SB Nation

Chuck Mindenhall | March 24, 2015

In Search of Strange Brew...

I’ve long been fascinated with Jason Thacker. It’s very possible I’m the only one. Why? It’s sort of complicated. I suspect it stems from overthinking a word like "belonging." In the short history of the UFC, he was a person that ended up in the exact wrong place at the exact right time. Or maybe it was the right place at the wrong time. Whatever it was, man did he catch a lot of hell just for being there. And back then, being there meant something. Remember that?

The original Ultimate Fighter began airing in January 2005, and has long since been accepted as the jolt the UFC needed to break through. If Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin hadn’t had that rapturous, go-for-broke brawl on April 9 in the finale, there might not be a UFC today. That fight hit the broader living room like a magic potion. It was the culmination of something, but it doubled as a real-time epiphany — suddenly mixed martial arts was being translated for people who didn’t speak the language. All at once, it was as if light broke over the taboo.

People got it. Dana White later called it Zuffa’s "Trojan Horse."

And as an extension of that single fight, going backwards, the show itself has achieved a kind of cult status. During that nine-week stretch in 2004, a cast of 16 fighters gave the sport something it was in dire need of: Personality. It was those eight middleweights and eight light heavyweights, crammed into a Las Vegas mansion, with boom mics hovering overhead and small rooms set up as confessionals, that first humanized the spectacle. The barbarians, it turned out, were actual people. They had lives, families, neuroses, pet peeves, idiosyncrasies, dreams, easy to grasp sanity.

"People thought it was a bloodsport, that these guys were savages," says Craig Piligian, the executive producer of the franchise. "People just thought it was two men enter, one man leaves. That’s what they all said. It’s true — it just humanized the guys. Turns out they were normal guys. They were college grads, they had personality problems, they cried, they yelled, they were funny, they told jokes, and you thought, wow, this guy could be my next-door neighbor. This guy I could have for Thanksgiving dinner. This guy I could be buds with. It turned the fighters into relatable people."

The genesis of the show, which aired directly after WWE Raw, was a last-ditch effort by UFC owners to propel the promotion forward and make it profitable. It was a time-buy on the new channel, Spike TV. The Fertitta brothers, casino magnates Frank and Lorenzo, were forking out the last millions they were going to in the investment, one last cash heave to get things rolling before admitting it was all a mistake. Pride FC in Japan was standing by, waiting for the UFC to fail. The coaches, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, were waiting for it to truly succeed. Everything rode on the outcome of TUF.

Josh Hedges/UFC

The concept, which Griffin remembers being told was like "The Real World with fighters," was thought-up on the fly. Piligian came from Survivor, while Dana White came from the fight game. Some of the fighters didn’t know they’d actually be fighting, and the ones who did didn’t realize they would be doing so for free. Most didn’t make the connection that they would have to cut weight. That didn’t matter to some of the cast, because the body shapes ran the gamut. Kenny Florian would end up fighting at 145 pounds later in life, but was fighting at 185 on the show. A guy like Sam Hoger, on the other hand, had to struggle to lose north of 30 pounds. When the fights came around, they were quickly dubbed "exhibitions" so as to do away with regulatory red tape. Two rounds instead of three.

It was, in essence, an unofficial tournament for a vague six-figure contract in a promotion that desperately — and legitimately — needed the contestants to save it from extinction.

As such, those contestants were deprived of television, books, magazines and all communication with the outside world. They saw only themselves, the coaches, the producers, the omnipresent cameramen and, when called on to do "challenges," a desert mirage named Willa Ford. When they screwed up, they saw Dana White. Otherwise it was a kind of testosterone-filled deprivation tank.

The cupboards were strategically stocked with alcohol, though. Chris Leben, who went on to fight 22 times in the UFC and ended up being the star of the show, was lit up from the opening credits. Lodune Sincaid, a light heavyweight, would get into a bottle and then parade around in his "man panties," bending over demonstrably to provide a full view. There were conflicts, of course, most notably when Bobby Southworth and Josh Koscheck, cackling like imps, hosed down Leben — the "fatherless bastard," as Southworth called him — while he slept off a big night on the front lawn.

There was no shortage of drama under this packaged surveillance system being called "reality TV." Those kinds of episodes began to give plenty of color to the fighters, skewed as they were to enhance the viewing experience. Rooting interests were established. It was easy to pull for Leben because he was a tragic figure, and to dislike Koscheck, who couldn’t help but poke the bear. Southworth was a whiner, Josh Rafferty a quiet observer. Griffin, who did his famous monkey routine one day in a fit of boredom, was an improv comedian.

But mixed in with those between-hours images were the absurd training sessions, in which the producers made the larger point with the competitors. These guys, handpicked through a series of audition processes, were serious fighters. In the gym, the real narratives were formed. They were put through the rigors up front and early because people needed to respect just how extreme and difficult it is to be an Ultimate Fighter. These were fighters first, and characters second. It was quickly made clear that they could endure as much hell as they could unleash.

