The Ultimate Fighter
In his seminal novel “Fight Club,” author Chuck Palahniuk had a simple question, posed by the character Tyler Durden:
“How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?”
Cub Swanson agrees, noting that, at some point, everyone should experience the art of combat.
“When I think about it, I feel like everyone should have a fight,” said the featherweight veteran, who competes for the 39th time as a professional mixed martial artist this Saturday when he faces Giga Chikadze in Las Vegas. “People get all sensitive, but all I'm saying is that everyone can do so much more than they think.”
As an example, Swanson recalls his early days dating the lady who would become his wife, Kenda Perez. Perez had signed up for a boxing match against Sam Schacher in a clash of broadcast veterans on the Ellismania series in 2016. And while her father Ken was a Shito-ryu karate black belt, she wasn’t exactly well versed in the sweet science, and she had six weeks to get ready.
Perez started training with renowned striking coach Jason Parillo, and Swanson was curious about what she was learning.
Cub Swanson Career Retrospective
Cub Swanson Career Retrospective
“What is Parillo teaching you, because he's got skills,” asked Swanson.
“The basic jab and the cross,” Perez answered.
“You're not gonna learn any of that for one fight,” Swanson countered. “Can I help you?”
Perez agreed, and Swanson’s game plan was simple.
“I started training her how to brawl and what it’s like to get touched on the face and move forward and swing,” he recalled. “I told her, ‘I could teach you a jab and a cross but when the bell rings you ain't gonna do that.’ The first session I did, I started touching her face and she didn't like it. I wanted to see what her reaction was - was she gonna curl up and cry? But she tried to take my head off. She got mad and she swung on me.”
Swanson laughs when I tell him that’s probably when he thought to himself, “I’m gonna marry this woman.”
Fast forward to fight night, and with Swanson in her corner, Perez won a three-round unanimous decision. No one was prouder than her future husband.
“The whole thing was crazy, and it ended up being an insane fight,” he said. “2500 people at the Joint at the Hard Rock, sold out. And her fight was two girls trying to take each other's head off the whole time and it was pretty awesome. I was proud of her.”
“Anybody can do that.”
Anybody probably can do it, but only a percentage of a percentage of the world’s population is willing to walk up those four steps and fight. It takes a special kind of courage to put it all on the line like that, man or woman, amateur or professional. And whatever the reason there is for putting on the gloves, those who do it deserve respect.
That’s not always the case, though, so when Swanson sent out a Tweet on February 12 that read, “I think all MMA media should be required to have 3 amateur fights. Thoughts?” it created a bit of a firestorm, but also some interesting discussions.
“It was kind of like a wishful scenario,” Swanson. “I didn't expect that they would take it so negatively, as if I was discrediting them. That wasn't my intention, but the biggest thing is that it caused a lot of discussion and I think that was good.”
Follow-up Tweets by Swanson explained his position, but his initial point in posting was a valid one. No one needs to fight in order to cover the sport, but doing so does offer a different perspective of the fighter’s life.
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“As far as the taking fights, all I wanted was for them to understand what it is we go through and have a deeper respect for what we do, especially on fight week,” he said. “And no one ever asked me why I said three fights. The first fight, you just don't know what to expect and you kind of go into it blind. Win or lose, you understand that pressure and you have to look back. The second time you fight can be scarier than the first time, especially if you lose. You're like, holy s**t, why did I sign up for this again? I'm remembering now what it was that I felt that first time. You kind of block it out, like a woman having a baby; you mentally block out that pain and that suffering of the build-up. And the second time, you're like, 'Oh my God, I remember this; this is terrible, this is frightening. That's all I wished that they would understand when they ask me these questions, is understand where I'm coming from, that's it.”
In other words, the 37-year-old understands that the media has a job, but he doesn’t like to see interviews turned into clickbait without getting into the heart of the story. And anyone who has covered the Californian for any length of time knows that there are few people as thoughtful as he is when the microphone is on and the questions are flowing. And considering that he’s not one to make incendiary statements or trash talk, seeing those interviews get washed away by a flashy headline still irks him.
