Four brothers who took on the world, until the night the world fell apart.
By Shaun Al-Shatti
Start with the sighs. They’re deafening. It is early April and Sam Stout won’t say it yet, but he is thinking about the end.
You ask if he’s done fighting. No. He just needs some time to regroup. A few months to catch his breath before committing back to the UFC calendar. It sounds reasonable, though you can barely tell he’s been in a fight at all. Unblemished by the left hook that dropped him, a Ross Pearson special that inched retirement one step closer in his head. He got caught, he insists. It happens. He was in a good place and he was ready. All he could ask for before a fight. Then, again, he sighs.
Sam posts to social media two days after the loss. Just a few words on his Instagram account. They have nothing to do with Pearson, or the left hook, or the UFC at all. Instead, they’re a birthday note. Well wishes to a blurry figure with forever peroxided hair. Nearly identical notes litter Sam’s feed throughout the week. They’re everywhere, you can’t help but notice. Each addressed to the same grinning man.
"Happy birthday to ‘The Coach,’ Shawn Tompkins. Not a day goes by that I don’t still think about him. Love you, coach."
The past four years have been hard, though Sam insists he has finally found a good fit. He tells you about one of Mark Hominick’s old sparring partners turned trainers, a guy named Rino Belcastro based two hours out from London, Ontario. Camp went really well for the Pearson fight, better than it had in a long time. Sam calls it encouraging. Belcastro’s team is a small team, a young team, filled mainly with local boys who look up to the kindly UFC veteran. The atmosphere reminds Sam of 10 years ago. The fit feels good, he repeats. It feels right.
Sam is convincing. He stays with Belcastro throughout the summer. His timeline overflows with photos of newborn daughter Logan. She’s his new obsession. The two stencil Disney castles onto Easter eggs. They paint sweeping solar systems across her bedroom wall, his baby girl’s own window to the stars. Somewhere along the way, Sam reconciles that he can’t keep fooling himself, if only for her sake. This game takes too much, its consequences too lasting, and gives back too little. He makes his decision.
Summer slips into autumn and at a small Canadian show over 2,000 miles away from home, Sam scales into the Octagon against an unheralded 26-year-old kid touted for his submission prowess. Everything feels off. Fifty seconds later, another big hook thuds into Sam’s chin and sends him sprawling. The kid is celebrating and the crowd is roaring and Sam is just caught in the canvas’ lonely embrace, eyes glued to the monitor, swearing at himself. This is what it’s come to? The kid calls Sam a childhood hero of his in a post-fight speech. Sam can’t hear it. It took 12 years and 31 fights to get knocked out once. Now he’s at three straight.
His announcement comes a few days later. It’s a quiet one, just like Mark’s. You half expect it. Sam retires from his life’s ultimate pursuit with a simple 100-word statement on a UFC serial show. In retrospect, this day has been coming for a long time now. He could feel it. Apparently everyone else could too. One can only grope around the darkness for so long until either finding the light or adjusting to the black. Sam adjusted to the black a while ago, way back in April. Likely before. They all did, because without The Coach, what else was there to do?
The next time you speak, you ask if things could have ended differently had Shawn stuck around. Sam says they would have. "Very different, for all of us. I don’t know. It’s just difficult, man. It’s such a mental sport, and to have something affect you, to take such a huge loss…" He pauses. Sighs.
"We’re still all struggling with it."
FIRST is a question. Funny enough, people always seem to know the answer. The first time they met. A passing exchange or silly anecdote. Even something simple, a trick or transition given out pro bono. People begin jumping to tell their Shawn Tompkins stories like you’re asking about a Canadian Santa Claus. It’s overwhelming. And the adjectives are always variants of the same. Magnetic. Loyal. Gregarious. A guy you just wanted around, even if you weren’t one of his boys.
Sam tells you he was in awe the first afternoon they met. He was 16 and his older sister Emilie spotted Shawn at a party. Soon this hulking figure with hair like Slim Shady was standing in the living room. It blew him away; this guy in his mid-twenties who was living a fighter’s life, spinning dizzying tales about traveling the world, training in Venezuela, training in America, meeting celebrities and cracking skulls in towns only heard of in passing. Intoxicating. The schoolyard fights lost their luster after an afternoon like that.
