If the fight game loves redemption stories of those who found themselves through punches, then Brent Primus’s tale is just the thing. Primus’s road to the Garden started in a weed patch, and made its way across dung heaps and manicured lawns — there wasn’t any glory in it, but there were white picket fences. There was money and blood and smoke. There was a teenager who was destined for the four walls and three squares a day, before the martial arts forked his road.
“Jiu-jitsu definitely saved me,” Primus says, reflecting on the turning point. “When I first started training, that’s when I was like drinking every weekend, selling pot, getting into fights. As soon as I started doing jiu-jitsu it changed everything. It changed how I thought. There’s something about bowing to your training partners, and bowing to your instructors — and more importantly, bowing to your opponents — it just makes you humble. It makes you more respectful for sure.”
Primus will fight for the Bellator lightweight title against Michael Chandler on June 24 at Bellator 180. Now 32 years old, he is undefeated in his career at 7-0. He is mostly unheralded. His biggest fight to date came against Derek Anderson, whom he scored a narrow split decision over. Did he actually with the fight? That’s a debate.
But from Primus’s perspective, everything happens for a reason — including the way judge’s view a bout. His life has meandered through thickets worse than a 10-point must system. It’s spikes up and down like a cardiogram. In 2017 he wakes up every morning remembering that he has a golden opportunity in front of him, to dethrone Michael Chandler…in New York City…for a title.
How did he get here?
It’s something he himself speaks of as if floating along in a dream.
“I got kicked out of the house when I was really, really young,” he says. “I grew up fast. I had my own house I think when I was 14 years. I was doing bad things. I was selling a lot of marijuana — I was selling a whole lot of pot. All my friends in high school had it on lock down. My house was like 7-11. I thought it was awesome, I was making so much money.”
Dan Hardy stopped drinking before he turned 18 years old, before heading to China to train under monks. Brent Primus had led a full life as a pot dealer before he was old enough to drink, and the money he made had him feeling like a study in reverse wisdom.
“I was really in a dark place inside, and I was still selling — but at the same time, I was going to school. I was playing varsity soccer. I think just from my childhood, with my mom and dad, I had just a little anger in me.”
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Primus drifts through the memories that bleed through each other — the drugs, the money, the fists, and a yearning underneath to do away with it all.
“I was getting in fights every weekend,” he says. “I was in this big college town. At least one or two fights every weekend. I was out there putting a whoop-down on all these dudes. One of my buddies, Ben Baxter, who is now one of my BJJ coaches, was like man, if you’re going to be out there thumping on these people, you might as well get paid. So he signed me up for a fight.”
The one thing that stuck with Primus, a weekend recreational fighter who functioned best through a beer buzz? That there was a crop of people — of varying sizes, and in varying states of self-actualization — who could take all the oxygen from his brain in the time it took to say, “what are you looking at?”
“I remember I was like a week or two out of my fight, and I was like man I might as well step into this jiu-jitsu gym and see what it’s all about,” he says. “I did that, and I got my butt kicked by all these little dudes, throwing their legs over me and choking me. I fell in love with it.”
He got good at it fast. He collected limbs and belts by degrees of obsession. He ended up in the BJJ Pan Ams. He was a million miles from the 7-11 that he called home.
But that was all after. In between then he was in the manicured lawns, remember, traversing dung heaps and minding rose beds. He was a long way from realizing the Garden, but distant enough from the other side of him to know anything was possible.
“About a year before all that I was doing landscaping, and doing well at it, and the owner said he was moving to California, and was going to sell his business,” he says. “I was like, huge opportunity — I’ll do what I can, get a loan, and get this landscaping business. And that’s what I did. I bought the landscaping business and I worked my butt off. Every single day, I’d get up at 6 o’clock in the morning, and sometimes wouldn’t get home until dark. I did that for about three years, and it was awesome. I loved it. I had some of the best clientele, people living in these really expensive houses…”
Having found a legit way to make a living — and a good one, one that he was called foolish to give up, given his youthful autonomy and cash flow — was a tempting time to find his contentment. Instead, he was interrupted by the unannounced discovery of his own passion at the age of 20.
“Just me stepping into that gym, and getting submitted and tapped out — I fell in love with jiu-jitsu so much, and just the sport,” he says. “I was like, man, I’ve got to do this full time. I don’t know how, but I have to. So I sold my landscaping business, I sold all my clients, and started training full time.”
He beat a couple of guys on the local scene in Oregon. When Bellator visited Portland in 2013, he got a chance to shine with a big promotion in front of his home fans. He beat Scott Thometz that night. He got through two more in Bellator, all via first-round finish.
Then he got the nod against Derek Anderson in a split decision, as well as against the veteran fighter Gleristone Santos. “I learned more in those last two fights than any of the first five,” he says. Then he went through an idle bit of “hell.” He was offered a title shot, but couldn’t take it because of a swollen knee after the Santos fight (“it was like I had elephant legs”). He was supposed to fight Adam Piccolotti, but the fight fell apart with Piccolotti was injured.
He was expecting a top five guy, somebody to get him closer. Then the call came to fight Chandler. And out of nowhere, his story took him to the fight center of the universe — the Garden.
“This is a lifetime opportunity, and I’ve been training for years and years and years, and this is what it’s all about,” he says. “This is literally like a life changer. I’m just going to go in there and fight my heart out. I’ve been training with some awesome guys. I’ve got a good game plan. Hopefully [Chandler] doesn’t underestimate me, because he’ll be in for a shock for sure. It’s really big for my career, and I’m not taking it lightly at all.”
People will wonder why Primus, a relative unknown getting to fight one of Bellator’s most celebrated figures. People will wonder if Primus will have a shot. There’s a good chance that just getting to Madison Square Garden is the high water mark of Primus’s career. That this title shot will be his last. If history tells us anything, it’s that all of this is more probable than possible.
Primus is the unknown. He throws out old adages — such as “if you want to be the best, you’ve got to fight the best” — like an optimist approaching a problem. He sees things in Chandler that not everybody does (“the guy owns a zebra!” he says “How sweet is that?”).
And yet, there’s gravity behind his words when he says that fighting Chandler at the Garden feels like arriving to the place he’s been heading the whole way.
“It’s hard not to respect somebody like Chandler,” he says. “He’s the champ, and he’s a champ for a reason. He’s a warrior. I watched him fight Eddie Alvarez and Will Brooks, and he’s been through battles, and wars, and it’s hard not to respect somebody like that.
“But when it comes time for me to go in there, it’s going to be all war.”