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Unpacking The Suitcase Kid: How trauma, self-sacrifice, and a tragic night in Philly may inspire a miracle

On Oct. 22, 2020, just before 10:00 p.m., Eugene Aubry was getting off the train and heading home from work where he coached and taught classes at World Class Mixed Martial Arts in the Philadelphia area. With the crisp autumn air blowing and the sound of fallen leaves crunching, a hungry Aubry walked up and saw that his favorite restaurant was closed.

From there, his life changed forever.

“Somebody came up behind me and I turned around to see [what was going on], because I felt a tug on my bag — and then I got shot,” Eugene remembers. “Hit in the neck, point-blank range.

“It paralyzed me from the chest down.”

The attack seemed completely random, comparable to a laundry list of shootings that took place in the city over the last year. A 24-year-old man was walking down the street and was shot. No possessions were taken. No money was taken. Why him? Why this night?

Eugene, knowing he was potentially in the final round of the fight for his life, noticed a nearby individual exiting an apartment building and used whatever energy he could muster to get that person’s attention.

“I was completely conscious, believe it or not,” he says. “I yelled for him. Especially where I was in West Philadelphia, people don’t usually come outside when there’s a gunshot.

“He called the police, and I realized at that point that I was paralyzed. I already knew. So when they asked me to get up, I said, ‘I can’t,’ so they threw me in the back of the paddy wagon and then drove me to the trauma center.”

To this day, he doesn’t know the identity of the Good Samaritan that saved his life.

Eugene was transported to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in critical condition. With no other options ahead of neck surgery, he was placed in a medically induced coma and pumped with paralytics so there would be little chance of irritating the area where the near-fatal bullet entered.

The operation was successful, and Eugene remained in a coma for a little under a week. It took a few days for the fogginess to fade away. That sensation was replaced by confusion, fear, and, eventually, acceptance.

“[It was surreal] in the sense that I almost died, but overall it just kind of sucked because you start to understand, OK, my legs aren’t moving,” Eugene says. “Nobody wants to get shot, but it wouldn’t feel as bad if it didn’t take so much away.”

The biggest thing it took away — in his eyes — was an aspiring MMA career that included three straight finishes and a split decision loss to one of the top welterweight prospects in the country.

While most believe that loss will be the final time he fights, Eugene is not ready to accept that fate.

*** *** ***

To understand who Eugene Aubry is as a fighter and competitor, you need to go back to the beginning of his life and where he got the moniker “The Suitcase Kid.” It came from a grandmother who saw he was moving around all the time with his mom and brother. It wasn’t a compliment.

“It was more of an insult, because my mom was very erratic, and she would move around all over the place,” Eugene says. “[My grandmother] would get mad about it and say, ‘You and your brother ain’t nothing but some suitcase kids.’

“I look at it [now] as not forgetting where I came from and just turned it into a positive.”

Pro fighter and renowned striking coach Ryan Cafaro, who’s worked with the likes of Eddie Alvarez and Frankie Edgar, saw the nickname as a tribute to the sacrifice Aubry made to accomplish his UFC dreams. Rather than a regular roof over his head, or at times even food, Aubry focused all his time on training and fighting, no matter where it led him on certain nights.

“At one point, he had a membership to a gym just so he could sneak in at night and sleep under a boxing ring, or sleep on the subway and do whatever he had to do,” Cafaro says.

Photo via Eugene Aubry

Sanctuary wasn’t at home for Eugene. His relationship with his parents had always been rocky. The tragedy did rekindle his relationship with his father, Gene Aubry, who, despite being a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, didn’t like his son’s chosen career path. His mother was a much different story, according to the two-time CES veteran. He hasn’t spoken to her in over a decade.

Eugene’s mother, Bridget, suffered from bipolar disorder. In the late 90s, the disease wasn’t taken very seriously, and her family didn’t necessarily believe in it. That only made things worse for her and Eugene. There were days when he would be fed just a single bowl of oatmeal, but he said there was plenty of verbal and physical abuse to go around.

