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 Six: The Price of Principles.
The pictures on his office wall are beginning to get to Trevor Wittman. He never thought they would. But then, maybe he never thought about it at all. Maybe that’s what’s starting to get to him. Maybe that’s what’s got him sitting around his office as another summer begins to bake its way into the pavement outside, and here he sits looking at old pictures, wondering things he never bothered to wonder before.
Here’s Nate Marquardt on the cover of a magazine, looking like a statue of Hercules with his airbrushed muscles and his impossible abs. Here’s Nate in a supplement ad torn out of a different magazine, posing shirtless next to some supposedly magic fitness powder.
"Man," Wittman says and shakes his head. "Here I thought that stuff actually worked."
It’s not that he didn’t know Marquardt was using testosterone. Wittman’s known for months, even if he didn’t like it and didn’t mind saying so. Still, what does he know about nutrition? What does a guy so skinny he could turn sideways and disappear behind one of his own heavy bags know about things like hormone levels?
"Look at me," Wittman likes to say, pulling up his shirt to expose a rail-thin physique. "I don’t know s---."
Verno Phillips didn’t need testosterone. That’s one thing Wittman does know. Verno used to eat two grapefruits a day when he was cutting weight. How’s that for nutrition? Verno was one of the best boxers he ever worked with, if not the best, and he did it on a pre-fight grapefruit diet. Surely that has to mean something, right?
In the weeks after Marquardt’s testosterone use becomes public, there are so many more questions than answers, and not just for Wittman. After UFC president Dana White made it very, very clear that Marquardt was no longer welcome in the UFC -- according to sources who were present for the conversation, White told the fighter that "in ten years of doing this, no one has ever f---ed me worse than you’ve just f---ed me" -- the Alchemist Management team had to figure out what to do next.
White had already beat them to the punch in the court of public opinion, announcing first on the internet and then on the Versus pre-fight show that Marquardt had been fired and that White was personally "disgusted" with him. What White couldn’t divulge, thanks to medical privacy laws, was why. If Marquardt chose to keep his testosterone use secret, the UFC and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission would have to honor that. So there was one option for Alchemist to consider. Marquardt could always say nothing. He could wait this one out and hope that would people would either forgive or forget.
But then, that was a risky strategy for many reasons. After White’s remarks, fans were ready to assume the worst. Marquardt already had one failed drug test on his record from his UFC debut in 2005. The less he said now, the worse fans might make it out to be in their minds.
No, he had to talk, but he had to choose his venue carefully. Alchemist only wants to do this once, and with the greatest possible impact. A video interview would be best. Not only would his quotes be less likely to be taken out of context, but it would give people a chance to see him as an actual human being rather than just words on a page. MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani hosts a weekly internet show in New York City that would give him as much time as he could possibly need to show up and tell his side of the story. Plus his manager, Alchemist’s Lex McMahon, can go with him in case he gets into any tricky territory. Then, once it’s done, Marquardt can go into seclusion while McMahon figures out where his career will go next. See? Now they’ve got something resembling an actual plan.
But while Marquardt is sent to New York City with McMahon to do Helwani’s MMA Hour, Wittman is sent back home to Colorado with very clear instructions: say nothing, give no interviews, get out of town and lay low. From a PR standpoint, it makes sense. But to Wittman it starts to feel an awful lot like he’s being asked to hide in shame, as if he’s done something wrong. He hasn’t. None of them have, or at least that’s what they’ve been saying to one another for months now. TRT is perfectly legal, and they went through the right channels to get it. So why do they have to do so much damage control now? And why does it feel so much more like an apology than an explanation?
Wittman wants to be a good soldier. He ignores the calls and texts that are lighting up his cell phone. He goes back to Wheat Ridge, back to his gym, back to the office with the pictures on the wall. Back to the questions that don’t have answers. Back to the doubts that won’t leave him alone.
Verno ate grapefruits. Verno was a champion.
