Heavyweight contender Brendan Schaub tries on new camp for size
Heavyweight Brendan Schaub has wanted to be an MMA fighter since he was 10
Schaub is leaving his comfort zone by trying out a new gym in Southern California
The 28-year-old Schaub will return to the octagon in late January/early Feburary
Promoters often speak of the next generation of young men and women who grew up watching mixed martial arts and dreamed of becoming professional fighters.
Brendan Schaub is living proof that this generation does exist.
In 1993, Schaub, then a 10-year-old taekwondo student, begged his parents to take him to an event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship near their home in Denver. They said no, but a videotape of the event still found its way into their son's hands and the wheels were set in motion.
As MMA nears its 18th birthday in the United States next month, Schaub is now not only a UFC fighter; he's a heavyweight contender with 10 professional fights (six of them in the octagon) in four years. He's been molded by Trevor Wittman and Greg Jackson, two of the most proven coaches in the sport, and calls standouts like Shane Carwin, Rashad Evans, and Nate Marquardt his teammates.
And now the boy who never wanted to be anything but a fighter is taking another necessary step in his career. For the past week, Schaub has trained at UFC middleweight Mark Munoz's Reign Training Center in Southern California, trying the gym and its team on for size.
He'll return to California for two more weeks in November to train at Reign again before deciding where he'll settle to prepare for his next fight in late January or early February. And he's doing all of this because this is what a true fighter does.
"Nothing was broken. Nothing needed to be fixed," said Wittman, who honed Schaub's striking for the last five years at the Grudge Training Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo. "The one thing that's so important for a heavyweight is for him to be at a camp that has heavyweights and right now we're short on them."
With training partners Demico Rogers and Justin Wren currently out of the mix, and Carwin shelved until early 2012 for back surgery, Wittman said the time was right for Schaub to explore other options. Leaving the nest involves a gamble, but that's one of the reasons Schaub was so drawn to MMA in the first place.
Truth be told, Schaub showed potential early to excel in a variety of sports, something nurtured by his father, a computer software expert, and his mother, a property manager.
From grade school through high school, Schaub participated in every sport he could, including football, soccer, wrestling, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse. When he wasn't on a field, court, or diamond, the star athlete could be found in the weight room before classes.
In 2002, Schaub opted to attend Whittier College in Los Angeles, because it was ranked No. 2 in lacrosse at the time and still offered football. During his sophomore year, Schaub was recruited by the University of Colorado to play football, a prestigious gesture any Colorado native would have a hard time refusing.
But the plan was always MMA. While his CU teammates lifted weights and ran in the off-season, Schaub boxed and took Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. He never missed a fight when Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic entered the ring and scoffed at the idea that people could actually be uninterested in the UFC and MMA.
By his junior year, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound fullback said he was mentally done with football, but he played until graduation to earn his sociology degree with a minor in business. Even the potential for heftier, and likely steadier, paydays couldn't sway Schaub when he was called up to the Buffalo Bills' practice squad in the NFL after a stint in the Arena Football League following graduation.
"If I'd chosen based on money, I would've had a short career in either sport," he said.
Schaub's father, ironically a taekwondo black belt himself, was furious with his son's decision.
"Not one person told me to do MMA, not my parents, not my friends, not my coaches," said Schaub. "I had one friend, who knew MMA and grappled, who understood and told me to go for it."
Returning home in 2006, Schaub quickly found an MMA gym in Aurora, which happened to be owned by UFC middleweight Nate Marquardt.
Marquardt surveyed Schaub's abilities, then told him to come back for sparring.
"I walked into the gym the next day and there was Shane Carwin," Schaub said.
Eight years Schaub's senior, Carwin was a NCAA Division II wrestling champion and already had a handful of fights under his belt. More importantly, though, Carwin punched harder than any hit Schaub had ever absorbed on the field.