“The only thing I was allowed to do was leave the room, and she would have me just clean the entire house head to toe — the whole crib — just beating on me while I was doing it,” says Eugene. “It didn’t matter how clean I made it, I’m still getting smacked over the head.”

When his parents divorced, his mother got full custody of him and his brother. Eugene said she moved in with different and strange men with questionable backgrounds — drug dealers, pedophiles, and criminals. With the mental and physical toll his home life was taking on him, Eugene had had enough.

“‘Stop hitting me,’” Eugene remembers telling his mother. “It escalated to the point where she was pulling knives on me, biting my hand, where my fingers were almost coming off.”

Bridget denies bringing unsavory characters into Eugene’s life. But she admits that with a combination of not having a proper education, being down on her luck, and working at a fast food restaurant for $6 an hour, she couldn’t afford to live on her own and didn’t provide a healthy environment.

“The truth is, I was not mentally stable,” Bridget says.

“I failed him miserably. I thought that I was giving him consequences, that I was teaching him, but all I was doing was being abusive. I was absolutely, 100 percent abusive to my son. I live with that every day. It haunts me.”

Eugene’s father says he experienced his ex-wife’s bipolar episodes. As his son got a little older and a little braver, he tried to explain to his father what was happening at home. Gene states he was forced to make a decision.

“Unfortunately, it’s Mother’s Day every day in the court system,” Gene says.

Gene wanted justice for his sons, who, according to Gene, were forced to bend the truth in hopes they would be safe under their mom’s care. He says his wife at the time would use fear as a weapon, whether it was against his boys or himself. If Eugene tried to stand his ground, it only got worse.

“At one point I had custody of Eugene and [his brother], because she stabbed me,” Gene claims. “She’s not a bad person, she has her f*ckin’ days. ... [It would get] to the point where she was threatening to cut off his balls while he was sleeping, sh*t you would never expect to come out of your mom’s mouth.”

Bridget admitted to stabbing Gene. She explained that the relationship between her and her former husband was volatile, to say the least, and things turned violent.

Eventually, Eugene learned to fend off his mother’s attacks. Life got more complicated for Bridget, and she called Gene to take his son. He said he demanded she draw up official documents in court before taking custody, because he had been in a similar position before and it had nearly ended in kidnapping charges.

With that, Eugene officially ended his relationship with his mother, never speaking another word to her.

Eugene’s father (left) is a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Photo via Gene Aubry

Falling in love with MMA was instant. It had Eugene’s heart and mind from the second he stepped onto the mats. Fighting became priority No. 1 over school, family and everything else in his life.

“When you’re getting abused like that at home, and then you go to school, it’s rough,” Eugene says. “All of that bullying and stuff, I just wanted to be able to defend myself. And when it turned out that I could excel at it, then I desired to do so.”

Eugene can admit now that he was a handful, and it couldn’t have been easy on Gene. Much like Henry Hill wanted to be a wise guy in Goodfellas, the young Eugene saw fighting the same way. While most teenagers were wrapped up in school, being the popular kid and finding a date to the formal, Eugene was trying to get out of class, avoid his father and truant officers, and educate himself in the school of mixed martial arts.

“I was all-in [on fighting], already,” he says. “I would literally go to high school in my p.j.’s, go home by second period, pack my stuff, go to work, go to the gym. I didn’t care about school, and I think part of that was from my mom, because one of the things she used to abuse me with is homework and schoolwork, just beating on me for hours about sentences [and dictation]. ‘I don’t like these sentences, do it again,’ and she would just beat on me, spit on me. Hours and hours this would last.

“It sucked all the fun out of trying to excel academically for me, personally. Fighting was a different outlet that I wanted to take.”

Like most fathers, Gene hoped his son had a backup plan: An education, steady employment, something to supplement his love for fighting. That wasn’t the case for “The Suitcase Kid.”

“When you grow up the way I grew up, it’s not his fault,” Eugene says. “It makes you a little crazy, and I think it was really hard for my dad to deal with the way that I was.”