They became inseparable. Then they became family. Emilie married Shawn, and Shawn helped Sam harness his natural gifts — hands like grenades and a cast iron chin that put most lightweights to shame. Sam grew to be Team Tompkins incarnate, an all-offense banger who lived and died by Shawn’s bellowing advice. The Coach saw openings from the corner like no one else. Like receiving texts from five seconds in the future.
Take UFC 131. Sam matched against Yves Edwards in an otherwise tight contest. Then Shawn’s order: Right cross. Right cross. Left hook over the top. Edwards blocked the first right cross. The second glanced into his body and drew a step backward. The left hook that followed? Borderline frightening. Edwards was unconscious before hitting the floor. Perhaps the most perfect punch of Sam’s career, and The Coach called it.
Mark Hominick, too, tells you he was enamored. Mark and Shawn were both small town boys, likely the only men from Ingersoll and Tillsonburg you’ve ever met. Mark fell in love with martial arts early, then like all small town boys, moved out to the big city in pursuit of something bigger. He heard stories of the blonde kickboxer poking around London and sought Shawn out. It led him to the small karate school where Shawn ran biweekly kickboxing classes. The day after his first class, Mark went home and dyed his own hair bleach-blonde.
Mark was always the oldest, and so he became the rock. The one the rest of Shawn’s boys looked up to most. That night at UCC 10 when Mark announced Team Tompkin’s presence by sending UCC’s reigning featherweight champion to the hospital on a stretcher, he showed up to the post-fight press conference decked to the nines in a new suit. Clean and professional, the 18-year-old business major outshining the gaggle of board shorts and loose tanks that otherwise adorned the dais.
Georges St-Pierre, an eventual Canadian icon, fought on that same UCC card and sat upon that same dais. Four months later, the future welterweight GOAT showed up to defend his UCC title decked to the nines in a new suit. Clean and professional, just like Mark.
As for the kid? His first run-in with Shawn was a happy accident, though they all were in their own way. Chris Horodecki was just a baby when he attended Shawn’s first London kickboxing class. He never stopped attending. All arms and legs with a kiddie face that belied his age, Mother Nature never made a tougher preteen. He was the tagalong before he was anything else, the chubby youngster who crashed Mark and Sam’s fights to warn promoter Stephane Patry that they all better save him a spot. Patry would just laugh and Shawn would just nod his head. The kid’s words proved to be prophetic.
Shawn was the beginning and end back then. Just four Canadian boys sweating inside that stuffy London studio. Mark lacing his first pair of gloves. Sam boxing his first shadow. Chris braving his first round of sparring. Shawn was the dreamer and they were his soldiers. He wrapped all their hands. He righted all their tendencies. He coached each and every fight of their pro careers. Though they were all so young — Mark, 18; Sam, 16; and Chris, the eternal baby brother, just 13 — when Shawn stumbled into their lives, there was always a sense they were reaching together towards something more. "You just wanted to be like him," Mark says. "And he led by example."
The barnstorming trips became the best memories. Carfuls of stinky Canadian kids mobbing down south to some smoky bar full of 50 people in Iowa or Indiana or anywhere in the Midwest there was a USA vs. Canada card. Fifteen hours both ways to ruin the buzz of some patriotic Midwestern barfolk. "We were always the same crew," says Mark. "And that’s where we learned that we’d always be together."
"We used to do our pro sparring on Saturdays, and we’d all beat the shit out of each other," says Sam. "I remember one time, us all sprawled out on the mat dripping sweat everywhere, just finished sparring, all of our sparring gear is still on, and Shawn just looking around and being like, ‘who the fuck else would be spending their Saturdays doing this shit?’ We felt like we were the kings of the world at that time, and it was just… it was just a really great part of my life."
Under Shawn’s guiding hand, Mark and Sam both rose to be regional champions by the age of 21. Once Chris came of age, the three reigned together among Canada’s biggest homegrown stars, fighting in 17 combined UCC/TKO title fights at a time when Patry boasted "one of the best regional rosters anywhere," remembers Mauro Ranallo, who commentated on several of those early shows.
"It was something special," Ranallo says. "To this day, it is something I’ve always been proud of. The fact that they were able to pack 9,000, 10,000 fans in (venues around) Quebec. All of the work and the talent," courtesy of a few local kids who grew up on hockey and fistfights and just wanted to have a little fun. Shawn’s fistic archetypes given flesh. "And it all began with The Coach. He got it. That’s the thing."