There was Kenny Florian, a soccer kid from Boston, who was discovered by White on a regional card. There was Mike Swick, a veteran of the WEC, who’d lost to Leben just months before taping. There was Nate Quarry, an established veteran who trained with Couture in Portland well before the casting of the show, same as Leben. Diego Sanchez, who famously harnessed energy from a mounting storm on one episode, had a long résumé from his days in King of the Cage. Griffin had 11 pro fights under his belt, including a victory over Chael Sonnen, and Bonnar had eight, including a loss to Lyoto Machida. Koscheck was a stud wrestler from Edinboro. Southworth had nine fights, including one against Vitor Belfort. Alex Karalexis had the knockout power from his days in Mass Destruction, and Sincaid was undefeated. Ditto Chris Sanford, a WEC veteran.

Though it was a little melodramatic, the first episode did a masterful job of showing both the personalities of the fighters and the extreme nature of the training. It was, first and foremost, a show of natural selection, designed to get the sport over to the masses. To demonstrate just how dedicated and ruthless these fighters were, along with the demands placed on them to make it on the big stage of the UFC, there needed to be a contrast of the ordinary. Fighting is not for everybody. The show needed to provide an example of the disparity between the strong and the weak.

That disparity became Jason Thacker.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Thacker lasted only two episodes on the original TUF, and in that time he became a punch line in every sense of the word. Unlike the rest of the cast, he seemingly derived from nowhere. In this case, rural British Columbia. He was the quirky Canadian in a house of cocksure American movement. Though he apparently had a Thai boxing background, he wasn’t what you might call imposing. His clothes didn’t fit him all that well. He wasn’t pierced or tattooed. He came across as mystified. Unspecial. It was as though from the very outset the cameras were there specifically to impede upon his life as a nonentity.

And all of this, you couldn’t help but realize, was exactly the point.

Jason Thacker was clearly "the everyman" being put on the show to contrast what it means to be an Ultimate Fighter. This was a "reality" component. The only thing we knew about Thacker was that he trained in an abandoned truck stop in Canada, a heavily accented tumbleweed type who was perfect for just this sort of television. All else that mattered about him became clear immediately.

He was there to be made an example of.

"You know what got me on his tape? It was that he was working out of a barn up in northern Canada, some fucking place in the middle of nowhere," Piligian says. "This guy was looking for a shot. And that’s the kind of guy we were looking for. This guy loved MMA. He was kind of quirky, but then he was hitting hay bales and smashing bags of sand, and crazy workout shit in his barn. So we gave him a shot. He was one of those guys where we said…maybe, hey we don’t know, we’ll see what happens."

As the years have gone on, I’ve often thought about Thacker being cast in that nightmarish role. Did he know? No. He couldn’t have. He entered that house with a knapsack of delusion, just like everyone else, thinking whatever his experiences were in his neck of Canada might be enough. He couldn’t have known what it was he was getting into. He couldn’t have known that he was being thrown into a plot where the glowing eyes of wolves would soon appear from the surrounding darkness, with guys who would have long, illustrious UFC careers, become contenders, become future champions, become "Hall of Famers."

Guys who would piss on his bed.

What a nightmare it must have been to come to these realizations while being documented by cameramen, like some strange species. Though the concept was every man for himself, nobody knew exactly where the sidewalk would end. Cliques were made. Teams were formed. The alphas were picked one-by-one by the coaches. Thacker was, naturally, selected dead last. The cameras lingered on him as he stood shifting uneasily, waiting for Couture to end the humiliation by calling his name. The spotlight he received became just another predator.

"I feel for Jason Thacker because he was put in a position to fail." -Mauro Ranallo

"Thacker was kind of an oddball," remembers Rafferty. "Then again, a lot of people from out in the sticks are a little weird. I remember the first day being really difficult for him. It was hard for everybody though. We didn’t know what the hell was going on. But I think he was like, oh shit…this is really hard, and these guys are really fucking good. I don’t know what he was expecting or thinking, but he was a little shocked."

Rafferty famously puked during the so-called "Hell Week" when the coaches evaluated the talent. That footage became part of the original TUF introduction, right in the middle of the opening montage (…bear WITNESS to the FITNESS of a modern WARRIOR…). He might have been pegged as a weak link if it weren’t for Thacker. Thacker, as was made clear, nearly died from exertion. He could barely walk after the battery of workouts. He was so far out of his element that it couldn’t help but come off as comical to viewers as it aired.

That disparity again.

"That’s one of the issues with having a TV show," Leben says. "At the time, 95 percent of us were guys who were almost in the UFC already. And then there was Jason Thacker, who was on the show solely for casting reasons. They put him in there, they cast him, because he was so different from everybody else."

It was Leben who hung the "Strange Brew" tag on Thacker one night in the house, in reference to the silly 1983 movie about a pair of Canadian brothers who go to work at a beer plant. That nickname doubled as a reference to the "funk" that Florian pointed out was coming off of him as he walked around.

It was also Leben who, after Sanchez told Thacker to go take a shower, "spritzed" on his bed. That prank became the lingering memory of poor Strange Brew’s time on the show. In the sad closing shots of the sequence, the Canadian was shown lying in his bed with his arm folded innocently over his head, trying to go to sleep. There was Jason Thacker, pitifully unaware that he was lying in a spray of Leben’s piss. He became the original prank victim in a vehicle that exhausted pranks for 20 more seasons (and counting). Only, if he was ever let in on the prank, we never found out.

