The risk less taken
Conventional wisdom has it that professional fighting is simply a way out, a rough sport where society's poor excel and few others even dare attempt. Just look at the all the rags-to-riches stories associated with boxing.
But mixed martial arts has turned that paradigm upside down as people from all socioeconomic backgrounds flock to the sport. But for all the glorious stories of guys working shifts at the factory in between training sessions, there are just as many tales of white-collar professionals who leave secure, high-paying jobs for the brutal lottery of the fight game.
Take The Ultimate Fighter Season 7 winner, Amir Sadollah. Before joining the cast of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's reality show, he worked in a hospital as a surgical technician.
"The short explanation is," Sadollah said, "I am the guy who hands the surgeon the knife."
Now, Sadollah remembers it as a good job, well-paying and in high demand. For him, fighting wasn't a desperate attempt to escape poverty so much as indulging a passion he could no longer ignore.
"For me, as soon as I started training and as soon as I got into it, it was the only thing I wanted to do," he said. "It was the only thing I cared enough about to really try to be good at it."
In order to audition for T.U.F., Sadollah had to call in sick to work. Fortunately for him, his coworkers were understanding of his fighting pursuits. The risk in it all, though, was losing on the show and in real life.
"I wasn't worried about trying and failing. I was worried about not trying," he said. "Even if I tried and failed, and even if I had to move back home and had no job, at least I tried. At least I gave it a shot. That, I could live with."
It's a similar story for one of Sadollah's fellow T.U.F. contestants. Former International Fight League fighter Mike Dolce had risen to a position of some prominence as one of New Jersey's youngest tax assessors. At the time, he was an amateur fighter who trained after his 9-to-5 job and fought in local events on the weekends. He never gave any serious thought to giving up his career to pursue it fulltime, but a phone call from Team Quest in Portland, Ore., changed his perspective.
"They had seen a video of one of my fights and they said they thought I'd be a good fit and invited me to come and join the team," Dolce said. "I got that call and it was like something exploded inside of me. The very next day I started to dread my job. I couldn't wait to resign. Once that opportunity presented itself, I couldn't wait to grab it with both hands."
In a way, stories like Dolce's speak more to appeal of the sport than the countless stories of fighters who left jobs as bouncers or bartenders. Someone like Dolce, who had so much to lose by quitting his job and moving to Oregon to try life as a fighter, is indicative of what drives mixed martial artists from all walks of life.
It's about passion more than money. The white-collar warriors know as well as anyone that there are easier ways to make a living, but easier doesn't necessarily mean more satisfying.
Top UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian came to that same realization after a near-death experience. After graduating from Boston University, Florian had a well-paying corporate job. Brazilian jiu-jitsu was nothing more than a pastime, albeit one he performed with deftness.
But during a visit to Brazil, Florian went hiking with some training partners and soon found himself in a deadly situation. He slipped on some wet rocks and slid over a precipice. Had a large rock not stopped him, he would have fallen to his death.
"I think there are certain times in life where we need to be shaken up so we realize that life is short and you need to not just follow what feels good, but follow what you love," Florian said. "That was a fear of mine. What if I give up this full-time job to try to be a pro fighter or a jiu-jitsu teacher, or whatever my plans were at the time, and what would happen? I might be a failure and my friends and family will look at me as a loser, and here I had this job and this life that I gave up.
"I'm glad I made that decision. It was tough at times. I had to move out of my place. I had to live with family and friends for a while. It was tough, but I wouldn't change anything. I went from making around $40,000 a year to making just a few thousand dollars a year, but I was waking up and putting a gi on every day and I was happy as hell."
It may not have the romantic appeal of all penniless-to-prosperous stories, but giving up security to pursue a love with an uncertain future is an inspiring story of a different kind, even if it's not one we're used to.