SECOND is a widow. Only she doesn’t sound like a widow. At least not right now. Her voice is warm and you practically can hear her smile through the phone. She tries not to say it. She says it anyway. Magical. You ask Emilie Tompkins about the night she met Shawn. She was 19. He was 26, and they were at a party. She was instantly drawn. This tattooed guy with the big laugh and the blonde locks, you could take him anywhere and he would have the best time. Those same descriptors start rolling. Crazy. Magnetic. Energetic. Someone you just wanted around, she says, "and I was just lucky enough to be the one who was around him the most."
Emilie tells you about the first time she realized Shawn could be something more for Sam. It was six months in, and it didn’t take long to see the connection. "They listened to everything he said," she remembers. "They just wanted to impress him so badly." She says that even then, Shawn just knew. The language of individuality, the nuance of a fighter’s needs. "But his real gift was he could just make you feel like you were the only person he was talking to. Make you understand what he was trying to say in a different way every time."
She tells you that no nickname was more fitting. The Coach. No superfluous words, as if preternaturally given. Shawn embraced it. He wore it on hats and t-shirts. He even got it tattooed across his forearm. Emilie laughs. More people knew him by his fake name than his real one.
There was a second tattoo, as well, a small one across Shawn’s shin — Japanese script that translated to fight, spirit, pride — whichbecame a sort of gift. When students reached a certain level, Shawn would trace it off his shin and onto their own. His own little rite of passage. Mark got one. Sam, too. Chris wasn’t big on tattoos, but Sam wore shorts for months after he had his script inked. He was so proud.
You ask Emilie about her brother’s retirement. She says that they’ve been through this once before. That this just means the start of a new chapter. That they saw this coming, and that everything ends. "But that’s kind of a story of the MMA fighter, right?
"It’s strange to be a professional athlete. You have to figure out where you’re going when you’re not even halfway through your life."
Emilie isn’t the first, nor the last, to tell you she often thinks of Shawn, and how things fell apart once Shawn was gone. It’s hard. "For all of us," she says, "when Shawn passed away it just wasn’t the same anymore. Not everyone has that kind of relationship with their coach, but Shawn is the one who put the ideas in their heads in the first place, so it was a hard adjustment. Sam, he’s gone on for four more years and he’s done a really good job representing Shawn and the team itself. But yeah, they’re kids, right? And they’re retiring in their early thirties."
She tells you that in some strange way, she thinks Shawn knew. That he started sending mass texts to everyone. Preparing people. He spoke to his mentor Bas Rutten the night before, told Bas that he loved him. She wonders if in some strange way, maybe she knew too. Some things are just too hard to explain, she says, but the gang was growing up and he was always preparing them to be on their own.
"We talk about it all the time, and it’s not a secret. Not everyone in the sport comes up the same way, and they just really had a relationship where they relied on him to make decisions and figure it out," she says. "They were the muscle and he was the brain. They really felt a sense of loss, and they lost a friend too, you know? Their mentor. I think in anyone’s life, when you lose somebody, everything changes.
"But they were all at really good points in their careers, and not to say they didn’t do well and make everyone proud after, but it just wasn’t the same anymore. Sam and I have talked about it over the years. He’s gone on, he’s had some wins, he’s had some losses, but it just never had the same feel."
The night Shawn proposed to Emilie, it was just past midnight. The two of them were walking down Santa Monica Pier, and the moon was a saucer of white reflected on pools of blue below. The kind of memory you can drown in. They were together eleven years, through the entirety of Team Tompkins. Eleven wonderful years. "I spent so much time watching them succeed, it was very difficult to watch them struggle without anything I could do to help," she says. "Because I was always the sidekick of the man who helped them get through anything, good or bad.
"Without Shawn, there was no leader. It’s like anyone says about any kind of group, any organization: it’s the leader who everyone follows who really makes the group what it is. Without him, we just felt really lost for a long time."
She tells you she still goes by Tompkins. She is proud of the name.
THIRD is a photo. Not here, but somewhere. Buried under some old gym memorabilia. Maybe in the frayed shoebox under the bed. Sam can’t find it, but they all remember it anyway. How could they not? It was one of The Coach’s fondest moments. Patry ran annual award ceremonies for TKO, his Canadian behemoth of a promotion that housed names like Georges St-Pierre, David Loiseau and Patrick Cote. And even amongst all that talent, 2005 belonged to the Tompkins boys.
