For UFC featherweight Cub Swanson, his clash with Denis Siver at UFC 162 in July means more than fists, shins, and shedding blood. This fight, like every fight in his career, is the result of a perfect balance he’s found in his life—a lifetime of juggling extremes.
Cub Swanson had nightmares about this one for years. He’d been in a lot of close calls in his young life. He’d seen people get shot. He’d seen friends arrested and beaten by cops. He’d seen it all, but for some reason, this one stuck.
Swanson is standing up now, casually walking around his Tru MMA gym in Indio, CA, reenacting the scariest moment of his life. His voice is eerily calm and composed despite the chaos he’s describing.
He was 19 years old at the time he received a phone call from a good friend who was looking for backup to watch over his house. Threats had been made. Swanson’s loyalty outweighed his common sense, so he made his way over. It was just his friend and his friend’s dad sitting on the front porch, casually on guard.
“The first truck that pulls up was kind of speeding up toward the house,” says Swanson. “They just rolled right up onto the grass.
Before the truck pulled up, my buddy’s brother showed up and he ran up to the car and all you heard was BOOM! We were shocked and stood up. They opened up all four doors of the truck and got out. We stood up, and my buddy was here [pointing to his left] and his dad was here [pointing to his right.] They had magazines on the table like they were reading, but they had guns underneath them. I didn’t know that. So they picked them up and just started shooting. I was standing in between them. I was like, ‘I don’t have a gun, why am I standing here?’ I ran to the garage door and I tried to turn it but it was locked. I could hear bullets and people running around. The first thing that popped in my head was, ‘They’re dead, and now I’m trapped.’ I looked at the house next door, and I just ran across the line of fire as fast as I could because I knew I was trapped the other way. No one even got shot. Everybody was just shooting scared.”
Despite bringing fists to a gunfight, the future UFC featherweight contender managed to escape the terrifying scene unscathed. Swanson knew his life had to change. Cub Swanson the punk kid and troublemaker came to an end. Cub Swanson the professional fighter and community hero was soon forged.
Palm Springs, CA, nestled in the Coachella Valley two hours east of Los Angeles, brings about visions of palm trees and golf courses. The desert town, with its warm weather and Indian casinos, houses a massive retirement community. Think Florida for Los Angelinos who hate the humidity of the South.
Cub Swanson knows a much different Palm Springs. When asked about his childhood, he says, “That’s a hard question,” with a nod of his head that seems to say, “Not question again.”
At three months old, Swanson lost his father to cancer. His mother was left to care for Cub and his two older brothers Steve and Aaron. The responsibility, combined with anguish, pushed her to drug abuse and left her life spiraling out of control.
“She was just a mess,” Swanson says.
Not wanting to subject her children to a potentially damaging home life, she sent her three boys to live with their aunt and uncle when Cub was three years old. “I was a little sheltered,” Swanson says. “We were home schooled. We went to church about four times a week. I wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies. We had the Brady life. Real sheltered. That was all I knew.”
The sheltered childhood served as a blessing and a curse. Steve lived with his foster parents when he was seven, but he’d had enough by the time he was 12 and moved back in with his mother. Six years later, Cub and Aaron followed when their mother recovered from her troubles and his foster parents went through a divorce. Without his aunt and uncle filtering out the less savory aspects of life in the Coachella Valley, he started to find trouble—or trouble started to find him.
Without watchful eyes looking over them, the three Swanson boys jumped feet first into life at Cathedral City High School. High school is tough enough for teens, but for a young Cub Swanson, who really only knew life within the confines of a sheltered home or the walls of a church, high school life appeared about as foreign to him as Mars. Social awkwardness led to acting out.
“I felt like being a tough kid was easier than standing on my own two feet and focusing on school and stuff like that,” he says. “In the fight game, all of us are kind of extremists. If I was going to be a bad kid, I wanted to be the baddest kid.”
He went on “probably 100 beer runs” during his high school years. “I got to the point where I would just grab stuff and walk out the front and just say, ‘What are they gonna do?’”
