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 Five: Big Tests in Pittsburgh, PA
So you want to run a fight gym, huh? You want the glamorous life of an MMA trainer. You want to drop thousands of dollars on wall-to-wall mats, punching bags of all shapes and sizes, a full-size boxing ring and MMA cage, all so you can spend your days breathing in that stale smell of damp leather and other people’s feet.
You want to worry about mold in the vents and staph infection on the mats. Want to go through miles of athletic tape and buckets of disinfectant. Want to hear that sharp dinging of the round timer in your sleep. Want to spend the better part of your waking hours around the kind of people who essentially saw a sign that read, ‘Get Punched in the Face Here!’ and couldn’t pull over fast enough.
Really? You’re sure this is the life you want for yourself?
Okay, but you’ve got some decisions to make. For starters, you need to decide exactly how you’re going to make enough money to keep the lights on. Because you can be an honest-to-goodness, blood-on-the-floor and belts-on-the-wall fight gym, or you can be a glorified Tae Bo studio that caters to hobbyists who want to lose weight and learn a little self-defense they hope they’ll never have to use. There’s a whole spectrum in between, but the first thing you need to know is that it’s not easy to serve the real fighters and the casuals at the same time. Some might even say it’s impossible, or at least impossible to do well. Others might say that you better think of something that doesn’t include depending on professional fighters to pay your bills. Even when they mean well, so many of them are struggling just to pay their own.
Working stiffs have money. The people who sit in a cubicle all day and desperately want to hit someone at night? The people who want to blow off steam in the morning before they get behind the wheel of a delivery truck all afternoon? Those people can afford $150 a month on the unlimited plan, or $75 a month for just a few days a week. Even some of the lower-level, but still competitive fighters with day jobs and big, violent dreams can swing it. You can sign those people up and feel reasonably sure that they’re going to pay you. You get enough of them, you might even start making some real money.
You won’t get famous, though. You won’t get the satisfaction of taking a raw talent and molding him into a champion. You won’t get to hang on the cage behind your protege while Bruce Buffer booms out his name on a UFC pay-per-view. You won’t get that high when he wins with the left hook you created for him. You won’t get to smile in the victory posedowns. You won’t get thanked in his post-fight speech. And if no one has heard your name in interviews or seen your face on TV, why do they want to train with you in the first place? What’s so special about your gym?
This is the catch-22 for every working fight gym, and the Grudge Training Center is no exception. The up-and-coming pros give you that sense of satisfaction, and the big-timers give you a name. It’s because of guys like Nate Marquardt and Shane Carwin that Grudge can attract new members despite doing almost nothing that could be called advertising. No radio spots. No billboards. No coupons in the Denver Post promising a free month if you sign up now to get in shape for summer. Nothing. Oh, there’s a sandwich board around here somewhere that they can put out on the sidewalk when they think of if, but they usually don’t. That’s because they don’t have to. If you know anything about the MMA scene in Colorado, then you already know Grudge. And the reason you know it is because of the guys who fight on TV, in the UFC, which is also the reason those guys pay no monthly dues at all, according to head trainer Trevor Wittman.
"Their value, the attention they bring to the gym, that’s enough," says Wittman. "People know, ‘Oh, Brendan Schaub? He trains at Grudge.’"
At the same time, Grudge makes certain sacrifices in order to serve its pro fighter clientele. When a guy like Schaub shows up for a 10 a.m. training session with Wittman, he doesn’t want to share the mat with some cardio kickboxing class. He doesn’t want to sign autographs in the locker room or small-talk with a paying member who wants to know, seriously, what Dana White is really like. The gym is his place of business. When he walks through the front door of Grudge and gives Jen Berg that football jock nod of his on his way past the front desk, he is officially at work. He’s got a fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira coming up in August. He doesn’t need some guy with a nine-to-five getting in his way. He needs his own time and space. He needs personal attention from Wittman, and he gets it. In exchange, Wittman gets a walking advertisement for his gym, and a ten percent cut of Schaub's fight purse.