*** *** ***

At 16, Eugene had built a reputation as one of the hardest working martial artists in the region. Miles Lee, a 23-year-old pro fighter from Philadelphia, saw that firsthand, beginning a friendship and training partnership that became something of legend.

They would show up at different gyms and go off on their own, away from the classes, to wrestle. It became a show. Sometimes, they would go for an hour straight.

“I don’t think anybody worked harder than that man,” says Lee. “Eugene is one of those people [that] it doesn’t matter how tall you are, or how big you are, but if you really work hard, or really put in that work, it will show. Eugene, Sean Brady and a lot of other people that I know work really hard. He would always be down to work.”

Cafaro, the renowned striking coach and fighter from Philly, saw immediately the drive and hunger in Eugene.

“The first time we trained, he beat my f*cking ass up and down the mat, everywhere,” Cafaro says. “What really stood out to me about him as he had no hesitation when it came to violence.

Will Paul, CES MMA | Photo via Eugene Aubry

“I would get anxiety about [sparring with Eugene] because we would go to war — I mean absolute war — two days a week. He fights and trains like you stole something from him, and that was the attitude I took from Eugene every time.”

Cafaro was impressed with Eugene’s ability to get the most out of everybody in the room — and to weed out the posers. But he also took note of Eugene’s thirst for knowledge and desire to wring the most out of every minute. So when a former UFC lightweight champion was preparing for a big test, he called on his fearsome sparring partner to switch his fighting stance and lend a hand.

“In three weeks, I taught him how to be a southpaw and spar from southpaw, and he went and gave Eddie Alvarez some of the toughest rounds of his camp preparing for [one of his fights with] Dustin Poirier,” says Cafaro.

Eugene’s training room demeanor translated into his performances inside the cage.

“He had these white gladiator shorts on — he always had these crazy shorts he would fight in,” UFC welterweight Sean Brady says of Aubry’s pro debut at CES 52 in August 2018. “He hit this dude with a flying knee and finished him super fast. We were at the 2300 Arena and the place went nuts. He blew this dude out of the water in a minute.”

MMA was the foundation for a stronger relationship between father and son. But it also was a catalyst for an eventual showdown. Eugene’s definition of all-in was vastly different from his dad’s.

Gene respected what Eugene was doing to make his dreams come true. But he wasn’t a fan of how his son was going about it. In fact, he believed it hindered Eugene’s development.

“What Eugene interprets as the MMA life and following his dreams, to me … for example, he had a lot of times in his life where he was homeless,” Gene says. “It’s not my fault that he was homeless. He would just not work, or along the lines where, ‘I don’t have any food.’ I would ask, ‘Well, are you working?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I have to put my hours in at the gym.’

“To me, these things don’t make any sense. They’re not logical. A lot of people I know in the MMA business, they work and they do MMA, and they train. Eugene would sacrifice stability in order to continue training. And in my opinion, and he may beg to differ, that lack of stability held him back a few years.”

When Eugene wanted to drop out of school, that was the final straw for Gene, and out of the house went the young Aubry. If Eugene wasn’t working and making money while pursuing his dreams, Gene reasoned, he wouldn’t be given a free roof over his head.

Shaneen Moore (right) supported Eugene when he was homeless.
Photo via Eugene Aubry

Eugene had sacrificed pretty much everything for his goals. If the people in his life went against that, even his own father, it only fueled his fire more.

“It became sort of an ‘F- you, I’m gonna show you anyways,’” says Eugene. “He would try to come back in my life, and it would be the same thing again. I started to get too old for it in my mind.

“I’ll be honest, had I not gotten shot, I would’ve been comfortable never speaking with him again. I would have called him when I got to the UFC and told him, ‘You see, pops, I did it and I told you I would do it.’”

*** *** ***

Eugene was 3-1 as a pro and trying to figure out his next move amid the coronavirus pandemic. Things were starting to fall into place. He had landed a job in MMA, coaching and teaching classes as he sought his next fight.

On Oct. 22, 2020, Eugene’s wrestling brother Lee noticed Aubry wasn’t as visible as he normally was on social media. His gut told him that something was wrong.

