Once an NFL prospect, UFC's Shane Carwin retiring with no regrets
On his first day of retirement from mixed martial arts last week, UFC heavyweight contender Shane Carwin traded in sparring drills for a Sesame Street game, held his three-year-old's doll in place of Thai pads, and drew her up a bath and tucked her into bed rather than game plan a fight. And he loved every minute of it.
The 38-year-old Carwin, who became the UFC interim heavyweight champion for three months in 2010, already wears retirement well. Having accumulated a laundry list of chronic neck and back injuries dating to his football days in 1997, Carwin exited the sport last week on his own terms before any promotion might need to encourage him to hang up his fingerless gloves. His professional record, nearly half of it earned in the UFC, will stand at an impressive 12-2. All 12 of his victories came in the first round, a footnote he accomplished while holding down a full-time engineering job, no less.
Carwin's decision had been a few months in the making, precipitated by a knee injury that sidelined him from a headlining bout against fellow Ultimate Fighter 16 coach Roy Nelson last December. The final confirmation came in the form of a letter from Carwin's spine surgeon, who recommended he step down from combat sports' competition entirely.
"Once the knee got better, I tried to go back to training and had problems with my spine, my lower back.," said Carwin. "That [letter] obviously made the decision for me, for us."
With all said and done, Carwin walks away from professional sports with six bulging and an additional three ruptured discs. He's also developed foraminal stenosis and arthritis.
Foraminal stenosis, which narrows the passage that the spinal cord runs through and constricts on the nerve roots, carries symptoms like numbness, weakness, burning sensations, tingling and "pins and needles" in the arms and legs. This and Carwin's arthritis made for some uncomfortable-to-excruciating training sessions at Denver's Grudge Training Center over the last few years, as he prepared for bouts against Gabriel Gonzaga, Frank Mir and Brock Lesnar. Still, each practice Carwin cringed through allowed the lifelong athlete one more day to participate in a sport he loved.
"What was tough for me was sports are what I've done since age six, so I struggled with that for a little bit," said Carwin. "[But at the same time,] I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders because it has been a struggle these last two, three, four years being in pain all of the time."
Pain and Carwin began their storied relationship in 1997, when the Western State College two-time All-America linebacker opted out of his final year of football to concentrate on the NFL Combine and the draft.
CNN/SI's 1998 draft report described the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Carwin as a "very hot small college prospect heading into the '97 season," but noted that his offseason left something to be desired -- an understatement given he'd bulged three discs during it.
Carwin's combine figures were OK -- he clocked a 4.93 in the 40 -- but he suspected his already spotty medical history was working against him. When he wasn't picked up in free agency, Carwin called his wrestling coach and returned to the team for his senior year. It turned out to be a wise decision.
"I was a two-time national runner-up in wrestling, so I was champing at the bit to go back and win it, which I was able to do in '99," said Carwin, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in Environmental Technology.
Carwin received an offer to play Arena Football for the New England Sea Wolves, but when the coaches voiced their intentions to play him at both fullback and linebacker, he declined. "There was no way I'd have been able to do it," said Carwin, who underwent his first back surgery that same year. "Football was hard on me. It was hard on my body."
Instead, Carwin enrolled at Colorado School of the Mines, majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in business and economics. Carwin also became an assistant coach for the college's wrestling team, and in 2003, trained with a young Brazilian fighter passing through right before he beat three men in one night to win a local IFC tournament. That fighter: Renato "Babalu" Sobral.
In 2004, Carwin took a full-time position as an engineer with the North Weld County Water District in Lucerne, Colo. He met his future wife, Lani, that year, as well.
In Carwin's own words, he never wanted to become a fighter.
His Greeley West High wrestling coach, Ron Waterman, was a full-fledged mixed martial artist, though, having traveled as far as Japan for some high-profile fights. He asked Carwin to wrestle with him to keep him sharp. Carwin also began to corner Waterman for some of his fights, knowing nothing about the sport outside of their shared discipline. In late 2005, having caught the eye of World Extreme Cagefighting promoter Scott Adams, Carwin got a last-minute offer to fight for the promotion. As the dormant, but all-too-familiar butterflies awoke again in his stomach, Carwin answered, "Why not?"
When Carwin's intended opponent found out that he was an accomplished wrestler, he pulled out of the bout, but the WEC offered Carwin another matchup on its next card. In October 2005, the 30-year-old Carwin made his professional debut at WEC 17 in Lemoore, Calif. Opponent Carlton Jones got much of the attention as a local city councilman, but Carwin won the fight in just over two minutes by taking Jones down and punching him until the referee intervened.
"I just fell in love with it," recalls Carwin.
Carwin's next offer took him to Honolulu, where he met Nate Marquardt, a fellow Coloradoan and a seasoned veteran of the game with 30 fights. Marquardt invited Carwin to train at his High Altitude gym in Aurora, Colo. Carwin said he was grateful for the opportunity to fill out his minimal arsenal and showed an immediate aptitude for striking, bolstered by his natural physical strength.