Trouble is, there are only so many Schaubs out there, and he can only fight so many times a year. As of June, he’s fought just once in 2011. A ten percent cut of his purse for the UFC 128 bout with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic comes to just $2,800. He rounded up to $4,000 when he wrote the check, he says, but still, is it worth the tradeoff? Is it worth effectively closing the gym to non-pros all morning and most of the afternoon? Is it worth ignoring the paying members in order to spend time with the non-paying ones?
Because those cubicle jockeys who come in here at night, they might hardly ever see Wittman. When they’re learning the jab from one his assistant coaches, he’s at home shadow-boxing across the kitchen floor as he makes dinner for his wife and daughter. What if those members decide they’re not getting the full Grudge treatment, and decide to go somewhere else for their martial arts needs? Forget about winning and losing fights for just a second. How are you supposed to pay your rent from one month to the next?
(Grudge fighters ease into a Saturday morning sparring session. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
Heading into the summer of 2011, this is the question on Wittman’s mind. His pro fight team is plugging right along, but he’s losing more and more dues-paying members every month, and there aren’t enough new ones walking through the door to make up for it. This leaves Wittman to make some difficult choices.
One thing he can do is take time away from the pros to cultivate a relationship with the general population. He can give the average enthusiasts more time and space, and let the pros work with his assistants. But then, he didn’t get into this to be an aerobics instructor. He wants to work with fighters. He wants to be where the real action is. And besides, every head trainer knows how that story ends. You let somebody else handle your fighters often enough, pretty soon it’s someone else in that corner, making that ten percent. Pretty soon the fighter you took from amateurs to the big time is sending you a text message goodbye. Or no goodbye at all. It happens all the time. A trainer has to watch his back.
Instead, he could put the squeeze on some of the lower-level pro team members who have been allowed to get a little lax in their payments. But it’s never fun to hassle your friends about money. It leads to uncomfortable situations, such as the one that occurs one Saturday when Wittman’s wife, Christina, who helps run the gym’s front end, is obligated to have an awkward conversation about monthly dues with one Grudge team member and Bellator fighter who looks positively stricken when asked to pay a fee for sparring privileges. It also leads to situations where talented, promising young fighters -- guys who, with some top-notch training and a few lucky breaks, might actually get somewhere -- are told to either sign a gym contract and pay their monthly fee or else find somewhere else to train.
And how are you supposed to groom new prospects this way? Computer programmers and middle managers might have $150 a month to spend on gym dues, but a lot of the young men chasing this crazy dream of professional pugilism are doing just enough bar-bouncing or drywall-hanging to get by. They need that money for rent and groceries. If you like their chances to be somebody some day, sure, go ahead and let them ride for free. But then what are you supposed to tell the other guys, like the Bellator fighter? What, you don’t think he’s a worthy investment? And what are you supposed to tell the dues-paying members, who are already subsidizing the careers of some of the people who first attracted them to the gym, whether they realize it or not? The pros are the whole reason they can’t come in and get a workout during their lunch break. Now they’re paying for that privilege, just so they can tell their friends that they use the same heavy bag as these UFC guys?
It’s a system with plenty of built-in inequities, and one that every gym struggles with. It’s a unique situation in pro sports. NFL teams don’t share their weight rooms with fans. Major League Baseball teams don’t have to clear off the field to let part-timers get a little batting practice in. But a gym has to make money, and fighters rarely bring in enough of it on their own.
On a personal level, Wittman gets by in part thanks to a generous monthly stipend from the Alchemist Management group, which represents him as well as fighters like Schaub, Marquardt, and Eliot Marshall. Officially, the money comes from an endorsement deal with the Alchemist clothing brand, which produces a line of t-shirts that look almost exactly like every other t-shirt brand in the MMA space, and which one almost never sees on anyone except those who are paid to wear them. Wittman also depends on his percentage of fighter purses from the likes of Schaub, Duane Ludwig, Carwin and, of course, Marquardt, who just so happens to have a fight coming up in Pittsburgh at the end of June. Just in time, considering the precarious financial situation.
(Nate Marquardt chats with Trevor Wittman and Fareed Samad after a workout. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
For Marquardt, this is shaping up to be a career turning point. After his decision win over Dan Miller at UFC 128 in New Jersey, he announced he’d be dropping to welterweight. That meant, at least temporarily, that he’d be setting aside his hopes for a rematch with UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva, who beat him back in 2007. But Marquardt was already a relatively small middleweight who’d had possibly the easiest weight cut of his career before the Miller fight. It was his pal, UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, who suggested he consider a move down in weight.
