Never Say Die

There’s so much more to Matt “The Immortal” Brown than simply persevering—there’s a story of redemption that’s still being told.

On a cool summer evening in August 2001, Matt Brown died.

It’s not that Brown remembers dying in the blur of that dilated night in Xenia, Ohio, just one month before the September 11 attacks. You’ve seen the way he fights. He’s stubborn, and if he’s going out, he’ll go out on his own terms.

But back in those days, he didn’t mind turning himself into a piece of driftwood. Unlike some of his friends who’ve lost their lives to drugs—and there have been a few—he wasn’t running headlong for the light. Yet, he wasn’t running from it either. At the time, Brown had a middle finger for both sides of the ledger, for life and death. In fact, he toed the line on most weekends.

On the night that he overdosed on heroin in his hometown of Xenia—the night that has been fabled to give him his famous nickname of “The Immortal”—a light never appeared.

“I don’t actually have a big memory of the whole thing,” he says. “I remember doing the dose, and I remember waking up and seeing doctors and stuff, but I don’t remember anything in between.” Although he had a fiendish love of meth and pills, Brown had only done heroin “maybe 10 times” when he overdosed. He was used to buying diluted junk, the kind that had been cut or tampered with. Then he got his hands on some pure stuff, did the same dose, and felt the drapes softly close around him.

Luckily, he had a friend named Tammy with him who wasn’t using, and who realized what was happening. She had the presence of mind to drive him immediately to a hospital in nearby Dayton. Had she not acted sooner, he’d be a sad gravestone in rural Ohio right now.

He’d simply be mortal—all too commonly mortal.

“The doctors told me I was clinically dead for like two minutes,” Brown says. “And my friend told me about it later. She was obviously a smart person, and she wasn’t doing anything. She recognized what was going on, and I guess I owe her my life.”

This isn’t a typical UFC fighter. Each moment you see Brown in the cage is somewhat miraculous. Not necessarily because of the time he kicked the can—that has its own awe— but because people just don’t come back from such deficits.

Although he and his brothers were raised by working class parents in rural Ohio—”we went to church every Sunday, we had a good foundation,” he says—he fell into the wrong company early in life. He spent a dozen years partying, three- and four-day benders on meth and acid (often in unison), coke, pot, pills, whatever. It started when he was 10 years old, he and his friends stealing cigarettes and weed from the adults who had it. He was in and out of jail more than 30 times— DUI, possession, paraphernalia, parole violations, you name it. He was well behind the eight ball for most of his life.

And, contrary to popular fiction, it didn’t end with the overdose at 20 years old. It ended gradually, years later when he turned pro as a fighter. The epiphany was more like a slow dawning.

But what a great day it was when the sun finally did rise.

The first thing you notice is there’s no shtick to today’s Matt Brown. He’s as real as they come, and you get the sense it’s because he’s long parted ways with what might be considered delusion. Matt Brown is profoundly desensitized to your categorical bullshit. He’d say that you get this way when you’ve spent so long dealing in your own.

In Vegas, he’s away from his twin boys, Hunter and Conner, who are 21 months old and living back in Columbus. He’s getting married this month to the mother of his children, Colleen. The wild man is becoming domesticated. His sons, ornery and verging on the terrible twos, are the joy of his life.

“My boys are nuts, totally destructive,” he says. “They say you give a kid an iPhone and they stare in awe at the colors. Not my kids. They are like…”—he whaps the table—”…trying to break it. They love to swing at me, throwing Wanderlei punches.”

He’s in Vegas for the annual Fighter Summit that Zuffa is holding at the Red Rock Resort and Casino. For the last few hours, he’s been drilled on social media protocols, gambling, steroid use, basic responsibility. He, of all people, is getting lectured on excessiveness and irresponsibility, the things he helped invent out there on that bored western Ohio farmland.

Rick Story, who was there drowsing like everybody else sitting through the Michael Irvin motivational speech, has been calling Brown out for a fight because, lo and behold, Brown is riding a three-fight win streak. Just like that, he’s become a bit of a target. Just like that, having won four of his last five fights, he’s relevant again in the UFC’s welterweight division. It wasn’t that long ago that Brown was (once again) left for dead after a three-fight losing streak.

And (once again), he’s come storming back. He beat up Chris Cope, derailed the Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson hype train in Atlanta, then stood in against Luis Ramos on a few week’s notice. “I hit that son of a bitch hard, and he just kept coming,” Brown says. He finally put away that son of a bitch in the second round, by way of fists and knees.

Now we’re toward the end of the conversation and we are grabbing desserts from the casino buffet. I grab two, then three. He grabs four, then five. Two cannoli, some bread pudding, some pie, some mint chip ice cream, never to be outdone. He’s not consciously competing. He’s just got a sweet tooth.

And he might be unconsciously competing.