“I noticed that so I kept calling him and he wasn’t answering his phone,” Lee says. “I went to his house and was knocking on the door and everything, and he wasn’t answering his door.

“So I literally blew up everybody that was close to him and his family to figure out what was going on. I finally figured out, around 5 or 6 [in the morning] that he got shot in the neck for no reason by just this bum, this loser.”

During a workout at a friend’s house, Cafaro got word that Eugene had been harmed, but he wasn’t sure to what extent.

“My girlfriend literally says, ‘Well at least he didn’t get shot,’” Cafaro says.

A rumor that his star pupil was jumped by some thugs on the subway turned into a horrifying truth. They called the hospital and learned the extent of Aubry’s injuries.

“I was in absolute shock,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I went to the hospital on his birthday, and he was in that comatose state when I saw him. I lost it pretty bad.”

Gene found out the following morning. He had shut off his phone, a habit he developed to shut off his racing mind so he could get some sleep. When he woke up and turned it on, it jumped. Text after text, to the point where he couldn’t keep up with all the messages.

“The worst thing that anybody, as a parent, can hear is that your son is in the hospital, that he was shot and that he may be paralyzed,” Gene says, holding back tears.

At that point, Gene and Eugene were on a drop in their roller coaster relationship. Eugene wouldn’t allow his father into his hospital room; Gene says his son’s initial hospitalization papers were signed by a hospital security guard. But there was no one willing to make treatment decisions. Close as Eugene’s friends were, none of them would sign off on lifesaving procedures.

Gene (left) and Eugene after the shooting.
Photo via Eugene Aubry

Gene ignored his son and stepped in.

“He had blood clots in his lungs for three days, and nobody would sign the papers,” Gene says. “I made the hard decision and said, ‘F*ck it.’”

Eugene had successful surgery, and a few days later, he was out of his medically induced coma. There were blurry bits and pieces for the young fighter. Only days later did he realize what had actually happened.

“Ten days in, I started to understand, OK, I’m in the hospital, I was shot and I remember,” says Eugene.

For about a month, Eugene couldn’t speak. He was on a ventilator, unable to move his neck and breathe on his own. He experienced swelling in his hands and fingers to the point where doctors briefly thought he might be quadriplegic. Eventually, that subsided and feeling came back in his fingers so he could type and text. A speech box was installed until his vocal cords woke up and he no longer needed it.

When Eugene realized his father gave the doctors the go ahead to perform the operation, his mind was still racing from the senseless act that had happened to him.

“He wasn’t upset [to see me], let’s put it that way,” Gene says. “He couldn’t say much because he was all drugged up. But I told him, ‘Now that I’ve signed the papers, if you don’t want me to come back, I won’t come back. I just wanted to make sure you were OK.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, you can come back.’

“We still have shaky conversations. He told me the other day, ‘You wouldn’t even be f*ckin’ talking to me right now if I wasn’t shot.’”

There’s nothing more that Gene wants than a sitcom-like father-and-son relationship. Like most in his position, he’s sad when he thinks about how some things have turned out. But he believes that with time comes wisdom and maturity.

It’s Gene’s hope that Eugene will find some semblance of peace with the horrible things he experienced as a child and, perhaps even more difficult, what he experienced as an adult.

“I can’t say that every decision I’ve made in my life is right, but I don’t make unstable decisions,” Gene says. “I’ve never once said, ‘I want to be a baker so bad, I’m gonna live on the f*ckin’ streets.’

“I just think we’re learning how to deal with it more so that if we’re getting on each other’s nerves, we ignore each other for a couple of days instead of harping on each other and making it worse.”

According to Eugene, a suspect has been arrested in relation to the shooting. The Philadelphia Police declined to confirm that information, saying the investigation is “active and ongoing.”

Since his release from the hospital, Eugene has been exercising, eating healthy, and trying to do whatever he can to improve his physical well-being. Recently, local students built him a homemade standing frame. His aim is to get to his feet at least four times a week to prevent his legs from atrophying. If he is able to get feeling in his legs again, he wants to be better prepared.