No, he couldn’t have known what he was getting into when he signed up to be on the show.

"Thacker was definitely a quiet guy, you know, kept to himself," Florian says. "I tried to make time get to know him a little bit, because not a lot of guys were really talking to him. I eventually found out he worked with cartoons, he did stuff for Pokémon, and I found that interesting myself so I would ask him about that. I thought he was a pretty cool guy and I felt like he was obviously being bullied by guys like Chris Leben and you know, I felt bad."

The spiral continued. Mike Swick "turned it up" on Thacker during one workout session, once again with cameras emphasizing the feebleness of his quest. Thacker contemplated "cutting [his] losses" and quitting. At one point, as the cast headed off to a training session, Thacker refused to go. He was going to quit. The cameras ate it up. His teammates — namely Southworth, who took a shine to him — talked him out of it. Still, he wasn’t built to last very long.

Thacker was eliminated in the second episode, right after the "La-Z-Boy challenge," in which the two teams hoisted their coaches on recliners and charioted them to a finish line in the surf of Lake Mead. In retrospect, it was ridiculous. The losing team had to "send home" a team member, in this case a light heavyweight. Thacker’s team lost.

You knew what was coming. It boiled down to Sincaid and Thacker, and Couture milked the drama before delivering the boot. He said that Thacker was almost "like a mascot" that the team "rallied around," but he was keeping Sincaid. Thacker was out. Against the backdrop of serious fighters, he couldn’t cut it. The point had been made clear. Out with the weak, in with the strong.

"I feel for Jason Thacker because he was put in a position to fail," says longtime broadcaster, Mauro Ranallo, who grew up in Abbotsford near where Thacker hailed. "I can’t say he enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame, either. They urinated on his 15 minutes."

Thacker would end up fighting on the TUF Finale against his nemesis Leben at middleweight. He lost via TKO.

That was on April 9, 2005, the date the sport was truly born with Griffin-Bonnar and the day of the billion-dollar turnaround. Spike TV and Zuffa struck a deal for a second season of TUF hours later between the live trucks parked outside the Cox Pavilion. And just as the UFC took off, Thacker did too. He quietly went away. His UFC career lasted a grand total of 95 seconds, most of it spent in Leben’s custody taking punches to the head.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

In 2007, Thacker showed up in a self-made video from his "famous" abandoned truck stop in Canada. He said at the time he’d heard that people were wondering if he was still alive. In that video, there was a sequence of him hitting a heavy bag, which bled into some in-ring action from his kickboxing days. It was all set to "You’re The Best," the Joe Esposito song from the original Karate Kid.

After that, poof. He was gone.

Jason Thacker just sort of drifted away from the fight game as a small footnote from a significant piece of UFC and MMA history. He clearly lived out an experience that he’d just as soon forget. Still, I wondered about "Strange Brew," and wanted to see what became of him. He was part of that original first cast, and, for better or for worse, belonged equally to its lore. I began casually looking around for him.

He wasn’t listed, so I asked Zuffa’s editorial director, Thomas Gerbasi, who has the entire UFC in his Rolodex and has helped track down elusive types on many occasions. This time he drew a blank. But he referred me to Andrea Richter, one of the producers of TUF. Though she asked around, she didn’t know where he was, either. From there I went to matchmaker Joe Silva, who said that he wished he knew, because the UFC had tried to track him down for various reasons. After all, there have been flirtations that the entire TUF 1 cast, including "Strange Brew" himself, could be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.

Jason Thacker in the UFC Hall of Fame. Kafka couldn’t have crafted a sentence quite as fantastic as that. Now I had to find him.

He wasn’t on social media. I asked around with my colleagues and other media members. Nobody knew. I tried Marc Laimon, who was in Thacker’s corner when he fought Leben, and he didn’t know. Neither did Florian or Leben or Koscheck or any of the cast that I came across. On a lark, I asked Sarah Kaufman, who’s from the area. "Sorry, I don’t know who that is," she said. I tried Thackers in the Vancouver area. I called area gyms, those closest to Whonnock, the town he was from in the outlying section of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), but none of them had ever heard of Jason Thacker. I asked anybody and everybody I could think of who might have associations to Thacker, but nobody knew what happened to "Strange Brew."

It was possible that this time he really was dead.

And if not, one thing seemed clear: Jason Thacker, the man who never really belonged, had become somebody who didn’t want to be found.

Only, finally I did find him. Through a government body. And I knew it was him immediately. The same accent. The same spooked manner. I introduced myself and told him he was an elusive son-of-a-gun, and explained why I was calling. I asked for an interview. I could hear him fidgeting during the pause, and he inquired as to what it was all about. I said I just wanted to catch up with him. Tell his story. The whole thing made him uneasy. I was dredging up the war. He asked me to email him the details of what I had in mind. He gave me his email address, and I fired off immediately.

Days went by, and then weeks. I called him again, and the man (his father?) said he was "out doing cardio" in the yard. Another time a woman (his mother?) said he was sleeping. Did the white whale live with his parents?

