Nice Guys Finish Fights

You might expect the American Kickboxing Academy to be a sleek, state-of-the-art facility. With all the elite fighters it has produced, you probably wouldn’t expect to find it sitting between a Big Lots and a craft store, in a strip mall on the edge of San Jose, though that’s exactly where it is. The small sign out front looks as if it could belong to any rinkydink martial arts studio in any nowhere town. There’s nothing to indicate that you’re looking at anything important. As you pull into the sun-scorched parking lot, you almost expect to see regional karate trophies sitting behind the plate glass windows.

“The Big Lots next door actually comes in handy,” Mike Swick says as he strides across the blacktop, wheeling his suitcase-like gym bag behind him. “I go there and get packs of women’s makeup sponges. I use them in my hand wraps and stuff. It’s good for protection.”

He may be one of the UFC’s top welterweight contenders now, one win away from a title shot at champion Georges St-Pierre, but Swick was once a poor, struggling fighter. He used to visit Big Lots almost daily for Top Ramen and cans of tuna fish, which he essentially lived on, he says. Now he can afford to eat a little better, but he still gets recognized sometimes when he’s strolling through Big Lots with the makeup applicator sponges in hand.

“Always when I’m doing the most embarrassing things,” he says, “that’s when I get recognized.”

Today is Swick’s second day back in the gym after a two-week respite following his TKO victory over Ben Saunders at UFC 99 in Germany. He spent a little time traveling around Europe, then a week of almost compulsive card playing at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Meals and sleep were an afterthought. Training wasn’t on the itinerary. Now that he’s beginning his preparation for a bout with Martin Kampmann at UFC 103, he’s paying for the time off.

“It’s amazing how fast you lose everything,” he says. Just yesterday he slogged through his first workout since his last fight. It was every bit the miserable experience he had expected it to be. Today he has to strap on the gloves and go against another top welterweight contender—Jon Fitch.

Part of Swick’s job today will be to help Fitch prepare for his fight with Paulo Thiago at UFC 100. Though the bout will be in the Octagon, there’s no cage inside AKA, only a ring. The thinking is that training in a cage, rubbing up against a fence, takes an unnecessary toll on the body. You can always use a padded wall to simulate the environment of the cage.

Swick gears up in his head protector and new, heavily padded shin guards. He’s somewhat injury-prone, something AKA coach Bob Cook likes to poke fun at him about, and the new shin guards should help keep him healthy, even if their bulk decreases his chances of avoiding Fitch’s takedowns.

The two welterweights start off lightly. Swick is all range and hand speed, flicking out his long limbs and circling away, while Fitch bobs his head side to side and looks for a way to bull inside. Inevitably, Swick lands a decent leg kick that’s maybe just a touch too hard. Then Fitch comes back with a heavy right hand and, before you know it, the pace is frantic. This is something Swick’s training partners have grown accustomed to. They more or less accept that he’s going to be in your face with his long arms and legs, feeding you a blur of leather until you make him stop.

“It’s good to train with him because he brings something different,” Fitch says. “You don’t really see a lot of eight- or ninepunch combinations from other guys, but he’s so fast.”

AKA jiu-jitsu instructor Dave Camarillo concurs, but says that speed is something Swick has cultivated over the years.

“When I first met him, everything was power. Everything was hard. It worked for him, but it also worked against him. I think that’s why he got caught by Chris Leben.”

The knockout loss to Leben was Swick’s first defeat. Just mentioning it now is enough to send him off on a rant. It happened at WEC 9, before Zuffa had bought the organization, and UFC president Dana White was in attendance that night scouting talent for a new reality show set to air on Spike TV.

Swick remembers Leben pushing him against the cage and stomping his feet. It seemed like a move that was more annoying than anything else, until one of Leben’s stomps fractured his foot.

“I just thought it was so cheap,” Swick says. “I swore that I would never use foot stomps in a fight. Then, when I was fighting Saunders, somebody, I don’t know if it was my corner or his or what, shouted foot stomps! So I did it. I didn’t even have time to think about it, and immediately I just hated myself for it.”

Leben hit him with a hard left near the end of the first, but Swick recovered and made it to the end of the round. Early in the second, a good shot sent Leben backpedaling, and Swick charged forward trying to finish. Leben put his head down and winged a left hand (“Like he always does, even now,” Swick says) that buckled Swick’s knees and dropped him to the canvas, prompting the referee to move in and stop the fight. There went his chance to make it into the UFC, so he thought.

