[Ed. note: Quinn Mulhern started fighting professionally in 2007. After tenures in King of the Cage, Strikeforce, and the UFC, Quinn announced his retirement earlier this year, finishing his career with an 18-4 record.]
What to expect when fighting for small mixed martial arts shows in the United States: things are messy and random, and the pay isn’t great. As for myself, I fought 16 pro fights for these smaller promotions. In this world, as a fighter, you never know what to expect from fight to fight. You might travel thousands of miles just to be denied pay after the fight or train intensely for eight weeks just to have an opponent get scared and back out at weigh-ins.
It's a Wild West of sports: a thousand little fight companies trying to one-up each other. There are so many different things that can go wrong, but the risk falls disproportionately on the athlete. Despite all this, fighters still commit to life in the small shows—as I did—for the sake of some rare and amazing moments, and with the hope of making it, one day, to the big time.
In 2009 I became the title-holder for one of these promotions in the 170-pound weight class. In the fall of 2010, after I had defended my title twice, the matchmaker called me with a proposition: He wanted me to unify my belt by fighting the promotion’s Canadian champion. The outcome of this contest would fully legitimize the title.
I was shocked. Prior to speaking with the matchmaker, I had no idea there was a Canadian champion or that the promotion was in Canada at all. I didn’t realize my belt wasn’t fully legitimate. It was odd that no one had ever mentioned it. I also wasn’t so sure the existence of a Canadian champion really mattered, but the matchmaker explained how traveling to Canada would be a great opportunity in my MMA career. He also implied that this offer was a favor to me, courtesy of the (American) owner. There was a certain tone in his voice that implied I should say yes.
Six weeks after this conversation, I flew to Calgary. I met the Canadian promotion owner at the airport baggage claim. He shook my hand distractedly. He was a big guy and wore a leather jacket over a sleek club shirt, gold necklace, and black jeans, and he had lank, shoulder-length blonde hair. He reminded me of the American owner somehow, and this was a comfort. At least I wasn't completely out of my element.
My coaches, Tom and Bobby, arrived shortly after I did. Our group took on another fight team from Newfoundland, and then we piled into a large SUV and drove to the hotel. Later, I looked at the city from my hotel window. Below me was Wayne Gretzky Ave. In the middle-distance was a hockey stadium—huge and bright. Beyond that, the lights of Calgary blurred in the cold fog.
The next day we travelled to Cold Lake, the little Canadian Air Force town that held the fight venue. It was bleak and freezing. I weighed in and then my team and I checked into a motel. When evening came on fight day, a representative of the promotion called my room asking if I could walk to the venue from the motel. Usually you don’t have to walk three miles just hours before competing. Plus, it was 20 degrees below zero outside and getting colder by the minute. My team and I demurred.
Instead we convinced someone to get us a van to take us to the venue, and a few hours after sunset, we were ushered into the locker room backstage. The building was a newish community center, complete with hand-painted high school sports banners and a nacho cheese smell. The local adult hockey league practiced there. The cage and a few hundred folding chairs now sat where the ice used to be.
The entire backstage experience was dysfunctional. When we were trying to get my hands wrapped, the Canadian athletic commission refused to give my coach enough gauze and didn’t allow us to use our own. Things like this—small, but possibly hazardous—kept happening. There was no doctor or paramedics present at the event; there was an athletic commission staffed with first-time volunteers; there was a 20-minute intermission after every fight, meaning the event was slated to take five hours; and there were lots of Canadian sports fans everywhere, which is always dangerous.
As if things weren’t bizarre enough, Dan Severn was also around somewhere. Severn is one of the founding fathers of mixed martial arts; he’s been around since the beginning of the sport and done just about everything. It seemed unreal that he was actually in Cold Lake, Canada. I never found out if they gave him enough gauze.
After a couple of hours, I finished warming up and was waiting to be called out to the cage. My coach, Tom, had a ritual for that particular moment pre-fight: To fully warm you up, he would slap the crap out of you (legs, arms, face). I know that sounds funny (and it is), but let me explain: The slapping is like a nervous system wake-up call. Afterwards, the first punches or knees in the real fight don’t come as such a shock. It’s the most effective strategy I have ever seen for making someone want to fight. It usually makes you want to fight Tom, but that is where mental focus comes into play. If you can just resist fighting Tom for long enough to get inside the cage, then everything will be fine.
Everything was going fine right up until the final slap, when Tom accidentally reached too far forward and hit my ear. It wasn’t even my ear exactly—it was my ear canal. He basically forced high-pressured air directly into my eardrum, and I heard a pop that slowly faded into a loud ringing. I ignored it at first, but the ringing didn’t stop for five minutes, which turned into 10 minutes. Someone announced my name and I walked out to the cage, but as I climbed the stairs and as the cage door locked behind me, I realized I was deaf in my left ear.
* * * * * *
I don’t remember the first round of the fight at all. I’m not sure if the ear was affecting my equilibrium or not, but I was completely out of sorts. The world was off-balance as I sat in the corner waiting for round two.