Finally, I got a return email. It was addressed to "Mr. Mindenhall," which was a first from a fighter. He wrote that he had "agonized" over my request, and therefore apologized for the lateness of the response. Then he confirmed what I dreaded might be the case.

"The stress and criticism of my performance on the show, deserved or not, was very taxing both on me and my family. I discussed your offer with everyone and came to the conclusion that if we did the article it would bring unnecessary stress upon people."

He declined. At first. But then, after some coaxing, he reconsidered. He agreed to meet.

The truth is, Jason Thacker never left. He still resides in Whonnock, about 20 minutes from Maple Ridge, a town situated just across the Golden Ears Bridge on the Fraser River. He lives exactly in the same place he did before TUF 1. In the decade since the show aired, in which so many of his castmates went on to varying forms of glory and the UFC blossomed into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, Thacker remains on the only eight acres of land he’s ever known. With the same abandoned truck stop sitting right in the heart of the property.

I met him on a gray day in November in Maple Ridge. He agreed to pick me up at the hotel. I walked into the lobby, and there he was — Strange Brew in the flesh. For a moment I didn’t recognize him. He had a broad beard, with cloudbursts of gray in it, closer to a light heavyweight than he ever was on the show. His hair was long. There was a fugitive air about him, like he’d emerged from the bunker, and a pronounced crook in his nose. I couldn’t help but notice that Jason Thacker, now 39, looks remarkably like Roy Nelson. He was dressed in faded black, from his ball cap down to his tennis shoes.

We got in his car, which has a cassette player and a dangling car freshener. It wasn’t his car, he said, but one he borrowed from his family for the appointment. "Is that your cell phone?" I asked. "No, I borrowed that too in case the car broke down," he said.

"Right over there, that’s the bar where I got into a brawl after the show aired," he said, as he drives us to lunch. It’s a bar called The Office, which we laugh is a perfect name for a lushing crib. Honey, I’m afraid I’m going to be at The Office late again tonight. It’s just an icebreaker. Thacker has a sense of humor. But within five minutes of meeting him he’s telling me how he took a pipe to the face at that very bar. He was jumped by a couple of guys who didn’t like the way he repped his country on the show. "A lot of people wanted to fight me after that," he says. "I got into a lot of fights."

That pipe accounts for the disfiguration in his nose.

"People would come in groups of four or five from these other gyms, and they would say, ‘you didn’t represent Canada, it should have been our gym on the show,’" he says. "The fights were always at the bar, because that’s how I was dealing with it at the time and stuff like that. He hit me in the jaw, and it cracked my tooth. And actually, only a couple of months ago I had to have it pulled. It was cracked forever. Finally it got infected, so I had to have it yanked. All from being hit with a pipe."

Thacker ends a lot of sentences with "stuff like that," but the stuff is generally in some dark direction, some ellipses to hell.

At lunch, he points out that he lived briefly in Maple Ridge back in the day. He used to work at a coupling plant, among other odd jobs. Now he’s back at home, and that’s where he has been all this time. It’s clear he’s uncomfortable with each reminder that it’s an interview he’s doing — such as when the digital recorder comes out. The fidgets come and go and the room shrinks with every bout of self-awareness. He says he started having a panic attack on the way over. "I almost had to turn around," he says, shifting in his seat. It pains him to "go there." Still, he confesses something I’d long suspected up front.

"I didn’t actually have any MMA experience heading into that show," he says. "Nobody knew that I didn’t have any MMA experience. This is the first time I’ve actually said that to anybody, that I didn’t have any. It was pretty crazy when you think about it. So many people were prepared to be in that house, and they knew what was coming up. I didn’t have a clue."

When he fought Leben, Thacker was billed as a "champion wrestler" and an "alternate Olympian," who’d proven himself on the amateur circuit in MMA, boasting a 4-1 record. The truth was, he had limited Thai boxing experience in smoker shows in British Columbia and his wrestling roots were confined to a single year in middle school.

"Because I was poor, the schools I grew up in I got into a lot of fights," he says. "So I was already angry at the world. I had the one year of wrestling, and I went undefeated in that. I won the GVRD in grade 8, and then they just cut that off. No more money for the wrestling program. I guess I come from a pretty good wrestling family genetically, because actually my cousin, Larry Thacker, has his jersey retired. Him and Cam Neely went to the same school, and their jerseys are hung next to each other. It just says ‘Thacker.’ I can point to it and be like, hey look, I wrestled."

He was an alternate Olympian in gymnastics, not in any discipline for combat sports.

"I was ranked second in the province," he says. "Unfortunately, at the gym I was at, we also had the guy who was ranked No. 1. So they had the golden boy there, too. If I had been in a different gym, where I was No. 1 in the gym, maybe they’d have treated me differently. But it was pretty abusive. I cleaned the gym to pay for it."

He was done with gymnastics before he hit his teens.

In other words, the "Tale of the Tape" was a tale alright — all of his merits were a decade in the rear-view mirror, and only fragmentarily true. That date, April 9, 2005, might have been the only time somebody had taken the liberty to overhype Jason Thacker. In talking to him, you gather that for most of his life it’s been quite the opposite.

He grew up without a television. His family was so impoverished that he didn’t have a camera. There aren’t any family pictures of young Jason. When he was a burgeoning gymnast he couldn’t afford the travel for the events, and so he was always assuming new identities.

