I don’t love to fight.
I love to compete. Competing is my drug.
The truth is, I’m a tree-hugging hippie at heart.
That probably sounds strange coming from a guy who makes his living punching other people in the face really hard, but I don’t believe I was born to become a professional fighter.
I’m just damn good at it, probably because I have been training for this life — without even realizing it — since I was a little kid.
I used to get bullied a lot. Well, “bullied” is probably putting it too lightly. I used to get my ass beat by other kids. To an outsider, it might have seemed like I was targeted because I was chubby and had braces and wore huge glasses. But those weren’t the only reasons. I got bullied because I was chubby, I had braces, I wore huge glasses and I also used to run my mouth.
I’ll admit, I earned most of my ass-kickings.
I grew up in an area of Springfield, Ill., where fighting was just another part of life. Nobody shied away from it. Between third and fifth grade, I was probably involved in hundreds of fights at the bus stop before and after school.
The people who used to bully me the most were these two brothers. They used to jump me every single day and would straight whup me. I could hold my own against one of them, but then the other would jump in and beat the shit out of me.
Kids would always tell me in class, “Ohhhh, those boys are going to break your nose!”
“You know what?” I’d reply. “Fuck them! I don’t give a shit what they are going to do.”
Like I said, I had a mouth on me. But I was just covering up for the fact that I actually did give a shit. I gave lots of shits. I was terrified. But even though I was always scared, those fights became normal for me. It got to the point where I expected them — they were part of my daily routine. I don’t ever remember bringing them up to my family because I honestly didn’t think they could do anything about it. I wouldn’t say I hid the fights from them, but I didn’t go out of my way to ask for help.
My brother’s support and love meant everything to me. Seeing how protective he was made me realize that I needed to step up and take control.
One day in fifth grade, after having been on the receiving end of a particularly good mauling from the brothers, I was in the kitchen trying to glue my broken glasses back together. I had two black eyes. I imagine it was a pretty sad display. That was when my brother, Bob, who was in seventh grade at the time, finally saw how bad it was.
“Dude,” he said. “What’s going on, man?”
I told him what happened.
“Alright,” he calmly replied. “After school tomorrow, I’m going to come by and we’ll handle these two together.”
“Look, man,” I said. “These two are no joke. They are no punks. These kids are tough!”
“Well,” Bob said. “I guess we’ll get our asses kicked together.”
That moment was a turning point in my life.
For a long time, I was terrified of those brothers. Who wouldn’t be? Getting jumped by two guys day in and day out really blows, especially when you’re young and have pretty low self-esteem. My brother’s support and love meant everything to me. Seeing how protective he was made me realize that I needed to step up and take control.
I mean, I was already getting beat every day, so what good was being afraid doing? It didn’t seem to be changing anything. Whether you’re scared or not, the worst-case scenario could happen anyway. Fear is largely a useless emotion.
So the next day after school, my brother and I stood by each other and took on the brothers. Together.
And we got our asses kicked.
But at least we got some pretty good shots in.
I fought “professionally” for the first time in 2009.
I put professionally in quotes because the fight happened in a bar.
What the hell am I doing? I thought as I entered the cage (by the way, there was a cage). This is such a bad decision.
The clang of the gate was like a scene in a movie where they put the wrong guy in jail and amplify the sound for dramatic effect.
I imagined what my brother told me years ago. I put the fear aside and just … fought.
And this time, I won. First-round KO. From there, more wins kept coming and it became clear that I might have a future in this.
Now, I truly believe I’m one of the best fighters in the world, and there isn’t anybody who can stand across from me in the cage and whup my ass. I think that if I make mistakes in a fight that my opponents might be able to take advantage of them, but I don’t think there is anybody who can hands-down beat me man-to-man.
For example in my last fight, with Carl (Badwater) Seumanutafa at Bellator 157, I fucked up big time. My team and I had trained extensively beforehand on a move we thought would win the fight if I executed it at the right moment: switch from lefty to righty, and then throw a jab/left hook/right low-kick combination.
