Other than a few glimpses, Sean Salmon doesn't remember the accident. That strong first taste of vodka at eight in the morning. The bleary-eyed drive to his buddy's bar. Brief flashes of drinks stacked upon drinks, the afternoon melting into starry night, that half-coherent phone call to a friend in Michigan. The low growl of the ignition and the haphazard plans to push northward and bail far, far away from it all. Finally, the railroad tracks.
From there it gets a bit spottier.
Flashing lights. A few fleeting seconds inside an ambulance. Sunlight splashing across white-stained walls, bringing early morning tidings of lawyers, court papers and oncoming shame and humiliation.
By then it was inevitable. Sean, the toughest of them all, the standout high school athlete turned UFC fighter, in tears; left alone at his lowest, no company to keep but his own regret. Maybe a surprise for some, but not for the broken man who lay on the hospital bed, not after all those years of lies and secrets pushed that inner circle smaller and smaller, slowly squeezing the concern out of friends and family alike, until, inescapably, the well ran dry and that inner circle ceased to exist.
"He called me," remembers Mike Salmon, Sean's father who hadn't spoken to his oldest son in over a year. "He called me, and what he said to me was that he was at the hospital and he didn't have a car. But what got me was when he said, ‘Dad... I've got nobody else.'
"It was the truth. And I'll tell you how bad it was. Before I went and picked him up, I went to the bank and I got, I don't know, $300 or $400, and I was going to give it to him and tell him, ‘I'll drop you off at any f--king hotel you want, and we're done.'"
The sport of mixed martial arts is endlessly complex, yet the simplest, most innate goal remains a modest one -- whatever you do, don't land on the wrong side of history's highlight reel.
Unfortunately, Sean Salmon wandered into that luckless void one balmy winter night in south Florida.
A former two-sport athletic marvel, with the wrestling chops of an Ohio state mat champion, Sean, then 9-1, was to be the latest test for a burgeoning threat in MMA's light heavyweight division, the undefeated yet reviled product of the TUF machine, 'Suga' Rashad Evans. Then ‘Suga' kicked Sean in the face, and MMA fans across the world oohed and aahed as the image of Sean's rigid unconscious frame thumped backward onto the canvas and seared itself in their collective conscious.
Five months later, after another lopsided loss further tarnished his 2007 campaign, Sean exited the UFC of his accord, abandoning the last fight on his contract to pick up a few victories on the regional circuit and piece together his fractured confidence. At the time, Sean wrote that he expected his bout of soul-searching to stretch anywhere from six to eight months, and promised that he'd return to the UFC with a vengeance once he figured it all out.
Ultimately, that promise ended up being a lie.
From May 2010 to April 2013, Sean Salmon lost 11 straight fights. If ever there was an unceremonious end to a once-respectable career, it was this.
Invariably, each loss ended inside the first round. A few came against reputable competition, like the April 2011 drubbing when it took future UFC fighter Tom DeBlass just 57 seconds to pull off his only career Achilles lock. Just the same, there were those against no-namers, rookies still green off the vine, like the June 2012 setback that gave Aaron Mays his second, and last, professional win. That one lasted 35 seconds.
More often than not, the opponents were middling. Whether the scenery outside was Russian, Finnish, or Jordanian, the outcome remained the same, and the streak did not discriminate. Losses came steadily, disguised in all shapes and sizes. A 25-second heel hook, a 41-second TKO -- Sean's record slowly mashing itself into a fine aberrational powder.
The aftermath now stands as a ‘Fight Finder' curiosity of Bob Sappian heights, one more tidbit for forum members to drag up to the debate table and throw out their best guesses as to... what the hell happened here?
"There's a kid who qualified for the Olympic trials, and we were watching him lose to people who he ought to trash," remembers Mike. "We didn't know what the hell was going on. But by then we were pretty much fed up with him anyway. Well that's his problem. I don't know what the f--k he's doing."
The easy answer to these questions is never a catch-all, although it does usually play a significant part. And in Sean's case, well, he liked to drink. A lot.
Sean always described himself as a casual drinker. He would hang out on the weekend, pop a few beers with his buddies, have himself a good time, end of the story. Until life threw him a curveball divorce from his wife Missy in 2008. Then suddenly the term ‘casual drinker' lost all meaning.