Patry still thinks of it. How Mark lost a heartbreaking contest in 2004, tapping in his fifth consecutive title defense to an unknown named Shane Rice. "Rice was very, very arrogant with Mark afterwards," he says. "He wasn’t very nice with the whole thing, and when we did the rematch, obviously there was a lot of pressure because Shawn and Mark didn’t want to lose twice to the same guy with everything that happened."
Patry tells you that whispers started flying about the end of Team Tompkins. They grew louder as Rice took early control of the rematch. Then Shawn barked out an order and Mark ended it all. One gorgeous flurry of Donald Cerrone Fuck You Kicks followed by a nuclear holocaust of a flying left, and Shawn bounding over the ropes, locking Mark in a bear-hug of an embrace.
"In the back, everybody was in tears," Patry says. "I mean, the whole team. Sam, Mark, Shawn, Chris, everybody. They were all in tears. It was a very special moment, because a lot of people were like, finally, it’s over with Team Tompkins. And then Mark came back and beat him. It was a special moment."
Team Tompkins swept the TKO awards that year. Mark won Fighter of the Year. Chris won Rookie of the Year. Sam doubled up, winning Knockout and Fight of the Year. And Shawn, of course, won Coach of the Year. There they are, forever holding their plaques up for the camera. Shawn, beaming. None of them knew it then, but it was the last time they would be Canada’s little secret.
Patry sighs. The old promoter admits he isn’t surprised to hear of Sam’s retirement. Shawn’s absence hit Sam the hardest, he says. He wasn’t the same person anymore. None of them were. The past four years have been difficult to watch from the sidelines, how a dominant team could turn into a team with so little direction. Worse, how predictable it has been to see. "It was almost like these guys didn’t want to fight anymore," he says.
"We’re talking about legends here. We’re talking about guys who have one of the most amazing legacies for mixed martial arts in Canada, then you see these guys with distress in their eyes. It’s hard."
Patry tells you he was one of the last to speak with Shawn. It was just past midnight. He wondered if Shawn would commentate on his next show. Shawn of course said yes, then sold Patry on his latest up-and-coming star. "The next Horodecki," The Coach proclaimed of the kid, never afraid of a little hyperbole. The next morning Mark called Patry, crying.
"He was so young," Patry says. "Thirty-something. It affected everybody, because he meant so much to the community here. To the martial arts community. To the combat sports community. He was a legend, you know?
"He’d done so much for the sport, and it was beautiful to see him live his dream through his fighters. Every time one of his guys would win, you could see in his eyes that he was winning. He was living his dream through Hominick, through Stout, through Horodecki. Through all of these kids. He was a party animal, but he was such a great guy. If there is one guy I miss right now in this whole business, it’s Shawn Tompkins."
FOURTH is a coach. Not The Coach, but a coach all the same. He is getting a little tired of all these questions, but he grins and bears it. He was the same way when he was Shawn’s age, so hell, it’s hard to complain. Bas Rutten tells you about the day they met. He led a seminar in Alberta in 2001, and later at lunch, this 26-year-old kickboxer hounded him through every forkful, asking about the left hand on this technique and the defensive counter of that trick. The guy needed to know everything. By the end of the afternoon, when Shawn wondered if he could fly out to Beverly Hills to train with him, Bas had no recourse but to say yes.
"There’s fighters out there who want to be a fighter, who don’t really want to learn everything," he says. "They just want to be a fighter. They’re just repeating what other people do. You’ve got to do this and this, and it sounds cool. But nobody really breaks it down to the fundamentals. That’s what Shawn did. So that was it. The friendship was born right there."
Bas tells you about how Shawn unexpectedly showed up in California just a week after the seminar. Shawn had nowhere to stay, so he slept on the mats.
They kept in touch after Shawn departed back for London. He would brag about his three students who were gradually becoming killers north of the border, and Bas would just listen and smile. Bas admits, he never really expected it. There were so few successful Canadian fighters at the time, he never knew how it was going to work. Until he saw. Once he saw, then he understood. "You meet fighters and everybody gets along. But these guys, it was really something. It’s like they were real brothers," he says. "Like they were blood brothers. For somebody to have that effect on people… it’s because of him. It’s because of Shawn. He brought them all together.
"When you connect people who have nothing to do with each other, and you connect them and you put everybody on the same wavelength, that is a powerful thing."