Somewhere in here, it begins to dawn on Wittman that Marquardt isn’t going to be the only one who suffers as a result of TRT gone wrong. For starters, he’s already out his ten percent cut of Marquardt’s purse -- money he was counting on -- and all because of a situation he had no control over. After all, he did his job. He got the fighter ready to fight. So where’s his money?
And then there’s the problem of perception. Those UFC fighters that serve as free advertisement for the gym, helping to bring in new, paying members just by getting the Grudge name out there? That sword cuts two ways. When those same fighters screw up, it has a way of sticking to the Grudge gym and even to Wittman himself. Already he’s gotten Facebook messages from people who say they’d rather cancel their gym membership than train at a place where there’s any form of doping going on. And that’s just the general public. What are his peers saying about him behind his back right now? What did they think when he had to hide under the hood of his sweatshirt at the weigh-ins and slip out like some kind of criminal? He already knows what fighters and trainers say about the gyms that seem to double as black market pharmacies. What will happen if they come to think of his place that way? Such a brand, once applied, isn’t easily removed.
This is why Wittman wants to talk. He wants to get his side of the story out there, to let people know that he doesn’t condone testosterone use and certainly never recommended it. When I call him after Marquardt’s MMA Hour appearance, which Wittman says he did not watch, he’s eager to get his views on TRT out to the general public. First, he says, he has to get clearance from Alchemist, which he does. Exactly who he gets that clearance from will become a subject of some debate, but that’s later. At the moment, all he’s thinking about is getting his point across, and quickly, while he still has a chance to change some people’s minds
When the interview first runs on MMA Fighting, it seems like a minor development in the ongoing Marquardt testosterone saga. Wittman goes to great lengths to stress that while he personally doesn’t agree with TRT, he doesn’t think Marquardt intentionally did anything wrong.
"Nate Marquardt is a guy who's never been untruthful with me," Wittman says in the interview. "Everything that he tells me, and everything he told me going into this fight and back before New Jersey, it's something that he truly believes in. He went and had his testosterone checked. And when I spoke to him about it, I could tell he really believes he'd done the right thing, because the doctors are telling him, 'Your levels are low. You need this. This is why you're tired. We'll give you this and you'll perform like you're young again.' Man, you start telling a guy that, he's going to believe you.
"His honesty from the beginning -- doing these tests, asking for permission to do this -- that's what hurt him. His honesty got him put in this situation. It's so hard to watch one of the most honest guys I've ever trained -- the biggest family man, the guy who signs every autograph -- get scolded and cut and lose his career and get this brand on him, all because he felt like he was doing the right thing."
At the same time, Wittman also makes it clear that he doesn’t agree with the use of TRT, referring to it as "an enhancing kind of thing." He vows to step away from any of his fighters who are engaging in it or anything similar.
"To me, if your testosterone levels are getting lower over the years, that's normal," he says. "You're getting older. As you get older in this sport, it's common sense you're not going to have the same testosterone levels as a 21-year-old man. But the big disadvantage a 21-year-old has when he comes into this is the knowledge and experience.
"If you have a 21-year-old come into this with those naturally high testosterone levels, and then you've got an older fighter -- I'll just pick an age, say, 35 -- who has lower testosterone levels, the advantages of the older man are knowledge, experience. He's seen it in all different aspects. He's a veteran. To me, that's a huge disadvantage for the younger man. Yeah, he's going to be able to go, go, go. But that's his advantage. Let him have it. And let's outwork him. Let's beat him with our experience. But if we make a 35 or 40-year-old fighter as strong as a 21-year-old, to me, that's cutting corners."
(Trevor Wittman watches sparring. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
This interview, to put it mildly, does not go over well. Not with Marquardt, and not with the Alchemist crew. Marquardt and Wittman exchange a series of heated text messages over it, with Marquardt accusing Wittman of all manner of betrayal. As Marquardt would later explain to me in a text message, the interview "killed" him. It also effectively ended a long and successful partnership, as far as he was concerned. The way Marquardt saw it, Wittman was out of his depth when it came to issues like TRT. He was a striking coach, not a doctor. What did he know about it? To jump out in the press and call what his own fighter had done a form of enhancement, and all at an incredibly sensitive time, is very nearly unforgivable in Marquardt’s eyes.