"This was back when it was much more loose, the security and all that," he says. "I was never Jason Thacker getting onto the plane. I was always somebody else who wasn’t making the trip. Or they would get a ticket last minute, and it would still be for somebody else. That lasted until I was about 12. And that’s when they said we don’t really want you any more."

He did like to draw from his earliest memories, and he spent a lot of time sketching "ninjas and stuff like that," developing as an illustrator. At loose ends as he graduated, he enrolled at the Vancouver Film School on a student loan — a loan he says he only paid off a couple of months ago — to pursue a career in art.

"I graduated from there, and did work for some small stuff," he says. "I worked for Disney and DreamWorks. Disney was for education the CD-ROM section."

He began dabbling in Sun Hang Do, a Korean martial art that had found its way to British Columbia, which held annual points competitions. From there he trained at Golden Lion Muay Thai Boxing under Songlith Singthong, a Laotian, and began immersing himself in the science of eight limbs. That led to him meeting other fellows in the world of combat sports, one of them the organizer of the Tough Man, who lived in the area.

"They’d have these smokers," he says. "They were real underground and unofficial. Just people passing the hat around for money. I was around 180 pounds at the time, and I kept drawing guys who were 230-240 pounds. They’d ask me to fight somebody, and I’d take it. They called me ‘KOS,’ which meant the ‘Killer of Sheep.’ They would bring in these guys to the smokers, and like sheep people would all put their money on that guy or whatever. Then after I would come and beat them and they would say, ‘all the sheep got killed, they lost their money.’ I knocked out a guy who was 45 pounds heavier than me in Trail."

During this time he trained, primarily, by himself in the dilapidated truck stop that he and his family lived in through his childhood. He had a heavy bag and a speed bag, with a tire and a sledgehammer, a medicine ball, and a few acres to make use of the wild. Fighting held some promise for him. He was making a few bucks fighting in the smokers when he could, but he was working in animation.

When the work he’d been doing began to dry up, Thacker went into a wayward period.

"I started getting really depressed," he says. "And then I went to a doctor, and was diagnosed with dysthymia, which is long-term depression and hyper-insomnia, which is like where you don’t sleep for a day. Sometimes I don’t sleep at all. I was also diagnosed with social anxiety."

He was prescribed Risperidone, a controversial drug that has been used to treat bi-polar disorders and schizophrenia, as well as Effexor, which treats anxiety disorders. He was also on Prozac. He points to a place across the street called the Bobby Sox ’50s Diner, and that little themed restaurant, he says, contains some of the missing context that would never make its way on the show. It pains him to peel back the onion, but he does — and it’s a blur of place and time and events, where opportunity and disaster became momentarily indistinguishable.

While battling his depression, he went camping with his best friend Dave Rowell on Stave Lake. After a day of drinking, Rowell and his girlfriend got into an argument.

"We wake up the next morning and they’re gone," Thacker says. "We thought they just said screw this and went home. And then a couple of days later, I get this call and they said we found your buddy. His girlfriend took off in the truck, he took off in the boat, and he’d fallen overboard. It was so cold, because it’s such deep water, and he froze to death."

Later that night, Thacker was harassed by the cops, who saw him pull into the ’50s Diner in the wee hours. His eyes were bloodshot, he says, from sobbing over his lost friend. They thought he’d been drinking. He hadn’t. The bog of medications might have been there, but he was in a state of early grieving. Though he was never convicted of anything, it hung around on his record as something of an ongoing investigation.

Right as all this was happening, he heard that they were casting for a new reality show called The Ultimate Fighter. He delights to remember that moment of abstract possibility, the moment he wondered if he had it in him to be something more. Life was elsewhere. So, with his limited fighting experience, he worked up the gumption to send in a tape, using his archaic training grounds as a backdrop.

"I had a camera I’d borrowed from somebody, the only fight we had any footage on," he says. "People are always filming and they would say, ‘let’s trade information and I’ll send you the tape,’ but it never happened. So we only had footage from one fight. But I sent them footage from the truck stop.

"The notice I got was, ‘can you fly down tomorrow?’ So I did."

"Well, the producer, Craig Piligian, he just loves the tape. He was probably the main guy that got me on the show. So I went to Vegas. As soon as I walk in, he was like, who are you, and I said I’m Jason Thacker. And he’s like, you’re that Canadian! He said, ‘you’ve got the thickest Canadian accent I’ve ever heard.’ He knew the truck stop stuff, and he loved it.

"He had me come down and do some things in Vegas, and I went down a bunch of times. One time was for a bit of sparring, on the feet, and I didn’t know who the guy was that I was going against. I go down there and we were doing all this stuff. When I was done with the sparring, I overheard them say, ‘that guy is not going on the show, he’s got the personality of a wooden dummy.’ I thought they meant me, but it was for the other guy, the guy I was sparring, and that was actually Jason MacDonald. You know, ‘The Athlete.’ They were like, there’s only going to be one Canadian on the show."

Thacker thought he was the chosen Canadian, and the clouds began to clear for him. He would begin training and preparing himself for the show, which was still more than a month away from shooting.

