"I’ve made a lot of mistakes," Drew Fickett says of his 13-year career as a professional fighter. "I mean, a lot."
Coming from the man who once showed up to a fight drunk, who went to jail instead of to the landmark first season of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series, who left the UFC on a win following a drunken incident at the Palms Casino, somehow even this feels like an understatement.
In a career that’s seen cage fights in both seedy bars and the Mandalay Bay, Fickett hasn’t just made the normal fighter mistakes -- he’s invented brand new ones. He’s proved to be as talented with self-sabotage as he is with rear-naked chokes. He’s beaten guys he had no business beating and lost to others who seemed hardly worth training for. He's been great and he’s been terrible, sometimes all in the same night. He’s done more damage to his own body and his own career than anyone else ever could, and he knows it. Truly, he does. But at 32 years old and with nearly 60 pro fights to his credit, what he doesn’t know is whether there’s still time to be great again, maybe make it last this time, maybe finally get out of his own way and find out how high he can climb if only he’d stop pulling himself back down at the most critical moments.
"I said this before and I still believe it now: a motivated Drew Fickett, training with the right camp and the right people around him, can be a world champion," says former manager Bryan Hamper. "He has some of the most raw talent in the sport of MMA. It’s just getting all of that to line up in the right way."
"Drew’s one of those guys who, when he’s in a good gym and he’s focused, he gives everybody a hard time," says longtime friend and current manager Jason Chambers. "When he’s not on the ball, he’s a completely different fighter."
It’s a description that Fickett doesn’t argue with. He’s the first to admit that he’s been "inconsistent" over the course of his career. Then again, he never expected this to turn into a career in the first place. He was just a kid who fell in love with the martial arts in the strip mall karate schools of Tucson, Ariz., then carried that same passion onto the high school wrestling mats as soon as he was old enough.
"I loved Steven Seagal movies, loved Van Damme movies. I was just a complete nerd about it," Fickett says. "I would do katas in my room by myself. While most kids were going to parties and doing normal stuff, I was pretending to be a samurai warrior. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I got good grades, but only because my parents told me that if I didn’t I couldn’t do karate and wrestling."
In high school, Fickett developed a reputation for his intensity and single-minded focus. He woke up early and ran to school so he could lift weights before class. He freaked out teammates and opponents alike by standing on the edge of the mats before matches, screaming and slapping his own face.
"I was kind of like Clay Guida, if Clay Guida took PCP," he says. "I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school, didn’t drink, didn’t do anything like that. I just lived, ate, and breathed wrestling and karate."
Of course, in the late ‘90s there was only so much a young man could do with that skill set. The UFC was still in its infancy, and the local MMA fights in Arizona’s Rage in the Cage circuit seemed more like a fun distraction than a viable career move.
"It wasn’t really a sport then. I mean, we got a couple bucks for it, but people would clown us for doing MMA. Like, you’re doing what? Cage fighting? What are you, Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse?"
The first time it occurred to Fickett that he might actually have a future in fighting was when he won a split decision over Dennis Hallman in 2003. It’s the win he still regards as his "greatest victory," mostly because he knows now, just as he knew then, that Hallman was, at least technically, the better fighter. Fickett had been watching him on grainy VHS videos for years by that point, and was awestruck by the opportunity to face him.
"I trained so hard for that fight, and then I met him and he was this great dude," Fickett says. "For three days before we fought, we were just all hanging out. We sat around the pool, drinking, picking up girls, and then we fought. It was great."
But Fickett has never been one to do anything halfway. Once he started drinking, he did it with the same extreme intensity that he did everything else. He drank between fights. He drank in the days leading up to them. He still racked up an impressive record in his first few years of competition, and he told himself that he had everything together.
In July of 2004, UFC president Dana White came to scout Fickett for an upcoming reality TV show that the organization was putting together. At a small event in Revere, Mass., Fickett fought and beat an inexperienced local kid by the name of Kenny Florian, and it looked like he was a lock for the new show.
But no, things can never be that easy. Not for Fickett.
