Junior year, 1993. There is no stopping this ghost in the red and white singlet. The shredded ligament in his knee is nothing more than a distraction, a discomfort, because this is winning time and motherfuckers like him feast on greatness. But then, a pop – his jaw is broken. He can barely clench his teeth. He calls time and thumps the side of his head. Once. He is a madman. Twice. He is a surgeon. The bones in his skull snap back in place, and with a jaw wired shut, he thrashes the next four men he faces. Back-to-back NCAA champion. Immortal before he leaves the mat.
That was always my favorite Kevin Randleman story. It’s a creation myth of the highest order – this lunatic casually stepping back from an NCAA tourney match, asking his bewildered coach to "snap his face back into place," then just fixing the problem himself and winning it all. How terrifying is that? The supermen of that first era all lived their lives through tall tales, but Kevin Randleman was one of the few who truly felt capable of anything at his peak.
Mark Coleman was Kevin’s coach at Ohio State University and he has a lifetime of stories about The Monster. One of his favorites was from the summer of ‘97 – the night Kevin fought off three Brazilian giants for 54 minutes just to see if he could. The ring was a stranger back then, but he was a sight, this lion with the bleach-blonde hair throwing grown heavies through the canvas. Life was simpler with bare knuckles. Endless rounds, no weight classes, no enswells. Just a suffocating heat and another hungry goliath waiting in the finals. They called it Vale Tudo, and there was no money in it. No guarantee of safety. Only a few fleeting minutes to feel alive. But Kevin was obsessed, and so he became a legend.
The Monster rode through this game for 17 years, longer than most in that first class. His body betrayed him well before his heart let him quit.
He was so full of stories by the end, he decided to write a book. Kevin could never sit still long enough to type, but Elizabeth Randleman could paint her husband’s words the way they deserved to be painted, so together they lounged for hours under the night sky in their backyard, Kevin telling his tales – tales of becoming UFC heavyweight champion, tales of becoming a Pride Fighting icon – Elizabeth copying notes shorthand into her blue binder, then carrying it inside to unload into something digestible. The yard was Kevin’s escape, more tropical than it had any right to be in the middle of the Nevada desert, and those nights became cathartic, the two of them reminiscing about the old days, the days of spectacle and pageantry, of backstage brawls and shadow warriors from distant lands reigning as kings.
"People don’t know now," says Phil Baroni, a friend and teammate who joined Kevin on many of his travels. "Young fighters, they get to watch Embedded, they get to watch HBO 24/7. I used to only get this magazine called Full Contact Fighter, and I would read about Kevin Randleman fighting in Brazil with no weight classes. Just going down there and fighting. It was a way different era. It was the wild, wild west into the unknown. There was no videos, no nothing. I’m getting on a plane and I’m going to fucking Japan right now and I’m going to fight some dude from fucking Holland and everyone is bowing to me and I have no idea what the fuck I’m getting myself into. It was just crazy. We could die over there. It was way different. It was way scarier."
Baroni was one of the many who grew up idolizing The Monster. When Baroni was a wrestler in high school, Kevin was already forging a legacy at OSU. Once Baroni took his talents to university, Kevin already held gold in the UFC. The many accolades Kevin attained were a testament to how much he overachieved. He was undersized and underprepared fighting against the titans of his era, but he was also a supernatural talent in a moment that trafficked in the fantastical – ferocious, inhumanly strong, with once-in-a-generation athleticism. He could even drop a mic with the best of them.
If The Monster came up as a prospect today, with his prodigious physical gifts and background of being one of the greatest college wrestlers ever, the game would be his to own. He would be destined for superstardom.
"He was beating heavyweights when he was a light heavyweight, slamming them onto their heads," Baroni says. "He was a real fighter. He was a 205-pounder who took any fight, never fucking backed down from any challenge. He was not supposed to be picking up fucking Fedor and throwing him on his head when Fedor was beating everybody. He was not supposed to go in there and fucking knockout Cro Cop when Cro Cop was knocking everybody out.
"If Kev came out of college now and went to Jackson-Winkeljohn, he’d be fucking unbeatable. He was a super fucking athlete. He could jump over the cage into the ring, no hands. He could jump over the fucking cage, into the fucking ring, not even touching it, land on his feet and start bouncing around. He was a super athlete. He just didn’t know. He didn’t have a jiu-jitsu coach. There was no real striking coaches for MMA, especially in Ohio back then. If he had a coach like that his whole career he would’ve been knocking everybody out. He’d be a super-charged [Daniel Cormier]. That’s how good he was."
