I can still remember walking up to Josh Samman in Orlando for UFC on FOX 17 last December, and him lighting up at the chance to meet me. It is rare for a fighter to care about those chronicling the game, but he did. He cared about the written word. He empathized with the writer. He became a writer himself. And yet he lived with thoughts that most of his fellow writers would never fully be able to understand. To be honest, it could be uncomfortable to try.
The kicker was that he understood that.
It’s heartbreaking to lose a person like Josh, a person you truly felt to be in the process of bettering himself, perhaps against his own default wiring — a person you couldn’t help but pull for. Samman died at 28 years old in South Florida, still very much figuring out who he was, what he was about, and where he wanted to go. We don’t know the details yet, we don’t know the why and maybe we never will, but we do know something of the man. He was a fighter in the sense that he appeared in a professional cage and fought the man in front of him. He was good at it, good enough to make that the bedrock of his career. Yet even before 2013 when he lost his girlfriend, Hailey Bevis, in a car crash — which he detailed in a memoir dedicated to her memory in his book, The Housekeeper: Love, Death and Prizefighting — he was trying to be a better person.
I know, because I talked to him about it. He was a cast member on The Ultimate Fighter 17, where he came off, by his own admission, as a bit of a "know-it-all dick." Yet upon seeing the edited version of himself as it aired, he was given to introspection. His introspection turned into something else when his girlfriend died four months after his UFC debut. That’s when his life changed, which he wrote about, with merciless clarity, in his book — a harrowing undertaking for a young man to have to revisit.
It feels like foreboding now. It feels like an impossible uphill climb.
He felt guilty about Bevis’ death, because they had been texting back and forth to each other when she crashed. The guilt was something he confronted daily, which is made heavier by the fact that he had dealt with his problems using drugs and alcohol in the past. The demons converged, and he wrote about it. At one point he’s in a hotel room, trading off between benzos and other pharmaceuticals, falling in and out of various haze, when he awakens to discover a pistol lying at his side. "I was comforted by the availability of it," he wrote. As a writer, he had that. As a person who went through it, he had that. A writer never wants to empathize on the levels he required.
He wrote too of getting ready to put Hailey to rest and, in his fog, it occurred to him that, "[Hailey] hadn’t packed anything to wear to her own funeral." It took a great deal of courage to write the book he did. Samman struck me a person who had no other option but to be courageous. It was his burden, and he dealt with it.
That day in Orlando, he teared up when I asked him about his girlfriend. I remember thinking how close his depth was on the surface, or something along those lines — but also just how sincere he was. He had become such a sincere person in his short time in the UFC. A year earlier, he had paid tribute to Hailey, fighting on her birthday — Dec. 6, 2014 — against Eddie Gordon. He was an underdog. Yet, in what still seems like something scripted in Hollywood — an event where light found itself to him — he knocked Gordon out with a head kick. He was emotional after the fight, but he downplayed any poetics his fellow writers wanted to ascribe. But he took pride in the feat. It didn’t do away with anything. But he seized what was in his humanly ability to do, and he did it. He authored a chapter of his own profound tale, and gave it a glint.
I didn’t know Josh well, but I’ll miss him. I already hate knowing he’s not around. His work for Bloody Elbow was must-read stuff for me, and it was such a pleasant surprise to see him emerge that way. He knew all the writers, too. If I mentioned Ben Fowlkes or Shaun Al-Shatti or Marc Raimondi, he could talk about their pieces with enthusiasm, and that’s what he did that day when I first met him in Orlando. He wanted to talk writing. His fight with Tamdon McCrory was 48 hours away, but he wanted to talk about my Jason Thacker piece. Selfishly, that mattered. It mattered. Because there was so much more going on, and I truly couldn’t meet him on any level of his pain or redemption. I wasn’t equipped.
And so he met me. He made it easy, though his life was anything but.
Rest in peace, Josh Samman.