"While they were filming the show, I was sitting in jail like an idiot. Kenny Florian and Diego [Sanchez] and Chris Leben got the good road. I got to go to jail for a couple months."
Bizarrely enough, it started over a free pizza. Or rather, it started over what was supposed to be a free pizza, according to a coupon that Fickett and a friend had, but which escalated into a silly and pointless argument over the phone when they called in to redeem it. You can imagine how this goes. Fickett calls and asks for his free pizza, but the guy on the other end isn’t so excited about delivering it. He gives Fickett some attitude. He feels pretty tough over the phone. The next thing he knows, Fickett is promising to come down there and hold the guy accountable for his words.
"I drove down there and kicked the door in, threw a computer on the ground, then I drove off in my truck," says Fickett. "They ended up arresting me for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for throwing the computer."
The charge got knocked down to a misdemeanor, but the ensuing legal trouble was enough to keep Fickett off the first season of the reality show, which former manager Hamper thinks might have been the perfect avenue for showcasing his personality to the world.
"He’s perfect for reality TV," Hamper says. "You don’t get a more real person than Drew. He tells you exactly what he’s thinking."
Even without the show to funnel him into the UFC, Fickett would make his Octagon debut in 2005, taking on Nick Diaz at UFC 51. By this point, Fickett had been a pro fighter for nearly six years. He had an impressive record of 24-2, and had all the makings of a future UFC star. Yet on the morning of the fight, Fickett woke in absolute terror.
"I was scared s---less, more of the UFC than Nick Diaz. When you have your first big fight and you walk into the Mandalay Bay and see ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley and Oscar de la Hoya on the rafters, you realize that you’re not fighting in Rage in the Cage in some cowboy bar anymore. I cried the entire day of the fight. I was completely mortified, completely scared."
Fickett lost a first-round TKO that night, but bounced back to win his next four fights, including a rear-naked choke finish of future welterweight contender Josh Koscheck at Ultimate Fight Night 2. He had his ups and downs in the UFC, but the last straw came after a win over Keita Nakamura in 2007, when he parted ways with the UFC following rumors of a drunken confrontation with a bouncer at the Palms. It wouldn’t be the last time alcohol abuse altered the direction of his career. Two years later Fickett showed up drunk for a Rage in the Cage fight with Shannon Ritch, leading to a last-minute cancellation that only furthered the damage to Fickett's reputation as the story spread on blogs and messageboards.
"Every problem I ever had was because of drinking," Fickett says now. "I’ve always had a problem with drinking. I’ve always had a problem with taking everything to the extreme."
If you want to know what Fickett’s capable of at his best, all you have to do is look at September 10, 2010. That’s when he entered the Shine Fights Lightweight Grand Prix -- a one-night, eight-man tournament with a $50,000 grand prize.
At the time, Fickett had just one win in his last six fights. He’d been knocked out four times in eight months during the worst losing streak of his career. If ever there was a fighter who seemed washed-up -- a victim of his own vices and self-destructive urges -- it was Fickett. The MMA world had written him off and left him for dead. What it didn’t realize was the Fickett still had some life left in him. All he needed was a reason to resurrect his own career, and the chance to make fifty grand in one night was that reason.
But really, it wasn’t the money Fickett was after. It was what the money could get him. If he had that much cash, Fickett thought, he might be able to gain custody of his daughter, who was then in the sole care of her mother.
"I thought, wow, I can go get my daughter back," Fickett says. "I didn’t think about anything else. I did nothing but train and live mixed martial arts. I didn’t know I was going to win the Shine tournament. I didn’t even think I was that good."
Three straight fights, three straight wins via choke. Fickett spent a combined eight-and-a-half minutes in the ring that night, beating fighters like Dennis Bermudez and Carlo Prater, both of whom would find their way into the UFC shortly thereafter. Fickett took the tournament title and the grand prize, declaring to the MMA world that he was officially "back." What he didn’t know was that, when it came to getting custody of his daughter, a little bit of money and one good night in the ring didn’t mean much to the courts.