Bas tells you about UFC 58, about the ultimate barnstorming trip that was practically preordained. USA vs. Canada, just like those wild weekends in the Midwest. It doubled as Mark and Sam’s UFC debuts. Shawn’s, too. They supposedly never stood a chance, these small town Canadian boys, until Sam reenacted the War of 1812 with Spencer Fisher and Mark fought up a weight class and stunned a top-10 lightweight with an early triangle armbar. It is hard to describe Shawn’s elation that night, Bas says, but the coach promised his boys that it was only up from there, and he was right.
Mark soon established himself as one of the unquestioned best featherweights in the world, ripping a wide swathe through Affliction and the WEC. Stout got the callback from the UFC and never stopped getting the call back. He fought his last 17 fights inside the Octagon, winning Fight of the Night five times — twice for the final two chapters of his epic trilogy with Fisher — and Knockout of the Night once, after Shawn ordered the unholy left hook that nearly decapitated Edwards.
Chris was only 18, too raw to take part in the Canadian uprising, but good enough to graduate to the IFL. Bas needed a lightweight for his Los Angeles Anacondas and Shawn suggested him. The first time Bas laid eyes on the 4-0 teenager, he couldn’t help but laugh. But Shawn was as cool as ever. Don’t you worry about it, Bas. Just watch.
So Bas watched, as Chris debuted well under the legal drinking age and head kicked Erik Owings through the ropes and into the deepest of sleeps. "He became a fan-favorite right away," Bas says. "He had that baby-face, he looked like he was 14 years old. But I knew Shawn brought him, so I knew he had to be good. But I never expected that. To see the technique on these guys, Shawn did a phenomenal job."
Bas tells you about those old IFL days. What good days they were. He tells you about how he practically forced the league to bend its own rules and bring Shawn on as an assistant coach, and how other coaches couldn’t help but approach Shawn for tips in the hallways, just because they knew he was so invested. Shawn eventually took command of the Anacondas and guided Chris to a seven-fight win streak into the IFL’s world grand prix finals, and his talent and compassion led him to two dream jobs, first overseeing legendary names like Silva and Belfort and Sefo at Xtreme Couture, then starting his own all-star team at Tapout Training Center. And through all of it, he still found time to raise his Team Tompkins boys.
"I’m pretty sure everybody will tell you this: the expression ‘he will give you the shirt off his back?’ A lot of people say that expression, but a lot of people never do it. Shawn would do that," Bas says. "You just look at the people he and Emilie took inside their home. They came from all countries. I mean, his house was packed constantly with fighters from around the world. They had no money to pay, but you didn’t need to pay with Shawn. He just took you in, and that’s what he did. He helped everybody."
Bas isn’t the first, nor the last, to tell you he often thinks of Shawn, and how things fell apart once Shawn was gone. He says he talked to Sammy after the announcement. That Sam thanked him for his help throughout the years, then said it was time. He told Sam he agreed. "When the connection is gone, you see there is a little less fighter in them," he says. "That little less fighter makes the difference in hanging in there with the top guys or not. I think everybody got affected by it, and that’s unfortunately what happened."
You ask Bas what he remembers most about his friend. Bas pauses, then says that Shawn was always smiling, that he was always happy, and always there for his fighters. That even on fight week, when late drunken nights turned into early tipsy mornings, he would still return at sunrise and be there bright and early at eight o’clock, ready to climb into the sauna and cut weight alongside his boys.
The night Shawn texted out of the blue, telling Bas how much he loved him, Bas knew something was up. It wasn’t normal. He called back and they talked for nearly a half-hour. The conversation was positive, as always, and when they hung up, Shawn barraged him with texts. You know I love you, right?Team Tompkins loves you. We love you forever. "He never did that before," Bas says, "at least not like that."
The strangest thing, though, is the video. Bas says somebody gave it to him a while back. It’s so long ago. Memories so hazy. They’re in a gym, and the camera pans over to The Coach. It asks what he is thinking. For the first time in a long time, Shawn grows serious. Almost somber.
I’m just thinking what would happen if I’m not here anymore.
Did I do enough?
Everything I do for these guys, was it enough to keep this carrying on?
Bas says it was odd. Almost eerie. Like Shawn knew this was coming.
The coach has goosebumps now. You do, too.