“For me, my own social media is so key because I get to release the way I want to be portrayed,” he said. “I get to tell my story and I get to give you a glimpse into what I want you to see. When I do an interview, of course I'm using their platform to hype my fight, but they will always ask me one stupid question last minute. 'Well, what do you think about Conor?' or 'Who's gonna win this fight?' And then that's the headline. And I'm like, man, we just did this great interview and then you just trash it. I get it, I know why, and I've had guys tell me, 'Hey man, I don't want to do that, but if I don't, my boss gets on me.' Sports media people and media people in general, they need to get the story, and I recently put out a second tweet comparing clickbait headlines to PEDs and people didn't really like it too much. So you would ask a fighter, ‘Why did you use PEDs?’ ‘Well, it was the only way I could compete with everyone around me.’ It's the same justification and it's why I made a second tweet (on the topic). They say, ‘Well, you could have done something else with your life.’ Well, a journalist could do something else with their life instead of stooping to click-bait headlines. The way they justified it was what I compared it to.”
It's a disservice to Swanson’s story to reduce it to clickbait, but that’s the way of the world these days. Luckily, it’s not something that has led him away from the game, one in which he’s still a viable featherweight contender nearly 16 years after he first put on the gloves. He lost that first fight to Shannon Gugerty back in 2004, but as he made his way through the regional circuit, it wasn’t about winning titles, making a ton of money or being famous. His intentions came from a purer place and an idea put in his head by his grandfather.
“One of the reasons why I got into the sport was my grandpa,” Swanson recalls. “He used to tell us stories about him boxing in the Navy and he was so funny. He would talk about how he got his ass kicked all the time and how he wasn't good and didn't have a good record. But his stories were great, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, should I really pursue this? I feel like if I don't pursue it all the way, I'll regret it later in life.’ And I was like, you know what, at the very least, I'll have some great stories for my grandkids. As a kid, I thought they were great - I didn't care if he won or lost, I just thought how cool it was that he pursued something so out of the box and cool. I grew up watching Bloodsport and Bruce Lee and all that fighting stuff, me and my brothers, so knowing people actually did that stuff was cool.”
Soon, cool was translating into wins and local notoriety into national and international respect from fight fans. Eight fights in the WEC led him to the UFC, where he debuted in 2011, and nearly a decade later, he’s still here and coming off back-to-back wins over Kron Gracie and Daniel Pineda. And most importantly, the father of three has never lost sight of who he is.
“When I got into this, I totally wanted to be better,” Swanson said. “I was headed down a dark path and was kinda lost in what I was supposed to be and what I wanted to be. And I realized that this sport could make me a better person, a tougher person and lead me in the right direction. And it did. And I became a role model for people, a role model in my hometown for people that had been getting into trouble, too, and I own that. So for me to sell my soul at some point and start being the big trash talker and demand attention, I didn't want any part of that. I wanted to continue doing what I was doing, which was be a good person, be a good role model, grow as a person, and just entertain fans. I see guys nowadays, they just want to be famous. And that's not why I got into it. I stayed true to who I am and that made me grow as a person. So I'm fortunate for that. And I had a really good manager (the late Kami Safdari) that kept me on that path and kept reminding me of the important things and life after fighting and stuff like that.”
Yeah, it’s not clickbait, but it’s a damn good story, one well written by one Cub Swanson. And hey, if you want to take him up on that three-fight offer, he’ll be the first one in your corner.
“I would be your biggest fan,” he said. “I would offer to help, I would be like, 'Good for you,' and I would take pride in that. I wouldn't cheer for anyone to lose.”
He would want you to win, though, something that’s been in his DNA since as long as he can remember.
“They used to make jokes that when I was like three, four years old, I used to hide a couple puzzle pieces so I could put the last piece in,” Swanson laughs, pointing out that his three-year-old daughter Royal has the same competitive streak. Or is it Mrs. Swanson’s competitive streak? Whatever it is, that’s something that never goes away. As for the feelings leading up to a fight that he wishes everyone could experience, those are hard to put into words for most, but Swanson captures them better than anyone. To a point.
“The week of the fight, when it becomes real, when you have to show up and check in and you start realizing, oh s**t, this is really happening, there's no excuse,” he said. “When all those nerves kick in, that's when you see what you're made of. That's when you're testing your will and your grit. Guys like myself, I showed up on fight week (against Pineda) knowing I had a broken hand and having to keep it secret and going the morning of the fight, 'What are you stupid? You only have one hand. Now your ego's gonna get you hurt.’ To go through with it and win, that's crazy. But that's that week of the fight when you're second guessing yourself, when you're having those nerves, that's the s**t you can't really explain to somebody. You just have to feel it.”