"But then they phoned me back a little bit later and said it’s not going to work out. At first they were going to have 20 guys on the show. Now it’s only going to be 16, and they told me, ‘right now, you’re No. 18 in the rankings, so we don’t need you.’ I said, okay. I guess I didn’t get on the show."

Remembering how it all played out is to recall the precise moment he lost control of his own fate. Now that the show wasn’t happening for him, the depression grew. So did his rut. He says he was drinking heavily and taking his prescriptions. He decided to re-enroll at the Vancouver Film School to study 3-D animation and to begin work in computers. He was going to pick up the pieces and get on with his life.

That’s when the producers of TUF called him back. After some trouble with contestants failing drug tests or having problems with the commission, Thacker was back in the running.

"The notice I got was, ‘can you fly down tomorrow?’ So I did. And at 11 p.m. that night they said, ‘sign this, and you’re in.’ I asked, but when does it start? And they said, ‘tomorrow morning.’"

Where most of the TUF cast knew for at least a month that they were in and when to report, Thacker was given a day. He didn’t have any MMA experience, which he says he overtly confessed to them right then, and he hadn’t been training — but these weren’t disqualifiers. He was the guy. With his feet turning cold and his head not right, he says he told them he wasn’t sure about being on a reality show. He wasn’t sure what he was doing. His family didn’t know where he was. There was so much left undone. It was do or don’t, with no time to process. There was nothing to turn back to.

"As soon as I signed the contract, they took all my clothes, because they had labels on them," he says. "They just gave me what they could find, ratty old clothes they found in wardrobe. I didn’t actually bring my medication. I told them about that, and they said, well, we can’t do anything, we need to have some legal forms filled out. I arrived to the house cold turkey off all these medications. So I was going through harsh withdrawals. It’s horrible getting off that stuff."

And the next morning they began filming The Ultimate Fighter. Which, as he sits there recounting the events — the social anxiety, the cameraman, the withdrawals, the strangers, the fighters, the pranks, the confessionals, the walls closing in, the fibs, the fact that his family didn’t know where he was, the piss on the bed, the realization that he was in over his head — became the beginning of the end for Jason Thacker, the most overwhelmed, underprepared fighter to ever appear on the franchise.

Graphic: Chris Rini

Of course, "reality" and the reality are different. When asked if the show ruined his life, Thacker says it did. Boldness, contrary to what Goethe once suggested, does not have genius, power and magic in it. Not in this case.

Thacker doesn’t have kids or a wife or a girlfriend. No cell phone, no car of his own, no job, and no friends. Somewhere along the way, when the punch lines began adding up and the humiliation sank in, the seasons began to pass through his window without him. He stopped going out. Maybe he was always destined to be a private person. But as he drives me out to the compound to see the old abandoned truck stop, it’s clear that his big break turned into his ultimate ruin.

These days he lives as a caretaker for his ailing mother and father, as well as his brother, Brad, who is also suffering from serious health issues. He didn’t want me to get into specifics about his family’s illnesses — his one request — but just days before I’d arrived, he had to make a trek to the emergency room in Maple Ridge. Such treks are not altogether uncommon. His family requires his constant assistance. He’s up each morning at 2 a.m and 5 a.m. to dole out medication. He cooks at 5 p.m. every night for the family. His dignities are now confined to four walls.

The old abandoned truck stop, sagging at the timbers, looks pretty much the same as it did in his 2007 video. It is lined with junked automobiles that people have left on the property, none of them any longer functional. Fittingly, the Thackers now live in the old caretaker’s house, which sits next to the truck stop. The house lies mute with his parents and brother tucked away inside, completely still on a gray afternoon.

"They didn’t want to meet you," he says with a laugh. The fallout was hard on the whole family. My presence is part of the fallout.

He points out the old outhouse, that’s still in use. There’s the tree with the long limbs he used to practice gymnastics from. He points to the trails into the woods, where he has encountered bears on his runs. Over yon is the pond that has "beaver fever," he says, and that direction the river with the sturgeon. Canada turned on him when the show aired. The martial arts community condemned him. He was vilified in not only his local gyms, but those across the country.

"When I got back and they were starting to promote the show, there were two things that hurt me the most," he says. "One was a comment Mauro Ranallo made. He’s from Maple Ridge, and when the show was over they asked, what do you think about this Jason Thacker guy? And he said, ‘he should make Canada’s version of a milk carton, and disappear.’ That was at the height of the show, when it was airing, when people were talking."

Later I would ask Ranallo, who was the blow-by-blow man for Pride FC in Japan at the time, if he remembers saying that. He says he was disgruntled that Thacker was chosen over better-established fighters in the area — such as Kalib Starnes, from nearby Surrey — but doesn’t remember quite going that far.

"I don’t know if I said something like that, that’s rather crude if I did," he said. "But I mean, again, the fact that he had no prior experience and that he hasn’t had any experience since says it all. The fact that he’ll always be the trivia answer for who was the first person eliminated from TUF 1, and I guess he can take a modicum of solace in that. Honestly, the truth is that Strange Brew the movie was a better representation of Canada than ‘Strange Brew’ the fighter."