FIFTH is a moment. A perfect moment. It’s real. Then it’s gone. It existed though, you know it to be true, and you watch over and over to make sure. The lights dimming. Maple leaves birthing spontaneous and brilliant and scarlet behind snowfall on the big screens. The collective chill rippling through 55,000 strong as the opening chords of ‘Coming Home’ thrum, chords that will eventually become a cliché, but for right now feel like the only chords in the world you want to hear.
UFC 129. The sellout of the Rogers Centre was immediate. The night everything came full circle, and those hometown boys walked into the loving arms of the largest crowd North America has ever seen. They could have sold 100,000 tickets.
Go back to that moment. Perhaps Mark and Shawn and all of the rest will win. Perhaps this late-round comeback won’t fall so damn short, and these final furious flails from mount will land an inch closer to their mark. Perhaps a party unlike any other will explode inside Toronto. Shawn will hoist Mark atop his shoulders and parade him around the canvas. Emilie will cry. Shawn probably will too. Sam and Chris will simply marvel at who their big brother has become.
It is a lie though. It always plays the same. Mark takes his lumps and stands ever steadfast against the greatest featherweight to ever live. Jose Aldo limps home with the belt wrapped around his waist, and an hour away from where the boys grew up, Mark staggers back into the arena’s bowels with alien sprouting out of his forehead. This life is rarely keen on storybook endings. Reality is so much more dramatic.
But it still happened, that perfect moment. Three minutes when Team Tompkins ruled Canada and Canada ruled the world. Those chords hitting and that crowd erupting. Chris clutching the fight banner and those Tompkins boys bouncing on their heels. Shawn bringing Mark close. Whispering in his ear.
We made it.
SIXTH is death. Not one death, but one for all the rest to come. You know what happens next. Shawn Tompkins dies the same way he lives. In Canada. On the road. Surrounded by the game. Neither Mark, nor Sam, nor Chris are together the night Shawn falls asleep and the world wakes without him. The autopsy rules it a heart attack. Apparently it is Shawn’s second one. He never told anybody about the first. That tough bastard just gritted his teeth and pushed through it. He was 37.
Mark tells you he is the first to know, and the first to not believe. He is caught in the opening legs of a celebrity golf tournament two hours away when he gets the phone call. The tournament is for charity and he has committed, so he sticks around like Shawn would have wanted, not believing, blotting out the nightmares running through his head, trying to focus his frantic attention on the tiny white ball in front of him.
Chris is driving home to London when a reporter calls and asks for a statement. Such a simple request, but so impersonal. So confusing. The voice over the phone clarifies: a statement about Shawn. Chris hangs up and calls Mark. Then he feels like he can’t breathe.
Sam, too, is driving home when the missed calls begin bombarding his dead phone. He is coming back from a cousin’s bachelor party in Northern Ontario and Shawn is the last thing on his mind. Then his father rings a friend in the car. Get home right now. You need to come home. No explanation, just a panicked request. Sam instantly thinks to his mother and sister. Are they okay? What is going on? He is two hours away.
Two hours stretch into hellacious infinity, and then the world falls apart.
* * *
They lay Shawn to rest five days later in London. Hundreds gather for the ceremony. Mark, dressed in black, chokes back tears as he speaks about family and brotherhood. Emilie marvels at the sea of people who introduce themselves as Shawn’s best friend. Others remember smaller moments, the tightness of Shawn’s hugs, Shawn cornering a fighter who wasn’t his own, or making sure he had enough food to give a homeless person a good meal on the way home from dinner. Things he never bragged about. Things he did just to do.
The cruelty of tragedy is how obvious the warning signs often grow in retrospect. Heart problems run in Shawn’s family. Shawn’s father dies of a heart attack not long after Shawn passes. His sister battles through one, too. Bas tells you that the week things came to an end, Shawn’s mother planned to order her son to go to the doctor, "because it runs in the family that they have an enlarged heart, and that needs to be controlled," he says. "She was going to tell him that weekend, and then it happened. It was so sad."
Life out of a suitcase is a busy and hard life, and Shawn lived probably three lives in his years.
"Not a day goes by where I don’t think about it," Sam says. "Think about how things would be different if he was still here. If there’s something I could’ve done. If that guy would’ve gone to a freaking doctor and gotten a fucking physical, he’d still be alive.
