To the people that know him best, Dakota Cochrane's secret wasn't a secret at all. It's not something he kept from prospective business relationships, either. As his mixed martial arts career took off, his friend Kirk Schuster, who was looking after his career, would often receive phone calls from other management companies about representing Cochrane. They would try to woo Schuster with promises of a UFC contract for Cochrane.
Do me one favor, Schuster would tell them, Google his name and call me back if you're still interested. A return call never came. Not once.
Everyone has a past. But in the testosterone-filled sports world, Cochrane's past proved impossible to outrun. What he describes as a temporary lapse in judgment from his college days continues to revisit him. It did again this week, shortly after FX announced that he had been chosen as one of the 32 finalists that will compete for a chance to be on that network's first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Within 24 hours, the news was all over the MMA blogosphere: while in college, he had participated in gay pornography.
"It's definitely a decision I regret," he told MMA Fighting. "If I would have known what would happen I definitely wouldn't have done it. But I had money issues and I needed help. I went there to do pictures, and they started throwing pretty high numbers in front of me. I didn't really think. It was a big mistake."
But no matter the size of the mistake, it was one he made no effort to escape on the eve of his biggest opportunity. On his audition tape for TUF, he included an introduction that mentioned all about his past. Everything.
"I think it's a little bit courageous for both of us," he said of the UFC's decision to include him on the show. "I could just hide in a hole and no one would know except for the people close to me. And to them, I was up front. I let them know right away so it wasn’t anything that could come back and bite them in the butt. I think maybe they respected that a little bit. I think some people judge against it, some people will be OK with it. Some people will want me to get my butt kicked, and hopefully others will respect what I'm trying to do."
The 25-year-old Cochrane, who is not gay, says he earned around $80,000 overall from taping the videos, which he made while a college student at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, where he was an all-league track athlete as a pole vaulter and 4x100 meter relay runner.
"Every time I was down there, I hated it," he said.
Finally, when he admitted to his girlfriend Lacey Sechtem what he was doing, she asked him to stop, and the short-lived career was over. At the time, Cochrane had no idea he would one day become a professional athlete and that the decision would follow him and possibly cause some detours to his path.
Schuster, who is now his manager, told MMA Fighting that Cochrane has had several opponents back out of fights after learning of his history, as well as promoters withdraw offers to him. None of it, however, served to dissuade Cochrane from chasing his goal of fighting in the UFC.
"This kid honestly is a role model," said Schuster, who housed Cochrane for a year earlier in his career. "The reason I say that is because he made a mistake, he recognized his mistake. He paid at the time and he continues to pay for it every day, but he remains mentally strong. I think it fuels him and drives him to prove to people that he can overcome this. He's always told me, 'We'll keep fighting in shows until they either have no choice but to want me, or I can't fight anymore.'"
Cochrane actually missed his first shot at the UFC. Schuster said that the promotion's matchmaker Joe Silva had once called about the possibility of signing Cochrane for a short-notice fight as a replacement, but by the time he returned the call, the spot had already been filled.
But even then, Cochrane and Schuster had been candid about his background, embracing honesty as the best course of action.
Aside from the obvious back story, Cochrane's rise is interesting due to his history as a track star, a fairly novel background in MMA. He first tried the sport during some time off when he was bored. He trained for six months, scored a knockout in his first amateur fight and was quickly hooked.
"Beating someone up, it's pretty exciting," he said with a laugh.
But making a career out of it wasn't an early thought. At first it was a fun side interest, but as he improved and his competitive instinct kicked in, the sport's pull intensified.
He won his first four pro fights. By the time he defeated former WEC champion Jamie Varner last September to improve to 11-1, it was obvious that he was nearing the big leagues. But by then, he'd already had the experience of his past resurfacing, albeit on much smaller scales.
Even when he was back in college running track, the news popped up. Then, when he moved to Omaha and started training MMA there, it popped up again. But this time is a little different, his past being exposed on a national scope.
"I'm looking forward to getting it done and over with," he said. "People can be shocked, and people can say whatever they need to say, and then we can move on."
"They're saying the same things they've been saying for seven years," Schuster added. "They're not coming up with anything new."
Cochrane says he's a far different person than he was then. He's now a father of two, and Lacey, his girlfriend at the time he was making the videos, stuck by him and is soon to become his wife. The decision he made years ago was a selfish one, made for money, but this opportunity to be on TUF isn't just about him; it's a chance to enrich his family.
On Thursday, he'll get on an airplane and fly to Las Vegas while attempting to put aside the distractions of this week and focus, because alongside will be 31 other fighters filled with the same dream. They'll all have pasts, too, just not ones that everyone else knows about. That's OK with Cochrane. It's his mistake, and he's owning it.
"All I can ask," he said, "is that people respect that I've overcome something like that and tried to make a negative into a positive."