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‘I feel this in my bones’: How a UFC veteran found purpose as an angel of Albuquerque’s streets

UFC Fight Night: Kikuno v Mulhern Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Quinn Mulhern was thousands of miles from home, half blind and drowning in debt, when he realized it was time to move on.

The night before, in the opening minutes of a fight against a journeyman lightweight in Singapore in 2014, a punch shattered Mulhern’s orbital bone that left him unable to gaze above his horizon line. It was the second bad loss of a two-fight UFC run, a likely death knell for any newcomer to the promotion, and the lifelong martial artist sat in that darkness alone, lost in thought, the silence of his hotel room interrupted only by the buzzing of creditors barraging his phone. At age 29, he’d reached the grandest stage of the MMA world, and aside from a few fond memories and a bank account $20,000 in the red, what did he have to show for it? Mulhern ripped off the Band-Aid that same day, with a Facebook post stark in its honesty.

“It wasn’t nerves, I didn’t freeze…I just didn’t have the physical gifts or skill to win.”

“Bottom line is that I could put in years of continued work but I won’t be competitive at this level. Perhaps I’d get quite a bit better, but I think I’d rather spend that time on something new.”

“I feel this in my bones.”

UFC Fight Night: Kikuno v Mulhern Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

What was he supposed to do? Mulhern had spent the best years of his youth chasing down a dream. He’d won 18 of his first 20 professional fights and mounted a successful run in the final days of Strikeforce. Every decision, every early morning and late night, had been in pursuit of one goal. He’d put plans of starting a family on hold, uprooted his life from California to New Mexico to devote himself to the minds at JacksonWink gym, borrowed money from friends to stay afloat, racked up credit card debt to finance training camps, all under the guise that it’d come back around once he finally made it where he was going. There are no do-overs in MMA. There is no instruction manual for discarded prizefighters.

“I had reached that wall,” Mulhern says today. “I had fought somebody who was not a top-tier guy even. He was good, but I was not competing against the best of the best. And I was losing.

“In another sport, you might get another chance or another game, or your teammate might go in for you. But in MMA, it’s just you. That’s it. No one’s going to cry you a river over it. I might have cried some rivers, I won’t say for sure, but it was tough. It’s hard to recalibrate your whole identity and purpose in life. I had come to look at who I was in the face.”

And so the man who for so long found peace in violence had no choice but to find another way.

Earlier this year, Mulhern, now age 37, responded to a call over the Albuquerque 911 dispatch system. When he arrived on the scene, the subject in question was irate, and clearly not of the soundest mind. She had parked her trailer home on private property in a commercial lot and officers from the Albuquerque Police Department had already responded. The situation, for all intents and purposes, was at a standoff. An arrest for criminal trespassing seemed to be an inevitability, despite the woman’s obvious desperation.

In years past, that would’ve been the end of the story — another down-on-their-luck soul swept into the U.S. justice system, and a familiar cycle set to start anew.

But then Mulhern and his partner tried their hands at a different approach.

“We were able to sympathize with her, build rapport, use our empathy, and get her to calm down enough that we could connect her with services to actually get her out of her situation,” he says. “The police were really appreciative, because we kind of split the two roles apart, in a good way, and so we were able to do our part in the whole thing. They went and did their part, and we went and did ours.”

It was just one example among hundreds for the former UFC lightweight, who now spends his days patrolling the streets as a member of the newly created Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS). Launched in September to be a third branch of crisis response within the city — with the police and emergency services serving as the other two — the purpose of Albuquerque’s ACS is simple: To provide 911 dispatchers an option beyond sending out an armed officer, allowing social workers and those with backgrounds in behavioral health to field the type of calls few others want to take.

Mental health crises, suicidal ideation, unsheltered people in need of housing — a year ago, all would’ve been handled by the police. They now fall under the ACS purview.

“Say an individual’s sleeping in the doorway in front of a business or a home — we go and we make contact with that person, and we use our social work skills,” Mulhern explains. “If they need maybe some sort of crisis intervention, like if they just need someone to talk to, we’re there for that. We can deescalate a situation where somebody is maybe a little manic or they’re having a mental health issue, and then what we do is we connect them to social services in the city.

