and he’s alone again. Just him and the big Brazilian and the referee who doesn’t mind a little blood. What now? How are you supposed to get back in this fight now that you can barely see or breathe? With what could you hope to threaten your undamaged, unfazed opponent?
(Shane Carwin battles on through the blood. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
But Carwin’s not out of it yet. He comes out of his corner for the second looking, if not eager, then at least willing. He experiments with a couple leg kicks, which not many people know he really does have in his arsenal. He backs Dos Santos up and tags him with a left hook that makes the Brazilian’s legs go wobbly for just a moment. Hold on. Carwin is actually in this fight. In the final minute of the round he takes a kick above the ear that halts his advance only briefly. He keeps moving forward, firing back. There’s that horn again. There’s that polite little glove touch on the way to their respective corners.
This time, Wittman offers a little more technical advice in the corner, and a little less ra-ra. He calls for more movement from Carwin, who got stung when he became too stationery a target.
"Let’s make a fight out of this," he says. "You’ve taken everything he gave you."
"Can I blow my nose?" Carwin asks in the voice of a man with the world’s worst cold.
"No!" comes the answer. No, no, no, no, no. If he did, his eye would be swollen shut in seconds. Not that it’s much good to him now, but still. With a broken nose, blowing the blood out of it is the one thing that seems most tempting. It’s also the thing you absolutely should not do.
Carwin is cut under both eyes and on the bridge of his obviously broken nose as he extends his fist to Dos Santos to start the third. The doctor takes a closer look midway through the third, but clears it to continue. Dos Santos gets a takedown in the final minute, as if just to prove to future opponents that he can do it. He gets one more before it’s over, and this time Carwin threatens with a choke at the final horn. After the thrashing he took in the first frame, no one could have guessed that Dean would be forcing Carwin to let go of Dos Santos at the end, rather than the other way around.
As decisions go, this is about as obvious as it gets. You could look at the two men from a block away and know who won the fight. Schaub is seething as he makes his way out of the arena. This isn’t about the team looking bad; he just watched his friend get beat up, and he wants revenge.
"Best boxer in MMA my ass," he says of Dos Santos. "I’ll f--- that guy up."
A group of twenty-something women stop him for his autograph on the way out. Even in his agitated state, Schaub puts on that PR face and does his duty. And of course one of them wants him to sign her breast. Something she saw in a movie, maybe. A character she feels obliged to play.
Carwin will go to the hospital, where Wittman will sit with him all night, joking and laughing and trying to keep his spirits up as they document his rapidly swelling face with their cell phones. It’s an ending to the night that they didn’t even allow themselves to consider before the bout, and yet there they are.
"Honestly," Wittman will say later, "I couldn’t have been more proud of him. Not even if he’d won the fight. I was just so proud."
Odds are Carwin will wear the souvenirs from this bout on his face for the rest of his life. Odds are he’ll look back at this one years from now and remember the night he could have quit and didn’t. The night he took everything Dos Santos had and was still there at the end, clinging to his neck. The night he proved something that you can’t possibly fake.
But did the fans see it? Will they look back on this one and think, Oh yeah, I remember that fight. That JDS sure beat the hell out of poor Carwin. Will they remember it as an L for one guy and a W for another? Isn't this sport, at least some of the time, about more than just winners and losers?
Who knows. Who even cares?
It happened. It was right there in front of their faces. A man took a beating and -- whether out of desperate hope, sheer defiance, or just a desire to silence his critics -- kept coming forward. He endured more than he had to, and all for money he didn't especially need. He took it. He dished it out. He kept getting off that stool every time they took it away. Certainly, they had to see that. Didn’t they? Even through all that blood? Especially through the blood? They had to know what he’d done that night in Vancouver, what he'd given them. What he'd given himself. They just had to.
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