"I remember in those first fights, Ron was teaching me to throw up my jab and then shoot my shot," said Carwin. "I didn't know how to throw a punch."
Carwin and Marquardt migrated together to the Grudge Training Canter in Wheat Ridge, Colo., just 20 minutes outside Denver, to work with Trevor Wittman, a former boxing coach who'd develop into one of MMA's top trainers. Carwin drove an hour to Denver on some mornings to get in a session before work, then returned at night for another class.
As his fight career continued to flourish, Carwin pieced together vacation, compensatory, and flex time to get in more training, though he doesn't believe he ever took off than entire week for any given fight. At Grudge, Carwin said he benefited greatly by training with fellow UFC heavyweight contender Brendan Schaub and Christian Allen, whom he describes the best unknown coach in the sport today.
Wittman said Carwin was distinctive in both talent and character out of the gate. "He was so darn coachable and his work ethic was exceptional, especially as he continued to hold down his full-time job," said Wittman. "He always stayed that humble guy. He never wanted to train at the pro time. The other pro fighters wanted their own time away from the regular folk, but Shane loved the environment of being around people, being able to talk to them and take pictures with them, and just be in the atmosphere of the typical business of the gym. To me, that was a very unique thing."
At 8-0, Carwin made his UFC debut against Christian Wellisch in May 2008. He won that bout with a knockout in 44 seconds, sending his opponent's mouthpiece flying across the cage in the process. Two more wins, totaling two minutes and 40 seconds, earned Carwin a shot against former champion Frank Mir for the heavyweight interim belt, while champion Brock Lesnar tried to recover from an intestine-rotting bout with diverticulitis. Carwin unloaded a barrage of uppercuts on Mir, who was trapped against the fence, then followed him to the ground when the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt crumbled to the mat.
Three months later, Carwin faced a returning Lesnar to unify the heavyweight titles at UFC 116 in Las Vegas. Carwin nearly earned the finish battering a stunned Lesnar in the first round, but the former WWE champion bounced back in the second and submitted an exhausted Carwin with an unexpected arm-triangle choke. It was Carwin's first loss, intensified that much more by how close he'd come to victory in the first round.
"After the Lesnar fight, even though he hadn't won, I told him I'd trade everything I have to not have to stand there and watch what Lesnar's wife had to watch in the first round," said Carwin's wife, Lani. "Lesnar took shot after shot after shot."
Carwin wouldn't step into the cage again for nearly a year, as he underwent another surgery, this time in his neck, in late 2010. His title-eliminator defeat against future champion Junior Dos Santos at UFC 131 in Vancouver, was his most punishing.
"The Dos Santos bout was a very difficult fight for me to watch," said Lani, a real estate agent in the Denver area. "I'd never been on that receiving end. Dos Santos broke his nose."
In October 2011, Carwin had another back surgery, but this recovery took longer than anticipated. In response, the UFC assigned Carwin to coach opposite Nelson on its defining reality series The Ultimate Fighter, which had moved to FX as part of a seven-year deal with Fox Sports Media Group. Carwin wouldn't make it to their December rendezvous at the live finale.
"In his heart and mind, he'd probably have kept fighting until he was 70, but the body has to cooperate and his wasn't," said Lani. "He wasn't like the other fighters, who'd done this since they were 19. We just always said that we'd take it fight by fight. That was our motto from the beginning."
Still, MMA gave Carwin an unexpected second chance at professional sports, a blessing in disguise to ease the sting of coming so close to a NFL career stymied by injuries that would eventually require five surgeries over 13 years.
"MMA taught me a lot about myself. I was definitely meant to be a fighter in the cage," said Carwin. "Don't get me wrong. I loved the game of football. I still drive by the grass fields in the fall and smell that smell and it brings back memories, but being able to go one-on-one? That's you. That's 100 percent you. Anything you do in there is from your heart and mind. I think it's the truest sport in the world today, as true as a competition can be in finding out who the best man is."
Along the way, Carwin's quiet, but centered presence garnered him lots of fans. As his star rose, Carwin refused to quit his day job, even at UFC President Dana White's urging, and maybe that allowed admirers to identify with his undeniable everyman quality.
Carwin also kept himself extraordinarily accessible, forging genuine relationships with fans like Edward, a disabled man he met at a UFC signing in Los Angeles, who mailed Carwin his Special Olympics gold medal and John, who later joined the Grudge gym with Carwin's encouragement and lost nearly 150 pounds.
"He was just one of those guys who never ever fought for publicity," said Wittman. "He never fought to be a star. He didn't do it by any means, to be known in the world. He commented to me a few times in the last couple of years that he missed fighting on the small shows. He truly did this for the love of the competition."
As the curtain closes on Carwin's understated career, the father of two looks forward to picking up a "noon game" here and there, playing a little more golf, cuddling up for a little more TV at night with his wife, and tucking his daughter Lexi and her baby doll into bed a whole lot more. And he's quite sure that he'll love every minute of it.