Before the UFC would sign off on such a move, however, they wanted an assurance from Marquardt. The UFC wanted to know that, if the situation called for it, he’d be willing to face his friend and occasional training partner for the 170-pound strap. The last thing the UFC needed was another contender who refused to fight a teammate and thus made matchmaking even more of a headache. Marquardt could make the move, the UFC told him, but only if he’d promise upfront to fight GSP if and when the time came.
"I basically called Georges and told him that’s what they were saying," Marquardt explains after one Saturday morning sparring session at Grudge. "He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Say whatever you have to say.’"
According to Marquardt, GSP said he planned to be retired or in a new weight class himself by the time such a fight might materialized, so there was no real risk that they’d actually have to fight some day.
"So I basically had to tell the UFC, ‘Okay, I’ll fight Georges St-Pierre,'" he says.
For his first fight at welterweight, Marquardt says he volunteered to step up and take an injured Jon Fitch’s spot against B.J. Penn. When that fight didn’t materialize, the UFC offered him Anthony Johnson, who he’d trained with when they were both filming the MMA movie Warrior. He’d fought guys he’d trained with before, but that was different. That was mostly when he was competing in Japan’s Pancrase organization, and there you knew you’d probably end up fighting your training partners eventually, so you could be careful about what to show them and what to keep under wraps in the gym.
"Training with Anthony, he was in a different weight class so I didn’t even think about it," he says. "Hanging out with the guy over the five weeks, it’s kind of weird. He’s a cool guy. I like him a lot."
Still, business is business. You can’t be friends with everybody, and if he’s willing to take the fight then he must not be overwhelmed by fellow-feeling. As it turned out, it wouldn’t even matter in the end. Johnson would pull out with an injury weeks before the fight, and Rick Story would step up as a replacement opponent for Marquardt. Problem solved. Sort of.
For Marquardt, the weeks following his victory in New Jersey aren’t just about dropping weight and training for the next fight. Instead, they’re about testosterone. Specifically, they’re about proving to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board that he truly needs the testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT) he’s been undergoing since August of 2010.
It’s all part of a complicated dance that’s been happening behind the scenes since February of 2011, when Marquardt first alerted the New Jersey commission to the fact that he was undergoing TRT. He applied for a therapeutic-use exemption -- in other words, official permission to use testosterone to bring what his doctor said were chronically low hormone levels to within a "normal" range -- on Feb. 11, according to NJSABC counsel Nick Lembo. But the New Jersey commission was skeptical at first. In part because Marquardt had begun the treatment with his personal physician, who was not a board-certified endocrinologist, and in part because his initial application for a TUE was deemed "incomplete," the New Jersey commission laid out a series of requests that Marquardt had to agree to in order to be licensed for the fight against Miller.
For starters, he had to see an actual endocrinologist, and undergo tests both before the fight and on fight night to ensure that he was within acceptable hormone levels. He also had to go off the TRT for two months following the fight, during which he would be tested several more times in order to establish baseline testosterone levels and determine whether he was truly in need of the TRT.
Up to this point, things had gone relatively well. Marquardt had met the New Jersey commission’s requirements and passed all the tests. Though his testosterone use was no great secret inside the gym -- and though Wittman was no fan of it -- it was far from public knowledge. He seemed on course to quietly put the New Jersey situation to rest and move on to his next fight in Pennsylvania.
But now there’s a problem. After more than two months off TRT, Marquardt starts to feel "even worse than I did the year before," as he will later say in an interview with MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani. It’s exactly what many experts warn of with hormone-replacement therapy. Testosterone might not have the side effects that other substances do, but as anti-doping pioneer Dr. Don Catlin says, when you begin taking it, "you take it for life." After being on it for several months, getting off of it in order to satisfy an athletic commission can take a physical toll.
And yet, Marquardt doesn’t look like a man depleted during this TRT-free period. During one sparring session, he keeps trying to get Wittman to watch his rounds and give him feedback, but Wittman keeps getting pulled in several directions at once. Marquardt doesn’t seem to feel he’s getting the attention he needs, and his sparring partner, Vinny Lopez, feels the brunt of his frustrations.