What do you prove by beating on someone who can’t defend himself? That would make me no better than the kids who made my life hell growing up.
I was supposed to save that combo for later in the fight, when Badwater would be fatigued. But 30 seconds into the first round (because I’m a freaking idiot) I decided to do the exact thing that I wasn’t supposed to do when he was fresh: switch from lefty to righty and throw a jab/left hook/right low-kick combination.
It’s like playing with a model car — you’re so excited to play with it you never wait until the glue is set.
Well, Carl caught me with a massive overhand right and dropped me … but only for a second. He did a perfect job with the scenario that I had presented to him on a silver platter. I’d had 15 other fights against the best in the world and nobody had ever landed a punch like that on me.
Luckily I recovered quickly, and hit Carl with a gigantic right hand, which ended things.
At that point, I could’ve jumped on him and kept pounding because the ref hadn’t stopped the fight, but I didn’t need to. My goal has never been to ruin my opponent’s life. I just want to ruin their night.
So to this day, it bothers me when I see someone who’s defenseless in the cage getting punched, regardless of whether the referee jumps in and stops the fight or not. I just don’t get it.
On that night, I knew Carl’s family was watching. His children were watching. What do you prove by beating on someone who can’t defend himself? That would make me no better than the kids who made my life hell growing up.
Recently, there was a kid a few years older than him who was picking on his little brother, Jonah. When Jacob found out, he actually went over to the kid’s house and knocked on the door.
In an odd way, even though my adrenaline is pumping, I’ll always empathize with the guys I knock out. If my kids —Jacob, 10, Jonah, 7, and Gia, 5 — saw me getting pounded when I was unable to defend myself, it would be awful. Why do that to another person?
I’ve had conversations with my kids about fighting. They live in a very different environment than the one I grew up in. I was raised surrounded by fighting, and they’ve been raised surrounded by academics. Where we live, people don’t fight. Actually, my career is frowned upon. It’s easy to pick up on. If I’m in a group of adults at their school, nobody will ever acknowledge what I do.
Jacob, my oldest, doesn’t have the same fighting instinct that I had when I was young – and that’s O.K by me. But he knows that sometimes you have to be a man and stand up for yourself or for those you love. The environment he’s in right now, I know that it isn’t the real world. There’s going to be a time where you’re going to have to protect yourself, your siblings or somebody else who can’t stand up for themselves.
Just like my brother did for me, and just like I’m doing for my kids.
Thankfully, when Jacob needs to have that mindset, he has it. Recently, there was a kid a few years older than him who was picking on his little brother, Jonah. When Jacob found out, he actually went over to the kid’s house and knocked on the door. The kid’s father answered, and Jacob asked to speak to his son.
“If you ever pick on my little brother again, you and I are going to have a serious situation,” Jacob said to the kid, right in front of the father, like frickin’ a boss.
That’s what a big brother does, and I’ve never been more proud of him.
If there is anything I’m afraid of, it’s that my kids will resent me for being gone so much and pursuing this career. But as they get older, I think they are starting to understand that all the training and all the injuries, it’s all for them.
On Saturday, I’ll be fighting Oli Thompson at Bellator 158 in London. I’m taking the fight on three weeks notice — which is basically unheard of — but I’m always down to scrap.
For me, the fight was just another payday for my kids — until Thompson started running his mouth like those damn brothers from my old school, boasting about the pain he was going to inflict on me. So now I’m going to have to whup his ass.
It’s going to be another step in my journey. Honestly, I feel like I’ve lived seven or eight lives in my 38 years. But I have no regrets and a lot to look forward to. I can’t wait to see my kids get older and be awesome at whatever they choose to be awesome at. And I’m glad that they get to watch their dad be awesome at what I choose to be awesome at.
Like I said, I don’t love to fight. But I do love being pretty damn good at it.