But it’s not just Marquardt who’s upset by the interview. Though Wittman is technically Alchemist’s client just as much as Marquardt is, the management team has no difficulty figuring out who to side with in this conflict. It’s nice to have a trainer on your client list. It gives you inroads to the young talent at his gym, and it can even be a selling point for acquiring new fighters. But practically speaking, even a top trainer is nowhere near as profitable as having an active pro fighter in the prime of his career. It’s Marquardt who can still earn the big money in the cage. It’s Marquardt who can -- at least once this all blows over -- sell lucrative sponsorships. If Marquardt is mad at Wittman, so is Alchemist.
At first it seems like both Marquardt and Alchemist might content themselves with simply being mad. Then Wittman’s monthly checks from Alchemist stop showing up. At first he thinks that maybe they’re just late, so he waits a couple weeks. When he calls, he gets the old ‘check is in the mail’ routine. Couple days go by, still no check. The mail isn’t that slow. He texts McMahon, who assures Wittman that he’ll look into it. Nobody wants to tell Wittman what he’s pretty sure he already knows.
This is the last thing he can afford right now. He already missed out on his cut from the fight in Pittsburgh that didn’t happen. He took time away from the gym’s flagging business to get Marquardt ready, and now he’s got nothing to show for it. A couple weeks from now his fears will be confirmed. He’s no longer an Alchemist client. The bad news just keeps on coming.
Even with all that his stance on TRT has already cost him, Wittman makes good on his promise to stop being so naive about what his fighters may or may not be putting into their bodies. Before now, he’s always told himself that it wasn’t his business. These guys gets in their cars after practice and disappear. He doesn’t know where they go, what they do. It’s not like it was back in the days with Verno, when sparring and mitt work and conditioning all took place under the same roof. This is a different world. If you want to know -- really know -- how these guys get those muscles they show up with, you have to ask.
So Wittman asks. He sends out text messages to all his fighters, asking them if they’re on anything he needs to know about.
For most guys, the response is a simple no. Don’t worry about me coach. I’m all natural. Then there’s heavyweight Todd Duffee, who’s been an enigma to Wittman ever since he first showed up at Grudge. There’s no question about Duffee’s physical gifts. The man had some truly brilliant sparring sessions. When he’s on -- which is to say, when he shows up -- he might easily be the best heavyweight in the building. But, to hear Wittman tell it, the guy’s a head case. He’s his own worst enemy. He’s got all the ability anybody could ask for, but he can’t stop thinking about where he should be by now, what he should have accomplished. Even after getting released from the UFC for what could most charitably be described as ‘attitude problems,’ he still can’t seem to get out of his own way.
You know those cartoons where the character has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other and he walks around talking to them both? That’s Duffee, Wittman says. So talented. So tough to figure out.
When Duffee gets Wittman’s text explaining that he’s asking all the guys whether they’re on anything, his response is non-committal at best.
Got it, he tells Wittman. As if the coach just wanted to know whether he understood the question.
So are you on anything? Wittman replies.
No, Duffee tells him, despite the fact that he’s one of the few MMA fighters who’s widely known to have applied for and received a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone in the state of Nevada. Not that it will matter in the end. He’ll leave Grudge of his own volition soon enough and move on to the American Kickboxing Academy. Yet another new gym for Duffee. Maybe somebody else can help him where Wittman couldn’t.
Perhaps the most bizarre part about Wittman’s falling out with Marquardt is that, even after everything that’s happened, Marquardt hasn’t gone anywhere. Text message quarrels aside, he still shows up at Grudge fairly regularly, either to train or just hang out. He asks Wittman (again, via text message) not to mention this fact on Twitter or Facebook, lest people think the two of them have made up and decided to be friends again. But in every meaningful sense, Marquardt is still very much a part of the Grudge team.
