While UFC featherweight Eddie Yagin recently earned a Fight of the Night bonus check for $65,000 at UFC 145, the 33-year-old Hawaiian has seen his share of hard times.
The first time Eddie Yagin applied a submission, it wasn’t in hopes of a win bonus—it was in an effort to survive.
“This guy was picking on someone every day,” Yagin says. “I guess it was my turn. He was yelling at me and cussing and saying, ‘Wait until they open these bars.’ All I could say to him was, ‘Yeah, I can’t wait until they open these bars.’”
Yagin was just 19 years old, and he was locked up in a Hawaiian prison after being busted for selling narcotics.
“I was young and dumb, and my dream was to be like Tony Montana from Scarface,” Yagin says. “I didn’t have any mentors or anything.”
There he was, still a teenager and just 5’5”, trying to seem tough and avoid the massive Samoan inmate who had taken control of the jail’s population.
“He was in the very first cell,” Yagin says. “I was in the seventh or eighth cell. They opened the cellblock the next morning. He was obviously the first guy to come out, because they open the cells in order. By the time they opened mine, he was in front of my cell. Right when I got out, he swung at me, and I ducked. I was a lot faster than him, but he was a lot bigger. Fortunately, I already knew a little bit about mixed martial arts because I had seen Royce Gracie and the UFC.”
This was the late 1990s, and MMA wasn’t nearly as mainstream as it is today. But Yagin had a friend who collected tapes from around the world, and they would watch the fights on his buddy’s VCR. Yagin quickly became a fan of the sport, and it would ultimately prove valuable during his darkest days.
“I ducked his punch, and I jumped on his back,” Yagin says. “I put him in a rear-naked choke. I was like a backpack on him. He would run across the room and slam my back against the bars to try and knock me off. But every time he got close to the bars, I would turn so it wouldn’t hit my spine. It was just hitting my shoulders. He kept trying to slam me into the bars, but then I saw him loosen up a little bit. I postured up and stretched out, and he turned purple. He fell to his knees and then onto his face. Everyone got quiet. I stepped on his head as I walked back to my cell.”
Even Tony Montana would have been proud. Yagin, however, was not. Instead, he realized it was time for a change.
“Every time I got into a fight like that, I hated it,” Yagin says. “I hated that feeling. I hated what I just did. I broke the law, and I hurt somebody. I didn’t like that feeling, so I asked myself, “Why am I fighting and getting in trouble?’ I decided I could fight and get paid for it and maybe be something in my life.”
Yagin never looked back.
“I learned my lesson,” Yagin says. “That experience changed my life forever.”
Once he completed his six-month sentence, Yagin began training in earnest. He made his professional debut in 2000, and he went undefeated through his first eight fights. As a Hawaiian, he found it difficult to get opportunities to fight on the mainland, and that made getting the attention of big-time promotions almost impossible. He eventually relocated to Las Vegas, where he put himself through school and became a member of the carpenter’s union. Work left him with little time to focus on his fighting career, and he suffered through a stretch of four fights that saw him handed three defeats and a draw.
It was then that Yagin came to a crossroads. Was he meant to fight? Or was it time to give up his dream?
“I told myself, I don’t need to make any excuses,” Yagin says. “I didn’t need to tell people I lost because of this or that. I lost fair and square. I decided to take a break and focus on my construction job and give my bosses 100 percent of my life to see where it would take me. Of course, every single day I went to work, I still had that fire burning in me. I wanted to fight.”
After a two-year break from the sport, Yagin had a change of heart. Yagin had taken part in massive Las Vegas construction projects, including The Palms and City Center, but Sin City’s economy was taking a nosedive, and Yagin saw the writing on the wall. This was his opportunity to take one last shot at a dream.
“I was living in Vegas, and I lost my construction job,” Yagin says.
“I came to San Diego with everything I had in a U-Haul. I didn’t know anybody who lived in San Diego. I just got on Craigslist and looked for a room to rent. I was just going house to house with a U-Haul attached to my car and looking for a place to stay.”
Success wasn’t instant for Yagin. As a featherweight, opportunities to fight for big money were still few and far between. But he remained focused on his goals, and after a 7-1 stint on the regional circuit, including winning the Tachi Palace Featherweight Title, he earned a shot in the UFC. He stumbled in his debut, dropping a lackluster decision to Junior Assuncao, but he bounced back with a split-decision win over longtime veteran Mark Hominick in a bout that earned him UFC 145’s Fight of the Night.
“After that fight, I definitely felt like I got the recognition I had been seeking after all these years,” Yagin says. “I’m a veteran of the sport, but after just one UFC pay-per-view, a lot more people saw me fight. I was also very happy with the bonus check. I was so close to just giving up and retiring, because I felt like maybe I needed to do something else with my life. I fought for my dream, and now I’m doing what I really want to do with my life.”
Yagin’s next big opportunity takes place on December 8, when he meets German striker Dennis Siver at UFC on FOX 5. A win will catapult Yagin up the rankings and certainly earn the “The Filipino Phenom” contender consideration. Yagin welcomes such attention and said his eyes are placed firrmly on the UFC Featherweight Title.
But Yagin’s goals don’t solely consist of championship belts. Instead, he also wants to inspire others to avoid the perils he endured in his youth.
“I want to try and inspire kids and people as much as possible—change other people’s lives and give back as much as I can,” Yagin
says. “I know how it is to live a hard life, and I want kids to believe in themselves. Just because they don’t have anybody there for them doesn’t mean they can’t be successful and strive for success. It doesn’t have to be fighting. It can be anything in life. I just hope I can inspire people and help kids reach their goals and dreams, no matter what they are.”
In the cage, Yagin prefers to stand and bang, but he has earned five of his 16 career wins via choke. Of course, none of them came
with quite as much on the line as the choke he secured in a Hawaiian jail. While it’s an experience he can laugh about now, it’s one that had a profound impact on his life.
“A lot of people don’t know what I’ve been through and how hard I’ve fought to survive in my life and succeed, “Yagin says. “It’s been a rough road, but I never gave up. I kept fighting for my dreams. I never let anything kick me or put me down. I just kept going. No matter how hard I hit the ground and struggled, I got up and dusted myself off.”