“I don’t necessarily make external goals,” Brown says. “I don’t say my goal is to be a champion. Of course, I want to be a champion, but why do I want to be a champion? I want to be a champion because it’ll mean I’ll be financially stable. That’s really the only reason. Internally, my goal is to be the best fighter I can possibly be. External goals are the shit you can’t control. I can beat all the right guys and never get a title shot. I could be 10 times better than the guy I’m fighting for the championship, fall over, and land on his knee and never get that belt. What’s important is this moment—being all I can be in this moment. The outcomes are irrelevant.”

Who is this man? He is the nicest, most mild-mannered guy you’ll meet. He’s telling me that he’s a mean guitar player, that he can play Steve Vai licks no problem, but, “I lack the creativity to write my own music.” He’s telling me about what a great mentor Jorge Gurgel has been, about the joy of teaching his own students, and that people should take a page from Bruce Lee’s motto to be “like water.” He’s talking about how early training partners Braden Workman and Eli Ayers helped beat much-needed sense into him.

When ordinary people say that extraordinary people are “down to earth,” it’s meant as a compliment—that although they’ve gone on to better things, they didn’t forget who they were.

Here’s Matt Brown eating pie and talking about his kids, a guy who has sprinted across minefields from the time he grew legs. He’s blown up plenty. When he talks about the painful side of his early life in Bowersville, Xenia, and Columbus, there’s a giddiness to it, as if tragedy—or near tragedy—can strike the most comical notes. He’s a blue-collar, disenfranchised country boy, who at one point had a big penchant for booze, guitars and wayward self-medication is all.

He did these things with the same intensity that he nowadays fights.

When people talk about him today, it’s because he’s in the UFC. And he’s a neat story with the vague history of overcoming a near lethal run-in with the needle. There’s this other thing though—a Matt Brown fight is always a real fight. It’s not always a showcase of technique. It’s “he who fucks the other up most wins.” That’s a Matt Brown fight.

That’s always been a Matt Brown fight.

The new path started at a moose lodge one fateful night outside of Bowersville, where Brown grew up. That’s when a buddy who knew a guy named Fat Joe, who was loosely connected to Wes Sims, took Brown to a smoker show.

“Back then, there wasn’t no commission or nothing,” he says. “And the first one I went to was literally like a movie— there were guys sitting around with cigars and gambling. They announced one of the fights and said, ‘This is the champion, if anybody wants to challenge him, feel free.’ I was all coked up and drunk as shit, so I told my buddy, ‘I’ll whip that guy’s ass! I’m going to fucking do it.’ I went down and I had to pay $30 to fight. My buddy just happened to have a cup in his car, so I wore his cup. The promoter had mouthpieces, so I had to run across the street and microwave the mouthpiece to form it. When I went in there, I beat the guy. I hadn’t had any training, but I got him by a guillotine choke. I just shot in and squeezed as hard as I could—like a schoolboy—and the dude gave up. I probably did those fights four or five times after that, paid $30 every time, and I won them all.”

Groping about through a haze of drugs and alcohol, somehow Brown found his way to mixed martial arts. It began with a videotape of Tank Abbott that piqued his interest. He went from Bowersville to Xenia, from Xenia to the overdose, from a would-be grave to Columbus, from Columbus to slow, incremental sobriety and Gurgel’s satellite gym. To be a professional fighter, he had to be clean. So, slowly, he got there. Then he went from Ohio to New York City where he worked as a personal trainer on the Upper West Side and made good money—good enough to essentially quit MMA. That is, until The Ultimate Fighter tryouts in New Jersey lured him in, and, suddenly, he was training to fight full time.

That’s when Matt Brown opened the second chapter of his life—Chapter Two: Redemption. From there, he went to Las Vegas to tape the show, eventually to Matt Hume’s gym in Seattle, and then back home to Columbus. He’s a realized man with the same fierce intensity. And you can see that rev-up when you chat with him about fighting. Get him talking about the gratification of having been in a war and you realize that he’s been holding something feral in check through polite conversation. The old coarseness is still there, deep set in those soft brown eyes. He gets the menace. And you see it.

“The fighter in me, I want to know I beat you because I’m fucking tougher than you,” he says. “That’s why when I go into these fights, I want to see—are you a man or what? Let’s fucking do this. I don’t go in there saying I want to get Fight of the Night. When that bell rings, I want to know who’s tougher. I’m saying, let’s find out motherfucker. I know I put in my work—let’s see if you put in yours.”

When he’s saying this, he’s getting heated and is shifting in his seat. His neck muscles get taut. “You wake up the next day and know you’ve been in a fight? Hell yeah it’s more gratifying. I want to know I was in a fight.”

Brown’s dad, James, was a machinist in Ohio, all grit and burlap, and Matt will tell you that he was the engine behind the family drive. When Matt was born, he and his brothers—older brother Josh (now a lawyer) and younger brother Ben (an artist)—shared a tiny bedroom in Bowersville. His parents shared a Pacer. His dad went on to be a self-made success, from those salad days of meager wages to owning a 22-room house with six acres of land.

Where does Brown find it in him? Start with his father.

