January 13, 2006. It's a title fight. Light heavyweight championship, World Extreme Cagefighting. They tap gloves like friends. He dropped to 185 and even though the other guy looks denser he knows he's got heavy hands for the class. He comes out bouncing on his heels, feints with a right, weaves and bobs, and bang, he connects with that swinging right hand, and Scott Smith is on one knee and Justin Levens is thinking he'll go home a champion. Smith struggles to his feet but Levens is there with the guillotine choke. The choke doesn't go so Levens transitions to the back. Smith worms out. Levens slides to the canvas with Smith on top—but Levens is cool about it and plays open guard, and when Smith goes for a foot lock he goes for one too. Then they're back on their feet and Smith lands a right, then a left, and Levens is on his back sucking in right hands with his face. The ref knows what to do. This fight is over.
His first loss. Seven fights, Levens went undefeated. But one loss—it's not the end of the world. Another light heavyweight, 205 pounds, went on to win 13 in a row after his first loss; Evan Tanner took the heavyweight title of the Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation in 1998 and defended his belt seven times before moving on from the flagging Texas organization to join MMA's premiere organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Just a year before, in 2005, Levens watched Tanner win the UFC middleweight belt, bullying David Terrell into a ref stoppage in the final seconds of round one. In Tanner's first title defense, he dropped Rich Franklin, but Franklin—a tough striker who'd knocked out Tanner before—recovered to pulverize Tanner until the ringside doctor gave his prognosis: Tanner was a former champion. Four months later, Tanner returned to face David Loiseau, another dynamic striker, and controlled the fight until a slashing elbow opened up a two-inch crevasse in his forehead. Another TKO loss.
UFC 59, just three months away—April 15, 2006—Tanner would fight again. Main card, middleweight fight—he'd be looking across the Octagon at the Boston Terrier mug of Jeremy Horn, a maniacal competitor with a record of 77 wins, 14 losses, and 5 draws.
Then, late March, the call. Horn was hurt. Justin Levens would be fighting in his place.
It was a classic Cinderella story. If Levens won this fight, he could be a contender in the UFC—television, autographs, sponsorships. He'd be teeing off against guys that had their faces on T-shirts. Evan Tanner—he was one of those guys. If Levens won, it was his turn.
Levens still had his conditioning from the January fight, and he'd been running and training daily. Three weeks was almost enough time to sharpen up. Getting to weight could be a problem—before Smith he'd been fighting 205 and walking around 215, 220. But maybe the cut was good news. At 5'10,'' Levens should never have been fighting at 205. He'd have to stop eating—but it was only three weeks and he had better things to think about than food. He'd think about how Tanner manhandled Loiseau but didn't look like the fighter he'd once been; how Tanner's weakness was the striker, and he was a striker; how Tanner was 35, and he was 25.
"Evan Tanner is a great fighter," Levens said in a clubhouse interview. "Ever since I was seventeen, eighteen, I would watch him. All of his fights are just great. He's one of the best fighters out there. For me to beat him would be just tremendous. It would propel my name so far, and it would open so many doors and opportunities for me. It's unbelievable."
Tanner was epic, and Levens took him seriously—but Levens knew that the match-up wasn't bad for him. "It's gonna stay standing up," he said. "He's gonna shoot and clinch, try and get it to the ground, it's not gonna happen." There was plenty of video of Tanner, and Levens and his team had extracted the obvious strategy: "He has a hard time with good strikers. He has a good overhand right, a good inside right. He's not too much of a banger."
Every fighter thinks he's going to win his next fight, but when Levens concluded the interview with his fist pumping in triumph, there was a sense of destiny about it: the inevitable victory of the young fighter over the old fighter. At a certain point, it's not a question of skill, but of evolution. Tanner was an older fighter with an outmoded strategy, and Levens, fighting out of a camp dedicated exclusively to MMA, knew that he was the next genus of the species:
Throughout the interview, Levens was smiling—he looked like a clean-cut, good-natured kid. Not like a rich kid or a spoiled kid, but like what he was—a kid who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, a kid who'd been on his own since he was 15, a kid who was about to be, if he won, the valorous knight, the fairytale stud.
"It's my time," he said.
* * * * * *
Sara Mclean Levens is driving, rattling along the two-way, four-lane street—her face colored by the streetlights of Southern California. She's a good-looking woman—young, straight teeth, tan. Her hair is brown—rich red brown, a color a hair dye company might advertise as mahogany. She and her husband, Justin Levens, had been married only a few months before—in Las Vegas. And their ride is a real Vegas honeymoon.