"Sorry about that," Wittman tells Lopez afterward.
Lopez, a heavily-tattooed, gregarious middleweight who’s loved by all inside the Grudge gym, just smiles and shrugs. After all, you could do a lot worse than to get beat up by Marquardt.
(Marquardt [right] spars with Vinny Lopez as Wittman looks on. Photo by Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting)
With about three weeks to go until the Story fight in Pittsburgh, Marquardt is cleared to resume TRT treatments. But instead of going to an endocrinologist who would use World Anti-Doping Agency protocol in treating him, Marquardt goes back to his personal physician, the man who helped him get started on testosterone in the first place, and whose expertise the New Jersey commission had been wary of. Because Marquardt has gone so long without TRT as a condition of the New Jersey licensing issue, this doctor recommends a more "aggressive" treatment to get his levels back up in time for the fight, according to Marquardt.
Instead of pills this time, it’s injections. Three of them. All administered by a doctor who is not a board-certified endocrinologist. In hindsight, it’s the kind of thing that seems like such an obviously bad idea, you wonder what anyone was thinking. At the time, however, no one sounds any alarms. It’s not until a blood test reveals high testosterone levels that Marquardt and his management team begin to sweat. That’s when their focus turns to Pittsburgh, to the Story fight, to all the things they need to do to keep this potential crisis contained. Little do they know that their worst-case scenario is about to become a reality.
If you ask Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission executive director Greg Sirb now, he’ll tell you that his commission doesn’t do therapeutic-use exemptions (TUEs) for testosterone.
"It won’t happen in PA," he says when, well after the Marquardt episode, I ask him about the protocol for getting a TUE in his state. "There is no such thing."
That is to say, there is no such thing in the usual sense. The Pennsylvania commission doesn’t give TUEs, according to Sirb, which also means it doesn’t require or even accept applications for them. Even if the Pennsylvania commission finds out that a fighter has been using testosterone during his training camp -- even if it is told by another commission that this same fighter applied for a TUE there -- it doesn’t matter in the state of Pennsylvania, according to Sirb.
"As long as he came in underneath what we consider the normal range, he’s fine," Sirb says. "He’d have to come in under the normal range. That means he’d have to be off of it, depending on how much he’s taking, but at least a week [before the fight]."
Here’s where the careful reader might ask, what about the weeks before that? What about a month out from the fight, when the hard training is taking place? What about the fighter who is using testosterone that he doesn’t necessarily need, simply to recover faster from those grueling days in the gym? Does he just get a pass?
The answer seems to be: pretty much, yeah. As long as he’s stopped using it in time for his levels to come back down to the upper limit of what the PSAC medical board has determined as a "normal range," he can fight. That might be baffling from a regulation standpoint -- Sirb himself admits that testosterone use is a "very, very tough issue for commissions," even if the PSAC has decided to do very little to regulate it -- but it also makes Pennsylvania one of the best states in the union for a fighter like Marquardt to compete in. All he has to do is get his levels down to normal in time for the pre-fight drug test -- something he managed to do in New Jersey with no trouble -- and he gets the green light. In the days leading up to the Story bout on June 26, Marquardt and his team have reason to be optimistic.
Though his testosterone levels were high in a blood test earlier that month, once the team is in Pennsylvania for the fight those levels begin to come down in a hurry, according to several sources.
"We were looking at the numbers and making our own little graphs in our minds, plotting the points and looking at where he’d be by when, and we were like, man, he’s got it," says Kelly Crigger, the staff publicist for the Alchemist Management team at the time. "No problem."
Even Wittman, who up to this point has remained mostly in the dark about the details of Marquardt’s testosterone use, is amazed at how quickly the levels change in subsequent blood tests throughout fight week.
"Seeing how fast those numbers came down really made me think," he’ll say later.
Even Sirb, who says he heard from the New Jersey commission about Marquardt’s testosterone use "probably a few weeks before the event" (other reports say it was more like the week of the event), admits he thought it wouldn’t be an issue by the time of the final test on the day of the weigh-ins.