It is strange now to think that all of this happened on a whim. Team Hammer House was a lie Coleman concocted after a tournament run at UFC 10, when a Brazilian promotion called and wondered if he had any fighters who wanted to compete. He shrugged and said he had a whole stable. Kevin was the next person he rang, and the two of them ended up traveling the world together, fashioning careers out of thin air. "Kevin was one of the most charismatic guys I’ve ever met," Coleman says. "One minute you’d be terrified of the guy and the next minute you’d fall in love with him. That’s it. Everybody fell in love with him once they got to talking to him.
"I don’t know anybody who didn’t want to be around Kevin Randleman."
The Monster penned the final chapter to his book this past spring with Elizabeth. One of his favorite stories to relive with her was the afternoon they first met. It was winter in the early 2000’s, and he and Coleman were riding around in the back of Ricco Rodriguez’s new Escalade. Just three heavyweight champions cruising Las Vegas. Rodriguez phoned Elizabeth over his old-school two-way radio, but Kevin sat in silence, captivated by the sassy Italian soprano cracking jokes over the speakerphone. He swore by those first few minutes. Months later, Elizabeth’s old rottweiler Brutus got sick and Kevin nearly missed a fight to stay behind and help. The selflessness floored her, so she agreed to go out with him on Valentine’s Day. They ended the night with their first kiss.
The past few months have been hard, but Elizabeth has been strong. She says it would be selfish of her to pick now, of all times, to become a broken woman. There are too many people relying on her, too much left unfinished. Ceremonies. Paperwork. The cold inconvenience of death that life often forgets. "Kevin and I had the love most people dream about their whole lives," she says. "It'll hurt forever, but you can’t focus on the unlucky. I just have to be grateful that I did have this amazing love, that I did have this incredible man."
No one saw this coming.
Elizabeth says that things were not easy for Kevin in the five years since he retired. Life as an aging MMA legend does not come with a pension, so paychecks were scarce, and he went through dark times trying to find his place in a world without fighting. But Kevin finally had momentum on his side. The nasty hip infection that nearly took his life in 2014 was a thing of the past, his memoirs were competed, and he was about to take a trip to San Diego that could change his family’s life forever. There was so much to celebrate – so the night before he left, he and Elizabeth went out for one last date night.
Watching Kevin walk the red carpet that Friday at the World MMA Awards, suited up in black and purple, a glimmering watch and a fitted vest, confidence overflowing – it was a sight. The Monster was back, just like the old days, and Elizabeth was so proud. The next morning, Kevin said his goodbyes and took off towards San Diego where he aced a string of job interviews to finally catch his big break. It was the chance he had been waiting for, the chance at a post-fighting career mentoring NFL rookies. He would be working out with young stud athletes, living alongside them, teaching them how to not wander astray. Nobody would be better at that than Kevin.
"That’s just what’s so crazy about life," Elizabeth says. "It was a trip that was going to change his career path and give him some positive things to look forward to. Instead, Daddy kissed our four-year-old goodbye last Saturday, and this Sunday I have to tell him that Daddy is never coming home again. Nobody can tell me what’s going to make that any easier."
In retrospect, the trip felt off from the start. Kevin always called home a thousand times a day when he was away. It was one of those quirks Elizabeth loved. But in San Diego his calls were sporadic, and when they came, the voice on the other end of the line sounded haggard. By Tuesday, Elizabeth asked Kevin to go to the hospital. On Wednesday, she asked again, more forcefully, just to make sure it was not something serious. Kevin already had his share of health crises – twenty-plus surgeries, his 2014 hip infection, plus the most notorious staph infection in the history of the fight game. The last thing he needed was something new. He finally relented and checked himself into the E.R. at eight o’clock Thursday morning.
Within hours, the doctors called Elizabeth, relieved. They told her that Kevin had some fluid in his left lung and a little in his right. But, they assured over and over again, everything was going to be fine. He was okay.
A few hours later, those same doctors called back. The Monster was gone.
Kevin Randleman passed away on February 11 at the age of 44, hundreds of miles away from home, three days before the thirteenth anniversary of that Valentine’s date with Elizabeth. The doctors blamed complications with pneumonia. Hundreds of old stories from the road arose in his absence, some new, some familiar, though they all painted the picture in their own small way.