It’s not as if Marquardt’s life is unchanged, however. He has, after all, been fired from his job and berated on TV by his former boss. Some fans took the extra time to hear his side of it on The MMA Hour, but many others probably didn’t. Many probably heard the UFC president say he was "disgusted" with Marquardt, and that was that. Even those who heard his tale of woe -- especially the part where he admitted to going back to the same doctor whose expertise in matters of hormone-replacement therapy had already been called into question by the New Jersey commission -- likely didn’t conclude that Marquardt was blameless in this saga. His punishment might have been overly harsh or inconsistent with how the UFC had treated other fighters in similar situations, but the consensus among most MMA fans was that Marquardt had at least some role in crafting his own demise.
This makes it difficult to know how to handle himself in public. On the weekend of a Fight to Win event in Denver, Marquardt has agreed to be one of many Grudge fighters at a pre-fight autograph signing to benefit the family of a recently deceased doctor who was well known in the Denver fight community before his sudden death. But with the wound of his UFC firing still fresh, and the reaction of the local fans uncertain, now that doesn’t sound like such a great idea.
Get out of town for a little while, his management tells him. Go camping with your family. Get out on the lake and relax a little. Turn the cell phone off and forget about this stuff while we figure out what’s next for you. And sure, that sounds like a good enough idea. But he doesn’t want to skip out on the autograph signing altogether, so the afternoon of the event he brings a stack of signed photos and other Marquardt memorabilia to the Grudge gym.
Do me a favor, he says to Brendan Schaub. Take this stuff over there when you go. Tell them I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.
Schaub has to admit that it’s a veteran move. Truth be told, he was thinking of doing the same thing to Marquardt. Now what’s he supposed to do, give both his stuff and Marquardt’s stuff to Shane Carwin? Nope, he’s stuck. Marquardt beat him to it.
"It’s just that, if I go to this thing, you know," Marquardt says and then trails off. He doesn’t have to finish. Schaub knows. Everybody knows.
Heading into another hot Colorado summer, all this gym drama is the last thing Schaub needs. He has a fight of his own to worry about. He has to go to Brazil and fight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in August. Can’t everybody just get along well enough to help him out until then? Is that so much to ask?
But that’s life. It’s messy and it’s inconvenient and it doesn’t stop just because you have a big fight coming up. You’ve got to make the best of it.
Things are about to get even messier in Schaub’s life, however. Wittman is fed up with his chronic tardiness and general bad attitude, he says. Maybe this isn’t working out so well anymore, he decides. Maybe it’s time for Schaub to find someone else to train him.
In Wittman’s version of events, it’s an emotional break-up that he can’t fully put into words. When I track down Schaub at one of Amal Easton’s downtown jiu-jitsu gyms a couple weeks later, he shrugs it off. Sometimes you just need to mix things up, he explains. Keeps your training from getting stale.
As for Wittman’s comments about Marquardt’s testosterone usage? To Schaub, it’s an issue of unity.
"I don’t care if Shane robs a bank," he says. "I’m not saying anything bad about him."
However you want to explain it, it’s one more curveball in an already atypical training camp for Schaub. Wittman’s been in his corner since his first fight. Now he has to figure some things out for himself. Things like where he’s going to train, and who’s going to train with him.
Easton’s Jiu-Jitsu is a start. On a sweltering Friday afternoon, he’s there getting some Big Nog scouting notes from one of Easton’s grappling proteges. On a mat a few feet away, a class of sloppy white belts gets put through their paces by an Easton purple belts. Anybody could hear, but it’s not like this is top secret information anyway.
Nogueira likes this guard pass, that sweep. He used to do this in his Pride days, but hasn’t done it since. If Schaub gets here, he should just get up and start over. That goes for pretty much anything related to the ground game, actually. If he’s not in an absolutely perfect position, raining down a righteous wrath on a nearly unconscious Nogueira, why even mess with it? He’s going to win this fight on his feet, with speed and strength and striking skill.
