Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting
In the final installment of 'The Hurt Business,' we look back on a tumultuous year inside the Grudge Training Center, and try to make sense out of lessons learned in and out of the cage.
The easiest way for me to end this is to admit that very little turned out the way I planned. Because I was dumb or naive or both, I thought I’d spend a year following a fight gym, beginning in January and ending in December, and by the end of it something would become clear to me. I thought the stories of all these lives and careers would somehow open and close according to the calendar, and by the time it was all over I’d be able to present them as fully formed, complete narratives. I wonder now what I was thinking.
People’s lives almost never work this way, and the life of a fight gym is, in many ways, as complex and incomprehensible as the life of a person. The story is messy and complicated. A lot depends not only on what you see but where you’re standing and what else happens to be going through your mind when you see it.
Even after you’ve seen what you came to see, then there is the problem of telling people about it. Here we are at the end of this series, and there’s so much I still haven’t told you.
For instance, I never got to tell you about Duane Ludwig, a UFC welterweight and one of the Grudge gym’s true old-school hardasses. The first time I saw Ludwig in the gym, I almost mistook him for a Mormon missionary. He showed up one weekday morning in a short-sleeved collared shirt and tie, exchanging department store slacks for Muay Thai trunks just in time for a little mitt work with head trainer Trevor Wittman. He’d come to the gym straight from his new baby’s baptism, he explained once his workout was over. The new baby was the reason he kept fighting hurt, Wittman told me after Ludwig had finished a training session punctuated with multiple painful pauses. Clearly, he wasn’t feeling great, and yet he couldn’t afford to sit home and let his injuries heal while his bank account dwindled. A familiar story, and one that Ludwig lived without complaint, even when he had to fight Amir Sadollah with a neck so badly injured he couldn’t even spar during his training camp. He won the fight anyway, then had surgery (the UFC’s fighter insurance covered it) and soon enough he was back in the gym, this time in a T-shirt and jeans, leaning up against the ring with a cup of coffee in his hand during one Saturday morning sparring session, yelling at his teammates to "Stop taking it easy; it’s time to fight now, mother----ers!"
(Duane Ludwig gives a little encouragement to his teammates. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
I also never told you about Justin Salas, the Grudge lightweight who got the skin on the bottom of his foot burned off by an overheated mat at a local MMA event in Denver to start the year, then spent much of the rest of 2011 in a frustrating purgatory as he tried to find a fight big enough to get him noticed by the UFC. Salas’ struggle was representative of what many up-and-coming fighters go through when they get stuck between the minor leagues of MMA and the big show of the UFC. When you’re good enough to beat most people in your division outside the big show, and yet not famous enough to make it worth the risk of losing to you, fights suddenly become tough to come by. Salas fought just twice in 2011 -- a decision victory over Rob Emerson in the foot-burning incident in January, then a decision over Joe Ellenberger in October -- but he was a fixture in the gym during all the long, fightless months in between. One thing I could always count on when I walked through the doors at Grudge is that Salas would be there, training as if he had a fight in two weeks, even though he spent most of his year waiting and hoping.
Then there are the little moments, the snapshots of life in the fight game that come into focus for a few minutes at a time. Like when Wittman and Nate Marquardt spent a post-workout stretching session trading oddly lighthearted stories about the dangers out getting hit in the head for a living. Wittman, of course, told about Verno Phillips, who would not only ask the same questions over and over after a fight, but would occasionally even start hitting on women at the post-fight celebration, forgetting that his wife was only a few feet away.
This prompted Marquardt to recall a story about Japanese fighter Akihiro Gono, who, he said, got rocked so badly during a fight that he returned to his corner at the end of the round unsure of where or even who he was. According to Marquardt, Gono later recounted the strange look on his coaches’ faces when he sat down on the stool and asked, in all seriousness, "Am I here to fight? Am I a fighter?"
They went back and forth this way for a long time, like men will do when they get to trading and comparing stories. One anecdote after another about the funny things people say and do after suffering minor brain trauma in the ring. As if that world wasn’t also their world. As if the risks were something for other people to worry about, but never them.