Two weeks later, the UFC offered him a spot on the show as a light heavyweight. Looking at Swick’s stringy frame now, it’s hard to believe that he could ever have competed at 205 pounds. One of his closest friends, heavyweight Christian Wellisch, likes to rib him by telling him he looks big, “almost 170.” But this was a chance to fight his way into the UFC.

“I told them I’d fight at heavyweight if it would get me into the UFC,” Swick says. “I guess they liked that attitude.”

Things began to look doubtful again when he and Fitch, who’d been selected as a middleweight, arrived at the airport to fly to Las Vegas. Fitch got a call from the UFC telling him to turn around and go home. They’d given his spot to someone else.

“Right then I turned my cell phone off. I was getting on that plane. If they were going to tell me to go home, they were going to have to do it in person.”

They didn’t, of course. He went on the show and lost to a much bigger Stephan Bonnar in the semifinals. He did well enough to earn a tryout of sorts on the first TUF Finale, where he surprised everyone by knocking out Alex Schoenauer in the first round. For Swick, it was the first taste of something he’d spent years chasing: a career in the UFC.

“Some of my friends back home in Texas, they see my life now and say stuff like, Oh, you’re so lucky to be in the UFC. They don’t think about all the sacrifices I’ve made, all the fights in the small amateur shows in front of a bunch of drunk guys smash ing beer cans on their heads. They don’t think about when I was fighting some guy in cutoff jean shorts with a mullet, who looked like a murderer. They wouldn’t have done that, but that’s what I did to get here.”

ARE YOU GOING TO FUCKING HOLD ME ALL NIGHT?

This line, which Swick used to taunt his opponent at UFC 99, is a running joke at AKA. Little did he know they were pinned down right near the UFC’s microphones when he said it. It’s slightly embarrassing to him now, though the guys down at the gym jump at any chance to use it on one another, offering slight variations and laughing harder each time they hear it. The joke is becoming almost like a secret code, the way those things can among groups of men.

It’s hard to reconcile that Swick — with the one I first encounter in San Jose. He’s an eager host, explaining that he’s made dinner reservations for tonight and asking if I’d like to go bowling and then out to a movie with him and his wife the following evening.

“I’m a different guy in the cage,” Swick says.

Every fighter says this, with the possible exception of the few guys who are just as ornery when they get out of bed in the morning as they are on fight night. With Swick, though, it rings true. He’s just so unrelentingly nice. In a way, that’s part of his problem.

To fight fans, nice is boring. It’s how you describe women who are plain and men who are pushovers. It’s not what sells pay-perviews. No one has ever said to a friend, “You have to see this guy fight; he’s the nicest guy in the world.”

Nice must be what Gideon Ray saw, what made him think he could intimidate and bully Swick when they clashed at the UFC’s first Spike TV Fight Night, in 2005.

“That’s the only time I’ve ever been scared before one of his fights,” says Swick’s wife, Mary, a pretty brunette with a relentlessly perky optimism about her. “That guy was actually scary.” Ray and his cornermen spent the days leading up to the fight openly laughing at Swick whenever they saw him around the hotel. Then Swick knocked him out in 22 seconds, and somehow that only made things worse. Following a confrontation between Ray and Swick’s soon-to-be brother-in-law after a post-fight party, Ray began sending Swick threatening e-mails.

“I was like, Man, what are you doing? This isn’t how you act as a professional. You’ve got to think about the way you market yourself. I was trying to help him.”

If you ask his mother, she’ll tell you that’s the boy she raised. As a child growing up in Houston, he never got into trouble. He learned to say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am.” He learned discipline and respect. He was a good kid, but whatever task he set himself to do he attacked with a fierce determination.

“He was always like that, so competitive,” his mother recalls. “I remember when he started showing cutting horses. I don’t really remember him ever losing. Then, when he was 12, he got into playing pool. The next thing I knew, he was a pool shark, playing grown men and beating them.”

His wife tells a similar story, about the first time her father and brother, both avid golfers, took him out on the links. Swick barely knew how to hold a club. Just a few months later they played again and he was holding his own. Now he regularly pars his local course.

“He’s the most determined person I’ve ever met,” Mary says.

“Sometimes before fights he starts talking about it and I actually get pumped up. If he wasn’t a fighter, he could be a motivational speaker.”

Swick’s love of martial arts developed early, when he was around 7-years-old. As his mother remembers, it was right around the time when The Karate Kid hit the movie theaters, prompting kids all over America to flood strip-mall karate studios.