Still, Schaub’s a perfectionist. Schaub likes to scare himself. Schaub likes to play those ‘what if’ games in his head, just to keep himself sharp and ready for everything. That’s why Schaub’s going to spend this time on a Friday afternoon working on the jiu-jitsu that he has no real intention of using. This is Nogueira we’re talking about, after all. They say he’s old and slow and a fraction of the man he used to be, but they said the same thing about Cro Cop. Schaub has a scar over his eye and a recently repaired nose to remind him just how much experience counts for in this game.
In the morning, he and Marquardt will head over to a local boxing gym to work on the tools that he does plan on using. Or at least, that’s the plan until the boxers call them up at the last minute and tell them it’s off. They’ve got a thing. You know how that goes. Can’t make it after all. And so -- what else? -- they head over to Grudge for Saturday morning sparring. Wittman’s there with his team of non-superstars when Schaub and Marquardt come walking through the door.
"Boxers," Wittman shrugs when they tell him the story.
Is it cool if they use the cage to spar a few rounds? Schaub wants to know.
Sure, Wittman tells him. His guys aren’t using it. He even intends to stay out of their way and keep himself from doing any coaching. They aren’t his fighters, after all, even if they are using his gym. Even if the guy who accused him via text message of selling him out in the media is now here acting like everything’s cool, like it’s just another Saturday sparring session. As if he isn’t only here because his other plans fell through. This business makes for funny situations like that sometimes. Wittman’s been doing it too long to get worked up over it. Let them use the cage and beat each other up if they need to.
But, what do you think? Of course he ends up coaching them from outside the cage. He can’t help himself. They might not be the best of friends right now. They may have quarreled and fallen out and all said things that the others won’t ever forget, but hey, he’s still a fight trainer. They’re still fighters. They all have at least one thing they still remember how to do together without thinking about it.
You don’t request a fight against a Brazilian legend in Rio de Janeiro unless you at least think you know what you’re doing. After two years in the UFC, one thing Schaub knows is that it’s better to ask for a specific fight than to sit around and wait to find out what UFC matchmaker Joe Silva dreams up for you. Because Silva, well, let’s just say he doesn’t give many freebies. And when he calls, as Schaub says, "that’s your destiny." Do you want to have some say in the matter or not?
When Schaub first asked for Nogueira in Brazil, he knew he’d have to play the bad guy. What he didn’t know was what kind of state his team would be in by the time the fight rolled around. Months ago, after he’d asked for it and before the UFC offered, he and Wittman joked about it. How Wittman thought it was suicidal to go down there and beat up on one of their heros. How Schaub was so busy thinking about how he’d win that he never stopped to consider what would actually happen on the ground in Rio when he won. How the only way Wittman would agree to walk out with him on fight night is if he could come down to the cage in one of those bulletproof enclosures like the Pope has. Otherwise, Wittman crowed, he was keeping his skinny ass home in the U.S. of A.
That was just a joke a few months ago. Somehow, in a bizarre way, it came true.
Schaub doesn’t have Wittman at his side when he lands in Rio in late August, but he’s far from alone. He’s got Easton, his jiu-jitsu coach. He used to live here, and he knows some tricks to make fight week in a foreign country a little easier. For instance, while Forrest Griffin may be griping about the weird food with incomprehensible labels, Schaub has a local restaurant making all his meals for him. He’s also got his trusty wrestling coach, Leister Bowling, which is like traveling with your own personal pitbull to help chew your way out of any sticky situations. He’s also got a football buddy of his, and his father, who is the kind of proud, supportive dad with the healthy glow of a certain income tax bracket that we’re often led to believe simply doesn’t exist in the fight game, where it’s all broken homes and childhood sob stories.
Outside of that cheering section, however, there isn’t much support waiting for him in Ipanema when the fighters make their first public appearance at the UFC 134 open workouts. The Brazilian crowd has come out in a light drizzle to dance on the beach and sing their battle songs as the fighters go through the motions on a giant, damp mat set up just off the main drag.