“If their issue is that they need housing, we work to connect the dots for them to get into a housing program. And maybe they need mental health counseling, or they need a psychiatrist to prescribe them drugs, or maybe they need something else — we’re plugged into that whole social service network, and we try to connect them to it. Because it can be really hard, especially for someone who’s having a crisis, to know who to call and exactly where to turn.”

Mulhern’s new calling is part of a movement that has found tremendous success elsewhere across the U.S. as communities attempt to untangle the complex issue of police brutality.

According to a 2016 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, anywhere from a quarter to 50 percent of all fatal police shootings each year involve a victim with some form of mental illness. Yet several programs in the ACS mold have generated encouraging early results throughout the country, with the best example being Oregon’s CAHOOTS model (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets). In 2019, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police intervention was needed less than one percent of the time.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - SEPTEMBER 29, 2021: (L-R) Walter Adams, Leig
Mulhern (right) responds to an ACS call in Albuquerque.

Mulhern has taken to using one metaphor, in particular, to describe the effect.

“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” the former UFC fighter says. “And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m not trying to insult police in saying that. It’s just that they have a certain focus and they should be allowed to stick in that focus. And the response from APD, from the police in Albuquerque, has been quite positive ... [because] when you’re a hammer and everything looks like a nail, there can be situations where things escalate when they don’t need to.

“The police, they’re hyper-trained in one area. They’re specialists, in a sense. But because of the nature of the welfare state, basically, they’ve been tasked with a lot of things that go way outside of that training. They’re expected to be counselors and social workers. They’re expected to be able to resolve conflicts for people to provide comfort. They’re expected to do a lot of things that aren’t really what their training is necessarily about. And so the idea of this department is to kind of take that off their hands, those things that sort of clog up the works with them that end being a large amount of calls that they have to respond to.”

It may be a heavy gig for the layman, filled with long and often emotional days, but nothing has ever been normal about the UFC veteran. He’s always found a way to surprise.

It was both the shock of a lifetime and no shock at all the first time Mulhern’s former coach, Brandon Gibson, ran into his old student while walking through his daily paces around City Hall.

In addition to being one of the most acclaimed striking gurus in the world, Gibson doubles as the Deputy Director for the Department of Arts and Culture in Albuquerque. He also was the sole cornerman who traveled to Singapore for what turned out to be Mulhern’s last hurrah. He says the memory still haunts him. Mulhern’s injuries left the fighter unable to fly, and Gibson had to get back home for work, “so I left him in Singapore with a broken orbital, which to this day hurts my heart to think of,” Gibson says. “But he was so tough.”

The coach admits it threw him for a loop when he first learned about Mulhern’s aspirations to be a social worker. It wasn’t the usual rhetoric he hears from his trained killers, but in some small way, it also made sense. Mulhern was always a bit different than most fighters, never someone who relied on raw aggression and anger to fuel him to wins. His approach was always more level-headed, more cerebral. Too well-meaning for his own good.

“His level of empathy, like, radiates, right? Even if you don’t know him well, you can see that compassion that he has,” Gibson says.

“And it’s definitely not a glamorous job, so if you’re going to do that type of social work, you really have to believe in what you’re doing and knowing that you’re making a difference.”

Mulhern isn’t oblivious to the irony of where life has led him, that a person who spent his first few decades learning how to hurt others in the most efficient of ways could now spend his afternoons efforting to do the opposite. He’s the first to admit that he was adrift for a time after that nightmarish week in Singapore. He floated between small-time gigs teaching jiu-jitsu in the northeast before coming to grips with reality — that a total reset was needed if he was ever going to find the purpose he lost when his UFC dream died.

“I kind of just got my sh*t together,” Mulhern says. “I went, I applied for school — New York has a pretty good public system called CUNY that’s relatively cheap, and so I got into grad school basically, wrote all the papers, did all these things, because I thought that social work could be this career that would give me some meaning in the things that I valued.”