Thacker says the fighter-turned-trainer, Shawn Tompkins — who grew a stable of experienced fighters such as Sam Stout, Mark Hominick and Chris Horodecki out in Ontario — made his life difficult, too.

"I was getting threats from Tompkins’ gym," Thacker says. "He was on TV saying, ‘Jason Thacker’s a piece of shit.’ He said it should have been a Team Tompkins guy on there. That’s what he was mad at. He said, ‘Thacker’s a disgrace to Canada.’"

With the Ultimate Fighter being the first big showcase of its kind, there was major stock placed on it by gyms in Canada that had been dying for some exposure. Just a few years earlier, Carlos Newton became Canada’s first UFC champion, and he was thought to be the trailblazer for many others who were coming up. That the unaffiliated Thacker was cast in that coveted role and was made to fail so miserably left him a target for a lot of hard feelings.

"I had to change my phone because I was getting death threats," he says. "I had a stalker and stuff like that. I was getting death threats and getting into fights and getting attacked when I went out. This wasn’t something like at Chute Boxe where five guys have my back. I was all by myself."

We step inside of the barn, that double agent that helped get him cast on the show. There’s the old Chevron fuel dispenser, an heirloom from another time. There’s the old heavy bag, which hangs from the rafters, and the speed bag right next to it, which he takes the time to work up a rhythm against.

"One of the better guys I got to train with was Tony Pep," he says. "I trained with him. He was the first guy to go the distance with Floyd Mayweather, and he also fought Ricky Hatton. He said, why do that? What’s the point of doing the rhythm thing? That’s supposed to be like somebody’s head, so hit it like that."

And he hits it one last time hard, as if he’s picturing the very head he wants to smash.

"The only guy who was nice after the show was Rich Clementi," he says. "Rich phoned me at one point. Shortly thereafter, I wasn’t talking to anybody. I had withdrawn. After that, too, when the harassment began and all that, I pretty much lost all my friends. I really don’t have any friends anymore. I already had social anxiety and stuff, but I still hung out with people. They went away, because they didn’t want to get caught up in my mess."

We walk up the stairs in the old barn, and he says this is where his family essentially squatted together when he was growing up, where he drew pictures of ninjas with his set of 2H pencils. He advises me not to step past the stairs onto the rickety landing, for fear the whole thing will cave in.

"I wanted to continue fighting after the TUF Finale," he says. "There were places that wanted me to fight, but everybody just wanted to throw their guy at me. That was about the only thing I got. Offers to fight guys who were like 12-0 and heavyweights, asking me to come up a few pounds."

The UFC also held his rights for a year after the Leben fight, which complicated things further. "They held onto my contract just long enough to ruin everything," he says. "Finally, they sent me a letter saying they let me go, along with $1500 for not fighting as a consolation."

Thacker was given $5,000 to show against Leben. After taxes, he says that was $3,600. After Canadian taxes, it was less still. The licensing fee was, he remembers exactly, $468. Because he was sent to the hospital for precautionary reasons after the TKO loss against Leben, he was also sent a bill. In the end, all it cost to turn him into a shut-in was a couple thousand dollars.

"I wanted to continue fighting after the TUF Finale ... They held onto my contract just long enough to ruin everything"

"When you lose in a fight, it’s not that bad," he says. "But when you’re presented on the show, and you’re being manipulated, and people are stealing your chance because they want to promote a narrative, that’s worse."

"Reality" is what they want you to see. Reality is all this stuff you don’t.

I would later ask the retired fighter Clementi what prompted him to call Thacker out of the blue, just as everyone else was trying to forget that he existed.

"I remember after the show, I felt like the UFC just kind of dumped on him," Clementi said. "Was he prepared for some of the guys on that show? No. I think he was a guy who came from a market that they had interest in, and a market they didn’t have anybody in, so it made for an interesting story. But was he up to par with the other guys? Probably not. And it showed.

"That’s what I called him about. I just said, hey man, you know, this sport’s a tough thing. It’s easy to be successful and still want to do this sport. It’s harder to be unsuccessful and still want to be in this sport. It takes a certain kind of love. I’d seen all the Internet stuff, and I felt bad. So I told him, I would hate for you to quit and let that live with you forever. I said so if you want to get a few fights with guys who are more around your skill-set, and then decide to go out, that was the better way to do it. When you fail at something, and you don’t try to overcome that, it owns you for the rest of your life. And I felt like that was the pivotal moment where that was happening to him."

What does Thacker do in his spare time? Sometimes he reads. One of his favorite authors is Hitchens, though lately he’s been looking at Proust. He never fought again after Leben. The thing lives in him.

Thacker couldn’t watch the entire original season of TUF as it aired. He says he caught maybe three episodes before it angered him enough to stop. The talk about the whole first cast into the UFC Hall of Fame strikes him as somewhat meaningless. "It would just be my name on a ledger," he says. On the drive back to Maple Ridge, as we pass by the Iron Mountain country store — which he says is used as the middle-of-nowhere gas station in horror movies, where the creepy owner issues final admonitions to the kids passing through — he still shakes his head over some of the smaller promises that came to nothing.

