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Matt Brown flipping the double birds.
Esther Lin/MMAFighting.com

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Matt Brown: An ode to the UFC’s original ‘technical brawler’

Back in September, Matt Brown announced that his fight with Diego Sanchez would be his last. Brown, who cheated death at a young age back in Ohio and fought 23 times in the UFC, didn’t like the apathy that came over him in his last bout, just before he stepped out to fight Donald Cerrone. It scared him to wonder what on earth he was doing right before he was to go out and do it. It gave him vertigo to realize those were his thoughts. He contemplated fleeing the locker room, getting the hell out of there and never looking back, if only to amuse himself. If only to rouse some anger. To see if he could find some instant purpose, or redirect his panic — or, in the very least, compel the coward out of him.

He went out and lost to Cerrone, a third-round knockout that came in the form of a wicked head kick. It was his third loss in a row. That was last December. Nine months later, when the Sanchez fight was announced, he was all but resolved to walk away. He wouldn’t let apathy make the walk with him in Norfolk.

By October he was in camp in Colorado, and he was feeling good. He regained a sense of focus, perhaps because time was ticking down on his career, or perhaps because he was actively warding off any repeat fits of indifference.

By November, just a few days before what was to be Matt Brown’s swan song fight with Sanchez, he felt so good — so filled with purpose and thrill — he was no longer guarding against apathy so much as he was guarding against his own false narratives.

“I’m definitely having second thoughts about retiring,” he told MMA Fighting while traveling to Norfolk.

Don’t roll the credits just yet. Brown got his nickname of “The Immortal” because he wouldn’t die. And just when it seemed like his fight career was ending, here he is again, finding a stubborn pulse. He doesn’t need to explain what he’s thinking, because it’s clear — apathy will never sing Matt Brown out of the fight game. After all, what is apathy other than an additional thing to conquer?

Yet if it is the end, the game will miss its so-called “technical brawler.” Brown came to personify the distinction of being just that. He’s had his share of losses, as well as revivals. He can be technical, and he can throw caution to the wind. Technically he’s not a brawler, but a fighter who fights. He doesn’t care if there’s a difference.

Gallery Photo: UFC 143 Fight Night Photos

May 10, 2014 – Cincinnati

Matt Brown was facing Erick Silva as a nearly 2-to-1 underdog, despite winning six fights in a row, and competing in his native Ohio. The reason was simple: It wasn’t serious. Brown’s streak was impressive, but at the same time it had the feel of a smoke and mirrors affair, that of a hot roulette player. He was knocking people out, but Silva was huge for a welterweight, and hungry to make his name in a big main-event spot. If there was a sense of pending doom, it was that Cincinnati would come to be the host city of Brown’s mortal moment.

Only it wasn’t, yet nobody knew that until after it looked like it was. Brown got folded by a heavy body kick early in the first round, and then turtled up as Silva slammed him with lefts on the fence. He scrambled just enough to give Silva his back, and spent the next two-and-a-half minutes fending off various rear-naked choke and neck crank attempts. Then he turned, got to his feet, and came to life — coming right at Silva, winging bombs. Goddamn Matt Brown. He pursued the Brazilian all over the cage, hitting him in the clinch, with elbows, with punches, and with knees after dumping him with a foot sweep. From what corner of Hell did this version of Brown crawl out of?

By the second round, Silva was stumbling out like he’d just spent eight hours at the bar; and there was Brown, sniping him with punches, taking him down and dropping short elbows into his bewildered head, climbing into mount and raining down shots, attempting triangles, fishing for limbs. It was a preternatural pace, the kind of thing that should be impossible. It was like a primitive communication of hunger. Everyone suddenly knew the depths of Brown’s heart.

“That Erick Silva fight was one of my favorites, because it was very close to my hometown, and I had more family there than at my family reunion,” he says. “My kids got to come inside the octagon after the win, and it was a really good fight, really exciting and memorable. All those ingredients came together to make it one of my top two fights.”

He put Silva away in the third, as Herb Dean has seen enough of the relentless offensive attack. It was Brown’s seventh win a row, six of which came via TKO or KO. He was at the cusp of a title shot, something that would have felt unfathomable a couple of years earlier when he dropped four of five fights and was on the verge of being cut.

Through that seven-fight run, Brown was all guts.

