Mixed martial arts is one of the world’s most violent sports. Two combatants climb into a cage and attempt to pummel one another into submission using almost any fighting style they choose. Unlike boxing, which is governed by strict rules, fighters in MMA matches can hit and kick almost any part of their opponent’s body, twist arms behind backs, throw opponents to the mat and force a concession by contorting limbs into painful positions or using choke holds. MMA fighters are injured more than four times as often as amateur boxers. From 2007 to 2017, six fighters died.
I was an MMA fighter for six years, and I loved it. I had a lot of anger, and I used that anger to dominate opponents. In the ring, my wreck of a personal life (and believe me, it was a huge wreck) no longer mattered. I had one focus: to survive and conquer. I was in control. I was the victor.
Then, three years ago, it all fell apart. I was so addicted to the drugs I used to numb the pain of injuries, I couldn’t even fight. I lost my job at an MMA gym. I was homeless, sleeping in a drug dealer’s house and making deliveries for him to pay for my opioid habit. I used to be cut—five foot seven, 155 pounds— but I wasted away to 119 pounds.
My parents wouldn’t let me stay at their house because I’d robbed them. They only agreed to take in my beloved dog, Leonidas, after it became painfully obvious I couldn’t care for him.
One night, desperate, I climbed over Mom and Dad’s back fence and collapsed in their garden shed. They found me the next morning, passed out. It was four days before Christmas.
All my life, I’d been a fighter. I thought I could fight my way out of anything. Even addiction.
Where did all that fighting get me? To the brink of death. I was 25 years old, and I had no more fight left. I just wanted it all to be over.
I grew up the youngest of four children in Biloxi, Mississippi. My dad managed a shrimp plant. Mom stayed home to raise us kids.
We were a competitive, big-personality family. From a young age, I knew I had to fight for attention. My siblings were all athletic, so I focused on that. I competed in everything: baseball, soccer, golf, cross-country, track.
My parents never made me feel as if I had to win to earn to their love. They were supportive even when I lost. But I ate up the praise, the excitement of winning. I craved approval, and winning felt like the easiest way to get it.
Biloxi is a party town, a spring break destination. I fell into that culture, tagging along with siblings to high school parties when I was a seventh grader.
At parties, I found a new way to gain approval: get drunk and act outrageous. I developed a reputation as the craziest guy in school.
In high school, I managed to keep my partying from interfering too much with sports or academics. I landed a golf scholarship to a community college about 20 miles from Biloxi.
The freedom of college was not good for me. My first year, I got caught with alcohol on campus and was put on probation. I struggled on the golf team and lost my temper on the course. One match I broke four clubs.
Eventually I failed a drug test and was kicked off the team. I lost my scholarship and transferred to another school. There I got drunk at a football game, fell out of a car on the way to a party and injured my hand. Once again I was kicked off the team. This time I didn’t wait to get expelled; I dropped out.
I’d been the first person in my family to go to college. Blowing that chance—twice—filled me with shame. My drinking escalated, and I started smoking pot daily. I just wanted to be numb.
I moved back home, and my parents insisted I get a job. For a few years, I’d been practicing jujitsu and kickboxing at a Biloxi gym whenever I was in town. The gym owner, Alan Belcher, asked if I’d be interested in trying mixed martial arts.
“It’s no-holds-barred,” he said. “Any fighting style. Nothing unfair or excessively dangerous allowed. But pretty much you do what you want in the ring.”
I tried a match. The adrenaline rush was intense. The aim of MMA is not to kill your opponent, but sometimes it feels that way in the ring. The instant the fight started, all those feelings of shame and failure vanished. I was totally focused on survival. Scoring a hit or taking down an opponent, I felt invincible. Full of limitless power.
I wanted more. I began competing at the gym and on a local fight circuit. Alan offered me a job as an instructor and later as an assistant manager at the gym.
Somehow I managed to stay in shape, fight and keep partying. I went from being an unknown underdog to a fighter people wanted to watch. The pressure I faced in the ring rose.