“My dad was very dedicated,” Brown says. “He passed away right before I fought James Wilkes [at UFC 105, Manchester], and I was extremely motivated for that fight. One week into the training camp, he passed away. I had to leave the training camp for the funeral, and it motivated me. When I first got into MMA, really taking it serious, one of the reasons I got into it was to prove to people like my father that I could do something. I wasn’t necessarily in it to be in the UFC or to make a lot of money. It was to prove to my family something.

“My father was kind of a huge influence because I felt like I never lived up to what I should have been for him,” Brown says. “I was never the son I should have been.”

Yet, his dad got to see him turn things around, from the bad apple to a UFC fighter—from a reckless kid to a man with enviable self-control. When he died of cancer in 2009, Brown fought on. Although he’d never use it as an excuse, glancing at his timeline shows that was right about the time he hit the skids with a three-fight losing streak.

“I shouldn’t have been fighting during that time,” he says. “Being at the gym got me through that shit. But it’s one thing to be at the gym releasing stress, and it’s another thing to be competing on national television against the best in the world.”

Brown says he doesn’t regret losing the fights as much as losing his father while he was still a work in progress. Nevertheless, his dad saw Matt get clean, go on The Ultimate Fighter and make a name, and fight in the UFC—the biggest brand in MMA, where, as Matt says, “It’s hard to be good and be a fuck up.”

Of course, Matt Brown is smart enough to realize that he’s mortal. “I don’t believe that I’m never going to die,” he says. “I’m not a fucking vampire—everybody needs to stop them fucking jokes.”

No, he’s not a True Blood character. Let’s not get literal. But then again, in a general sense, he seems immortal. Resilient is too light of a word for him, although he is that, too. But he’s something more. Every time he gets knocked down, he stands back up, smiting his chest.

Everybody—from his longtime training partner Gurgel to Matt Hume down to the common fan and the hunch-rich media—thought Brown was going to be cut after losing those three fights to Ricardo Almeida, Chris Lytle, and Brian Foster. Even Brown thought he was a goner.

Yet…”I got a call from my manager a couple days before Christmas saying, “You’re not cut,” he remembers. “It was an early Christmas present.”

Then he resurrected. It started with John Howard, in a door-die battle. And he’s kept rolling. What is it about him not going silently into that good night?

“I’ve learned a lot over my time,” he says. “One of those things is, I don’t look at the big picture. I don’t look at the overall record or five fights down the road. I don’t even look at it like it’s my career anymore—I look at it as, What am I going to do today? That’s the only thing I can control. When I wake up, what am I going to do to better myself today? Today is what matters. Can’t control what happens tomorrow, and I can’t change what happened yesterday. That’s how I am.”

Brown’s record isn’t great. He’s 15-11, and 8-5 in the UFC. But his fights stick around the memory banks. He had a battle with Douglas Lima in Tampa where, dead tired and nearly spent, his cornerman Gurgel merely needed to point out Lima’s condition after the first round. Lima was lying there exhausted. “Look at him, Matt! He’s done! He can’t continue!” Brown, after the toughest round of his career, came storming back to life. It’s what he does.

There are losses, there are wins. At 31 years old, Matt Brown takes them all as they come and treats those impostors exactly the same. If it ends in a title shot, great. Either way, he’s in the now, and he’s happy to understand what “being in the now” is.

“Say you’re a musician trying to play the end of the song before the beginning,” he says. “Now the song’s all messed up. You can’t do that. You can’t get ahead of yourself. Play this note perfect, play that chord perfect, and the song is going to be beautiful. You’ve got to go with the flow of the music.”

There are some Zen holdings in Brown’s mind. If the drugs opened it, today he occupies it.

“My dad told me a long time ago, seeing where I was going—You’ll end up dead or in prison,” Brown says. “I look back and I was goddamn close to both of those. Son of a bitch was right.”

It’s a cautionary tale, Matt Brown’s. He probably shouldn’t be here. Not in Las Vegas, not fighting in the UFC, not still walking around on Earth with a pulse, family, and a future. But he is. MMA helped turn him around. Proving to his friends and family that he was more than a burnout turned him around. Proving to himself that there is such a thing as possibility turned him around. Having been through all that, he would advise you to take higher roads to your destination.

But if his story helps a fellow wayward person along the way, that will be an even bigger triumph.

“If I can inspire a kid to straighten out, if I can change one person’s life, and they can be inspired by me—there’s no better reward in the world,” he says. “If I can inspire them to go tell their moms and dads, ‘I’m sorry’—that’s so much more important in life. And if anything, I hope that’s what I accomplish.”

I hit that son of a bitch hard, and he just kept coming.

I don’t go in there saying I want to get Fight of the Night. When that bell rings, I want to know who’s tougher. I’m saying, Let’s find out motherf*cker.

VITALS

Name: MATT BROWN

Record: 15 – 11

Class: Welterweight (170 lbs.)

Age: 31

Hometown: Xenia, OH, USA

Fighting out of: Cincinnati, OH, USA

Association: Jorge Gurgel MMA

Styles: Judo / BJJ / Muay Thai

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