"We stood in front of each other and just swung -- we had no technique," said Schaub. "I was so messed up afterward, that I missed my exit driving home."
Aside from a shared penchant for punishment, there was an immediate chemistry.
"I remember Shane sent me a message after that first day saying that he could tell this was going to be a good thing," said Schaub. "I saved that text."
During the day, Carwin worked as a mechanical engineer for the water district and Schaub picked up freelance personal training and occasionally prepped local kids for their own football seasons. From 6 to 10 p.m. each night, they put on the gloves and went at it.
In time, Marquardt recommended the pair seek out Wittman, a boxing instructor who owned a gym about 30 minutes away on the opposite end of Denver.
But Schaub couldn't afford to train with Wittman. He could barely pay his brother rent and was so behind on car payments, he checked the driveway a few times a day.
Without discussion, Carwin wrote a check against his credit card, and brought Schaub along to Wittman's for twice-a-week, one-on-one sessions, knowing he needed Schaub just as much Schaub needed him.
"Brendan had pushed me every bit that I'd pushed him. He's definitely one of the hardest workers I've ever met," said Carwin. "I felt like he was my little brother and you don't leave family behind."
Wittman said he recognized a unique connection between the outgoing Schaub and the quiet Carwin right away.
"They each had someone around them who was at the other's level, which can be hard to find," said Wittman. "They were climbing the ladder together."
Schaub's passion for boxing manifested into an effective jab, one so dependable that Carwin and Wittman conspired to sign him up for the state's Golden Gloves tournament without telling him. Carwin sat nervously in the front row as Schaub, who had no previous fights -- boxing, MMA, or otherwise -- rattled off four knockouts in a row to get to the finals the next night.
At the finals, Schaub's opponent walked past his father before their bout.
"He was this big, bad-looking guy and he had all of these wins," said Schaub. "My dad turned to me and said, 'Jeez, who's he fighting?'"
Schaub's father finally eased into the idea of his son becoming a fighter when he flattened the guy a few minutes later and won the state title.
While it became clear that Schaub's bread and butter would be his striking, Carwin's career had also progressed. In 2008, with a rare 8-0 record of first-round finishes, Carwin was courted by both the UFC and Pro Elite.
"He was leaning toward Pro Elite, mostly because they were offering a little more money, and I told him he was crazy," said Schaub. "I told him the UFC was the NFL and Pro Elite wasn't going to be around long."
Carwin listened to his training partner. Schaub's shot came a year later, when at 4-0, he was selected for what became Spike TV's most watched season of The Ultimate Fighter. Schaub cruised through the competition, until the season's most experienced fighter, Roy Nelson, stopped him in the first round at The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweight Finale in December 2009.
Schaub's first career loss only seemed to motivate him more. He notched four back-to-back victories afterward, including a third-round knockout last March against Filipovic, the Croatian kickboxing assassin he'd so revered in college.
Schaub didn't have the same success with another Pride Fighting Championship legend in August. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira rallied his sagging career by catching Schaub in the early seconds of their brawl in Rio de Janeiro.
Which brings Schaub to another layover between UFC assignments and the chance to see what else is out there for him. Schaub completed a bulk of his last camp at Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn's gym in Albuquerque, N.M., a sister gym to Wittman's, but the adventurous 28-year-old has good memories of Southern California, having spent many of his summers with family in Manhattan Beach.
Wittman isn't surprised that Schaub has dove headfirst into this opportunity.
"What's different about Brendan is this unique confidence to him," said Wittman. "He just likes to challenge himself. The UFC offered him the Nogueira fight in Colorado or Brazil and he jumped at Rio. I thought it was crazy. But it's as if he wants all the odds stacked against him."
Getting to do what you want in life and being what you want to be is never a given. It takes a combination of persistence and bravery, and the willingness to take a chance every now and then.
Since age 10, Brendan Schaub has wanted to be a UFC fighter. At 28 years old, he now wants to be one of the best of them.