And then there are the moments that, months later, you still aren’t sure what to do with. Like the day one of Grudge’s own came home from the wars after being blown up by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Wittman and a few others gathered around as he shuffled inside and sat down on the tattered sofa in the gym’s front room for an impromptu reunion. His wife stood nearby holding their six-month-old baby as he told his old training partners the story of a deployment so violently unlucky it was noteworthy even by military standards.
"He’s been feeling pretty negative about a lot of things lately," his wife said to Wittman, as if imploring the coach to give one of his pep talks. But this wasn’t like losing a fight or getting dropped from the UFC. This was a whole different realm of bad. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in the blast, the soldier explained. He had burns up his arms. When he came to in the dirt several yards from his exploded vehicle, the first thing he asked the fellow soldiers who came to his aid was whether he and his manhood were still acquainted. They were, his comrades told him, and one can imagine the relief that must have washed over him in the seconds before he moved on to worrying about everything else.
Days later, Wittman was still shaken by this encounter. The eager young fighter who went away to war and the wounded veteran who came home were in no way the same person. Sitting there on that couch, the soldier had talked almost optimistically about the possibility of doctors amputating one of his damaged fingers, because at least then he might be able to make a fist again. Then he might be able to return to the gym and hit the bag a little, he said, and the idea alone seemed to lift his spirits ever so slightly.
Sure, Wittman had told him, nodding along and trying to seize on the positive. You never know what you might be capable of with a little time, some physical therapy. But later, when thinking back on it, Wittman would find himself at a loss. Even with his relentless positivity, how do you begin to cheer up someone whose best-case scenario now begins with losing a finger? How do you even make sense of a world that takes healthy young men and blows them up along the side of a dirt road in a foreign land? What were you supposed to say to make this one better?
(Trevor Wittman works the mitts with Ludwig. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
Wittman had his own struggles to deal with that year. After being released by the Alchemist Management team and effectively severing his working relationship with both Marquardt and Brendan Schaub -- two of his biggest, most profitable fighters -- the financial health of the gym became his chief concern. He was no longer getting a percentage of big fight purses, no longer getting a regular check in the mail from the Alchemist clothing line. Just a few months ago there had been talk of opening a whole chain of Grudge gyms. The next thing he knew Wittman was cashing in coins just to pay his utility bill.
But in some ways this reversal of fortunes was a good thing for Wittman, and for the Grudge gym. Beginning in the summer of 2011 and into that fall, Wittman went from pouring all his attention into a few top guys to spreading it out more evenly within the gym. He cornered some Grudge representatives at a local Fight to Win event in Denver -- something he almost never did before -- and made changes to the practice schedule in an attempt to promote greater team unity.
Before, the team had split training sessions between lightweights (welterweight fighters and below) and heavyweights (middleweights and above). The star power on the team was disproportionately tilted in favor of the heavyweight half, meaning the lightweights often got less attention from the gym’s cadre of coaches. No more of that, Wittman decreed, and from then on the team practiced together, as one unit.
One Saturday morning I watched as Wittman lined all the Grudge fighters up against the wall before sparring and lectured them on the importance of being there for one another. Whenever a Grudge team member fought, he said, whether it was in the UFC or on a local card down the street, he wanted everyone showing their support, even if it was just via text message.
"And don’t just text him if he wins," Wittman added. "I hate that s--t. If he loses, you pick him up. That’s when he needs you."
Perhaps out of pure financial necessity, Wittman also began paying more attention to attracting and retaining paying members -- even the kind who would likely never, ever fight outside the gym. He made it a personal mission, he said, to make the gym into a financial success, if not for him than for his brother, who was the official owner of the Grudge Training Center. By the time 2011 came to a close, the gym might have had fewer UFC stars carrying the flag on pay-per-view fight nights, but it certainly had a healthier, more unified team behind closed doors.