Photo via Eugene Aubry

The next step is a four-phase stem cell treatment in which 400 million stem cells will eventually be injected into his spinal fluid. The procedure is quite costly. A GoFundMe started in his name raised the money for treatment; Bridget says she donated anonymously. Eugene has spent this past week in Bogota, Colombia, completing the first treatment phase with one week’s worth of procedures at BioXcellerator.

While being able to walk again is something Eugene certainly wants to achieve, his top priority — slim chance or not — is to train and, eventually, step back into that cage.

“They’ve already had great results,” he says of the stem cell procedure. “There’s things you can see on their page of a quadriplegic that couldn’t move his arms, and he’s using an electrical wheelchair, and then he comes back and he’s got a manual wheelchair and it’s over the course of time.

“Everything [I’m doing from a health standpoint] goes into it. No one’s gotten up sprinting, but if I could just get that chance, I can get the opportunity to work myself back.”

Recently, Eugene sent MMA Fighting a video of a paraplegic regaining partial movement after just two sessions. The subject had leg mobility and the ability to do sit-ups. To say it motivated him would be an understatement.

“If I can get back what this guy has, man, I’m gonna push it into next gear,” Eugene wrote in a text. “That’s all I need.”

What Eugene has accomplished to this point, including getting some feeling in his lower back, has inspired fighters in the area. Brady, the UFC’s No. 14-ranked welterweight in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest if Eugene did the impossible.

“The whole Philly MMA community was heartbroken when it happened,” Brady says. “That would probably crush most people. He can’t walk, and I see his videos. He’s lifting, and he’s flexing and sh*t. He’s hilarious. He’s definitely in the mind space to have a miracle happen.”

Deep down, Eugene says if fighting is no longer an option, he would ultimately be OK. There are avenues within the sport he could still take, whether it be as a coach, or, as he’s done since the incident, commentary. Of course, the ability to walk in some capacity would soften the blow.

But would it be enough?

“Let’s cut the other stuff — his main goal is to get back in that cage,” striking coach Cafaro says. “You can spin it any way you want, but he says, ‘I was put on this planet to fight people in a cage. If I can’t do that, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.’

“But no, [I don’t believe he would be OK not fighting]. And I feel, just personally, I know how much work we’ve put in ... maybe I’m not OK with it. I told him multiple times while he was in the hospital, ‘You owe me a f*cking world title. I didn’t put in all this work with you for you to just out and dip on me. Absolutely not. You are going to put a belt in my lap and you are going to be my first homegrown world champion.’”

Shaneen Moore, who took in Eugene when he was homeless and is the woman he now calls “Mom” (or “Mom Dukes”), believes Eugene would be happy just being part of the MMA community.

Gene Aubry believes if his son can live a somewhat normal life, have a relationship with a woman that understands what he’s going through, and is able to do what other adult males are able to do, he will see the light of positivity.

“If that can’t happen, he’s gonna be in a really, really dark place,” Gene says.

Eugene isn’t there yet, but his father hopes for the best, while his mother hopes, with time, that she will get the opportunity to tell her son how she feels.

“[I would say] that I love him, that I’m proud of him, and that I’m so sorry for everything that he went through,” says Bridget. “I wish I could take it all back, and that I would absolutely do everything differently.

“I just pray for him every day.”

*** *** ***

A positive mindset and some incredible luck is on Eugene’s mind right now.

Police initially wouldn’t identify the suspect in his shooting. One reason for that, according to Eugene, was fear of retaliation. Another reason was that it was a 17-year-old kid attached to multiple shootings, he says.

The gun used in the shooting was on the suspect when he was arrested.

If in some way Eugene ends up face to face with the man who shot him, he knows what he will say. When it comes to the current times, his is one of way too many tragic Philadelphia tales.

“You change people’s lives,” Eugene says. “You really affect people that you really can’t understand and can’t comprehend what you’re doing.

“I would just ask him, ‘Why?’”

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