The Time My Friend Sparred Don Frye

Fightland Blog

By Santino DeFranco

I didn’t think I would ever fight again.

After my audition interviews for the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, UFC president Dana White had called to inform me that I had two brain aneurysms and that I wouldn’t be able to be on the show. My career was supposed to be over. But a couple of years after my corrective surgery, on a whim, and completely pessimistic about my prospects, I contacted my neurologist to see if I would ever be able to fight again. I nearly pissed my pants when I received a fax with his approval letter. He said I was at no further risk than any other maniac that chose to get in a cage to fight.

Once word got out I was back in the game, I got offers from the three largest fight organizations in the world in the same week.

The UFC offered me a fight with Din Thomas, Bodog Fights offered me a contract, and the International Fight League offered me a spot with Don Frye’s Tucson Scorpions. With most MMA organizations, the matchmaker decides whether or not to sign a fighter, and that fighter represents himself alone. The IFL was different, though. It was the first—and to my knowledge the only—MMA organization built on a team model. Each team was based out of city, and the coaching staff got to choose the fighters for each weight class that would represent them. Don Frye, an MMA legend who had started his career during the rough-and-tumble early days of the UFC and Pride, had assembled the Tucson Scorpions in 2007, and the lightweight spot on his team was mine if I wanted it. Frye was also in need of a 185-pound fighter, so I suggested one of the fighters I was training, Seth Baczynski, for the spot. Don agreed to consider Seth if Seth would be willing to do some sparring with Don and Scorpions team member Mike Whitehead first. We agreed, and off to Tucson for training we went.

After two and a half hours in the car Seth, my friend Cade, a giant Mexican named Joe (6’5”, 250 pounds), and I arrived at the Tucson Scorpions training center and were greeted by Don. Mike Whitehead was probably in the back somewhere, warming up with a scowl on his face, as that’s generally the face he chooses to wear. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary, accept for the fact that Don was wearing purple spandex that went from his waist to his ankles and a pair of wrestling shoes. Also, he had enough chest hair to be mistaken for a sweater.

Cade, and I went over to warm up with Ed West, who I would be replacing if I decided to join the Scorpions. Seth was wrapping his hands and asked if they were going to be wearing headgear.

“Of course we're wearing head gear,” Don replied with his famous gravelly voice. “We’re going to be hitting each other in the face,”

After the squad was suited up, Seth began to shadowbox and warm up.

“Save your energy for the ring, boy,” Don snarled, and Seth obliged the man who was now wearing wrestling shoes, purple tights, and headgear that was so tight it made his previously red face turn a shade of blue. Don looked like a Smurf with a moustache. To make things even better, whenever Don would grumble something, his moustache would move up and down like whiskers on a laughing hyena. You couldn’t really see his mouth though, so it looked like a blue face with a stache and two beady little eyes poking out from inside the headgear.

Cade, Ed, and I were supposed to be working out too, so we didn’t pull chairs up to the ring and whip out bags of popcorn, but we did keep an inconspicuous watch on the ring to see the goings-on.

The sparring began. Seth was in first with Don. Seth looked like a deer in headlights. His tall gangly arms resembled those of Popeye’s wife, Olive Oyl, more than any fighter’s. To say Seth was a little nervous would be an understatement. He was in the ring with the MMA legend, Don Frye, who had fought Tank Abbott and Mark Coleman and Ken Shamrock. Still, he started pretty well. He flicked some jabs at Don, which snapped his smurf-stache-face back a few times. But, after a few jabs, Don was no longer interested in “working” and began to throw bombs at Seth’s head. The two exchanged hard shots and Don finished the round by pinning Seth in the corner of the ring and throwing wild punches.

After the round ended Don asked Seth, “What size gloves are those, 10’s?”

Seth replied, “16 ounces.”

“Don’t lie to me, boy. Those are tiny. Steve, get me some smaller gloves!” Don called out. “Kid’s trying to take my head off or something.” All the time he was winking at everyone like he was letting us in on something.

Round two began. Seth was now in the ring with Mike Whitehead, who probably outweighed him by 40 pounds. Mike was swinging at Seth like Seth had said something bad about his mother and even threw in a double-leg takedown for good measure, even though it was, to Seth’s knowledge, just boxing sparring.

Don screamed at everyone and anyone in the gym, “Stop! Stop!”

“We need a ref! We need a goddamn referee in here!”

I certainly didn’t want any part of what was going on in the ring, so I tried to avoid eye contact with the giant angry man running the show.

“You!” he said, pointing at me. “Come here you little pencil-neck faggot. Get your ass in here and referee this shit!”

Well, I wasn’t going to argue with Don Frye, so into the ring I went. The round was reset and punching resumed. After a minute or so, Seth and Whitehead clinched and I yelled, “Break!” putting my hands on each of their shoulders. I broke them up as much as I could, but things began to get a little dirty in the clinch. Mike was still punching Seth even after I tried to break them up. He snapped short head-butts at Seth to make sure he knew who the king was.

The round ended and Frye screamed at me, “Come here! When you break us up, you get your ass in between us and fucking break us up! Were trying to hurt each other in there. It’s a goddamn dogfight in there. You got me?”  

I did get him.

After a couple more rounds of being put through the gauntlet, Seth got to sit a round out while Don and Mike showed everyone how much they cared for each other by exchanging right hands to the face, neither caring much for defense.

Before he could catch his breath, Seth was back in against Mike, but Mike seemed to be tiring. The round began, and Seth started to land clean shots to his opponent. Annoyed, Mike went back to his wrestling days and tripped Seth over and over. The dirty clinch work of Whitehead came to a boiling point when he decided he didn’t want to get hit in the face anymore and hip tossed Seth over the top rope and out of the ring.

I don’t know how Don did it, as it was a thing miracles are made of, but he somehow jumped over the top rope of the ring so fast it was as if he had been teleported to the middle of the ring. This is even more amazing as both of Don’s knees are shot and he doesn’t do anything remotely fast.

“What the hell are you doing?” Don screamed at Mike. “You don’t do that shit! You get out of my gym, you get out of Tucson, and you get the hell out of Arizona! You’re off my fucking team!”

The training session was officially over. Whitehead began quietly packing his things. Seth was completely exhausted, wondering what the hell was going on. Cade and I exchanged wow-that-was-completely-crazy glances and Big Joe was hiding out somewhere to avoid being part of any calamity. We were all completely dumbfounded by the circus we had just been a part of.

A few minutes later Cade, Seth, Big Joe and I were sitting around in awkward silence when Don came out of the back room.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a loud voice. “This was all my fault and I’m sorry. I let this get out of hand. Mike, get your ass back over here. You’re not off the team. You can stay. I shouldn’t have let this get out of hand like this.”

After we had collected our things and were heading out the door to drive back to Phoenix, Don mumbled to Seth, “Ya got heart kid,” and gave him a wink for the road. 

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