“For Christmas that year, he said that all he wanted was a membership in the Black Belt Academy,” his mother says. “He never got into fights in school. The instructor would use him as an example for the kids who did. When he’d go to tournaments, he used to apologize to the kids he beat and say, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

But while he was a self-motivated, self-disciplined kid, Swick’s childhood wasn’t idyllic by any means. His father was an alcoholic, but was never abusive or mean, Swick says. He describes him as an uncommonly kind, even tender alcoholic, though he couldn’t get free from his addiction.

When Swick was 10-years-old, his father committed suicide. Swick almost never talks about this. He has close friends who don’t know, he says. When he mentions it, his lanky frame tenses up and begins to fold in on itself.

“I remember standing over the coffin and looking down. With suicide, people tend to think that the person was weak or that they couldn’t handle it. I wanted to prove that the Swick blood was strong,” he says.

It’s not a stretch to say that his father’s death was a source of motivation for Swick, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he dealt with the confusing mix of emotions surrounding it.

“It took him until he graduated high school to finally allow himself to cry about it,” his mother says. “His father was an alcoholic, but he was a very good person. Mike’s a lot like him in a lot of ways. He has that same determination. I just tried to explain to him that his father wasn’t weak or bad, but he had a sickness … I think Mike felt like he needed to prove himself as a fighter in order to make his father proud.”

At 16, Swick began to get serious about fighting. He started training his striking at a local boxing gym in Houston. There were a few pros there, guys who had made a little money and earned some respect. Swick saw their nice cars and the way other people looked at them. His vague ambition to become a fighter and a martial artist was distilled into a single-minded focus to turn pro someday and be a champion.

The boxing gym is even responsible for his choice of entrance music: Tupac Shakur’s “Ambitionz as a Ridah,” a gangsta rap anthem that seems entirely disconnected from the skinny, wellmannered guy who comes bopping down to the Octagon.

“They used to always play that song,” he explains. “I hear that song and it’s like I’m back in that gym again.”

SWICK DOESN’T REALLY WANT ME TO SEE HIS HOME.

“It’s messy,” he explains. They’re in the process of buying a new house and are moving soon. Even after I assure him that I understand the situation and won’t portray him and his wife as slobs, he’s still too image-conscious to put his guard all the way down.

Finally, we arrange to meet at his understated two-bedroom condo in downtown San Jose before driving out to Modesto for a CD release party he’s agreed to attend. When I get there, the place is spotless. It’s as if they were ready for a visit from Better Homes and Gardens.

“We picked up a little,” Swick admits.

The interior décor has benefited from his wife’s touch, though Swick shows where the carpet has been torn up by their two dogs—tiny Westie terriers who have mastered the adorable art of sitting upright in a pleading, take-me-with-you posture when they see Swick moving toward to the door.

The spare bedroom is Swick’s office, but also a shrine to his UFC career. On the wall hangs his framed “Ultimate Fighter” jersey, signed by everyone from Randy Couture to Jason “Strange Brew” Thacker (yes, he included the nickname). Because he’s never satisfied just doing one thing at a time, his cramped desk includes a laptop for playing poker online late into the night, a TV for idle distraction and a desktop computer for working on his clothing line, the military-influenced Combat Life.

Swick’s respect and admiration for members of the military is a persistent topic of conversation. He mentions several times how badly he wanted to join the military when he was younger, but a heart problem effectively ruled that dream out for good.

He was 19, working at the American embassy in Moscow, where his mom had helped him get a job to save up money. Earlier that year, he’d tried out for Frank Shamrock’s San Jose-based fight gym and had won a spot even after getting the worst of a sparring session with Bob Cook, who would later become his coach. After a workout in Russia one night, he felt his heart racing uncontrollably. At first, Swick suspected a heart attack, and he was rushed into a Moscow ER. After doctors figured out that Swick’s heart problem was congenital, but not life-threatening, they gave him two options. He could take medication to control it, which would make him drowsy and hamper his ability to train, or he could have a dangerous “experimental” surgery to fix it. Doctors advised against the surgery. It could kill him, and it wasn’t altogether necessary.

Swick took some time off and went to Thailand to work on his kickboxing. He thought it over, weighed some options. Then he came back to the U.S. and went in for surgery.

“I didn’t tell my mom about the risks involved because I didn’t want her to worry,” Swick says. “I told her it was no big deal, they don’t even cut open your chest, they go up through your leg.” It wasn’t until she read an Internet article about her son years later that Swick’s mother realized how risky the surgery was.

“I was so mad I could have spanked him,” she says.

