The Hurt Business: A Year in the Life of an MMA Fight Team

Shane Carwin, Photo by Ben Fowlkes, 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 One: A Hard Winter.

This was before. This was back when the old team was still together. Back before the night Trevor Wittman stayed up till dawn in a Canadian hospital with a friend who’d been beaten beyond all recognition, his face swelling up like a beach ball as they documented its changing colors with their cell phones. This was before he had any reason to know or care what the testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of a healthy adult male was. Before the time he had to round up spare change just to pay his energy bill. Before he bounced a rent check to his parents. Before his gym became, in the words of one of his top fighters, "a ghost town."

This was January of 2011, and none of that had happened yet. The future was still a never-ending promise. The best of life was still to come. His friends would always be his friends and his fighters would always be his fighters. So he thought.

Maybe because he had no idea what was coming, or maybe because it was his natural state, Wittman had every reason to smile as he wheeled his desk chair around the cramped little office inside the Grudge Training Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo., using the pictures that covered all four walls as starting points for one story after another about his strange life in the fight game.

Each photo -- some framed, some just ripped from magazines and tacked to the wall -- was a story in itself. Each story led to another, which then led to another and another. Each story began with the same bursting enthusiasm from Wittman, who always seemed so full of energy he could hardly keep himself in his chair. Each story usually ended badly for someone, if you stayed with it long enough.

Here was the boxer who, after a fight, complained that his neck felt strange. When Wittman ran his hand over the guy’s throat it felt like someone had crushed a bunch of potato chips and stuffed them inside his skin. Air bubbles, Wittman explained. Only later did they find out that the guy had suffered a punctured lung in the fight. He’d gone the distance, too. Never even mentioned it to Wittman until the fight was over.

Or here was Verno Phillips, probably the most famous boxer Wittman worked with. Verno, who gave him his start. Verno, who won the WBO title with Wittman in his corner. Verno, who haunts these stories like a ghost with nothing better to do.

Verno used to piss blood after just about every fight. It became as normal as the repetitive locker room conversations Wittman never fully got used to having with him. Every time, it was some slight variation on the same theme.

Did I get knocked out?

No, Verno. You won a decision. Remember?

That’s right. I did win. I remember. Hey, why is the floor so cold out there?

It’s a hockey arena, Verno. They had a game here last night.

That’s right. I remember. Hey, did I get knocked out?

Tomorrow Verno would be better. His brain would return to whatever its new normal was. Everyone could go back to ignoring the slightly terrifying reality staring them in the face.

But that was life in the sweet science. You either made your peace with it, or else you moved on to something else. For Wittman, the something else was MMA, and it had been good to him so far. The Grudge gym was proof of that. More than 6,000 square feet and home to some of the best fighters in Colorado, from Shane Carwin to Brendan Schaub to Nate Marquardt.

I had come here because of a brief conversation I had with Wittman three months earlier in Anaheim, Calif. Sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, just down the street from Disneyland, I’d mentioned to Wittman and his manager, Lex McMahon, my idea for a book. One year in the life of an MMA gym, following the ups and downs of the fight team and documenting what happened and how things changed.

"A lot," Wittman said. "That’s what changes in a year."

He couldn’t have known then how right he would be before it was all over.

My initial motivation was purely selfish. I wanted to write a book. Maybe I just wanted to have written a book. I knew I didn’t want to throw together a hasty survey of the sport or ghostwrite some fighter’s autobiography, which seemed to be the only book ideas publishers were interested in hearing about from me. I was sure there had to be some place for a story that took the time to get up close and examine the hidden parts of a fighter’s life, the parts you’ll never know about if you only talk to him right before and after a fight. I knew how fighters were in interviews and promo pieces. But who were they when they were alone with trainers and teammates? What were their lives like when they weren’t polished and presented for mass consumption? What were we missing by going only the places that the publicists wanted us to go, and seeing only what they wanted us to see?

My goal was to become a part of the furniture in the gym, to watch and learn and compile it all into a book at the end. The fact that you’re reading this on a website means that I failed. Or at least, I failed to accomplish my original goal. What I ended up with was a year’s worth of stories, interviews, research, and observations that didn’t quite form the cohesive narrative I’d naively hoped they would. Instead, it was more like a series of snapshots documenting lives and careers in progress. It wasn’t quite a book, in other words, but it was still a story worth telling, and one that taught me a great deal about the sport I thought I knew pretty well.

Over the next several weeks, I hope to tell that story to you. I hope that reading it will be as enlightening and entertaining for you as writing it has been for me.

*****

When they rattle off the relevant info about a guy like Brendan Schaub on a UFC broadcast, they say Denver. They say Denver because no one who isn’t local knows where the hell Wheat Ridge is, nor do they have much reason to. But it’s there, just off I-70, about a twenty minute drive west of downtown Denver and into the wide open spaces that make Colorado feel expansive in that hopelessly optimistic pioneer sense. Like a new start is still possible, maybe, if you don't get lost and die along the way.

