The Clock Is Ticking

Heavy arms swing backward, thick fi ngers almost brushing the fl oor. The athlete’s hips dip low, holding for a split second before rising explosively, heavy arms reversing course to propel 270 pounds of blood, muscle, and bone three feet into the air. Large feet land and the athlete’s frame compresses, slightly less this time, and up he goes again and again and again.

It’s 11:30 a.m.

on a Monday morning, and Shane Carwin crouches on the fl oor of a hallway in the University of Northern Colorado athletic facility, gasping for air. This is how Carwin spends his lunch hour; launching himself over hurdles; throwing weighted bars overhead; and pulling himself over a chin-up bar, releasing his grip at the apex long enough to clap.

The mid-day workouts are designed to tax Carwin’s nervous system. “As you’re doing the workout, you’re not running out of muscle energy, you’re running out of nerve energy,” explains U.N.C. trainer Cody Hodgeson. “The wider you can get the nerve axon to actually grow, the more force potential you can put out of the same muscle.”

Carwin, an engineer by trade and an athlete by nature, works diligently to squeeze every bit of force potential from his schedule, hitting the weights on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and running three miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays while his co-workers eat lunch. There are also four weekly trips to Denver for Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA training at T’s KO Fight Club, as well as Tuesday and Thursday nights spent on the mat as an unpaid wrestling assistant at U.N.C.

The UFC heavyweight simply shrugs when asked how he manages. “Nothing’s really ever changed since I’ve been a kid,” Carwin says. “You work or go to school and get that done, and you go do your sport.”

An elite athlete in high school, Carwin wanted to play football and wrestle in college. But Colorado’s biggest football schools, Colorado University and Colorado State, don’t have wrestling programs. So he accepted a scholarship at Western State, a tiny college southwest of Denver, just beyond the eastern slope of the Rockies. Carwin’s brother, Shaun Lechman, an all-American wrestler at Western, served as an assistant coach, along with three-time NAIA national champion Chuck Pipher, under Coach Greg Waggoner, himself an all-American at Western in the 1970s.

According to Waggoner, “We lucked out.” The former coach, now the Athletic Director at Western State, believes that larger football programs overlooked Carwin because they thought he was undersized. But Waggoner saw a Division Icaliber athlete who cut weight to wrestle at 191 pounds, a linebacker who would plant a quarterback on the track if he dared turn the corner on an option, a kid who could palm a basketball and dunk it from fl at feet beneath the rim.

From Carwin’s fi rst practice as a freshman, Lechman, Pipher, and Waggoner rotated on him, breaking the wrestler down mentally and physically. “I remember walkin’ out of practice just cryin’, gettin’ the shit beat out of me for an hour and a half, not scorin’ a point, not even coming close,” Carwin says. But he survived the crucible, narrowly missing the NCAA Division II nationals that year. Carwin fi nished 1996 and 1997 as the national heavyweight runner-up, developing a close relationship with Waggoner that continues to this day.

For all his success on the mat, Carwin was also becoming a force on the football fi eld, earning two all-American nods as a linebacker and a spot in the 1998 Senior Bowl. He left school to prepare for the draft in Covington, Louisiana, with Kurt Hester, the former Louisiana State University strength and conditioning coach. Projected as a fi fth round pick, the NFL draft hopeful trained alongside future leaguers Chuck Wiley and Alan Faneca.

But Carwin’s hopes were dashed at the 1998 NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis, where news of the back injuries he had sustained his senior year (three discs bulged, one ruptured) and the surgery he had undergone to repair them spread to every team. The draft came and went and Carwin wasn’t picked. Without a free agent offer or any invitations to minicamp, he fell into a depression.

“To have a dream taken away from you like that was extremely frustrating and disappointing,” he says. But rather than bemoan lost opportunities, Carwin took his hard-earned perspective back to the mat. Because he had left school the previous spring, Carwin had one year of wrestling eligibility left, so he asked for, and received, a spot on the Western State team and emerged as a vocal leader. The disappointment of the draft “totally changed my mindset about how I approached competition, about being able to enjoy every moment you’re able to do what you love,” Carwin says. The wrestler enjoyed every moment of that season, which concluded with his winning the 1999 NCAA Division II heavyweight championship.

After fi nishing a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Technology, Carwin accepted a scholarship to attend the Colorado School of Mines and serve as an assistant wrestling coach. He grappled with course work for four more years, earning his second bachelor’s degree in 2004, in Mechanical Engineering. In the meantime, he had completed an internship in the summer of 2002 at the offi ces of the North Weld County Water District, and was hired by the utility upon his graduation.

It’s just after 12:30 p.m.

when Carwin pulls his company-owned 2004 GMC Duramax four-door, threequarter ton pickup truck into the gravel lot in front of the simple steel-frame headquarters of the NWCWD. The offi ces are on the rural fringe of Greeley, Colorado, on the same side of I-85 as the Red Coach Motel and the Northern Colorado Cowboy Church. The utility employs seventeen people, and it feels as if each and every one of them is staring at us when we walk through the door. I had wondered how having a professional fi ghter on staff would affect the work environment, but I quickly learn that, to Carwin’s co-workers, the only weird thing about punching a clock with a UFC heavyweight is seeing other people fuss over him.

