The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Native American Mixed Martial Artist

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

The first time Sarah Wishork saw Seth Abeita fight she’d only known him a short while. They were driving on the interstate in New Mexico when a truck cut them off and almost forced them off the road before both vehicles came to a stop. Sarah stayed in the car while Seth went to the other driver. His walk to the truck was unhurried, in another context a friendly stroll. The driver came out of the cab swinging a kettle ball.

Sarah watched the driver swing the metal hunk upwards then watched Seth’s fist find him first. The driver dropped the kettle ball and the rest followed the same way until Seth decided it was done. Sarah’s seatbelt was still fastened when he came back to the car.

“The look on Seth’s face, it wasn’t like he was thrilled or anything. He just looked like… ‘This was inevitable. This was always going to happen and now I’m just dealing with it,’” Wishork says.

“I think part of him does enjoy it. I know he does. He used to be worse. He won’t take crap from anybody. And a lot of people aren’t like that; a lot of people talk big but don’t really want to do something. He’s not like that. But you know, he’s got a sense of humor, and we always got along.”

The two met as college students in New Mexico, two of the only Native Americans on the state school’s campus, and they have been living together for the last 13 years. There were times so lean they’d stretch a 20-dollar bill for two weeks between them. Sarah calls Seth family; it’s not romantic. 

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There’s a house in the shadow of Chuska Mountain with little to distinguish it beyond being a break in the vast emptiness of northwestern New Mexico.

This is the house Seth, 33, grew up in, and now he splits his possessions and time between this house and another closer to Albuquerque that he shares with Sarah. Inside there are paperbacks copies of westerns, many by Louis L’amour (a sportswriter for a moment: “Our people look up to athletes of one kind or another, but an Indian saved all his respect for fighting men.”) and films about lone and stoic gunfighters played by Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.

Weekdays Seth wakes early and calls his coach to be sure everyone will be at the gym. He trains at Jackson’s MMA in the city and is always at the first class at 5am. Then he runs undisturbed, favoring the right leg, his left knee still weak from a torn muscle, a memento from his last fight. Once he needed to wear a bandana to gather the black hair that fell to shoulders but now his head is shaved–a traditional sign of mourning for his mother still practiced three years after her death. No one bothers him. There are no neighbors for a mile in any direction.

“My mind wanders,” he says. “I have five kids. Three daughters and two sons. I get scared of failing. I don’t want them to think their dad couldn’t win. That’s being a father, right?”

There are few Native American fighters in the professional MMA ranks. Abeita, undefeated, a Navajo, says he’ll be the next. He studies criminal justice, just in case, but not to impress anyone.

“This is who our people were,” he says. “They were warriors. It may be backwards, but if I was a doctor or a lawyer or computer programmer or some other great valuable professional, those kids on the reservation would be like, ‘Eh, whatever.’”

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Here’s what you need to know about the 181,000 Navajo who make up this country’s largest Indian nation, spread across 62,400 square miles of reservation throughout Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico:

Depending on which survey you read, roughly half of the population lives in poverty, with another 15% under the extreme-poverty line. Maybe one in four has a high school diploma. Murders and rapes occur at a rate of about 20 times the national average, according to a New York Times estimate, but those numbers are probably conservative because most cases are never prosecuted. There is little money for tribal courts, attorneys and judges have little formal training in the law, and as recently as 2010 the Tribal Law and Order Act extended those court’s abilities to sentence an offender to a maximum of three years incarceration.

More specifically, there is a school on the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico where approximately 250 children study from kindergarten to high school; this is where Seth once played basketball and imagined it would take him to college. He didn’t know it then, but the walls in the school’s gym were crumbling, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs still has no idea how close the load-bearing structure is to collapsing despite having recorded the problems every year for the last 12 years. There’s no money to fix them. If there were, they would have to compete with projects like a complete overhaul of the school’s fire alarm system, which is so outdated you can no longer purchase replacement parts for the broken mechanisms.  

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There is another story Seth wants people to know.  It is at the very least entertaining and instructive because it is legendary among friends like Sarah Wishork and how they see Seth and how he sees himself. It’s about the time he knocked out a bailiff in the middle of his own court hearing.

The way Seth describes it, he had been brought in underage on assault charges but promised he would be let go because the other people involved had admitted to attacking him first while they were drunk. A record of the incident, or anything else Seth did as a minor, isn't available to the public. Seth’s mom started work at 9am and finished at 9pm so most days he ran himself, and fights were natural. This one happened on New Mexico land, so his chances of getting by without prosecution were significantly lower than on the reservation based simply on the county having law enforcement resources to begin with.

“It was supposed to be we worked out a deal and I was just going to go,” he says. “Then the judge said I was sentenced to a year. I thought I was going to be this college basketball star. That was the end of that. There was this rail behind the bailiff, and I just hit him as hard as I could when he came to cuff me and that knocked him over the railing and he was out. Then I just ran. My mom was crying but I didn’t want to do it her way anymore.”

Seth says he spent the next hour hiding on an elementary school playground. When police found him, he went out to face six of them, planning a “suicide by cop.”

“They did their jobs right,” he says. “Lucky for me. There were four of them that had me down. One put a boot on my neck and that was the best guillotine ever. I was out.”