Once the pandemic hit and necessitated a move back to Albuquerque to save money, everything coalesced to bring ACS to life just as Mulhern graduated with his master’s degree in social work. It was as if fate had sent him a message — and the former prizefighter listened. “I was like, this is really cool. I can kind of be a part of this cutting edge thing, that was just a few people in the city trying something new out of nowhere,” he says. “And because they were such a new department, they were ambitious in their hiring process, they really wanted to get a really diverse group of people in there, so I think me coming from a slightly unorthodox background, they actually kind of liked that.

“So they took a chance — and it’s been really good for me.”

Gibson believes the unlikely pairing is perfect. The type of conviction and strength and resolve that martial arts teaches, they’re still in effect for Mulhern, just in a different way. The ex-fighter doesn’t carry weapons and isn’t on the streets to make arrests. His tools of the trade are simply words and snacks, blankets and compassion. And in an area where the murder rate has climbed to be make Albuquerque one of the most dangerous cities in America, the added help of ACS has been a boon for an already overburdened police force.

“It’s something our community needs,” Gibson says. “The police can only do so much. The firefighters and EMS teams can only do so much. It really does take long-term solutions to help people that are battling addiction and battling illness, battling homelessness. Quinn’s group is out there getting the information out and putting people on the right paths to get help.

“And I actually think in any first responder role, [that UFC background] makes for such a good foundation in any type of interactions with people going through difficult times. Like, nothing’s going to get Quinn’s heart rate elevated. He’s never going to have a big ego. And knowing he can handle himself and protect himself and those around him, including the people he’s out there in contact with, all of those skills just make him that much more calm, that much more efficient, and that much more clear in all of his communication. I think it’s better to be the warrior in the garden — and that’s where he’s at now.”

It’s been a while since Mulhern watched MMA. Too long, probably. The end is still a bit too fresh, the memories a bit too bittersweet. But they don’t change the love of the game that is still in his heart. He knows he’ll go back one day and be a dedicated fan once more.

The physical scars remain a reminder. Mulhern says he has permanent damage in his right eye related to his fight career, but for the most part, the financial debt he accumulated from MMA is a thing of the past. That’s good, because his 18-month-old son Redd is already quite the handful. Between a new child and a loving wife, Mulhern finally has the family he always wanted, a support system that lights up his every day. So even if he’ll never be able to fully let his fighter’s spirit go, he knows he’s moved on to a different chapter.

Photo via Quinn Mulhern

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘F*** man, I’ve still got it.’ But at that point you’ve got to be careful, because most of the time you don’t still got it,” he says with a laugh. “That’s what they don’t tell you.”

Yes, in a strange way, the former UFC fighter is where he was always meant to be. He knows that now. It took him a while, but he and Gibson both see it. Mulhern was built for this.

In a parallel universe, maybe things would’ve been different. Maybe he could’ve kept going after Singapore. Mulhern has thought about it, what it would’ve been like to grind back through the regional circuit and find his way back again to the UFC. Maybe it could’ve worked out like he’d always dreamed, or maybe it would’ve just delayed the inevitable.

Or maybe it doesn’t much matter.

“I made the right decision,” he says.

Mulhern is still ambitious, though. That much is clear. As ambitious as he was when he was a 23-year-old kid full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on the world. “It’s just, this is the part I’m pouring my energy into now, is trying to see positive reform,” he says.

“I’m not trying to be delusional here, I’m not thinking I’m going to be president someday or some s*** like that. I just think a lot of people are starting to have this feeling of, ‘You know what? I’m going to push this snowball down the hill just a little bit. I’m going to add my tiny little bit of energy to it, because I have to.’ I might not be anybody ever, but I’m going to push. I’m going to push things along just a little bit. I think that’s where I’m at. I’m always looking around for some way to make good things happen for all of us in America.”

He may not be the hotshot prizefighter who put New Mexico on the MMA map. He may not get harangued with autograph requests every time he steps into Whole Foods, or have the world hang on his every word with every Instagram post. But the streets of Albuquerque remain his home. And if Mulhern can make a difference in just one life, save just one down-on-their-luck soul from needlessly throwing it all away, who’s to say it wasn’t all worth it in the end?

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