His first tattoo came at 17 years old, “the worst one,” he admits, pointing to a tribal band on his left arm. His trademark palm trees on his stomach and “SoCal” on his chest soon followed. Drugs and parties were the norm. Fist fights and brushes with the law simply came with the territory. Even gunfights were often met with a shrug. Cub remembers one specific instance when he was 16 years old.
“I was at a party. Everyone was drunk, but I was sober. And these fucking idiots had a beef with somebody and jumped over the back wall of the backyard and stuck their hand over and unloaded like 20-something shots. They shot four girls and two guys. I was just standing there, and everyone got down from the shooting, but I’ve been to so many parties where people shoot in the air. So I was just standing there like they were shooting in the air, no biggie.”
Cub’s hijinks eventually caught up with him, and he served one year in Indio Juvenile Hall. “In juvenile hall, people would step up to you to intimidate you. I’d have to step up to them, otherwise I’d be labeled as weak—then you’re in trouble.”
Swanson served his time and went back to his ways. He willfully admits he’s stubborn. Learning from others’ mistakes has never been his specialty, and learning the hard way tends to be the only way to learn at all. Eventually, he started to get it.
At 19 years old, he found a Joe Moreira Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu affiliate school near his home and gave it a whirl. Grappling became his new addiction, and he trained for hours and hours every day. He was always a good athlete, but he couldn’t handle the “team” part of team sports. It was too frustrating relying on others. The solidarity of combat sports meant only Cub decided how well Cub did, instead of relying on the quarterback to get him the ball in the end zone.
The lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to didn’t jive with the rigors of training. Fighting off a training partner trying to choke you unconscious is hard enough. Fighting a hangover at the same time is pure hell.
Back at Tru MMA, the 10-year MMA veteran remembers how badly he needed an outlet. Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, and he credits jiu-jitsu for keeping his hands busy and his body too tired to find mischief.
Cub Swanson is efficient at everything he does. He hates to waste time or money. He drives fast. He can finish a Subway sandwich in less time than it takes to make it. He doesn’t have a lawn because of the high water bill. He drained his pool because of the electric bill. He has the money, just no desire to spend it on anything but the essentials.
He’ll splurge sometimes. His 60-inch LCD television in his living room is a glaring exception, and it is a beauty. It makes the Sony PlayStation 3 sitting beneath it look like a sunglasses case. But he shopped for weeks to find the right deal. His explanation for the purchase is almost apologetic. The rest of the house is a cross between a massive man cave, a fraternity house, and fighter dorms. Cub’s two brothers and one other roommate live with him. Steve Swanson is a fighter on the rise, with a 10-1 professional record. The only things on the walls in the living room are fight posters from all of Cub’s fights. There is even a couch in the kitchen for fighters staying in town to train. Not one inch goes to waste. But his house wasn’t always that way.
Swanson is recounting how and why he made the decision to start turning his life around. He talks about bullets whizzing by his head with the same tone and demeanor he just used an hour earlier to order a sandwich. He’s calm and matter-of-fact about the realities of life and death. He’s uncomfortably comfortable with the subject matter.
A decade ago, he came home from work one day to a house full of his brothers and friends. Alcohol and marijuana littered the living room. The Los Angeles Lakers were playing on the TV. A normal night for Cub meant watching basketball and partaking in some unsavory elements. But now he had an outlet for his all-or-nothing mentality, and it wasn’t sitting in that living room.
“I’ve always been honest, and I really don’t care,” he says. “You probably don’t want to write about it, but I had an ounce of cocaine in my top drawer, I had weed on the table, I had alcohol in the fridge, and I used to do it all. The minute I wanted to fight for a living, I stopped. I was addicted to it, and I just stopped. I never cared to do it again. I’ve been clean for 10 years—never touched speed, coke, acid. I used to be like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”
Coming home that day was the final straw. Swanson’s two lives finally intersected—the one who partied with no focus, and the other who found direction through MMA. He was determined to never let them come this close again. All his years of flirting with trouble—the law, drugs, and even death—all of a sudden felt real.