Elizabeth spent much of the first few weeks in machine mode. There were three different memorials in three different cities and everyone she met wanted to tell their own Monster memory, because Kevin was the kind of guy who could leave an impression that could last a lifetime. The reality only sunk in on one of the last few flights home, once the kids were asleep and Elizabeth happened to glance underneath her seat. "There was Kevin’s face on a marble box," she says. "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I can’t even count how many airplanes we’ve been on for the last 12 years. Why is my husband in a box under the seat in front of me? Why is he not sitting next to me, holding my hand like he has been doing for the last 12 years?"
In the days after Kevin died, a 12-year-old wrestler from Kevin’s junior wrestling academy designed a patchwork quilt of photos of Kevin and his youngest son Santino. It was beautiful, and it laid underneath Kevin’s urn for all of the funerals. Another wrestler, a nine-year-old, wrote a letter directly to Santino. Through tears, he said that he’d never get over losing Coach Kevin, that Coach Kevin changed his whole life, and that he would be Santino’s friend forever. The kids of Monster Wrestling competed in state finals two weeks later, and after taking first place, another 10-year-old dedicated his win to Santino by offering up his gold medal. Santino hung it in the living room next to a photo of his dad.
Elizabeth grows emotional thinking about it.
"I just love the way they go right to our son," she says. "I love that they just want to help my baby because of the way my husband helped them. It’s just unbelievable how many people he touched. Kevin could work a room like nobody’s business, but one of my favorite things was to watch him with the kids. I would fall in love with over and over again, head over heels, because he was so amazing with them."
For years, Monster Wrestling Academy was the pride of Kevin’s post-fighting life. He loved teaching the kids. He loved spending time on the mats. Yet like so many positive things around The Monster, he talked about it only when asked. "Kev was so generous and giving," says Baroni. "I lived in Vegas and I didn’t know for the longest time that he had this whole program where he was helping all these kids.
"All these little kids and all these wrestlers. Hundreds of kids that no one ever knows about. He’s not a bragger. He’s not a whiner. I mean, he took on Cro Cop short notice. He was always injured. When Ohio State University named him Wrestler of the Century, he didn’t tell anybody. Winning the NCAA finals with your jaw wired shut? Hurting every time somebody locks up your head, which is all of wrestling, and not even complaining? That’s just a fucking testament to who you are."
Baroni has been a volunteer at Monster Wrestling for years, but he has been spending much of his time there of late. He says the kids still ask often of their coach.
The old days are starting to feel farther away than they used to, for all of Team Hammer House, though perhaps that was inevitable. Elizabeth remembers how Kevin used to keep his e-mail address listed publicly on the internet for his fans, and once a month "we would sit right in our backyard," she says, "we’d grab the laptop, we’d grab a Budweiser, burn a doobie, whatever, then I would read the e-mail to him. He would answer it, and I would type it like his little secretary." Kevin would even call the occasional fans who left their phone number – a hello, some small talk, some riffing about the fights. Whatever they wanted to chat about. He always got such a kick out of it.
Elizabeth remembers how it used to take hours for Kevin and her to navigate the casino floor after a big event, the two of them slowly wading through a sea of awestruck faces, Kevin in full Monster Mode, posing, laughing, holding court with anyone who asked. He felt he owed it to the fans who made this whole ride possible. Then one night at the Mandalay Bay Kevin watched UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia charge a young teenager for an autograph. "Kevin wrote that motherfucker off right there," Elizabeth says, putting on her best Monster voice.
"‘If that motherfucker fell at my feet, I would step over him and spit on him. You charge a fucking fan for an autograph? Who the fuck are you?’ Shit like that tore Kevin up. He was so loyal to his fans, and I think a lot of it was because he watched how it grew from cockfighting to being in America’s living room on Spike TV. The only reason that happened was because of the fans. The fans never gave up on it when it was low-budget, and he always felt like he wouldn’t have been who he was without the fans. They always came first to him."
Coleman admits he was blown away by the outpouring of love and support that greeted Kevin upon his passing. Life as an old warhorse can be a thankless one. The sport moves so fast these days, with new names every weekend, it is easy to feel lost once the game passes you by. But people remembered Kevin. The respect and gratitude shown towards him was overwhelming. Kevin would have loved it. Coleman just wishes Kevin had been around to see it. These type of things always come too late.