“We have a few guys who have second jobs,” says Alan Overton with a shrug. “We had one guy who was a bull rider. He’d come in all banged up.” Overton, the district engineer and Carwin’s boss for the last fi ve years, is supportive if not awestruck. “Our work is somewhat fl exible, so when he takes time off to train, he just has to make it up on the weekends or what not,” Overton says.

The district engineer is not the only person in the offi ce who monitors Carwin’s time off. Before his fi rst fi ght, human resources manager Colleen McGehee told Carwin how much sick time he’d accrued, in case he was injured. What was intended as a joke is now tradition. “I have to do it [before each fi ght],” she says. “It’s bad luck if I don’t.”

A few minutes past 1:00 p.m.,

Carwin turns onto a rural road somewhere in the 325-square-mile area of the Platte River basin, for which the NWCWD provides water. “It’s a great company to work for, great people to work with. I love my job,” he says, even when that job requires that he venture out in the dead of night, in the dead of winter, to lead a crew in repairing broken water mains. “That’s no fun,” he says, explaining that the utility always has a Level Four water distribution engineer on call in case of emergencies. I ask what it means to be Level Four-certifi ed. “I’m a black belt in water distribution,” he says, smiling.

Located in central Weld County and named for the famous New York Tribune editor, Greeley is a small oasis in the middle of Colorado&#8
217;s hardscrabble northern plain. The city is home to approximately 90,000 people and 200,000 head of cattle, and is surrounded by countless grain elevators and oil and gas wells. Agriculture, energy, and the university are the primary economic engines in town.

Bonnie Carwin raised three big boys here by herself. She made ends meet with managerial jobs in medical offi ces, and sent Shane, Shaun, and Don (who shares a last name with Shaun) to stay with their maternal grandmother each summer. “My grandpa passed away and we’d help her and my uncle run the farm,” Carwin says. The boys helped to grow wheat and tend to the 50-odd head of cattle every year from the time Carwin was eight until he turned 16 and got a job “throwing boxes of frozen meat” at a Greeley packing plant.

After a short drive, Carwin parks in front of a small cattle operation. The water company has to work on the water main that runs along this dusty stretch of road, and the telephone and electric companies have marked where their lines are in relation to the main. It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny, and blustery late January day, and all I can hear is the buffering against my ears and the whistles of men herding cows twenty yards off the road. Carwin shoots utility coordinates using a GIS/GPS-equipped Trimble unit, gets back in the truck, and heads to the next location.

It’s 5:15 in the afternoon

when a freight train stops our southbound progress on the way to Denver. Carwin has swapped his work truck for a black and yellow four-door Ford F-150, a comically oversized vehicle that’s still only just big enough for the very large Carwin and his enormous passenger, Todd Bean.

The fi ghter explains that Bean played ball at Colorado State, that the three Bean boys are the same ages as the three Carwin brothers, and that they all played football and wrestled on the same teams while growing up. Bean rides shotgun a couple times a week to train at T’s and lose some weight. Carwin also mentions that “Big” Todd is the guy who got him into the UFC.

Bean used to build houses, and he would talk with Carwin when he visited the NWCWD offi ces on business. “I’d buy water taps and bullshit a bit. He said he had a fi ght one weekend, and I think he was like, 6-0 at the time. I went down and watched him. You just could tell he had what it takes.”

Carwin was familiar with MMA by 2005; he had watched tapes of UFC events with his buddies in college. But he was never interested in training for MMA until his former high school wrestling coach called on him to prepare for a fi ght. In the decade since coaching Carwin’s high school squad, Ron Waterman had built a respectable resume in the UFC, WEC, Pride, and Pancrase, so it wasn’t long before Carwin’s interest was piqued.

When Carwin told Waggoner that a fi ghter had dropped off the WEC card that Waterman was to appear on, in August, and that he was stepping in as a replacement, Waggoner was “maybe a little surprised, but not much.” “Shane isn’t just a competitor,” he says. “He’s intellectually curious. Knowing that part of him, it wasn’t that surprising.”

The scheduled fi ght never happened because Carwin’s opponent fell through, but two months later, Carwin was back in California for his fi rst professional bout. That fi ght, against Carlton Jones, is still the longest of his career, ending at 2:11 of the fi rst round. Carwin won impressively, and kept winning, running off a string of fi rst-round stoppages in regional promotions across the western United States.

Bean watched a couple of those impressive wins in 2007, and decided to fi re off an e-mail to the UFC about his old friend, the former all-American linebacker and national champion wrestler who stopped each of his fi rst eight opponents in the fi rst frame. “They got back to me right away and gave me Silva’s e-mail,” Bean says.

Once Carwin was offered a UFC contract, he wasted no time. The fi ghter signed in January of 2008 and stepped into the cage four months later, separating Christian Wellisch from his mouthpiece at 44 seconds of round one.