It was December 17, 2007. Justin and Sara had picked up Matthew David at a friend’s house—it was past midnight and the air was cool, high 40s. Levens and Mclean first met when Levens was an up-and-coming fighter, when he had seven wins and no losses. Since then, he'd lost eight of 10 fights. Only two months before, on October 18, he'd lost to a way unimpressive Kenny Ento—knocked senseless and submitted by choke, all within 135 seconds. The oxymorphone wasn't helping any—at 28, a fighter starts to hurt—and Levens’ use of the painkiller was beginning to resemble a typical junkie's addiction. Needles and unmarked bottles. Levens had trained hard for a long time—and he was beginning to look like an angry young man who’d gotten old leaving his best fights in the gym.
Sara, 23, was a bartender at Hennessey's Tavern a Laguna drinking hole a few blocks from the beach with red clay roof tiles that legend claimed were molded on the thighs of women. As a bartender Sara was used to attention, to authority, and to handling money—but she didn't like the feeling of being taken.
Matthew David owed her 200 dollars, and he only had 80. Sara turned onto a side street and pulled over/ Justin yanked Matthew David out of the car, threw him to the ground, and punched and kicked him until Sara thought it was enough.
* * * * * *
Arrowhead Pond—Anaheim, California. April 15, 2006. UFC 59. It's the first UFC event in California, and the fastest sell-out crowd in UFC history—13,060 seats. Total revenue—pay-per-view and the live gate of $2.2 million—tops $19.25 million.
The first fight gets some boos from the crowd. The fighters are game but the match-up is strange. Marcio Cruz is a 230-pound Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion from Rio De Janeiro, and Jeff Monson, the midwesterner, is a 234-pound, Division 1 wrestler with three professional boxing fights (two wins and a draw). The problem: Cruz is 6' 4'', and Monson is 5' 9''. Monson can box, but Cruz has such a big reach advantage, Monson can't get inside. And on the ground, they're both good, so nothing happens. Monson is one of the few guys in MMA who's straight up about his steroid use (if a little vague as to the whens and wheres, and is he on them now?), and taking one look at his short, bulging frame, it's hard to come up with an alternative explanation. Based on his resemblance to the Hulk and Thing from the Fantastic Four, and a couple of takedowns and the 'roid rage at the end of round three, he gets the decision victory. But the crowd is still wishing their seats reclined, and Evan Tanner, who always puts on a good show, is welcome news.
Like Cruz, Levens is fighting out of the Marcos Ruas camp, and like Cruz, conditioning is an issue for Levens. The first words out of the mouth of commentator Joe Rogan, who's announcing the fight: "Evan Tanner looks much larger than Justin Levens—if you look at his physical build, the musculature and everything, he looks much larger." Both fighters are former light heavies, 205, and both weigh 186, but Tanner—who has all kinds of problems, including incorrigible alcoholism—understands the weight cut, and doesn't make a gram of mistake. Levens, when he was 205, looked like he should be fighting at 185—and now, at 185, it's pretty clear he should be fighting at 170.
* * * * * *
Justin Levens and his brother Tim were the only white kids in their Philly neighborhood, and Levens liked to say he learned to fight to survive. He and his brother watched professional wrestling and boxing and practiced on each other and the cheap sheetrock walls. But it wasn't as bad as all that; it'd hurt when his parents got divorced (Justin was four and his dad had never been a dad to him), but after a few years his mom remarried and the fixed-up family moved to California, where Tim earned his diploma from Capistrano Valley High School and Justin, overcoming his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, picked up his GED. Minor league baseball, martial arts, a few years in the Navy, and Levens was living in Newport Beach and training with Marcos Ruas, "The King of the Streets." Vale Tudo. Justin got his black belt; he was going to be a professional fighter.
When mom and step dad moved to Colorado, Tim followed. Tim had started out with Justin in Martial Arts and saw MMA as a discipline that stabilized his brother, who'd been sort of wild. "I was really proud of him," he'd say, "doing something he really loved, something I'd never think of doing ... doing fights that you only see on TV."
For Justin, it was a "a childhood dream come true." Or, that's what the UFC site said he said when it was announced he'd be replacing Horn in the fight against Evan Tanner.
* * * * * *
Herb Dean, the ref, summons Levens and the former champion to the center of the Octagon. He gives them their instructions and sends them back to their corners. Tanner paces and Levens paces. Levens likes to grin before fights, and he's grinning—but he's also pondering the crowd. He's fought eight times, he's got chops, but it happens to fighters that they hit a big venue, like the UFC, and they get shaky. Dean starts the round and Levens come out flat-footed. It's Tanner, the old guy, who has some spring. Levens wants to stay on his feet, avoid the takedown, but he also wants to avoid the clinch, and 12 seconds into the fight, Tanner has it.