After spending a day with Cub Swanson, you quickly learn how fighting engulfs every facet of his life. You can hear the wheels turning in his head when he describes tactics, psychology, training, and technique. And it’s paying dividends.
The WEC veteran is now 4-1 in his UFC career. He lost by second-round submission in his UFC debut to current contender Ricardo Lamas in a fight he had in hand. He bounced back in 2012 with three straight knockout wins over three highly touted featherweights—George Roop, Ross Pearson, and Charles Oliveira. In February, he picked up his fourth consecutive win against scrappy Dustin Poirier.
Swanson splits his time training in the Coachella Valley and Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque, NM. While Indio may not seem like a fight town to some, it’s quietly become a hotspot for boxing. He attended training sessions in high school with undefeated welterweight boxer Timothy Bradley, who beat Manny Pacquiao last year. Swanson trains with Bradley and a host of championship-level boxers at the Indio Boys & Girls Club.
Swanson’s manager Kami Samdari remembers visiting that gym for the first time. “There’s a ragged ring in the middle, duct-taped heavy bags, there’s a rooster outside, mariachi music playing, and you go inside and these guys are just doing work. That has brought Cub’s hands up to a totally different level,” he says.
Swanson now benefits from some of the finest training environments in MMA, but it didn’t start out this way. He moved to Orange County, CA, at 19 years old after he realized he wasn’t growing as a fighter—he could already beat up all of his training partners. It was a big step for the young kid who rarely ventured outside of the valley.
“I gave my job a month’s notice, and I told everybody I was moving to Orange County to pursue it,” says Swanson. “I did that because I knew I couldn’t back out—because I would walk around with people asking me why I didn’t move, and I would feel like an idiot.”
With the help of Samdari, Swanson scraped out a living doing odd jobs and fighting. His first fight didn’t go so well. A decade ago, MMA management was the Wild West. Fighter development amounted to a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, for an unsanctioned debut.
“His first fight, he got in there in the old Total Combat show,” says Samdari with a laugh. “He rushed the guy, they bumped knees. Cub grabbed his knee and they fell to the ground. The other guy jumped on top of him and choked him.”
It lasted 23 seconds.
But Swanson bounced back and reeled off 11-straight wins, including back-to-back wins in the WEC. His career was finally that, a career. The WEC was growing as the leading promotion for fighters in lighter weight classes. Even though Swanson had his fair share of losses, including an eight-second KO to future UFC Champion Jose Aldo, he was accomplishing what he’d set out to do. He’d earned a new level of respect from his peers and cemented himself as a true fighter. In January 2011, when the UFC absorbed the WEC and most of its fighters, Swanson had just defeated Mackens Semerzier at WEC 52 in a Fight of the Night performance. He’d soon be receiving paychecks with the letters “UFC” on the top. The tough kid from the streets of Palm Springs would be fighting in the biggest promotion in the world.
If you spend enough time with Cub Swanson, you’ll hear him refer to “the surgery.” While training for his UFC debut, a training partner kneed him in the face during sparring at Jackson’s MMA. An oral surgeon and a plastic surgeon spent four hours putting Swanson’s face back together. A metal plate here, a screw there. You can feel—to the touch—the screw in his forehead connecting a metal plate to his skull. The running joke is that his cornermen carry a Phillips head screwdriver with them to his fights in case they have to screw the plate back in. Both his hands also have plates and screws, the result of multiple breaks caused by power punches thrown with four-ounce gloves. He calls himself “Wolverine.”
This injury was the lowest of the low for Cub Swanson in his professional career. With the UFC Octagon calling, he was laid up recovering in a hospital bed. Sitting next to him, his mother and stepmother were pleading for Cub to quit taking knees to the face for money and find something, anything else.
“Seeing them cry and the immediate effects I saw—I never had to deal with it directly in my face,” says Swanson. “I really questioned myself if I was ready to go on and possibly risk more damage. When I really thought about it, I had way more potential than what I’d shown. I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t want to end on that note. I can do better. That was my attitude.”
At any point, in any fight or training session, an injury can end a career. Every fighter knows it, but rarely does a fighter admit it. A fighter’s best commodity is his body. But that commodity must run through the rigors of violence to prepare for even more violence on fight night. Swanson knows this well.