"It’s actually not that bad," Schaub says of his early fan reception. Okay, so there aren’t a lot of Schaub fans making their voices heard, but it’s nowhere near as vitriolic as he expected. Griffin, on the other hand, smirks as he tells reporters that, upon entering, one fan told him he was going to die.
"But he said it in very poor English," he says. "So I was able to ignore him."
Griffin might be content to play the villain in a foreign land -- and why not, when he seems equally unconcerned with being liked back home? -- but Schaub can’t quite embrace that role. When he hears no death threats at the workouts, he seems to light up just a bit. As if, maybe, this won’t be so bad after all. He’s making an effort, at least. When he came down here for the press conference a couple months ago, he visited a kids’ Muay Thai academy in a nearby favela. This time he’s brought them several bags of free gear from his sponsors, along with more Ecko t-shirts than any single group of children has ever wanted or needed. Who else is taking the time to do something like that right before the fight?
But the trip to the favela is no small excursion. The UFC’s host hotel for this event is the Rio Sheraton. It’s a beachside resort with all the finest amenities -- a place where you can actually stand on your balcony at night with an overpriced cocktail in hand as you smell the cooking and listen to the barking dogs of a different favela just across the road. The plan is to meet down in the lobby at 7 p.m., but somehow it seems as if the entourage just keeps growing. Reporters, photographers, sponsors -- more and more join the caravan, which means more and more waiting as people get their collective act together.
In the meantime, McMahon hands Schaub his cell phone so he can do a quick phone interview with a reporter back in the U.S. Same questions. Same answers. How many different ways can you say that you think you’re ready? How many times do you need to be asked what it’s going to feel like to have that many people screaming for your blood before you finally snap?
Finally, everyone’s here and we can go. After a slow crawl through Rio traffic, the cityscape begins to change. Professional signs give way to hand-painted ones. People on street corners give you that ‘Are you here on purpose?’ look as you drive by. When we get out of the cars in front of a fenced-in basketball court, the humidity of the jungle presses in close. It’s not exactly a shanty town like you see in the movies. More like a poor neighborhood. A place where at least someone realizes that you can either teach the kids something or else abandon them to the worst impulses of their surroundings.
When Schaub and his entourage stroll onto the paved court where the kids are practicing their punching form in street clothes and bare feet, you can almost see the culture shock on both sides. The big foreigner looks lost as he comes walking in with his backwards baseball cap on, surrounded by photographers and video cameras. He’s brought gifts. Gloves and shinguards and hand wraps. All the stuff they might not have even realized was missing from their kickboxing training up until now. But what are they supposed to make of this person who doesn’t speak their language and will never know their names? What world did he even come from?
(Brendan Schaub visits a Brazilian favela with his team. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
From Schaub’s perspective, it’s an act of goodwill. He doesn’t have to do this, but he can do it, and so here he is. At the same time, it has the unmistakable air of a photo op. Here he is, watching the kids, and there’s the multitude of cameras, watching him watch them. Does it change the fact that he’s genuinely trying to do something nice for people he doesn’t even know? That the net result here tonight will be an act of kindness toward people who were grateful for it? It does not. The kids really could use this stuff. They really are glad to have it.
Still, when trying to snap a picture for an MMA Fighting article, the real difficulty I have is getting a shot of Schaub that doesn’t have another photographer in the background. One thing no one can say about tonight’s charity work is that it was poorly documented. No good deed goes unrecorded.
Soon Schaub and his team will load back up and head out to a restaurant to eat. He’ll sleep in a big bed in a hotel beside the sea. Tomorrow he’ll walk out in the HSBC Arena to the same chant of ‘vai morrier!’ -- you’re going to die! -- that greets every foreigner on this fight card. Some free stuff in the favela won’t change that.