“In terms of injuries and health, that whole run was one where I was really healthy,” Brown says. “Things started breaking down and I kept trying to push through it. Not to say I’d have won [some of the subsequent fights] otherwise, who knows what would have happened? But my hunger back then was completely different. It was extremely selfish, and it was 24 hours day about me, and it was I was willing to die everyday in the gym. I would go into the gym and run myself into the ground.”

It was the high-water mark of Brown’s career. It was also the closest he ever came to making people believe — perhaps only in the “let’s see how far he can take it” sense — that there was something more to his nickname.

**

What is a technical brawler? Matt Brown is a technical brawler. He’s called himself that from the beginning.

“You know, I do like that term,” he says. “Maybe it’s not a perfect definition — no terms would describe someone perfectly — but I think it’s a good description of at least the basics of my style.”

Brown is the kind of fighter who has a strategy, and is well versed in all the techniques, but can override everything with animal instinct — that switch he hits when self-preservation fades to a muted place, and the urge to kill or be killed takes over. Sometimes it lasts a sequence. Sometimes a round. Sometimes a span of two years from 2012-2014.

“I think I blend the two really well — I have the technique that I can hang with anybody on the technical side, and then the brawling,” he says. “I mean, what’s brawling? To me, I’m just more of a pressure fighter. I go out there and look for a fight. I don’t go out there to touch people and run. You know, I’m not a [Lyoto] Machida or a ‘Wonderboy.’ I’m not a guy like that. I come to fight, and that’s where that brawling term comes from.”

Brown studies brawling. He thinks about it, knows its history in the MMA canon, and the careless edge it carries. He knows people are drawn to a brawl, and that knowledge feeds the in-fight escalation to engage one. Yet brawling is a pigeonhole that he doesn’t neatly fall into, not with his clinch game and an unsung prowess on the ground.

“The term brawling is kind of a broad definition, and you immediately think of someone like a [boxer] Ricardo Mayorga…you just kind of automatically think of a guy with no technique,” he says. “That’s not always true. It was coined for me because I have the technique but I also go in there and really fight someone.”

When his opposition is willing to accommodate him, like Erick Silva did — and especially like Robbie Lawler did — there’s a collective tickle in the stomach of the onlooker, which is the essence of fighting reporting.

Gallery Photo: UFC on FOX 12 photos

July 26, 2014 – San Jose

That was his second favorite fight — the title eliminator against Lawler. He missed weight for the fight by a pound-and-a-half, but it was broadcast across America on FOX. Matt Brown, a fight game fascination — a true-grit fighter’s fighter — had his rare moment in the casual living room. When the welterweight division was at its brutal best, Brown and Lawler slugged it out for the chance to take it over.


“Lawler was a really great fight, and it was a main event on FOX, meaning it probably had the most viewership in my career,” Brown says. “It turned out to be a really good fight. I felt like I won, and that’s the closest I’ve been to the top.”

Brown and Lawler sized each other up — Lawler’s big left against Brown’s big right, the off hands interlacing to set up the shots — and hacked away mercilessly. Lawler attacked Brown’s liver. Brown headhunted. In the end Brown couldn’t make Lawler budge, and the seven-fight win streak died on the scorecards. It was the first fight in his decline. He lost four of his next five fights.

Just as he wouldn’t let a drug overdose that momentarily left him dead in his younger days define him, a lack of titles won’t define him in his older days.

“That’s not my identity, that’s not who I am,” he says. “My performances don’t define who I am. I’m much more than that. That’s something that took me a long time to learn actually, especially when I had kids. It really helped me become a better fighter and a better person. Now I feel it’s kind of coming to head, and I’m in a really good space right now.”

Besides, the prize in prizefighting is sometimes about more than money. In Brown’s case, it’s also about chasing fears.

**

March 7, 2009 – Columbus

Having survived a stint on The Ultimate Fighter 7, Brown had put together a decent 2-1 run ahead of his fight with Pete Sell, which took place at UFC 96 in Columbus, an hour away from his childhood home of Xenia, Ohio. They were both thought of as go-for-broke type fighters, and Brown expected it to be a 15-minute dogfight. Instead Brown landed a flush superman punch 10 seconds in, that rocked Sell. Then he blasted him with a pair of head kicks, a left hand and — before Sell could retaliate with anything himself — a right that dropped him to the canvas just 15 seconds in.