"I was signing hats, and posters, and they said they’d give me one poster, and one hat," he says. "I wanted one of those shirts that said, PEOPLE WERE HARMED DURING THE FILMING OF THIS SHOW, you seen those? I wanted one of those shirts. I never got one."

Not that everything was bad. One story that he likes is the one about how he came to get licensed to fight in the state of Nevada.

After being portrayed as he was on the show, Thacker asked for the chance to redeem himself on the Finale. Though he says White tried to convince him not to, he was granted his wish in that fight with Leben. As such, White had asked him to train at Gibson Pankration in Port Moody to gain some better experience. Thacker did, but his reputation preceded him as the show aired. He says he was "green lit" almost immediately — meaning his training partners were given permission to hold nothing back when sparring against him — to make it clear he wasn’t part of the team.

"I tell Dana that it’s not going well and that [Lance] Gibson will not even corner me, which is a big problem as it is illegal to fight as a lone wolf without a corner," Thacker says. "The NAC says they will not sanction the fight with ‘some guy’ with zero MMA fights and no corner."

While Thacker began training with Pep to work on his hands, he wasn’t getting any quality ground training.

"Finally I get a call from Dana and he says, fuck it, we are going to bring you to Vegas and you can train with Marc Laimon, and you can stay at a room in the [Fertitta-owned] Station Casinos.

"The NAC has not signed on for the fight and time was running out, as there wasn’t any footage of me fighting, and they could not verify unsanctioned fights or my 4-1 MMA record, which was, as I told you, really my Thai boxing record. Dana’s solution: Set-up a gauntlet of fighters for me to spar to prove to the commish that I could fight."

That list of fighters included Kendall Grove and Jason "Mayhem" Miller, the latter whom submitted him three times but at least showed he wasn’t a total stranger to the ground game.

"The gauntlet is done and I hope to get the nod of approval when suddenly I learn that there is a new challenger who I must face or there is no way I get to fight Chris," he says. "The man who stepped into the ring — Dana White, all geared up ready to go. ‘I’m not putting my name on the line to vouch for you until I see for myself if you can fight,’ he told me."

Thacker says White surprised him with his footwork, hand speed and punching power. But then the face of the UFC — who galvanized the season when he delivered his "do you want to be a fucking fighter" speech at a moment of near mutiny — threw a lazy jab.

"Bam! I make him pay with a looping right that circles over the top of his jab before he can bring it back," Thacker says. "The shot breaks his balance and he has to take an extra step forward. He takes it like a real fighter, nods his head to acknowledge the shot and soldiers forward. Nothing else of significance happens before the closing bell. Dana now vouches for me and the fight is on."

This is one of Thacker’s fondest memories in fighting. That parting shot against the president of the company with a looping right hand that convinced the commission to let him compete against Leben. It was his one big moment of validation.

Weeks later the UFC would be on its way to unthinkable heights. Griffin-Bonnar would somehow thrum the primal chords of its expanding television audience and launch the promotion into its boom period. Thacker would become a footnote. He would last 95 seconds against Leben, and carry his experiences with him back home, where, in the fallout, he ended up retreating for good.

With the afternoon getting late, Thacker needs to get back to prepare supper for his family. He says he’s no longer on any of the prescription medications, which means he deals with any social anxiety — in the rare moments when he must — by gritting his teeth. I can tell what a burden it was for him to come meet me and show me around, and I thank him for doing it. I am, after all, dredging up the war.

Thacker came out to fight the way he knew how that night in April ten years ago. He swung hard at Leben, and cracked him with one good shot. Leben didn’t fall. He rarely did in his long career. But what if he did? What if Thacker had redeemed himself on April 9, 2005, by knocking out the guy who tormented him on the show? How different things might have been. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard to track down "Strange Brew." Maybe he’d have a pretty wife, children, a house of his own, his own car, a cell phone. Maybe he’d be embraced in Canada, with a few good buddies and a straight nose. Maybe he wouldn’t be a shut-in.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

His wasn’t a story of "what ifs," though. His was a story of how being in the right place at the right time was actually being in the right place at the wrong time, or the wrong place at the right time. Or — more simply —  a story of not belonging. Yet as I got ready to let Thacker go, the only thing I really wanted to tell him was that it’s not too late. Not too late to live again.

Instead all I mutter is, "Do you have any hard feelings towards Leben?"

"I never really had a big problem with Chris," he says. "Some of the other stuff that’s not really on there was Chris’s story, all the stuff he went through. I sympathize with him."

There’s that disparity again. Sympathy never did come back around to the quirky Canadian Jason Thacker. The game is a little cruel like that. But I was happy to have found him, and I thought I sensed a little gladness on his side to have been found. Maybe I just wanted that to be the case. As he dropped me back at the hotel I was left with the same thought I had all those years ago — how did this gentle soul ever alight in the world of extreme cagefighting? Our time was up, though. The last thing I remember him saying to me was, "I probably won’t even read the piece."

And with that, I said goodbye to Jason Thacker, the one and only "Strange Brew," who turned his car around and disappeared back into the woodwork from whence he came.

About the Author

Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting. He has been covering MMA since 2007, and worked as an MMA columnist for, where he also appeared regularly on "MMA Live." His work has also appeared frequently in FIGHT! and ESPN the Magazine.