"He was one of the most humble, kindest, nicest guys in the whole world," Coleman says. "People don’t understand injuries. Kevin had so many of them. When he was healthy and when he trained properly, he was a threat to anybody in the world. Just ask Cro Cop. Just ask Fedor. People don’t want to hear excuses, but I don’t call them excuses. I call them reasons. The man had so many injuries that he shook off, but he never backed out of a fight. He took a fight hurt or not hurt. He went out there with what he had and he did great. When he was ready… boy, he was a scary, scary man. A dangerous man. And I miss him. I’ll always miss him. I loved him to death."
This summer the UFC will induct a new Hall of Fame class on the week of UFC 200. Coleman badly hopes Kevin is included. The Monster never cared for accolades, he never cared about records or legacies – but the title of Hall of Famer was the one honor he always told friends he wanted. It meant something more to him, a validation of sorts that what he accomplished had an effect on the sport he loved. To have that recognized on the biggest stage in company history would be a worthy sendoff.
"His actions and his highlights and his record and what he accomplished speaks for itself," Coleman says.
"There is no reason why Kevin shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. None. You see the outreach from the whole world who loves him. It’s simple. He should be in the Hall of Fame. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."
Team Hammer House had one last hoorah this past April when Japanese promotion Rizin Fighting Federation devoted its entire third event to Kevin’s memory. Baroni was even going to fight on the card, represent the old crew one final time in the country where Kevin became a star. He planned to donate his fight purse to the college fund for Kevin’s four children. The fight ended up falling through, but Elizabeth and the kids still made the trip. It was a nice reminder of the legacy that Kevin left behind, that even half-a-world away the memory of The Monster lived strong.
The flight back from Japan gave Elizabeth a chance to re-read the book she and her husband spent so many hours working on in that backyard. They called it The Making of the Monster, and she expects it to be published this summer. The story ends on a happy note. There was a moment where Elizabeth wondered if that ending needed to change, but now she is glad it never did. Those were Kevin’s words. They were perfect how they were.
"It still is right," she says. "It was Kevin saying, ‘look at me, I was at rock bottom and now I’m here coaching all these kids. I’m going to Brazil over the summer. I’m going to San Diego to help these other young athletes. Everything works itself out. Don’t ever give up. Hard work, never quit.’
"That still is how he was. He still pulled himself out of a hole and got himself right back to where he belonged."
The Randleman living room has turned into something of a shrine over the past few months. Elizabeth says there is a hole the size of Texas in their house, but that looking at Kevin’s memorabilia helps her and the kids get through the days.
She takes solace in the fact that her last memory with her husband was a sweet one. It was the Saturday morning after The World MMA Awards, and Kevin and her said their goodbyes. But just as Elizabeth turned to walk little Santino back inside, that voice called out one final time.
Baby… thank you for never giving up on me.
She says it came out of nowhere, that it wasn’t something she heard Kevin say before.
She is starting to fight back tears.
Baby… thank you for never giving up on me. Any other woman in this world would’ve kicked my ass to the curb a long time ago, but not you. You’re my light of God, baby. I’m going to spend the rest of my life making it up to you.
"Then we always had a thing," she says. "Hip-hop. When we first started dating, there was a line in this old movie ‘Brown Sugar.’ When did you first fall in love with hip-hop? So hip-hop was always just a little word that nobody else would know. It was only us. He just said hip, I just said hop. Blew him a fucking kiss, and goddamnit, if you would’ve told me that was the last time I was going to see my husband…"
Elizabeth stops herself.
She is on the couch in her living room, wrapped in a quilt made from Kevin and Santino’s memories, staring at a photo of her beloved husband. She says she knows she must continue being strong, if only for her kids’ sakes, because she is the coach now and her four-year-old has been making promises about being the best American wrestler since Daddy.
Santino is big for his age, nearly four-feet tall, and one year away from joining Monster Wrestling Academy. He wore his singlet every day for three weeks after Kevin died. He is obsessed and vows that he is going to be a star. The night after state finals, Elizabeth laid down mats in the living room and Santino wrestled his shadow for hours, imitating every step, every move he remembered from the tournaments. He wants to compete. Elizabeth knows it will be overwhelming when he does, but he is his father’s son.
Some of the kids have already started calling him Baby Monster.
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.