When his work here is done, he’ll fly back to Colorado and those kids will still be here. Now they have the gloves, the shinguards, the hand wraps. They’ll have free t-shirts whose origin will be slightly difficult to explain. Schaub and his management? They’ll have the photos and the videos, at least. And plenty of them.
Wittman doesn’t watch Schaub’s fight when it airs live. He doesn’t order the pay-per-view, doesn’t sit down to see how one of brightest young pupils makes out in his first pro fight without the same old grinning striking coach in his corner. He doesn’t watch Schaub come bopping down to the cage as 14,000 Brazilians hurl venom at him like he’s come to repossess their cars. He doesn’t watch as Bowling and Easton set up shop in his corner. Doesn’t watch as Schaub stares across the cage at the decrepit former champion who, just two days ago, was limping around the Copacabana Palace Hotel as he admitted that he’d rushed his return from hip surgery because he wanted to fight in Rio so badly.
Wittman isn’t at home to see it when Schaub lands an early uppercut that Nogueira takes with surprising ease. He doesn’t see when Schaub begins to fall in love with that uppercut, throwing it like it’s going to take Big Nog’s head off any second, when really all a fighter like Schaub needs is a jab and right straight and he’s a problem for anyone, as Wittman has told him time and time again.
(Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira lands a heavy right hand that puts Schaub in trouble. Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
He doesn’t see when Nogueira times a perfect one-two off yet another Schaub uppercut, sending the younger man’s head bouncing back at a troubling angle. He doesn’t see Schaub faceplant into the mat. Doesn’t see him end his night in a bear hug from referee Herb Dean as his eyes bounce around in their sockets just like Cro Cop’s did that night in New Jersey.
Funny, Herb was there for that night too. That was another one that ended with the two of them locked in an awkward embrace. Now it’s Schaub’s turn to wonder what happened. As if the fact that Dean is holding on to him while an entire building full of Brazilians loses its collective mind doesn’t say it all. The cups of beer go sailing effortlessly through the night and land with a plastic crack and sudsy splash on the Octagon apron. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
If Schaub had thought that this was possible, he probably wouldn’t have booked several extra days in Rio after the fight. Those were supposed to be days of celebration and relaxation, and now what? When he’s collected his wits and gone back to the Sheraton for the night, he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. He knows the friends and family he brought along probably want to get out and see the city, even if they’re mostly too polite to say it. And he feels bad, but he just can’t right now. Even three days later, when the crew finally heads to the airport for the long flight home, he’s still thinking about it. He got knocked out by Nogueira and everyone saw. Just thinking about it makes him curse out loud at himself.
Later there’ll be plenty of time for second-guessing. What if the Grudge team hadn’t been so shaky during his camp? What if he’d still had Wittman in his corner? What if he’d thrown just one or two fewer uppercuts?
You could do this for the rest of your life and it wouldn’t get you anywhere. Maybe you will do it for the rest of your life, whether it helps or not, just out of reflex. Schaub has a ten-hour flight back to the U.S. to think about it. The couldas and shouldas he can leave for later. For now he just hopes Nogueira goes on a run, racks up a decent winning streak. Then, with a little time and perspective, this loss might not look so bad anymore.
He’s seen it in action before in this sport, how the future can shape the way we think of the past. The hope of a Nogueira winning streak is perfectly reasonable for someone who doesn’t know that, a little less than four months from now, Big Nog will walk right up to the edge of fulfilling that wish when he nearly knocks out Frank Mir at UFC 140 in Toronto. He has no way of knowing that, instead, Nogueira will get himself stuck in a kimura seconds later. Or that, his pride being what it is, the Brazilian won’t be able to bring himself to tap out before his arm snaps in half.
How could he know any of that then, on that long night flight back to his familiar American life? As Schaub cruises at 35,000 feet over the dark blankness of the Amazon, all that is still in the future. All that, plus much, much more. And who’s to say what may come, or what, if anything, you’ll be able to do about it? Who’s to say where you’ll be this time next year? So much can change. It does. It has.
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