At 28 years old, the late-blooming Brown that people liked to think of as an intense alley cat with heavy hands actually was. The sheer viciousness of that opening salvo confused referee Yves Lavigne to go grab Brown and pull him away, only to release him and tell him to continue. Brown then continued the assault. He blasted away at Sell’s temples while Sell clung to an ankle, trying to stand. When he did, Brown got into the clinch, and delivered a sharp elbow that sent Sell’s mouthpiece flying out.

The fight was a minute old.

“That one I remember being really, really scared, because that was the first time a lot of my family came to see me fight,” Brown says. “They didn’t really take it serious before that. I was coming up and fighting for $500 at local shows and now I’m fighting in a 20,000 capacity arena all of a sudden. So for a lot of them, it was the first time seeing me, and I felt a lot of pressure from that.”

Brown handled the pressure with his unnerving dead-eyed calm. Then — as Sell’s mouthpiece bounced to the ground — he pleaded with Lavigne to show some mercy and stop the fight. Lavigne wasn’t ready, so Brown landed knees from the plum — flush, into Sell’s face. He landed another right hand, which touched down with as much force as it did reluctance. Lavigne stood by as Brown asked what more did he have to do?

Finally, after Sell fell down on his own as Brown went to grip the back of his head, and Brown landed two perfunctory shots, Lavigne stepped in.

It lasted a 1:32, in which Brown overwhelmed Sell the whole way.

“That’s the other thing I remember, is the referee doing a horrible job and feeling some sympathy for Peter Sell,” Brown says. “I remember thinking before that fight, ‘I’m going to have to break my hands on this guy’s face, it’s going to be a bloodbath and a war,’ and then I hit him once and he falls down. I was like, hey, that wasn’t so bad.”

Brown’s family saw up close and personal the kind of fighter he’d become. So did the UFC.

“That was one of my biggest memories. That was one of the first times I went to a post-fight press conference and felt some admiration from [UFC president] Dana [White]. At this point in my life things are a little different, but back then it was a really big deal.”

UFC 206 Photos

December 10, 2016 – Toronto

To destroy the man in front of you for so long, and to be destroyed in the process on a loop. To hit a target, and become one. To make some money, and to spend it. To get so close to contention, and to lose your way in the wilderness. To be dubbed a killer, and to carry the expectations of one.

To grow old. To hear yourself think and overthink, to believe in yourself and to trick yourself into belief. To watch the thing begin to slip, and produce no sincere ability to stop it.

Cerrone stared Brown down with an intensity of purpose in Toronto. Brown had a blank face, gazing at nothing in particular. A dozen or so minutes before he got head-kicked unconscious, Brown had one thought: That he didn’t want to be there.

“I only had that feeling once in my life, and that was in that fight,” he says. “That was exactly what spurred the retirement talk, and that was exactly what made me think I don’t need to be doing this. If that’s the way I was going to be feeling, no thanks.”

Still, the residuals of the dog came out against Cerrone. He fought anyway. After an errant head kick landed him on his back, he threatened to submit Cerrone with triangle in the first round. He struck with a flurry in the second, at one point hurting Cerrone. Brown had his moments, but Cerrone had more. He bloodied Brown’s eye, and dropped him with a high kick in that same round.

Brown, with his face battered, relented to share a brief hug with Cerrone before the third. He was out less than a minute later. A clean left foot right between the neck and the chin. It made a sick sound as it connected. It sent Brown away from 11 months.

“I think I’ve done the work over the last year, as I’ve taken almost a year off now,” he says. “Over this past year I’ve done the work. It brought a lot of clarity as to what I’m doing, why I’m going to be in there, and I don’t think I’ll ever have those feelings again. I know exactly what I want to do, I know exactly why I’m going to be there. I have high expectations for myself, and my job is to go in there and meet those expectations. There’s no more to it than that.”

Matt Brown has always found his reasons to fight.

Matt Brown Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

November 14, 2009 – Manchester

He had lost his father before he made the trek across the Atlantic to fight James Wilks in England. All the “Immortal” references rang hollow. He was as mortal as his father. He knew mortality.

Wilks and Brown each had moments. Brown, turning up the volume as he always does, landed a barrage in the second round — including a flying knee that looked like the beginning of the end for Wilks. It wasn’t. Instead Wilks torqued Brown’s arm in a Kimura a round later, and it looked like the fight could be over. It wasn’t. Brown rolled out of it, and Mike Goldberg yelled out, somewhat portentously, “Brown survives!” He ended up getting mount on Wilks, who rolled over on his stomach to hide away from the punches coming at him. From there Brown unleashed as many strikes as it took for referee Leon Roberts to stop the fight.