"When I realized I could make all that money and still not get my daughter back, it crushed me," he says. Fickett would one more fight after that -- a quick armbar win over Matt Veach in which he admits he "kind of got lucky" -- and then lost his next four in a row.
When he talks about those losses now, including a TKO defeat against Jamie Varner earlier this year, the enthusiasm drains from his voice. He trained "pretty hard" for that fight he says. He had a "decent" fight camp. What he didn’t have was the same focus and drive he had when he thought that winning might reunite him with his daughter. What he didn’t appreciate right away was that his daughter didn’t need his $50,000 as much as she needed the same thing that he needed from himself.
"It’s not about the money, it’s about being a good, consistent person," Fickett says. "I thought, put that money in front of me and that’s it. I can get my life back. But it’s not about the money. I realized that. I think I’m ready for that now."
These days you can find Fickett in Florida, training with American Top Team and seeking treatment for alcoholism at an outpatient rehab center. He’s been sober for roughly four weeks now, according to Chambers, his current manager, who says Ficket needed "a come-to-Jesus moment."
"I think that’s what happened here a couple weeks ago," Chambers says. "Drew’s one of those guys that left the UFC on a win, which is very rare. Usually when that happens it’s a red flag that something happened. Usually it’s either you had some problems with Dana or you said something you shouldn’t have. In Drew’s case, it was that his drinking got out of control. He looks back on that now and realizes, this is a situation he needs to address in his life. We had a long talk about it a couple weeks ago. He’s at a point in his career where, he’s 32, he’s on a win now, and he needs to put together a nice streak and show some maturity, not only in his training, but also in his life."
He’s taken the first steps. He left Tucson, left his family and friends, and is trying to make a new start. After submitting Kevin Knabjian in March, he’s slated to fight Brazilian lightweight Jonata Noveas at a ShoFight event on June 16. If he can win that one, Chambers says, then maybe one or two more after that, who knows?
"I think he will get back in the UFC if he gets his life together and he stays the course," Chambers says. "If he stays sober and he’s focused like he’s really working hard to do now...absolutely, 100 percent I think he can do it."
Fickett refuses to spout off the cliche line about how he wouldn’t be in this sport if he didn’t think he could be a UFC champion. At the same time, he admits, he does want back in the UFC. He wants another shot against the best fighters in the world, and one more chance to see what he’s capable of when he’s not his own worst enemy.
"As long as I go out there and give it my best, and as long as I don’t lose because of some vice or some excuse or some failure of my soul, I’m golden," he says. "I can be happy with that."
Those who know him best don’t doubt it. Though Hamper hasn’t managed him for years, he still says he "thinks the world of Drew," and wants to see him get his life back together just as much as anyone.
"I truly believe he can [get back in the UFC], and with the right opportunity he will. That’s just the motivation a guy like Drew needs. You look at some of the big opportunities he’s had, like that Shine tournament and some of the other big fights he’s had, he rises to the occasion every time. I think for him it’s hard to get excited about fighting a journeyman on the small circuit, because there’s really no upside there. That’s hurt him sometimes. But when he gets a chance at something big, he rises to it."
The way Chambers sees it, those around Fickett have done everything they can. At some point it has to be his decision and his effort that gets him the rest of the way.
"He’s in a really good place in his life right now. You know, we’ve led this horse to water."
And Fickett? The guy who’s trained in top gyms and warehouses and backyards alike over the course of 13 years in this sport? Yes, he knows he’s made mistakes. More than his share, even. Maybe more than any pro fighter ought to be able to make and still haul himself back from the brink. But now that he’s likely closer to the end of his career than the beginning, what Fickett hopes is that those mistakes weren’t all for nothing, and that there’s still time to put his hard lessons to some good use.
"I’m not proud of the mistakes I’ve made, but I’m happy for them," he says. "I’ve learned so much from them, and I think I learned more even than some of the fighters who are at the top, all because of those mistakes. I can do this, man. I know I can."