Sean never coped well, and his habit picked up slowly, goaded in part by the loneliness of an acrimonious split, and in part by the rough crowd he took refuge in. He would lie and tell himself he was fine, but by 2009, the transition from casual drinker to extreme drinker to full-blown alcoholic had already begun. A liter of vodka plus a visit to the bar was a good day. The bad days were far worse.
"It sounds like an incredible chicken s--t way to live," Sean admits. "And really, it was."
If you were a promoter though, and you needed an eleventh-hour replacement, Sean was practically a gift from the heavens. He would accept contracts on a whim, with as little as one week's notice. Not only that, he expected to win. That's one thing Sean swears by. Regardless how bad it got, that drive never left him. The time never came when he took the easy way out, walked out his front door with an intent to eat one punch, turtle up and wait for the referee to peel his opponent away -- even when he was woefully underprepared.
"I'd train, then wait until I was finished training for the day before I started drinking," Sean remembers. "Somehow I convinced myself in my head that was okay. I could get away with that. Obviously I was bulls--ting myself, but that's sort of how I would do it. And I would never drink the day of weigh-ins or the day of a fight, but I always knew exactly where I was drinking and where it was coming from right when the fight ended."
Eventually the repetition of losing began to take its toll, so the streak faded into the background simply because it had to. The losses remained a constant nag, yes, but at least one out of sight, out of mind, which only flickered during those rare moments alone. Soon the avoidance of those moments became its own pursuit.
"He's got two brothers," says Mike. "There's like four years of separation in age, and they've been one another's best friends their whole lives. All of a sudden, [Sean] cut them out. And frankly, he was s--ty to them. We knew something was going on, but we didn't know what or why. And when a guy won't talk to you or return your calls, it's pretty tough to figure out what's going on."
"Nothing was going through my head," Sean admits. "I was drinking any thought of that away, and that sort of, at least for me, is how I feel like I ended up drinking as much as I did, because I didn't want to deal with the problems in my life. It was easy just to drink them away. My marriage was falling apart. It was a horrible divorce. I'm on this losing streak, and now I'm just wrecking every good relationship I have. To be honest, there was sort of nothing going through my head when I hit eight losses in a row, nine losses in a row... which is, it's tough to deal with. When I'm sitting quietly by myself, if I start thinking about it too much, it would drive me crazy."
On January 6, 2012, Mike Salmon drove his oldest son to court, then to Columbus' Franklin County Jail to begin his inevitable 60-day jail sentence.
Less than two months earlier, barely a few days after Thanksgiving, in a haze after slugging vodka from 8:00 a.m. to well past sunset, Sean collided his Mercury Grand Marquee into the railroad tracks at an odd angle and flipped, careening upside-down off the side of the road. According to doctors, physically... amazingly... Salmon was fine; unscathed other than a few scratches and bruises. Just another close call in a life full of them.
Emotionally, though, Sean was in pieces. The stress of depression had run his mind haggard, his body ached from the constant abuse, and his relationships were either strained to the brink or imploded from the inside out. Sean had reached his bottom.
Mike was incredulous when Sean called him from the hospital. He hadn't spoken to his son in over a year, and combined, he and his wife Jean had been burned by Sean more times than they could count. "[Sean] had the capacity to lie at the drop of a hat," Mike says. "He'd lie even when it didn't serve his interest.
"I do contract negotiations for a living, and if somebody lies to you once, it takes them forever to get credibility back. Well, we'd been lied to consistently for 30-something years, over big things and small."
Still, Mike had not been prepared to see the 34-year-old man that lay broken on that hospital bed. He was, after all, still his son. Even if the years of poor decisions had torn Sean to shreds, the love a parent carries for their child is often an ultimate redeemer. So together, and perhaps against their better judgment, Mike and Jean took in what remained of their boy.
They allowed Sean to stay at their old family home while the court system figured out what to do with his case, but only on one condition: "If you have one beer, one drink, one lie, one anything... you're done."
For the first time in a long time, Sean took responsibility for his mistakes. He owned them. Instead of dragging out his case in hopes of a lighter sentence, Sean made it clear to his lawyer: ‘I'm not going to fight this. I'm not going to try to make excuses for this. Let's get a fair punishment, whatever the courts decides. I need to put my life back together. Let's start here.'