If you didn’t know where the Grudge Training Center was you’d drive right by it. Of course you would. Who’d even think to look for it there, nestled next to Walker’s Quality Cage and Feed in a little business park on Kipling Street? Up the street there’s a Winchell’s Donuts where old men gather in the morning to complain about the temperature of the coffee. Keep going and you’ll hit perhaps the most depressing Ramada Inn you’ve ever seen, right next to a bar with a handwritten sign on the door forbidding "biker colors." Inside that bar, another sign next to the cash register reminds bartenders that all fights "must be reported to the Wheat Ridge Police Department." It’s the kind of sign that, simply by existing, suggests the likelihood of it going ignored.

January in Wheat Ridge, which sits nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, is an exercise in endurance. The snow falls in stinging pelts one minute and in thick sheets the next. A favorite pastime among Grudge fighters in winter is standing around the mats before morning training begins and trading harrowing tales from the drive over.

On this particular winter morning, however, the 35-year-old Wittman has concerns that go beyond the inability of his Hummer to brake properly on an icy downhill. He’s getting sick. Maybe the flu. Maybe strep throat. Maybe nothing at all, but he can’t risk it. He also can’t stay home from the gym -- not with so many of his guys getting added to the UFC 128 fight card in March -- so he shows up to work this morning wearing a long-sleeve shirt, winter gloves, and a face and neck gator to cover his mouth and keep his possibly imaginary germs from spreading. It’s the kind of get-up that understandably gets second looks from guys like UFC heavyweight Schaub, who pokes his head into Wittman’s office on his way to the main training room later that morning.

Trevor_office_medium_medium

"What are you, a ninja now?" Schaub says.

It gets a laugh from Wittman, who grew up in strip mall karate dojos and, as a kid, would have probably put down ‘ninja’ as his ideal profession. But one good crack deserves another, and these days the easiest way to rib Schaub is to crack on his rapidly swelling cauliflower ear, which bulges like an angry fist from the side of his head.

"Look at that thing," Wittman says. "Seriously, bro. It looks like a butt cheek."

Schaub smiles and reaches up to touch the mass of skin and fluid. It’s gotten so sensitive, he says, that it wakes him up in the middle of the night if he happens to roll over it. It’s just the latest casualty on a face that was once so handsome, Wittman says.

"Every girl who came in here would always say to me, ‘That Brendan is fine,’" Wittman says, shaking his head. "Not going to happen anymore."

According to Schaub’s best friend, fellow UFC heavyweight Shane Carwin, it’s the natural progression of a fighter’s face: "It just gets wider and flatter."

Schaub is only eight fights into his pro career, and has only gone out of the first round twice. It’s not the fights that are transforming his body so much as the training, which he engages in obsessively. Even now, when he’s supposed to be just beginning his training camp for his fight with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in March, he admits he’s "pretty wore out already."

And why shouldn’t he be? On a typical day he might wake up early and drive the 40 minutes from his loft apartment in the Denver Tech Center up to Boulder to work with some wrestlers, then grab a quick bite to eat at Whole Foods before heading back down to Wheat Ridge to hit mitts with Wittman. After that’s over, maybe he’ll head to the gym with a friend of his who now plays in the NFL and jack some weights in an attempt to, as he puts it, "get those meathead days back."

All this is why, a few weeks from now, his coaches will sit him down and give him an ultimatum: either take a few days off, or else find someone else to train you. Because the way he’s working himself into the ground, they’re tired of watching him take steps backwards. And he’ll agree, even though it brings him almost to tears. Then he’ll go home and do absolutely nothing, which both he and his girlfriend agree he is uncommonly good at.

"I shut it down like you wouldn’t believe," he says. Wittman concurs, calling Schaub one of the laziest people he’s ever seen..."when he’s not training."

With a guy like Schaub, who asked the UFC for DVDs of all Cro Cop’s fights just so he could scare himself into the gym each day, overtraining is the biggest concern. There’s no question that he has the work ethic, Wittman says, but he’s killing himself in an attempt to become a champion overnight. The way Schaub sees it, he doesn’t have much choice.

"Some days it’s hard," he says. "Especially a sparring day where I’ve got Shane? I mean, Shane? Oh, man. It’s hard to get out of bed after that, but then I get up and drive an hour. Other guys miss it. Those are the guys working at Kinko’s and trying to be fighters, you know what I’m saying?"

Brendan_shane_trevor_medium_medium

But Schaub, despite his obsessive tendencies, isn’t one of the guys Wittman really worries about. Neither is Carwin, who is so coachable that Wittman loves to tell the story of the day he brought a pink hula hoop into the gym and insisted that Carwin use it to improve his hip movement. The former NCAA wrestling champ put it around his waist and went to work without ever questioning it, Wittman says. Only when he looked up and saw that trademark grin on his trainer’s face did he begin to suspect that there might be a joke he was missing.

