“When you’re young, you think it’s going to last forever. But it doesn’t.” Don Frye says, growling the words in his diesel engine voice. “One day it all comes to an end. That’s when you realize you should have appreciated it more while it was happening.”
This is the distinct brand of wisdom that comes with age. It is the kind of wisdom that must be earned and paid for. In his time in the sport – from UFC 8 to Pride 34, with a little K-1 and New Japan Pro Wrestling mixed in – Frye has learned more than he ever expected about the fi ght business. It has a way of using people up, squeezing them for all they’re worth, and then leaving them behind. It’s like anything else in life, really. Only it happens faster.
Frye found this out for himself in the late nineties. In between stints with the UFC and Pride, he was making good money as a pro wrestler in Japan. But a few weeks before the biggest show of the year in the Tokyo Dome, his fi ngers starting going numb. Right away he knew this was a bad sign. Pain he was used to. He understood it. Numbness was something else. He gave in and went to the doctor, who told him that he’d broken his neck nearly a year earlier. He needed surgery, and soon. He called the New Japan offi ce to explain the situation. When he told them the bad news the line went silent, and then in the background he heard muted but frantic voices conversing in Japanese. A voice came back on the line.
“It’s your health and your decision,” the voice said. “But we’ve already advertised you for the event…” So he pushed it one more time, against his doctor’s advice and his own common sense . He emerged from the match relatively unscathed and proceeded almost directly to surgery, where doctors fused three of his vertebrae together. The Japanese promoters asked him how long he’d be out. Frye informed them the doctor had insisted he take it easy for at least three months.
“Okay,” said the promoters. “We’ll see you in three months.” Frye thinks about this sometimes. He compares it to the quiet life he lives now – taking his daughters to school, riding his horse, shooting guns in the Arizona desert with his brother-in-law, waiting for elk season to roll around again – and he doesn’t think boring life. He thinks easy life.
He watches contemporaries of his, guys like Ken Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba, still at it after all these years. Sometimes he even still dreams of greatness himself. “Every fi ghter thinks he has one more good fi ght in him,” he says. “Hell, some days I think I have about ten more in me.” And yet, every fi ghter reaches a moment where he has to admit he’s not the same athlete that he used to be. For Frye, that moment came while he was getting pummeled by James Thompson in his fi nal ˆPride appearance.
“About the fi ftieth punch I just started wondering, ‘Why aren’t I better than this?’ Why aren’t I beating this guy,’” he laughs. Even though he sometimes still longs for a good fi ght, Frye says MMA isn’t the same sport he started out in. And these days the offers from promoters aren’t the same , either. His last outing on May 2, 2009 saw him submit judo fi ghter Rich Moss in front of an appreciative, but relatively small crowd in Lubbock, Texas. He took the fi ght on just a few weeks’ notice. Competing on the “Shark Fights 4” card isn’t where you might expect to fi nd a guy who once performed in front of sold out arenas in Japan, but if there’s one thing Frye has learned over the course of his career it’s that the only constant is change.
“[In Pride] they treated you as a professional and a valued asset. They knew that without the fi ghters there was no show. They didn’t try and screw with your head or cuss at you or treat you like a migrant farm worker. You get used to that, people fl ying you out fi rst class to Japan, staying in nice hotels, getting wined and dined. You get used to that, and to the paychecks. You sure miss those.” For a short while Frye made a go of it as a coach in the IFL, but his personality wasn’t cut out for coaching. As a member of his Tucson Scorpions team once put it, “Don is a man who sees things in shades of red.”
It also didn’t help that while being on the road with the IFL he was given to drink. Frye isn’t the ‘glass of wine with dinner’ type. He drank tequila, and he drank it prodigiously. Trouble usually followed not far behind. There was time he nearly got the IFL kicked out of a hotel in Groton, Connecticut for trying to start a fi ght with Dennis Hallman in the hotel bar. Or the time he dumbfounded a room full of reporters at the post-fi ght press conference by likening his team’s performance to “a faggot eating a corndog.” It’s safe to assume that no one in the IFL was terribly surprised to see Frye show up on YouTube brawling in a hotel lobby after a local MMA event with an opposing team’s striking coach, and getting himself felled more by booze than by punches.
But Frye claims those days too are over.. “My dad died about a year ago, and he drank. It starts out being for fun, and then it’s for escape, and then you can’t even escape any more. Pretty soon instead of helping you escape your problems, it just compounds them.”
Before the booze it was painkillers, which he became dependent on after using them to get him from one fi ght to the next, trying to make the most out of the relatively short window of fi nancial viability accorded most athletes. He simply didn’t have time to be hurt. “Your athletic lifespan may only be six or seven years, so you have to make the most of it while you can. You end up taking a bunch of painkillers to push yourself through it, and it catches up with you,” Frye says. “It’s a tough business. It’s an isolated life. And those people beating down your door wanting to hang out with you when you win, they won’t give you the time of day when you lose.”
It’s the same story when you retire. The people who used to love you are struck with a sudden amnesia. That’s part of why Frye barely even pays much attention the sport anymore. The last UFC he watched was the second meeting between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell at UFC 52. He went up to Las Vegas to meet some friends and wound up getting his tickets stolen. He had to buy new ones from a scalper outside the MGM Grand. It was a surreal moment for the man who fought for the UFC back when the events were in single digits. “I just felt like, these people don’t care about me anymore. You know, it ain’t Dana White who put MMA on the map. It was guys like Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie and Don Frye and Mark Coleman.”
But like many of his contemporaries, Frye can’t seem to stay completely retired. He might not be able to compete at the same level he used to. The sport may have changed dramatically, and for him, somewhat painfully. Still he can’t quite turn his back on it. As much as it’s taken from him, it’s given even more. “I sound a little bitter, but I’m not. Somebody’s got to tell the truth, and sometimes it hurts. But I had great friends. I loved it all. I had the time of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”