Many observers were shocked. Sure, Carwin had steamrolled all of his opponents in regional shows, but he never faced the same level of competition in the Denver-area Ring of Fire promotion that he would in the UFC. Those doubts made little difference to Carwin, who had never seen the second round in nine professional fi ghts.

He returned to the Octagon on Oct. 18, 2008, and dispatched Brit slugger Neil Wain 1:31 into the fi rst round.

By 6:00 p.m.

Carwin is shadow boxing in the ring at T’s KO Fight Club, bobbing and weaving under ropes that divide the ring into quarters, while gym owner and trainer Trevor Wittman calls out instructions and encouragement. “Niiice, Shane, very good. Explode, Shane. Niiice, Shane,” he says while sitting, standing, pacing, and demonstrating mechanics. The gym is a din of two dozen shuffl ing fi ghters, blaring music, the slapping of fi sts and shins on leather, dinging bells, and chatting friends and family members.

Trainer and fi ghter move on to fi veminute rounds of focus pad, double-end, and heavy bag drills. Carwin leaves a constellation of sweat on the mat wherever he works. After exhausting his pupil’s massive arms, shoulders, and back, Wittman batters Carwin’s torso with a focus mitt while he does leg raises and medicine ball exercises. The clock slides past seven, and Carwin slips on a rash guard for an hour of no-gi Jiu-Jitsu. At 8:00 p.m. the group, dwindling by the hour, transitions to MMA skills training.

Having worked almost a full day, trained for nearly four hours, and fi nished half of a two-hour round-trip commute, Carwin wraps things up around 9:00 p.m., gathers his gear, cleans up, and gets back in his truck. It’s a tight schedule, running from work to the gym and back again, and it’s not always as easy as Carwin would have people believe. “Sometimes it gets pretty bad and I’ll call my wife and you know, she talks me through it, and we make the best of it,” he says.

He met Lani at a Greeley gym four years ago. Carwin had his eye on the hard-driving realtor for a while before a mutual friend “told me he needed to buy a house and I needed to talk to him,” she says. The two dated for several years, but between working, training, and fi ghting, Carwin couldn’t fi nd time to marry her. “After he had his fi rst fi ght in Vegas, we went to Jamaica and relaxed,” she says. The couple was married there in June of last year, formalizing a partnership Carwin believes is vital to his success.

“She goes everywhere with me,” he says, “It would be hard for me to do it without her.” In addition to his wife, Carwin carves out time for Camden, his eight-year-old son from a previous relationship. “On the weeks I have him I cut back on my training,” Carwin says. It’s a lot to juggle, but the Carwins see it as a temporary problem.

“He’s 34, and we know it won’t last for ever, so we’re going to enjoy every minute, and when it ends it ends,” Lani says. Carwin knows the clock is ticking as well, and has no intentions of fi ghting into his forties. “My wife and I will have kids by then, and I want to enjoy my family,” he says. “It’ll be time for Shane to grow up and watch his kids grow up.”

Twelve hours after he arrived

at his home in Greeley on Monday night, Carwin walks through the door at T’s again for the Tuesday morning pro workout. Guys come from all over the Denver metroplex—Aurora, Boulder, Highland Park—to train at T’s, and today’s crew includes fast-rising pro Brendan Schaub; WEC prospect Christian Allen; “
The Ultimate Fighter” alum Eliot Marshall; and UFC, K-1, and Strikeforce vet Duane “Bang” Ludwig. On a typical day, UFC middleweight contender Nate Marquardt takes part in these sessions, but right now he is in Montreal training with Georges St. Pierre and Rashad Evans.

Fighters crowd the open mat to spar while Carwin shootboxes in the cage against the better fi ghters in the room. Even holding back, the heavyweight overwhelms his training partners. Carwin is so big, so fast, and works so hard on improving his striking and footwork that one wonders what he’s really capable of. After all, ten fi ghts into his professional career, Carwin has only clocked 11 minutes and 12 seconds of cage time.

Critics point to his lack of experience, or again, to the quality of his opponents, but Carwin’s trainer isn’t buying it. “He goes out there and does what he’s supposed to do. He demolishes them,” says Wittman, giddy at the thought of Carwin’s freight-train-off-the-rails approach. “He doesn’t last a round or two, he demolishes them.”

At UFC 96, on March 7 in Columbus, Ohio, Carwin will face former title contender Gabriel Gonzaga. Best known as the man who felled noted headhunter Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovi with an unexpected high kick, “Napão” will bring enough size, experience, and skills into the Octagon to present Carwin with new challenges.

This fi ght will determine whether Carwin is an elite heavyweight or just a lot better than the guys he has faced so far. It will determine if he has the skills to be a challenger for the soon-to-be unifi ed belt, or if he just overwhelms opponents with raw athleticism. On that late winter night, Shane Carwin and the rest of the world will fi nd out if all the sacrifi ces, all the hustling, all the driving and sweating and weekend shifts, have put him one step closer to being a champion again.

It’s about time.

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