That’s when I discovered the power of pain pills. I’d taken my first pain pill after injuring my hand in college. Even then I noticed how the medication made me feel relaxed and trouble-free, sort of a passive version of the freedom and control I felt in the MMA ring.
Like most MMA fighters, I got injured. I broke my hand in a street fight. Ruptured my appendix and needed surgery. Blew out my shoulder during wrestling practice.
With each of those injuries, I got prescriptions for pain pills. Soon I was taking the pills even when I wasn’t injured. They helped me cope with the pressure of fighting. High on pills, I could train for hours, compete with confidence and still have gas in the tank to party all night. Some people zone out on pills. I amped up.
I thought the pills gave me control over my life. In fact, the pills controlled me. My drug use increased until my performance in the ring suffered. I lost matches. Failed to show up at the gym. Spent days high out of my mind.
My girlfriend broke up with me, and I turned to injecting drugs. I took them all: opioids, methamphetamines, cocaine. I lost my job at the gym, ran out of money and ended up on that drug dealer’s couch. And I gave up Leonidas. That hurt as much as anything.
Then I collapsed in my parents’ shed. Two weeks after they found me, they drove me to a faith-based recovery center in Vancleave, Mississippi, 20 miles from Biloxi. They enrolled me in a 90-day residential program. My first days in rehab were a blur of sickening detox. At one point I awoke in a fog and saw 30 guys, counselors and other program participants, standing around my bed, praying for me. Was this real or a hallucination?
Once the worst of detox was over, I faced the bleak prospect of rebuilding the life I had wrecked. This, I thought, is the fight of my life. For years I’d been fighting for attention and approval. Now I had to fight my way to recovery.
The rehab center was called Home of Grace, and it employed a Christian take on 12-step recovery. I’d been to church as a kid but long ago given up on a relationship with God. What would God want with a hard-partying, hard-fighting drug addict like me? I had to be fully recovered before I could look God in the face.
One evening I was at a worship service in the rehab’s chapel. I was still sick from the drugs and still feeling somehow separate from the other guys in the program. They all seemed further along than me. I could sense in their closeness with one another a healing and blessing that I hadn’t earned yet. I wanted that healing. I knew I had to fight for it.
The preacher was talking about salvation and kept repeating one word: grace. “Grace,” he said, “means God already loves you. Already forgives you. There’s nothing you have to do. Nothing you can do. You can’t fight to claim what’s already yours. You just have to receive it.”
Was grace really an absolute? Could that possibly be true, that God loved someone like me? Accepted me and forgave me before I even did anything to deserve it?
I didn’t believe it. But the preacher kept saying it.
All of a sudden, I felt this powerful pull to walk to the front of the chapel, kneel down and give myself to God.
Stop fighting, the feeling seemed to say. Stop trying to win approval. Just let go. Surrender. Put the mess of your life in God’s hands, and ask him to help you put the pieces back together.
I walked forward. I felt hands on my shoulder. Heard prayers of encouragement. I was crying. I felt overwhelmed.
I knelt down and bowed my head.
“God, if there’s something you can do with my life, it’s yours,” I said.
Never before had I admitted defeat like that. Never before had I felt so free.
That was three years ago. Except for one relapse that lasted less than a day, I’ve been sober ever since. I’m now enrolled in Bible college in Missouri. I hope to become a pastor and mentor young people toward a better path than the one I chose.
I still drop by the gym whenever I’m in Biloxi. I try to stay in fighting trim.
But I’m not a fighter anymore. To support myself in school, I help manage a farm that’s part of a larger Christian community affiliated with the college.
I don’t fight my addiction or for approval. I don’t fight for God’s love.
I lay myself open to God and to serving others. I know my sobriety depends on my daily acknowledgment that I am powerless over drugs.
I may be powerless, but God is not. After a lifetime of fighting, I have taken off my gloves. I don’t need them anymore. With God on my side, the fight is already won.