“Fortunately I had Matt Hume with me, who is a very experienced coach and he helped me a lot and guided me very well, and I’m very thankful to this day of him being there,” Brown says. “With my dad having passed away during that training camp, it was one of the most difficult fights I’ve had in my life, and probably the only truly emotional fight I’ve had. A lot of them have minor emotions here and there, but that one had some legit deep emotions.

“That was the whole story of that fight right there.”

Brown roared in victory as he sat on Wilks’s prone body, and he even slammed his hands down on Roberts’ back as he stood up. That was what you could see of his emotions. He never mentioned his father in the post-fight interview, saying only that he had a lot to work on, and that he was lucky to get out of the Kimura.

**

August 17, 2013 – Boston

Mike Pyle had won four in a row, yet the touching of gloves was the cleanest he touched Brown in Boston. Brown came forward throwing punches, catching Pyle with a right hand, and then dropping him with a knee. As Pyle tried to recover, Brown coolly dropped three right hands down until the mullet stopped moving.

The fight was over in 29 seconds, and Pyle never knew what hit him. Again, Brown was fighting through nerves to showcase himself well, this time in front of the in-laws.

“That was the first time in Boston, which is where my wife’s family is from,” he says. “So that was the first time that a lot of her family got to come watch me fight. So now I was going through that whole thing again, but I’d already been through it. So it was a much more comfortable scenario for me.

“It was a very nervous fight for me, because I’d trained with Mike a lot in the past and we were friends. In the past I had let that bother me. This time, I had decided I would show him right away…I hoped that he’d let that get to him a little, so I could go out there right away and knock his head off. And that’s what I did.”

Goddamn, Matt Brown. It was the ninth finish of his career, and his sixth win in a row.

“For me, it’s awesome that I had something like that, a big run like that that was memorable to a lot of people, and that people will remember for a long time think back and say, ‘That was bad ass!’” he says. “Maybe one day I will look back on it and savor it, but I still have a fight this Saturday.”

Matt Brown (EL)

November 11, 2017 – Norfolk

The poetry of making Matt Brown vs. Diego Sanchez just kind of jumped off the page. Brown, one of the UFC’s more relentless pressure fighters, against Sanchez, one of the few fighters who can be called a “warrior” without hyperbole. Together they have 50 combined UFC fights (Brown 24, Sanchez 26). It’s a clash of the battle-tested, a tango at the close of day.

Yet don’t tell Brown about poetry, even if this was supposed to be his sayonara to the fight game. Don’t tell him about the best intentions, or “warriors,” or even guys who are meant to be his perfect counterpart. Brown is as rugged towards the end as he was in the beginning.

“The thing is, I get a lot of guys that make for exciting fights against everyone else and they come to fight me and they try to make it unexciting all of a sudden,” he says. “Just like Diego’s fights are exciting when he’s fighting on the feet and getting into a brawl, but that’s going to be the worst possible idea for him against me, so I don’t really expect him to do that.”

Brown says he has rediscovered his mojo. He found it sometime between Labor Day and Fight Week, during his fight camp in Colorado. He says it was a matter of defining his purpose, something he realized he didn’t have against Cerrone. It began to slip after he defeated Tim Means in 2015, or maybe even before. In 2016 he lost to Demian Maia, Jake Ellenberger, and then Cerrone.

The writing was on the wall to walk away. He was going to. He still might. Unless he can change the writing that he read. Give it a different meaning. The problem is that most don’t have the ability to edit that kind of writing after so many wars, but then again, Matt Brown is “The Immortal.”

“I hope Diego does try, but it’s hard to imagine him really wanting to get into a brawl,” he says. “And even if he does, it wouldn’t be a brawl, it’d be him getting knocked out.”

Brown doesn’t know what lies in store for him on Sunday. If there’s comfort in that, it’s that he never knew where any of it was heading. The adventure began with no tomorrow, and 12 years after his pro debut, it ends that way too.

“It was what I wanted, for sure, but I had no idea,” he says. “I never had any idea it was going to happen, but it was what I was looking for. I wanted to be a veteran, and to be around a long time. I was never one of those guys that just wanted to make the UFC, or just win a couple of fights, or just be champion — I wanted to here a long time, a high-level, top-five guy. There was nothing else on my mind.

“And here we are. We made it happen.”

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