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For the Swanson brothers, fighting — and survival — is a family affair

Mikey Williams for Combate Americas

The first dream for the Swanson brothers was soccer. They were obsessed. For years, Cub, the youngest; Steve, the oldest; and middle brother Aaron would bound home from school and line up all of the neighborhood kids to fashion a nearby street corner into their own broken down pitch. Cub and Steve both played forward, a dynamic and aggressive twosome of attackers, while Aaron preferred to hang back on defense. Aaron eventually lost his love for the game, but Cub and Steve stayed, the wild Swanson boys dominating their respective age divisions across Southern California, winning nearly every AYSO tournament they entered, forever chasing their daydreams of becoming professional athletes. In the middle of the projects, it was righteous escapism. A way to one day get out.

Those dreams faded as the years went on. Life has a way of complicating things, and by the time Cub and Steve were old enough to play on the same team, the world outside the game had grown harder.

Steve, four years the elder, was the only Swanson Brother to ever remember the boys‘ father, who passed away from a battle with melanoma shortly after Cub was born. The loss hurt Steve in ways he could never understand. He was always climbing all over Pop’s neck or into Pop’s arms in all of the old photos. Everyone always told him how close they were. Steve tried to fill that hole and become the leader he felt his brothers needed, but he was kicked out of over a dozen schools by the time he was old enough to drive. The same rage flowed through Cub as well, and soccer eventually drifted into distant memory, replaced by nights of violence and uncertainty on the streets.

Looking back, it’s a miracle the brothers made it to where they did. They are the outliers, no doubt. Cub rose to be one of the best featherweight fighters in the world. In December, he burned the UFC to ashes with an instantly legendary brawl against Doo Ho Choi that was watched by nearly five million Americans. Now Steve will look to build on that family momentum this Thursday, serving as one-half of a Combate Americas bantamweight headlining act on UFC Fight Pass with an eye on joining his youngest brother on the big stage.

The fight game is a precarious place, and though neither brother expected to be here, both agree it saved them from a darker fate.

“I was like a lost little boy,” says Steve ahead of his showdown with Gustavo Lopez. “That’s weird to say, but that’s how I felt. I didn’t know up, down, left, or right. And I found direction here. I found love. I found everything. I found drive.”

Having spent 10 years at the highest levels of the game, Cub and his road are well-documented. Early brushes with the California correctional system led him to stumble into jiu-jitsu and forever changed the course of his life. But Steve’s journey was more indirect, and at a time when the youngest Swanson Brother was uprooting from Desert Hot Springs to Orange County to chase his athletic dreams, Steve remained back home, drowning under the weight of a world that seemed to be crumbling around him.

When Steve was 18, he dropped out of high school to support his childhood sweetheart who had unexpectedly grown pregnant with twins. The couple gave birth to two baby girls eight months later — Stephanie and Alisa, one pound each, both small and undeveloped, born two months premature, but fighters in the classic Swanson sense. Doctors at the hospital gave them only a slight chance to live, but Steve fell in love from the moment he laid eyes on his girls.

Stephanie was the first to pass. She left this world two weeks after entering it. Four months later, Alisa followed her twin sister. The blow was devastating, and for a teenager still harboring deep anger over the death of his father, it sank Steve into a decade of vicious self-destruction.

“I couldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he says. “The feeling that I got from that was just indescribable. … To have to hold your daughter, and have them take out the breathing machine and feel her take her last breath, it’s indescribable. You talk about pain and rage and confusion. For a long, long time I blamed myself. I blamed God. I blamed my girl. I blamed everybody, and I just hated everyone.”

While Cub blossomed as a fighter, Steve shuttled in and out of jail over a half-dozen times, not caring about dreams or loved ones, just trying to block out the world. “I wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “I wasn’t doing anything. I was just barely getting by, and I had no drive, no nothing. I was literally at my end.”

Then one day, one of the boys’ uncles reached out to Steve with a proposition. He was a pastor who was building a Christian men’s home in Oklahoma, and he asked Steve to join him. For a California boy raised on coastal sensibilities, the Midwest seemed to be a world away. But Steve went because he had nothing left.

