The kid was mad at himself. The fi rst punch had already landed, and he hadn’t seen it coming. Now, his heart was racing and the adrenaline was coursing through his body. The crowd was already gathering, the fi ght was on, and 93-pound Mike Brown–freshman at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, Maine–was in a terrible position: behind the masses. In high school, size matters; and on this day it worked in his favor. Brown weaved and squirmed his way through his schoolmates, ending in his customary position: front and center for the scrap.
From a young age, Brown was fascinated by fi ghting. Even now, as the WEC featherweight champion, he has trouble pinpointing exactly what it is that drew him to fi ghting and to mixed martial arts in particular. But one thing he knows is this: the sport’s hold on him was magnetic.
He cannot escape its pull. Six days a week, for up to 10 or 11 hours a day, he can be found at American Top Team’s main gym in Coconut Creek, Fla. When you jokingly ask him why he isn’t there 7 days, he earnestly responds, “We’re closed on Sundays.”
Brown does everything there. He sells memberships, he works the front desk. If you call the gym right now, there is a good chance he will answer the phone. *The 145-pound king of the sport* *answers the front desk phone!*
“It’s one of the reasons we like him so much,” says ATT manager Richie Guerriero. “Nothing changes with him. He still drives the same piece-of-shit car. He’s a regular Joe and an awesome teammate. I think that’s the reason everyone here was so happy for him to win the title. He’s so humble and he deserves it.”
As a kid, Brown himself couldn’t have predicted his own athletic rise. He was always watching fi ghts from the safety of distance, whether it was on a schoolyard or through television, until he had a conversation with his high school friend Chris Brooks. By that time, Brown–self-admittedly “tiny” as a freshman–had come to the realization that he not only lacked the size to be a professional athlete, but he was also too small for the high school sports he’d hoped to play.
Brooks, however, was going out for the wrestling team, and told Brown that with weight classes, he could compete fairly with kids his size. That was true in theory, but not in practice. Brown made the team as a freshman, but he was too small for even the lightest weight class.
After toiling with the junior varsity as a .500 wrestler as a frosh, something clicked, and Brown started winning on the varsity level. By his junior year he captured the state championship in the 112-pound class. The next year, he moved up two weight classes to 125 pounds and fi nished second in the state.
“It was kind of like fi ghting, but with rules,” he says. “You were trying to dominate the other person. It was hard work, but I just thought it was fun.” Equal to his love of wrestling was his hatred of school. His grades were always on the edge of disaster, and he graduated with a 1.8 GPA. After graduating, he took odd jobs, partied and generally lacked ambition. But after a couple of years and during a quiet moment, he grew disgusted by his lack of ambition and pledged to change.
Brown enrolled at Norwich University, mainly because it satisfi ed his most important criteria: it had a wrestling team and a Jiu-Jitsu club. Brown, who was already in his early 20s, was suddenly overcome by a sense of maturity and ambition. Now, sports weren’t the only thing that mattered; academics were also driving him. Semester after semester, he was making the Dean’s List, earning A’s while majoring in biology.
“I think I had a drive to prove I wasn’t stupid,” he says. “I wanted to prove, ‘I can do well if I want to. And part of it was the competitiveness factor. I wanted to have the best grades in the class. I made it a game, and I always wanted to win.”
But while he was fi nding himself academically, his athletic self was facing a crisis. During his freshman year, he suffered a neck injury that caused him to lose 70% of the strength in his left arm. The problem required surgery, but long after the recommended recovery period had elapsed, Brown would suffer stingers, a burning pain that traveled down his arm and into his fi ngers. The stingers would last for 6 or 7 weeks and were sometimes so painful they would literally cause him to cry.
The recurring problem cost him most of his collegiate wrestling career but eventually stopped, likely because the scar tissue from the surgery had broken up.
Around the time he was getting ready to graduate (he fi nished with a 3.88 GPA), his college roommate Gunnar Olson was scouring the popular site MMA.tv and saw a post looking for northeast-based fi ghters. As they recall it, Olson was the more gung-ho of the two, but Brown agreed to try. In April 2001, Brown made his debut. He fought Jeff Darienzo and won by keylock. “I was such a big MMA fan that more than anything, I was just doing it just to say I did it,” he says. “When I actually won, I was almost euphoric.”
After losing to Hermes Franca in his third pro fi ght, he won seven in a row and was invited to the UFC, where he would face Genki Sudo at UFC 47. Brown walked around right at the 155-pound limit and had only been fi ghting for 3 years. Sudo, meanwhile, was a respected veteran of Pancrase, RINGS, and the UFC. Brown lost via armbar/triangle in the fi rst round. He wasn’t invited back by the UFC and returned to the regional circuit for his next match, where he lost to future star Joe Lauzon. Brown was crushed. For the fi rst time, he considered quitting. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was,’ “ he said. “I didn’t want to be the guy losing eight fi ghts in a row.”
But his next fi ght had already been scheduled, and he didn’t want to back out. He beat Renato Tavares. Back on track. With that, Brown began a streak in which he won nine of his next 10 bouts, leading to a contract with the WEC. In his debut fi ght, he earned a unanimous decision win over respected veteran Jeff Curran. Brown, who by then was training at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla, was offered the biggest fi ght of his life: a title bout with WEC’s poster boy Urijah Faber.
The two are philosophical opposites in MMA. While Faber refl ects his West Coast roots with a fl ashy and free-wheeling approach, Brown is a blue-collar East Coaster who is less about imagination and more about results. In results, however, they had more in common; Faber entered the fi ght on a 13-match win streak while Brown had won seven straight. Faber entered the fi ght a 3-1 favorite.
It was Faber’s improvisational style that betrayed him and Brown’s straightforward approach that proved the decisive factor. Just 2 minutes in, off a scramble against the cage, Faber decided to throw a spinning back elbow while Brown went with a more traditional straight right. Brown landed fi rst, fl ush against Faber’s chin. The champ went down; the challenger followed him to the mat, pummeled him with 10 unanswered punches, and scored one of the biggest upsets of the year. His win over Faber wrote his place in history, but Brown says he has more to give to the sport. The 33-year-old hopes to fi ght 3 to 4 more years, and then get involved in coaching or managing.
He was once that kid on the playground, too small to mix it up. When he was weaving and squirming his way to the front, he wasn’t getting a better view of the fight; he was moving toward his destiny.