The decision came swiftly and without incident: 60 days in county jail, two years of a suspended license, a slew of requisite fines, and five years of probation.
In jail, the title of former UFC fighter affords its holder a certain level of respect and aplomb, and Sean became a model citizen.
"Being there that long, I feel like I sort of ran through every emotion," Sean says. "I first got there, and you're just absolutely humiliated. Unfortunately there's like one or two people in there that recognize you, and it gets out pretty quick, so now you just sort of feel like the biggest loser in the world because all of these people know you as a fighter. They're not real fans so they don't know how horrible the end of my career ended up being. They just think, oh, he's in the UFC, he must be this great fighter."
"We got to visit him once a week, so my wife and I would alternate, going down there on Saturdays whenever he had visiting hours," Mike says, stifling a chuckle ahead of his next words. "It turned out it's supposed to be a prescribed period of time. I don't remember what it was, 20 minutes or 45 minutes or something. But towards the end, it was like all of a sudden we're sitting there for an hour and a half, going, ‘Sean, what the hell is going on?' And he wouldn't talk about it then, but later on it turned out that the jailers liked him because he kept peace. He was the f--king gorilla in the room. If somebody acted up, he'd step up. He told us one time this young kid was picking on this old guy in there, threatening to kick his ass, and I guess Sean went and just sorted him out a little bit. The jailers liked it so all of a sudden the visiting periods are longer and he's getting extra food and s--t like that."
Those 60 days behind bars dragged by at a snail's pace, but the change Mike and Jean first began to see did not alter its course. If Sean entered jail a man committed to turning his life around, he left with a starker understanding of the consequences he would face if that commitment failed.
"I look at it, and just so many people, even in the 60 days I was there, were just coming and going," Sean says. "A lot of the same guys were coming back in. I had a couple months from my accident until I had to start my sentence, so I felt pretty good that I was never going to do anything like that again. But just being there and seeing that, all day and everyday -- you hear the saying ‘wake-up call' all the time, and that was almost more of a wake-up call than even my accident had already been. And it's unfortunate. I saw so many guys that, I don't think they were bad guys. They just didn't know how to dig themselves out of the situation they'd put themselves in. A lot of them, they probably didn't have the support I did either.
"I talk about it with people all the time. The hoops they make you jump through, it's not something you can do on your own. If you don't have a support system around you..."
Sean Salmon is now retired from mixed martial arts. Officially. He did accept a few fights following his release from jail, but only to see if MMA was still a viable career option. What he found was that all the hard years had taken a toll on his body. Then an early 2013 back surgery shut that door for good.
Truthfully, though, Sean had to quit, simply because he couldn't shake the weird reminder the grind gave him, like a snapshot of everything he once had and how it crumbled so tempestuously. No, it was past time to move on.
Now Sean just wants to try his hand at a normal life. He works a full-time job with a company down in Grand Valley, Ohio called MAC. The acronym stands for Manufactured Assemblies Corporation, a cable and wire manufacturer owned by a family friend. Just four weeks ago they promoted him to supervisor.
"We have a big project with those solar powers out in the desert," Sean says, smiling. "We manufacture the cable running underneath the ground from tower to tower. Everything. We have accounts with GE and Kodak, contracts through the Army. So pretty much anything you can do with cable or wire."
Sean's apartment is only a few miles away from the home owned by his girlfriend, Heather McCormick, a former college dormmate with whom he reconnected over Facebook prior to the accident. Sean actually took Heather out to a movie once, when the pair were both 19 years old. Nothing ever came of it, and any budding college romance fizzled out before it started, but, Heather jokes, "I think Sean had a crush on me, even if he denies that he did."
When the pair first reconnected, it was purely anecdotally, and Sean's addiction had yet to devour him. In time, as his situation worsened, Sean kept the sordid details of his life hidden away from Heather, but she could still sense the trouble brewing deep within him.
"I just always felt chaos with him, and I'd always say that to him," Heather remembers. "I'd text him back and I'd be like, ‘You just seem like you're in so much chaos. What is going on with you?' Oh no, everything's great, everything's great. I've gotta go, I've gotta do this. It was just always something."