Which is not to say that Grudge became one big, happy family without a few casualties along the way. By the end of the year, Wittman had parted ways with a number of his staff, and he was never known as a man who parted ways on the best of terms. Gone was front desk fixture Jen Berg, who had a bitter split with Wittman that ended acrimoniously on both sides. Gone was Ricky Vasquez, who managed the careers of many lower-level Grudge fighters until a dispute over money turned ugly in a hurry, as such disputes tend to do. Even boxing coach Fareed Samad found himself on the outs with Wittman after a fairly innocent tweet attempting to cheer Ludwig up after a loss to Josh Neer in January of 2012.
As for Wittman and his fighters, the relationship with Schaub eventually improved after the loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Brazil. The relationship with Marquardt mostly didn’t, which seemed just fine by both men. Shane Carwin spent much of the year out of action with injuries, but whether he was on the mats or not he always seemed to hover above the fray, as if he simply didn’t have time for these petty squabbles.
Grudge light heavyweight Eliot Marshall managed to hold on to his UFC contract after the loss to Luiz Cane, thanks in no small part to his manager, Alchemist’s Lex McMahon, who was quick to remind UFC officials that Marshall had done them a favor by stepping up to take the bout on short notice. But then Marshall lost a heartbreaker of a decision to Brandon Vera in October, and though it was perhaps the best performance of his UFC career, he was cut soon after.
Marshall had vowed to retire from MMA if the UFC cut him a second time, since the organization almost never granted third chances to fighters who’d already been cast off twice. At first I doubted he’d stick to this promise if it came down to it, but it seems like he has, at least so far. He hasn’t fought since the Vera loss, and claims he has no desire to. As he explained to me once, with a young son at home who was growing up far too quickly, he couldn’t justify missing any more important moments in his child’s life just so he could fight for a couple grand on some Indian casino fight card somewhere in as part of a desperate attempt to hold on to a dream that had most likely slipped through his fingers already. He’d begun to think about it while he was still in the UFC, he said. He’d come home exhausted from training, wanting to do nothing but lay on the couch until it was time to go back to the gym, but then he’d open his eyes and his son would be standing there, wanting to play, wanting his father’s attention. How could he say no to that? How could he explain to a toddler that daddy needs to save his energy for beating people up?
"Being a fighter doesn’t define me," he said when I pressed him on whether he could really give this up so easily. "Being a father and a husband defines me. My life will go on after this."
It struck me as an incredibly healthy attitude for a fighter to have, and yet one incompatible with success in a business like MMA. How could you reach the top and stay there if it didn’t mean absolutely everything to you, the way it almost certainly would to the people you’d be locked in a cage with on Saturday night? And yet, if it did mean everything to you, what kind of life was that? How could you know for sure whether all those sacrifices -- the time away from your family, the time spent hurt and tired and sore and cranky -- were really worth it?
The conclusion I eventually arrived at was: if you’re the type of person to seriously consider the question, you already have your answer. If it even seems like a choice to you, it’s probably best to go do something else. Because that guy who’s going to be standing across from you when the moment of truth comes? He doesn’t have a plan B. He is not considering any other career path or wishing he was home playing with his kids. He wants only to hurt you. He wants it more than he’s ever wanted anything, and if you don’t feel the same about him then you’re in the wrong place.
It’s a hell of a way to make a living, when you think about it in those terms, and yet it is not a job. A job demands some things -- things like time and energy and a little bit of focus -- but this is so much more than that. This business will take everything you have, and even if you’re willing to give that there’s no guarantee that it will give back. You spend weeks and months laboring out of sight, only to show up on fight night and take your shirt off before an arena full of people who have all been looking forward to seeing what will become of you. You will give them someone’s pain -- yours or the other guy’s, maybe a little bit of both -- and in return they will give you money and something resembling love.
Is it a fair trade? Tough to say. Sometimes the exchange rate seems more favorable than others, but either way it’s the only deal you’re going to get, so you take it. You take it for as long as it’s offered, or for as long as you can stand it. Whichever comes first. Whenever it comes.
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