“When I’m being interviewed by the media about injuries and I’m near other fighters and I talk about broken faces or career-ending injuries, you can see other fighters look away. They don’t want to think about it, and you can’t. In a way, you have to be ignorant to it.”
Swanson recovered from his surgeries, of course (he took three days off and was back in the boxing gym working the speed bag with his jaw still wired shut). As his star continues to rise, he’s determined to make sure he brings as many up with him as he can. He’s starting a youth wrestling club so kids have something constructive to do after school. Every three months, he speaks at the same juvenile hall he was once incarcerated in. Now, he’s speaking to them as a success story.
He tells them the simple message, “I was right there. I can do it. So can you.” His nephew received a gunshot to his femur in 2012. It was a walk-up call. It’s one thing to read bad news in a newspaper or hear it from friends, but when a member of your family nearly becomes a statistic, you do more than raise an eyebrow.
“I don’t necessarily love the responsibility, but I accept it as much as I can,” he says. “I am in the public eye—to an extent—and I have the power to influence. Why not make a positive influence?”
He admits it’s tough, even a little overwhelming. He grew up with bullets, blood, and drugs, but he learned the difference between right and wrong in the confines of the first home he ever knew. “My life has been two different ends of the spectrum,” he says. “On one side, I lived in the streets. Sold drugs. Did drugs. Hung out with crazy people. On the other end, I went to church and was the sweetest little kid.” He, like so many others, is a product of his environment, the good and the bad. In order to change the next generation of products, he’s doing his best to change their environment.
It’s too early to tell if his work will make a difference with the kids, but the community already feels the change. The Swanson brothers’ reputation was pure trouble. Now, the cops ask him for favors.
“He’s always wanted to give back,” Samdari says. “He went from being chased by the cops to where cops in Palm Springs now come train with him. He’s gone 180 degrees, and he really feels like he wants to be a symbol for the other kids to turn their lives around.”
Pure and simple, the 29-year-old is kicking ass. Greg Jackson credits his four-fight winning streak on simply figuring out his style.
“Sometimes, with MMA fighters, it takes a little longer because you don’t have that long amateur career to figure stuff out,” says Jackson. “I think he just figured it out, he turned the corner, we’re all on the same sheet of music, and so he’s doing great things now.”
The irony is, the better he gets, the more he realizes how much more he can learn. It’s circular logic. The greatest wisdom comes in knowing what you don’t know. In Cub’s case, he discovers two holes in his game every time he closes one up. The holes he discovers are smaller than the holes he just filled, but being 100 percent satisfied in his abilities as a fighter is a self-destructive act. There is no end game, just continued improvement.
After leading the life he did, it’s hard to be intimidated by a 5’7” German. Albeit, that German is Denis Siver, and he’s trying to kick Swanson’s head into the seventh row of their pay-per-view opening fight at UFC 162. He’s seen it all. He’s seen friends get shot, and he’s taken a policeman’s nightstick to the dome. It all helped construct the man he is today.
“I know that nobody else has gone through what I had to go through,” says Swanson. “I can be beat down, but I will never be broken. I know that I can be a smarter fighter. I don’t have to be the toughest. Using my toughness, my athletic ability, and my intelligence is going to make a me better fighter.”
He knows the discipline of a strict religious household bound by moral code. He learned toughness, street savvy, and consequences soon after. That gives him the context most people will never have. Fighting is a balancing act for a fighter. He must manage his life like a professional—getting to practice, making weight, and preparing for battle. But he must also tap into his fight or flight, and shut off the more logical part of his brain that says, Don’t go get in that cage. You could get hurt.
That’s a lesson you don’t learn in books or in any classroom. It equipped him to become a fighter in the truest sense of the word. He can juggle the extremes of fighting in a cage. In the cage, he is in both a fight and chess match—trying to work through both circumstances in perfect harmony. That’s a lesson that took the stubborn-headed Cub Swanson 29 years to understand. But it’s a lesson that some people never learn.
//Photos by Landry Major