Now it’s like a joke between them, though tinged with something more serious that they don’t talk about much. Swick and his mother have the inseparable bond of people who have survived a tragedy together. When he first articulated his desire to be a pro fighter, he says, she was the only one who believed he could do it. Not that it sounded like a great idea to her at the time. “I tried my very best to get him to go to college,” she explains. “He said, Mom, this is the only thing I want to do. So I supported him. You can’t choose your child’s career for him.”

 

THE DRIVE OUT TO MODESTO TAKES AN HOUR

When there’s no traffic, which is to say that it takes nearly twice that long when we get on the road just after rush hour. To understand why Swick is making this trip on a Thursday evening is to understand a lot about Swick’s relationship with his fans and with the UFC as an organization.

A little while back, an up-and-coming rapper, Fig Mutant, had contacted Swick to tell him what an inspiration he was. As Swick does with everyone who sends him an e-mail or letter or MySpace message, he wrote back and thanked him for the support. This spawned a kind of a friendship that lead to Swick’s appearing on the cover of a new CD, along with Fig himself (clad in Swick’s Combat Life clothing brand, naturally) and the rapper’s young son.

“He said he wanted the two most inspirational people in his life to be on the cover of the CD with him,” Swick says. “Then he told me that that was me and his son, and I was just blown away.”

When he got the invitation to the CD release party, he couldn’t turn it down. He’s the same in his dealings with the UFC. He points out that he does whatever they ask, whether it’s autograph signings, PR tours or even the now-infamous video game licensing agreement, which Swick signed while some of his teammates opted not to. When the UFC briefly fired Fitch over it and pointed to Swick as the kind of fighter they wanted to work with, somebody whom everyone wanted as his “partner,” it made some people think he was breaking with his team.

“I had people asking me, So where are you going to train now?” he says. “It wasn’t like that. We had a meeting about it. I decided to sign and they decided not to. We each made our own decision and that was that.”

One thing Swick certainly doesn’t do is turn down fights. Before getting the offer to fight Kampmann, he’d asked publicly for a bout with former champ Matt Hughes. When he didn’t get it, he says he didn’t even ask why. The UFC wanted him to fight Kampmann, and that was all he needed to know. The same is not so of Kampmann, who drew Swick after turning down a bout with T.J. Grant on the grounds that it wouldn’t have been high profile enough.

“I don’t like that, turning down fights,” Swick says. “The only reason you turn down a fight like that is because you think there’s a chance you might lose.”

When he arrives at the Fat Cat nightclub in Modesto, Swick is treated as a guest of honor and ushered to a private booth. Local rappers parade around the stage, shouting into microphones and holding Coronas in their free hands. The sound quality isn’t the best, and it’s difficult to make out the words, but the crowd seems loyal and enthusiastic enough not to mind.

Swick signs a few autographs and poses for some photos. When Fig Mutant finally takes the stage after a few opening acts, he offers a shout-out to his famous fighter friend, though all the sudden attention seems to make Swick more uncomfortable than anything else. This isn’t exactly his scene, but he came for the same reason you might go to hear a friend’s mediocre band play in a crowded bar: because he would do the same for you.

“You should listen to his CD, where you can actually hear the words,” Swick shouts in my ear at one point. “He’s really good.” He stays until the end of the show, offers his congratulations, and shakes some hands on his way out. It’s late, and there’s still a long drive back to San Jose. During the ride we listen to the CD all the way through—he’s right, it’s not bad—and we talk about what might be next for him if he beats Kampmann. He’s never been this close to a title shot. He doesn’t want to let anyone down.

“He always tells me before fights that he’s not going to let me down,” Mary chimes in, echoing a sentiment offered by his mother. “I try to tell him, you’re not going to let me down, no matter what.”

“Actually,” Swick adds, “you said you would love me more if I lost.”

“That’s right. I did.”

“And then, when I lost to Yushin Okami, I was like, Where’s the extra love I’ve been hearing about? Because this feels pretty much the same.”

“No, it’s not!” Mary laughs, hitting at him playfully. “It’s more!”

She tells him again that her love isn’t based on his performance in the cage. She says the same things that his mother has said to him countless times before, things he knows on an intellectual level but for some reason can’t always fully believe. We already love you. We are already proud of you. You don’t have to win to make us happy.

“You’re not going to let us down,” Mary says again. “You know that.”

As she drives, she glances back and forth between him and the road. Swick nods his head and sighs, looking down into his lap.

“I know,” he says. “Yeah, I know.”

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