"I think everybody was pretty confident," says Sirb. "I think something all parties learned was that his levels were definitely coming down, according to the levels we were getting, but he was also cutting weight. When he stopped drinking fluids and he’s trying to cut weight, I think the levels stopped coming down as fast."
The Alchemist crew isn’t content to leave something this important to chance. Marquardt’s levels still need to come down, since this is a situation where getting close to the mark doesn’t help. According to Crigger, this is when Alchemist takes a holistic approach to solving the problem.
"They had me running all over town to get anything they could find, like in Google searches and online, that was supposed to bring down testosterone," says Crigger. "I was running back and forth to the grocery store. It was Brazil nuts and coconut water and almond milk -- all these homeopathic cures for high testosterone."
At the same time, this is still Marquardt’s first fight at welterweight in the UFC. Back when he was a small middleweight, maybe he would have had the luxury of some almond milk in the days before the weigh-in. But this is something he hasn’t factored into his weight-cut regimen.
"I take all this [expletive] to Nate’s room, and he hasn’t opened the first item," says Crigger. "Like, if Brazil nuts bring your levels down, you’d think he’d be chawing on them like there’s no tomorrow. He hadn’t even opened the pack. Coconut water and almond milk and all this stuff I bring back, he hadn’t even touched."
To make matters worse, the team has to keep going back and forth from the hotel to the hospital for blood tests, and all in downtown Pittsburgh traffic. It’s an added fight week stress that nobody needs. As the day of the weigh-ins approaches, it’s clear that this is going to be a tight. Marquardt’s wife and kids are there. So are his sponsors. The whole Alchemist team is in crisis mode, and CEO MC Hammer is flying in for this.
"To [Alchemist manager] Lex [McMahon’s] credit, he was cool under pressure," says Crigger. "There was a lot going on, and he was handling it, staying cool."
The day of the weigh-ins, McMahon is calling for test results every few minutes. The lab is working on it, they say. The final numbers -- the ones that will determine whether Marquardt gets to fight or not -- aren’t in yet. Hold please.
Back at the hotel, Marquardt waits to hear his fate and tries to keep going about his normal pre-fight preparations. As Crigger and McMahon are driving to the hospital one more time, McMahon gets the email on his phone. It is not good news. The levels are too high. Still too much testosterone. It’s a no-go.
(Lex McMahon consoles Marquardt backstage at the UFC on Versus 4 weigh-ins. Photo courtesy of Kelly Crigger)
McMahon doesn’t want Marquardt to hear it over the phone. Better to do it in person. At the weigh-ins at Heinz Field later that afternoon, the Marquardt team and Pennsylvania commission officials all come together with the UFC. Something has to be done. The PSAC isn’t budging from its standard. The number (which no one will reveal, citing medical privacy laws) remains the number. Marquardt is still above it, and this all that matters as far as the state of Pennsylvania is concerned.
"Like a good manager should, [McMahon] tried everything he could to get Nate to fight," says Crigger. "I mean, everything. Sirb said no. [McMahon] even went to the doctor who was doing the medical checks for all the fighters and said, ‘Hey, what do you think of these testosterone levels?’ This doctor was like...‘That’s nothing. I deal with professional football players whose testosterone is triple that.’ I was like, first of all, really? Are they rhinos? But still, suddenly there was hope."
That hope is quickly dashed by Sirb and the Pennsylvania commission. They’d set their number and Marquardt missed. He’s out. No fight for him. That means no paycheck. That means no ten percent for Wittman. That means angry sponsors. That means confused and disappointed fans. That means the uncomfortable questions are only just beginning, and he still has to face the UFC president.
Oh, God. Dana White. What’s he going to say? Backstage at the weigh-ins, Marquardt and McMahon wait to find out. The day before, when Crigger and Marquardt discussed the possibility that he might be pulled from the bout, the fighter was "shaking and in tears." Now he seems numb, like it hasn’t completely sunk in. What will they tell the fans? Exactly how mad is White going to be?
McMahon tries to keep everyone calm as they wait to find out. Maybe he can still talk his way out of this. Then there he is, the UFC president, and he’s on his way over here. Does he look pleased? He does not. The team braces itself and waits. This is going to be bad. That much they can tell just from looking at White. What they don’t know yet is how bad. What they can’t possibly know is just how much things are about to change.
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