Ten days before the beginning of the next chapter of his professional life, Will Brooks was in a Florida hospital obsessing over a different kind of long-awaited day. Rather than fret over the stakes of his upcoming PFL 2 debut, Brooks was by his wife’s side, the only place on Earth he’d want to be on this muggy Monday afternoon, watching as the next chapter of his private life penned itself in real-time in front of his eyes. By nightfall, the main character of that new chapter had revealed himself to the world. His name was Jaxon, a happy, healthy baby boy. Brooks’ second child. His first son.
The latest motivator in a long line of motivators that has brought the former champion to the precipice of what he calls his own personal rebirth.
The Brooks family returned home to Coconut Creek a few days later, little more than a week out from papa’s Professional Fighters League debut, in tow with the clan’s newest little member, who wore a personalized beanie to celebrate the occasion. The rigors that accompany a newborn do not make for easy living, as any new parent can attest — especially with a potentially career-altering crossroads looming. But for Brooks, difficult living may as well be routine, because nothing about the past two years has been easy.
It wasn’t long ago the 31-year-old lightweight entered the UFC with grand ambitions of replicating the underdog feats he accomplished under the Bellator brand. Momentum was on his side. Brooks was a tournament winner, an interim champion, then a champion of the undisputed variety, two victories over Bellator posterboy Michael Chandler having propelled him into the conversation with the best 155-pound fighters in the world. With 18 wins in 19 tries, “Ill Will” was supposed to walk a similar path inside the Octagon. Instead, few could’ve foreseen what came next.
Bad breaks. Listless showings. A flameout in swift fashion.
Now Brooks is left to glue together the pieces of an opportunity gone awry. His journey begins Thursday at PFL 2 when he meets Luiz Firmino in the inaugural kickoff of the organization’s lightweight season. A million-dollar prize awaits the tournament’s winner, which will be decided over a seven-week regular season followed by a postseason that will pit the top seeds against one another in a high-stakes bracket. But for Brooks, the allure of the money is secondary. The three losses that stain his recent record and the smiling, unaware face that sleeps in the crib back home — those are what drive him to rediscover the rhythm he once felt as one of the world’s best.
“Man, it’s just one of those things, where [the birth of Jaxon] is the straw that broke the camel’s back, but in a positive way,” Brooks tells MMA Fighting. “Like, since my first loss in the UFC, I’ve been trying to piece back together things, trying to get back to: Alright, what were we doing well that made you a winner from the jump? What were we doing so well that brought you so much success in mixed martial arts? And I just started recognizing the small things that I wasn’t doing anymore that were actually generating those victories, actually generating the wins.
“Having my son, man, that’s just an extra thing that just let’s me know, look, it’s time to go. There’s no more time to go through the process of trying to rebuild. It’s just flat-out rebuild it. Get back to work. That’s flat-out it. It’s just time now. There’s no more talking about it. You’ve just gotta get up and go do. You know you can go do it. You’ve been doing it. I was turning a corner with Nik Lentz, but it doesn’t matter. Cool, you were turning a corner but you didn’t turn a corner. Now it’s time to fully turn a corner and get back to what I’m doing, so that’s where I’m at mentally.”
Lentz was only the final example in a string of luckless lessons Brooks was forced to learn over his last few years. First there was the mishap in Portland, when Alex Oliveira badly missed weight on the scales then an emotional Brooks fought him anyway, ultimately losing then getting taunted after suffering a fractured rib in battle. What followed was a split-second mistake against Charles Oliveira that led to the first submission loss of Brooks’ career, a second weigh-in mishap that cancelled the Lentz fight literally minutes after Brooks made weight, then a second submission loss in the rescheduled Lentz fight after “Ill Will” looked to have reclaimed his mojo.
Three straight losses. Each with a built-in excuse, yes, but by the end Brooks wasn’t much for excuses. He simply wanted to figure out where he was going wrong; why he was allowing himself these little lapses in judgment that were hurtling him into disaster; and most of all, where the killer was who had dominated the best of the Bellator lightweight ranks with a reign that has since to be matched?
“For me, it was really interesting after my last few fights, my losses, getting the reaction from fans,” Brooks says. “I got a lot more positives than I got negatives, people who were just like, ‘Man, you don’t seem the same. You’re doing something different. There’s something different.’ And for fans to say that and recognize that, when they have plenty of opportunity to talk to me nasty and negative toward me and approach things in a Twitter troll way, for them to say that — ‘Man, something’s different about you. What’s going on?’ — that really brought my attention to some things, and I was like, man, okay, alright, I see what’s up.
“It’s hard to explain,” Brooks continues. “I don’t know, man. It’s just something. I’m just ready to get back to winning and showing people that, look, I am back. The guy that y’all was asking about — where’d he go, what happened — I’m back. I am genuinely back.”
Brooks admits that he sees more at stake with each passing day. In a way that feels both stark and real, Thursday night is a culmination of everything that for far too long has consumed his thoughts. “I’m on a three-fight losing streak,” he says. “I’m coming to an organization that’s rebuilding itself, rebranding itself, trying to present a new format to mixed martial arts. I’m trying to have my own personal rebirth as a fighter and preparing to be a father of two, but I’m also a husband who has to make sure these different things are in order for my wife and our son.
“So it’s a different vibe, a different approach, but overall … that energy is really cool, man.”
In Firmino, Brooks acknowledges that he drew a tough draw. The Brazilian is a 17-year veteran of the fight game who challenged for the WSOF title and gave Justin Gaethje everything he had until doctors stopped the contest because of a swollen eye after round three. But Brooks is ready. He knows it. He feels it. He believes it.
The day before Jaxon said hello to the world, Brooks tweeted 11 simple words that epitomized the loneliness this sport is capable of inflicting during the worst of runs. “Fuck,” Brooks wrote. “I need to get back to winning. I miss it.” He ended his post with a quick “hahaha” to provide some levity, but the message was still cold.
It’s been nearly two years since Brooks has felt that feeling, two years since he left an arena with a performance he could be proud of. And that must change on Thursday.
For the former champion, there is no other way.
“It starts to wear on you,” Brooks says. “For me, I’ve been blessed with incredible people in my life who just continue to let me know who I am, regardless of being a competitor, regardless of being a father and a husband, and who I am in my every day life; but also, reminding me of the things that I’ve done in my career, and reminding that, look, dude, you’re not that far into your career, you still have an opportunity to rebuild and bring it back. So it’s been a difficult thing.
“You see other guys winning, you see other guys competing and having success, and you’re just like, dang, I can do that. I know I can do that stuff. It’s just one of those things where you’re just like, man, I need to get back to that. I miss that feeling. That feeling of winning and just doing what you know that you’re good at. It’s kinda like that, you just purely miss that feeling. So it’s a weird thing, but you grow to appreciate it, and that’s the way my mindset is right now. I’m winning at life, let’s make that very clear. I’m always winning. I have an incredible wife, I have incredible friends, I have my son, I have my daughter. I have a house and a roof over their heads. They’re fed. There’s nothing to worry about. But I do miss winning as a competitor. That’s where my mind is.”