Abeita’s describes his father as an abusive drunk who died in a car crash when he was young. If you talk to enough young fighters who grew up without fathers and in poverty, be it on a reservation or in the projects of Bed-Stuy or a southern trailer park, you will begin to notice a sameness, a sort of synthesized ideal of masculinity: self-reliance, a pronounced hatred of violence even though from a distance they seem incapable of walking away from it, and the ability after a violent encounter to reasonably explain how they never really had a choice but to get involved. Guys like Seth are romantic American ideals--inventing what they want a man to be so they have a man they can become.

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“I was sitting in jail after that when the Alamo school basketball coach came to see me,” Seth says. “Before that happened, I’d actually been off the res playing basketball for another high school. He made me a deal. He said he was friends with some people, and if I switched school senior year and came to play for him they could get things fixed for me. So I said yes.”

At that point Seth was used to a stocked weight room, multiple coaches, and a gym that wasn’t falling down around him. Alamo, the res school, had a nautilus machine and a weight bench.

A year before, Seth’s high school had played Alamo at the end of season. In the last quarter of a close game, Seth had helped score the baskets that gave his team the win. Though Alamo had so many losses on their record by that point, that one loss hardly mattered to their season. The few kids who hadn’t graduated or dropped out at Alamo still remembered Seth when he arrived to play with them the next year.

“Up until then winning that game was the high point of my high school career,” Seth says. “It just felt great getting it at the last second. Then to see how badly they took that what just horrible, a total eye-opener. There were kids that had been given nothing.”

As it turned out, Seth’s deal with the coach didn’t matter. His old high school filed an injunction against him playing, and by the time the athletic association had the details worked out the season was done. The only games he did get on the court for were against the other Navajo, and the ball was optional.

“That’s where a lot of people have their first brawl,” he says. “People get out on the basketball court but no one knows how to play the game. You’ve seen other people play it, just never the way you’re supposed to do it. So you check a guy, and then he pushes you back, and before you know it everyone is in a brawl. You don’t learn to play to win; you learn you have to fight to be in the game. So when you have to play a team that knows the rules? There’s just no way. I wasted a lot of time that way.”

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In the early years of MMA, when even the biggest promotions were still raw and permissive of most anything you could do to a body, and more importantly prohibited in most states, places like the Alamo reservation allowed the sport to thrive, giving athletes a legal place to compete, because Indian lands are considered sovereign governments outside the purview of federal and state boxing rules. Yet more recently, as the majority of the country’s athletic commissions have embraced and regulated the sport, those loose assemblies of local government have remained either too disorganized or disinterested to police their own territory.

Happy to charge for tickets without having to worry about expenses like medics or blood tests, promoters who couldn’t get a license to put on a boxing event in Albuquerque can drive 20 minutes to the nearest reservation and organize any card they can dream up as long as someone gives them a space. Indian land has been the scene for two-on-one brawls and, perhaps most famously, it was the last place Tommy Morrison could schedule a boxing match, more than a decade after being diagnosed HIV positive.

“I haven’t fought in one of the res brawls, but I’ve been to them,” Seth says. “I’ve been with friends; I’ll go as support if they ask to fight but I’ll always tell them not to do it. It’s always shady and you see a lot of people getting hurt. It’s guys that have no idea what they’re doing and they just want to exploit people.”

This isn’t to say all reservation fights are dangerous stunts. In 2011, the Crow Tribe’s Brian Vallie organized the first American Indian MMA Championships to give fighters from six tribes a legitimate place to showcase their skills that also complied with federal fight laws. One of those competitors was Seth.

“Seth’s had a crazy life,” Vallie wrote in an e-mail to Fightland. “But he’s a great fighter.”

Seth was matched up against Jemez Pueblo fighter Vic “Bam Bam” Maseyesva, who finished the first round trying to slip Seth into an arm triangle choke he barely slipped out of. In the second round Seth mounted him and rained down blows until the ref had to stop the fight. 

“It was the best feeling ever,” Seth says. “There’s a lot of Navajo that don’t know they can feel that way, even though it’s their heritage. They need to remember.”

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If there is going to be an American Indian fight movement, the American Southwest seems a good bet for its birthplace. Gyms are opening, promoters are improving, and there plenty of men like Seth Abeita who feel like MMA is something they’ve always been heading toward.

“People don’t understand violence. They want you to turn your back on it,” Seth says. “I see kids in school now where bullying has become so much more prevalent. When I was a kid someone picked on you, you socked them in the mouth and that was it. Nobody should be beat up, but one thing my people knew is that you have to accept violence if you want to avoid it.”

Two more wins and Seth’s team thinks he’ll be ready for something bigger. Maybe another year. Time enough to find a few more Navajo to fight, Seth's trainer Nick Gonzalez says. 

“Out here in New Mexico that’s all we see: reservations and tribes. And more and more are getting into this,” Gonzalez says. “They don’t come in to the gym to work out. They say, ‘I want to learn MMA.’ Of course they do. And yes, when you describe the poverty and the violence, that’s 100 percent correct. But it’s an advantage. They have no equipment, no proper instruction, maybe they have their friends or family or whatever. But they don’t have to wonder if they’re tough. A lot of guys come to train and they don’t know until they get hit. These guys have been getting hit their whole lives. We can turn that into something.”

Check out these related stories:

Fighting About Fighting on Indian Land

The Death of Tommy Morrison and the Soul of Native American MMA