"You have all these questions. I should’ve done this. I should’ve done this. I wish we did this. But really at that point, it’s just, all you can do is accept it. It’s really, it’s a strange thing. And still… it still gets in your head. As long as it’s been, it’s still something, a feeling you never forget. And it never really goes away."
"Sometimes to this day, I don’t even think it’s real," Chris says. "But that’s the feeling I had. It’s not possible. It’s not possible. It’s. Not. Possible. You don’t feel it. It doesn’t hit home until you see the person. When you see your friend. That’s when it hits. When you see them laying there. That’s the feeling."
For a time, the MMA community mourns. The language of unexpected death is paralyzing, and an outpouring of condolences and tributes and interview requests flush to the surviving members of Team Tompkins. Constant reminders of the man they’ll never see again. And then? The game moves on. Anderson Silva manhandles Yushin Okami the following weekend, and those oblivious smiles in the window wander back to routine.
News cycles rarely have patience for grieving.
SEVENTH is an end. Not now, but it’s coming. Chris is the first to try fighting alone. A close friend of his passes a month before Shawn. The combined grief is dizzying, and he buries himself in the gym. Three months later he shows up to a Bellator show in Ontario. The lead-up is emotional. Much of it feels foreign. No hulking presence to wrap his hands, walk through advice or set up strategy. Just Mark in his corner and an endless series of randoms asking detached question after detached question. How does it feel without Shawn? Does it feel different? He tries not to cry.
Chris fights to a majority draw against Mike Corey, and is lucky to do so after nearly going home early in the first round. ‘Always in my corner’ is written across his shorts and banner. Afterward, with the left side of his face swollen and the gravel in voice faint, he tells reporters he that feels empty inside. Another 19 months pass before Chris wins a fight.
Mark is next. He loses three fights after Aldo, then retires. He coaches himself through all of it. It is painful to do otherwise. In his first fight back at UFC 140, four months after Shawn passes, Mark closes as a near six-to-one favorite over Chan Sung Jung. He tells the media that Chris and Sam will be in his corner. Shawn’s brother will too, just to "make a statement that we’re not going anywhere." Mark ends up getting knocked out in seven seconds. In retrospect, he calls it a seven-second mistake trying to make all of the bad thoughts go away.
He hangs up his gloves at 30, retiring with a simple five-minute segment on a UFC serial show.
Sam fights nine more times but never regains momentum. The accumulated damage of his style slowly creeps on him until he suffers the first knockout loss of his career. Then the second and third, back-to-back-to-back. He retires soon after. He is 31. "I went from the height of my career to not being able to buy a win when he died," Sam says.
"I had Shawn in my corner for every single fight of my entire career, starting with my very first amateur kickboxing fight. Literally never had one single fight without having him in my corner, his voice in my ear. All of these people when he died were like, ‘He’s still going to be there. He’s always going to be in your corner.’ Let’s be honest. I know that’s partially true, but if I can’t physically hear him, then it’s not true. I know that sounds nice and touchy-feely, but that’s not the case. He wasn’t in my corner. For a long time I was trying to do it without a coach at all. I love Hominick and I love those guys, but they’re my training partners, man. They’re not my coaches. And trying to shop around for new coaches, it takes a long time. Me and Shawn had 10 years to build that relationship. You can’t just duplicate that overnight."
Sam’s absence leaves Chris as the last vestige of the original Team Tompkins. He moves his training camp to Tristar in Montreal and keeps pushing on, winning three of eight. He falls short in a World Series of Fighting title shot in June. He is only 28 and he says he still wants to compete. It is with reluctance though, and hesitation. "Do I still have 10-plus years in me?" he asks. "I don’t think so. But I do think I still got that fire in me. I still want a few more fights.
"It’s an end of an era almost," he adds, "because not too long ago I was the youngest kid on the block."
The three spend most of their days in London, back home, running the sprawling two-floor, orange monument to Shawn they first opened eight years ago. They call it Adrenaline MMA.
Mark has developed into quite the head coach. More than a few people say he reminds them of Shawn. He says it is his responsibility to carry on the legacy, whatever that entails. Lately that entails turning down an offer to captain one of MMA’s most talent-rich teams, Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male. Emilie admires what he is doing. "He’s keeping that dream alive for all of us," she says. "The next generation."
Shawn’s nieces and nephews still train at the gym. Shawn’s mom comes in too, and his brother. Memories of The Coach hang across the walls. Reminders of Toronto and the Midwest and the Big Show. Bas calls to check in from time to time. He says he can’t wait until the day the gym’s young guns start breaking into the major leagues. Won’t that be something? After all this time, the family still breathes as one.