The second round began and I moved to the center of the cage, I felt disoriented and was have trouble hearing instructions from Tom and Bobby. As I circled with my opponent, the one thing I did manage to hear was an angry voice from the crowd screaming, “Go back to fucking Spain!” Since my opponent was the Canadian favorite, I assumed this comment was directed at me, and though I’m actually from California, I got the spirit of what he was saying: The crowd didn’t like me and they wouldn’t tolerate a controversial outcome in the fight. Either that or they were in a xenophobic fervor against the Spanish and would not allow the Armada into British waters. Either way, I knew in that moment I had to win clearly and decisively.
However, after two rounds (of five total), things weren't going my way. I’d been pushing my opponent against the cage and landing knees, but I’d been getting caught with uppercuts on the way in. At some point, a head-clash or a left-hook cut me over my eye. I sat on the bench in my corner while the cut-man applied goop to my cut to try to limit the bleeding. I couldn’t hear Tom on my right side because my mind was in a fog. I couldn’t hear Bobby on my left because I couldn’t hear anything on my left. Finally, one little sentence snuck in: “You are down two.”
It was in that moment that I decided to win. It was as if all of the separate and dissonant things I was experiencing—the physical pain of the cut, the taste of blood in my mouth, the ringing in my ear, the knowledge that I was losing—all got smashed together into one intense stimulus. It was like a single loud, overwhelming musical note that swept all sensation into itself. And on the very crest of that note was a weird kind of calm—and I paused, and I let it wash over me, and in that calm I made my decision. It felt good, like finding an old comfy chair I had forgotten about. Sitting there on the bench, I nodded to myself.
The fight resumed, but my attitude was different. I started to pressure my opponent without fear. I started to land hard leg kicks. At one point my shin hit above his knee for the 15th time and made him stumble into the cage. I began landing with my hands, too. I was hitting him with more shots and bigger shots. I dropped him in the fourth with an overhand right, but he recovered. I took him down in the fifth. The fight was increasingly in my control as the final round came to an end. After 25 minutes my hand was raised. It was a unanimous decision in my favor.
* * * * * *
An hour later, the crowd was still milling about in the convention center lobby and halls. Some people had gone home. Fewer were drunk than I expected. The owner walked up to me and handed me a wad of U.S. hundreds. Usually I got paid with a check so this was a little strange, though hardly out of character with the rest of the night.
In the end, I didn’t receive my opponent’s belt, nor did I receive a new belt. I asked the owner about this. Considering how weird the whole trip had been, I wasn’t totally surprised when I learned that my opponent’s title had never been on the line at all. The owner explained that there was no unification possible. Apparently, the champ had been defending his belt against me, but I wasn’t eligible to win his belt from him. I was disqualified from becoming the new Canadian champion, but in a strange twist, my opponent could have won my belt from me for some reason. Long story short, I had gone to Canada with nothing to gain and everything to lose.
Obviously, I was still glad I won, but the whole experience was a terrible gamble. In the end, I was more relieved than happy, and I was ready to go home.
While I was talking to the promoter, my team had spotted Dan Severn wandering around the emptying arena. He was alone, with his Michigan sweatshirt and his iconic mustache, now aged with patches of grey. He looked tired.
“Can we get a picture with you sir,” Bobby called out.
“Sure,” he replied softly.
Severn had won that night, but no one was around asking for his autograph, or getting pictures, except for us. He was quiet and stoic, as you would expect. Tom and Bobby chatted him up about his trip. It had been fine, he told us. I wondered whether he'd been treated a little better than the other fighters.
I got my answer when he described what had happened 10 minutes before. He had been walking around looking for something to eat, and he discovered a room upstairs with a catered buffet of some kind. There was a sign reading “CRC” on the door. When he went in to grab some food, he was told that it was for CRC staff only and got kicked out. All of the incompetent buggers who had been making our lives harder all night were in that room stuffing their faces.
I imagined the giant Dan Severn lurking, sadly, at the threshold of some rapturous dining hall, barred from entering. Within was table after table of refreshments and steaming, fragrant dishes—just out of reach. It was a funny thought, in a way, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
At that moment, I realized that I was hungry too. But the only food around was Bobby’s can of Pringles, which he had been carrying around for two days. I hate Pringles.
I posed for a picture with Severn. As I put my left arm around the big man, I thought of the unfairness of it all. Dan Severn is a giant in MMA history and this little promotion in the middle of nowhere had treated him no better than it had treated me. Usually, for me, some extremely good pre-fight memory will get attached in my mind to a victory. But, in the case of this fight, it’s Dan Severn and the comical unfairness done to him. To be exact, it’s a mental snapshot of Severn I carry around with me—one mental image from our interaction that represents everything about the trip.
I took this mental snapshot as my coaches were posing with Severn for a final picture. Before everything was set, I caught Dan sneaking a longing and forlorn look at Bobby’s can of Pringles. It lasted only a split-second, but his look was so tragic and lonely—and hungry—that it has stuck with me to this day.
A second later everyone looked up, smiling together, and I snapped the real photo.
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