What began as an impulse reset button stretched into a two-year retreat that Steve now admits saved his life. Away from the cold familiarity of his childhood streets, Steve found a sense of peace he had never understood. He went back to school. He coached a children’s soccer team. He gradually emerged from the fog of all that came before. And then came the offer from Cub, who at that point was well established in the WEC, that changed things all over again.

“We would talk often,” Steve recalls, growing emotional while thinking back on the conversation. “And he was like, ‘Look man, I got this stuff I’m doing. It’s not soccer like we always wanted to do, but it’s still something. And I think you’ll like it. And I think you’ll be good at it.’ So he said, ‘when you’re ready, come back. You can stay with me, and we’ll just jump right into this thing and go forward.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”

“I was always supportive of change, because I’m somebody who was able to do that,” says Cub. “I had already changed my life.

“I think it took me a while because he’s the kind of person you have to talk to when he’s in the right mood and in the right headspace, and he was at a point where he was looking for something and wanting to hear me out. It was a difficult situation, me trying to be his coach and younger brother. And he’s somebody that’s always kind of been more of the authority figure than vice versa, so that was a real difficult transition to try to do. But I knew that it could be something great for him.”

Mikey Williams, Combate Americas

Steve was a late comer to the game, nearly 28 years old by the time he joined his youngest brother back in California, and there were admittedly growing pains. The return to familiar surroundings and the shift for Cub from sibling to coach led to some moments that neither would like to recall. But Steve also took to MMA quickly. He trained jiu-jitsu for just five months before entering his first smoker, then knocked his opponent out in under a minute. He repeated the feat in his next fight and his next. The family was encouraging, and they all said the same thing. “’Well, it’s not like you weren’t doing that anyway,’” Steve remembers, laughing.

“It’s kind of funny, but kind of screwed up at the same time,” he said. “But in all honestly, what they really meant was — and I knew what they meant — is that they just wanted me to have something that I loved and that I pushed for, that I’m not that same old guy. That I came out of my shell and took all that stuff off my shoulders and just did what I had to do. That’s why they showed all the love, and that’s what family is about.”

Cub says he’s happy to simply be a positive influence on someone who means so much to him. At age 36, both brothers know that Steve’s time in the sport could be short. They also know that he, at times, has gotten agonizingly close to reaching the highest levels. Steve tried out for The Ultimate Fighter twice, once as a bantamweight and once as a flyweight, only to both times be booted during the final round of cuts. It’s been frustrating, and these days Steve has moved past his UFC fixation. But the sport remains a bond the two share, and “that’s why MMA means so much to me,” Steve says. “Because when I’m training and I’m pushing hard and I’m working out with Cub and the fellas at the gym, I’m not depressed at all. I don’t have those feelings, I don’t feel that way. I feel good.”

“He’s had his ups and downs,” says Cub. “But when things are good, man, it makes me happy. It really makes me happy. Many of my students that I train, it makes me happy to see them succeed. But to have my own brother, and have an influence on him, and really help him in any way become a better person, become a better fighter, it makes me happy. Because I’ve seen the lows. I’ve been there for many of them.

“For both of us, to see where we came from — me and my brothers always think of ourselves kinda as a whole because we’ve been together our whole lives — and so just to think about the lows that we’ve all been through together, and to where we are now, I’m proud of that. And I’m already proud of him. I think once he’s as proud of himself as other people are, he’ll shine.”

After all these years, the Swanson Brothers are still in this together. They arrived in Mexico City this past week for Combate Americas ready to continue what Cub started in December, back when Steve held a UFC 206 viewing party for friends and family in a local tavern and the place exploded as the war between California and South Korea seared an eternal hole into the memory of the fight game.

Things will never be easy for either of them, and Steve knows he has made his share of unforgivable mistakes. But when he looks at the pride Cub has brought to the Swanson name, and how the family has improbably stayed together through hell and back, Steve is confident that their father is watching from somewhere, looking down on his boys and smiling.

“What we had to do to get where we are at, it was difficult but we did it,” Steve says. “We’re here, and he would definitely be a proud pop.”

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