Team Tompkins never died. It just goes by a new name.
End with the giggles. They’re faint, but they’re there. Logan coaxes them out. All on her own, snickering and snickering about nothing in particular until Sam finally caves, then they get you too. Baby girl got her first heavy bag for Christmas this year. A little inflatable thing that is half her size. She is one year old now, a natural, able to walk and chatter and punch things with the best of them. The latter two get her in more trouble than the former.
Sam tells you that he’s not really retired. That, for whatever it’s worth, it is the opposite. "One of the hardest things is financial stress," he says. "I have a daughter, and now I have no income. I’m unemployed. I wish I could say I made enough money to really retire, but that’s not the case. It’s not that I wasn’t smart with my money or anything like that. It’s just the sport. It’s not enough. The money we’re making is practically blue-collar money. Once you’re done, it doesn’t mean you get to relax for a little while. It means you’ve got to get right back on the grind and start fresh in something completely different, as a coach or whatever. That’s been one of the hardest things."
Sam says he is still getting used to the idea of fighting being a word for the past tense. It is strange, but maybe it always will be. He’s spending more time at Adrenaline these days, whenever he’s not busy with Logan. He’s also considering going back to school to be a firefighter. Things are finally beginning to slow down, he says, and there are worse ways to make a living than by helping people.
He still thinks about the way things ended. It is hard not to. Three straight knockouts is tough to swallow, but there was no question in his mind. His little girl deserves a happy and healthy life with her father. It was time. "I’m not going to risk my health for $34,000 a fight," he says. "That’s before taxes and trainers, man. You walk away at the end of the day with $20,000, hopefully. And it’s like, you get knocked out like that? Maybe next time I get knocked out, I’m not the same guy anymore. Maybe my memory starts to slip. Maybe I start to suffer depression. There’s all these symptoms that start coming up, and there’s just not enough money in this sport to really justify it."
Sam says his age is deceiving. Thirty-one sounds so young, but fight years and life years are wholly separate beasts, and almost half of his existence has been spent wading through a sea of semi-concussive blows. And anyway, maybe this is all a positive. Thirty-one is young, certainly young enough to start down some other road.
"That’s something that’s crossed my mind," he says. "Also, being able to say I was 21 when I started fighting in the UFC is something I’m proud of. To be 31 and to have the word legend attached to my name — and I’m not saying I consider myself that way, but since this retirement that’s a word that’s come up a bunch of times — to have somebody say that about you is a really big honor. It’s like what you said, I’m still 31. I’m only 31. I still have time to do other things. I still have options and I can still have a whole other career and whole other life after the UFC."
The fight game is a lonely place. Sam gave away a decade of his youth to climb the mountain, but there is no retirement for half-digested fighters. No pension with a 401k and benefits. Just the next stage, and an ill-fitting skillset for whatever comes next. It is hard to talk about. He doesn’t want to bite the hand that fed him.
"But that’s just the nature of the beast," Chris points out. "You’ve got to kind of know that walking into this.
"The thing about fighters is they’re replaceable. So there’s always another guy. There’s always an up-and-comer. When a door shuts for one guy, another opens for another, right? That’s just kind of how it is."
Sam says that the unsettled feeling is the hardest, and that he always knew it was going to be. That it will take time before that feeling leaves, before the fighter in him grows comfortable with this next life and its new pressures.
But Sam is proud of what he accomplished. What they accomplished. Of course he wanted to do more. That’s just the athlete’s way. But they did so much more than most. And he’ll name you his fondest moment without a second’s hesitation. It is his trilogy with Fisher. That bludgeoning first battle at UFC 58 that proved he and Shawn and the rest of the Canadian boys belonged. The rematch that immortalized his first UFC main event on the old fight posters that hang at home in London.
And the rubber match in 2012, when in the throes of loss, Sam willed himself to the team’s first victory in the absence of their Coach.
That one was for Shawn. That one was for them all.
Edward Cao is a Los Angeles-based artist and illustrator whose art has been exhibited in galleries across the U.S. and internationally. His commercial work is featured on books, album covers and apparel. His past work for SB Nation Longform can be seen on 'The Night We Faced Aldo'. View his portfolio at edwardcao.com and follow him at @edwardcao.