Levens is rocking a new hairdo. It's black on one side and red on the other, meeting in the middle in a ridge that evinces some seriously considered gel. His shorts carry his nickname, "The Executioner," and a few sponsors, like Hitman gear. The shorts are black and don't quite fit right. It's like he's a guy who wants to make a statement but doesn't know what it is.
* * * * * *
As a young fighter, Levens had been lost and fat. But he had won seven in a row because most of the guys he fought were more lost and more fat than he was. MMA, in its 10 years of life, had become a sport, and an entertainment. Small venues were popping up all over, and guys, many of them without professional ambitions, wanted to get on the card. The first seven guys Levens fought had a combined record of 7 wins and 7 losses, which isn't bad, and neither was their total record to date, 48-34. But taking a closer look at that tally: only two of those guys would end up with winning records, and one of those two, Tony Lopez, won 32 of the 48 total wins. Tony Lopez had been the sixth guy Levens fought; it was Lopez's pro debut, but it was Levens' first fight that mattered—the first time he showed the makings of a well-rounded game. The next fight, against Jorge Oliveira, was another take-note victory. In the long run, Oliveira wouldn't amount to much, but he was in shape and nothing about him seemed like a scrub, so Levens ended up with an agent, Ken Pavia, and an invitation to compete in a WEC tournament.
The tournament would decide the WEC light heavyweight champion. Levens said he was injured; he'd hurt his shoulder when he slammed Oliveira to the canvas (knocking Oliveira out for the victory). It sounded like a lie. Levens was promising but a smart fighter doesn't rush into a level of competition he's not ready for. It's an old boxing saw that you don't make a great fighter by fighting him against great fighters. Not too soon anyway. To fight a guy like Scott Smith, Levens needed maybe five more tune-up fights. Bums would have done just fine. To fight a guy like Tanner, Levens needed 10 more fights. The Executioner shouldn't have been anywhere near titles or title contenders yet. Who knows, maybe Pavia told him that—or maybe not. Whatever. It turned out Levens wasn't lying about his shoulder, and when Smith won the WEC tournament, Levens lobbied for a shot at the new champion, and he got it. After his loss to Smith, Levens should have been fighting in local venues. But that's not where he was. Three months after the failed title bid, Levens had stepped up again. He was fighting Tanner, the former middleweight champion of the UFC. Tanner wasn't a young man anymore, but he had been one of the best in the world, and he'd fought at that level for years and. Well, at least Tanner had an agent who was looking out for him.
* * * * * *
Tanner gets the underhooks and walks Levens to the cage, where he does exactly what he wants to do. He's hunting for a leg for the takedown, but he's perfectly happy to throw up knees and keep his position. He's always threatening Levens with the takedown, and Levens' power level is dropping, dropping, dropping, while Tanner is conserving energy. When Tanner shoots a pointy knee into Levens' ribs, Levens gets desperate. Tanner wonders if the squirming is an opportunity and goes for the double leg takedown, but Levens gets away.
Levens hustles his fleshy self to the center of the Octagon. He's already breathing hard, and he's already dropped his hands. In his previous fights, he'd been quick enough and aggressive enough that he’d gotten away with the low hands, but Tanner's boxing is too compact for Levens to find an opening with a goofy right. They close in a clinch, and Tanner locks in for Muay Thai knees to the head. Levens ducks out, but shit, it's another thing to worry about. Leg kick, Tanner connects, gets the underhooks, and puts Levens back on the cage. This time the knee to the ribs is right there. As Tanner hits the mark, he pulls Levens in for the throw, which is also there. Tanner doesn't take any chances; he tips Levens onto the canvas like he's moving something he wants just so, and lands on top in half guard.
Tanner is a wrestler, and like a lot of wrestlers, he's comfortable in half guard. He's got a strong base and he can strike. Elbows and fists to the face and ribs. Those shots aren't super powerful, but they come in quick succession, and they're not easy to defend, and meanwhile you're offering no offense. You can't win. For an opener, Tanner cranks elbows into Levens' head. Five of them. Levens finds the defense and Tanner can't slip anymore of them through.
Half guard from the bottom, a sneaky play is leglock/heelhook. Levens spins for it. Very smooth, very deep, but Tanner turns and jumps out like he's greased. Levens scrambles to his knees, but he's hesitant to get up. Is he scared, is he just lazy? Tanner tenses. It's a split second, but you can see the gears grinding in Tanner's head. Has this guy really just given him a …
Flying triangle. Tanner jumps into a triangle choke. Perfectly executed. Levens taps. That's for the highlight reel. One of the slickest all-time UFC submissions.
Check out Part 2 here.
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