These days, it’s Marquardt he’s most worried about. It’s Marquardt who, just last year, lost two number one contender bouts in two tries. And it’s not just that he lost -- face it, that’s bound to happen from time to time. It’s how he lost, and it’s his reaction, particularly to the decision loss against Yushin Okami in Germany, that worries Wittman the most.

"He just wouldn’t pull the trigger," Wittman says. "I was yelling at him to throw that kick. My voice was hoarse by the end of the night, and he just wouldn’t throw it. I was so upset."

When Wittman walked into the cage at the end of the fight, the first thing Marquardt asked him was whether he thought the decision would go his way. No, Wittman told him. You didn’t win that fight. The look Marquardt gave him stopped him cold. A barely restrained frustration. A teenage boy’s smirking anger. Moments later the judges, much to Marquardt’s dismay, sided with Wittman.

"He told me after the fight, ‘T, I won that fight,’" Wittman says. "I told him, no you didn’t. ‘Yeah, but I got more takedowns.’ Yes, you did. ‘I landed the better counter-punches.’ Yes, but Okami looked like he wanted to fight more. He was pressing forward more. I told him, you can’t win a championship going backwards."

In the locker room after the fight, Marquardt hung his head as the doctor peppered him with questions about how he felt, about what injuries he may have sustained in the fight. Marquardt didn’t say a word.

"Nate, he needs to know how you feel," Wittman recalls telling him.

"I feel fine," Marquardt shot back.

"Nate, you still think you won that fight?" Wittman asked him.

"Yes," Marquardt snapped.

Trevor_watches_sparring_medium_medium

The Marquardt who Wittman sees in the gym come January is, in many ways, a man on a short fuse. Criticized by fans and media for a disappointing 1-2 showing in 2010, and called "a choker" by UFC president Dana White, he’s beginning to get fed up with it all. Wittman sees it.

Marquardt’s always been quiet, a little aloof, like he’s drifting on the fringes of every conversation. He’s the one who, when Wittman tries his impossibly corny attempts at humor (like the day he wrote the word ‘video’ on a piece of duct tape and walked around with it on his chest during sparring, saying, "Get it? Video tape!" in an attempt to lighten the mood) just looks at his long-time trainer and gives him a smile that seems stuck somewhere between confusion and pity.

Marquardt’s the one who, when stopping by the gym after returning from a trip to New York to train for a few days, leaves his wife and baby out front while he goes in the back to say hello to the guys. One thing leads to another and he ends up keeping time for guys who are sparring, giving advice between rounds, trading MMA war stories, generally enjoying being at the gym without suffering there for a change. The next thing he knows he’s been here for 40 minutes and his wife comes in, holding the baby in her arms, saying, "Did you forget we were out there?"

Marquardt’s sheepish grin confirms that, yes, he did. Everyone but him breaks up laughing.

But lately he’s seemed always right on the verge of frustration, like he's carrying the weight of all these missed opportunities and looking for a place where he can put them down and walk away. During training one day, Wittman shows him minor details to improve his work off the jab, and Marquardt returns moments later questioning it. There’s that look again. As if maybe they don’t quite trust each other the way they did six or seven years ago.

Later, as Marquardt sits on the battered old sofa in the Grudge gym’s reception area (a sofa, by the way, that no one at Grudge seems to know the origin of, as if it was simply dropped off here one day by the sofa fairy) putting his socks and shoes back on, I make the mistake of asking whether it’s difficult for him not to become discouraged after such a rough year and so much public criticism from his boss and the media.

"Yeah, especially when people like you are asking me those questions, yeah, it makes it hard," he says.

In fact, he explains, he’s recently begun to think that it’s all these interviews that are messing with his mental game. Not only does it take away valuable recovery time to do phoners with every MMA media dot-com in existence before each fight, it also requires exposing himself to the potentially harmful opinions of others.

"When you get asked the same question, it ingrains in you what everyone else thinks you should do. I don’t care what people think. I can’t worry about that," he says. "That’s one of the things I’m going change from the last fight. I did so many damn interviews and I got reporters asking me the same stupid questions over and over. Honestly, I don’t need that. I can do a few interviews and have the same impact as far as my media presence. They ask the same questions. Seriously. Every single one of my interviews I could have overlapped it with every other one."

Not that Wittman would ever argue with a fighter who feels like he could use a little less media exposure. But remarks like these only increase his concern that Marquardt’s real problem might be his tendency to look for outside explanations for his troubles rather than looking within himself. There’s perhaps no better example of this than "the TRT stuff."

As in, testosterone replacement therapy. As in, the TRT stuff that will eventually tear their working relationship and their friendship apart. The TRT stuff that will set off a chain of events that threatens both men’s livelihoods. The TRT stuff that will make sure neither end this year in even remotely the same place as they started it.

But all that is still in the future, and they have no idea it’s coming. For now, the goal is only to win, to find out whatever caused last year’s decline -- a year in which the gym lost two number one contender fights and one UFC heavyweight title fight -- and turn it around quick. Because the fights in March will be here before they know it. And in this sport, the only thing that seems to matter more than the last fight is the next one.

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