On December 1, 2012, the day after Sean wrecked his Grand Marquee, he sent Heather an e-mail. Within it, for better of worse, Sean came clean about everything. In many ways, it didn't make sense. The two were mere acquaintances, with no prior intimate connection. And yet here Sean was, pouring his heart out through the computer monitor.
As it turns out, the people who Sean had surrounded himself with were many, Heather remembers, but they were all people who supported his drinking, people who supported his behavior. Somehow she, despite living hours away and barely interacting with the guy, was one of the only positive figures in Sean's life not linked back to the darkness. And so he reached out to her with a cry from help.
"I wish I could explain it," Heather says. "I felt an incredible friendship that day. Just an incredible sense of friendship, like I've known this guy my entire life and I felt like we were going to be very good friends. He always compares me to his best friend Marcus, who passed away a long time ago. I didn't know him either, but I just felt an intense friendship. I just cared about the guy for some reason."
Together, the couple's combined family now includes six children from prior relationships, ranging from Sean's youngest, two-and-a-half-year-old Hayden, to Heather's oldest, 10-year-old Emma. At times when the whole flock is together and bedlam reigns over the roost, the environment can understandably get a bit crazy. But Sean just grins. "I read an interview with Brad Pitt once and he said: ‘My house is loud and chaotic and I love it.' I wouldn't want it any other way."
It seems silly, but the new goal for Sean is to reach some level of consistent normalcy. He wants to go to work everyday from 5:30 a.m. to the mid-afternoon. He wants to goof off with the kids, have regular date nights once in a while, maybe look forward to a vacation once or twice a year, then throw in some crossfit or jiu-jitsu tournaments once in a while on the side, but certainly not let it define who he is.
"We just had a long conversation with him tonight," Mike says. "After we hung up with him again, I think we do it about every time we have serious discussions with Sean, it's like we shake our heads and we go, ‘Who the f--k... whose kid is that?' We're so incredibly proud of him. I don't know what else to say. He's doing the right thing. He's been doing the wrong thing so consistently for so long, that when you start consistently doing the right thing, and taking responsibility for everything that you do, you just say, wow."
Every now and then, Sean can feel the tug of competition trying to pull him back in. It's understandable; after all, it's what he revolved his life around for so long. A few days ago he turned down a chance to fight in Ireland without even glancing at the purse. It was a difficult decision, if only for a moment, but the idea of fighting and the reality of it are not one in the same, and he understands that now.
"It's almost two different feelings," Sean says of his MMA career. "I look back and I'm still glad I did it. I'm going to reconcile with myself and remember the best parts of it. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would in a second. If I'm being nostalgic, I'm going to remember the best parts of it. If I'm being honest, I was a failure who didn't live up to his potential.
"But even when my career was garbage, it was still something I did everyday, something I looked forward to, and it was sort of the person I identified myself as. And now I'm the furthest thing from that guy, so there's a struggle there, too. I know what I want out of life right now. I want this full-time job, I want the family I have, and I don't want to be a fighter. But after so many years of doing nothing but competing your whole life, it's sort of an ‘okay, what now?' type of feeling. It's hard not to think like that, but it's something that's working its way out of my head."
"It's got to be humbling," Heather adds. "It's got to be humbling and I'm proud of him, because he looks forward to work everyday. He works hard everyday, and he... I'm just so proud of him.
"I just smile, because it's been a long road. It has been. It's been a long one and we're working together to get out of it. It's not been easy, but it makes me smile and I love the guy."
A few weeks ago, while watching from the sidelines of his seven-year-old son Marcus' basketball game, a random parent recognized Sean in the stands and approached him. The two ended up talking for a good 15 minutes.
Mike was sitting right there and he marvels at the memory. Sean used to act like this back in the old days, he says. The pro fighter and his ol' dad would get stopped all day by curious fans walking along the Las Vegas strip. Sean would ask them questions, show interest in the lives of others. For a while that empathy left, masked by disease. But now, Mike exclaims, "it matters to Sean."
"I spent the last two years doing everything I can to dig out of that situation I put myself in," the ex-fighter says. "Now I have an amazing girlfriend. I have an amazing life. There's nothing fancy or flashy about it, but I love it. It's everything I want."