Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated’s in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.
Fighters’ alternate career plans
Basking in the glow of his heavyweight title victory, Jon Jones exited T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas earlier this month and stepped into his chauffeured vehicle. After a number of interviews in the arena, he took one last call, this one from a bleary-eyed media member situated on the opposite coast—and, despite the late hour, his spirits were rejuvenated when asked whether winning the championship at UFC 285 was his destiny.
“This is my destiny,” says Jones, speaking with complete confidence. “It’s my identity—I’m a warrior. This is the plan for my life. When I was in my mother’s womb, I was chosen to be the man that I am today. This is who I was born to be.”
Jones hit on a topic popular among athletes. Though he did it in his own distinct manner, it is not out of the ordinary for fighters to remark that they were born to fight. Yet that raises the question:
What if they weren’t?
What if, somehow, the option of fighting never entered their lives? If that were the case, then what career would they have chosen instead?
For Justin Gaethje, the answer is simple. If he were not pursuing the UFC lightweight championship, and had he never entered the fight business, he knows exactly where he would be.
“I’d be working around the copper mines in Arizona,” says Gaethje. “My twin brother started there. Now he’s working for a contractor that sells steel to the mine. That’s where I would have headed.”
Gaethje’s family tree is covered in dirt from the mines. His great-grandfather worked in the mines, as did his father and both of his grandfathers.
“Three generations of my family have worked in a copper mine, all in Arizona,” says Gaethje. “My dad worked in the truck shop, then he worked on the drills, then he worked on the shovels, then he was the supervisor of all the trucks in the mine. My mom’s dad worked in the tire shop. My dad’s dad was a welder. You’ve got all sorts of jobs—electricians, welders and people working on crews keeping these machines running. If I wasn’t fighting, that’s where I would be.”
Given Gaethje’s family history, his choice makes a lot of sense. Yet there are others—like Kamaru Usman—who would have pursued a more unexpected field.
“That’s an easy choice,” says Usman. “I’d be a marriage counselor. I am very passionate about that. There’s no question that is what I’d be doing.”
Usman, a former UFC welterweight champion, is one of the toughest men in the sport. Yet he is not afraid to admit that he is enamored with love and marriage.
“A healthy marriage is so important,” says Usman. “It’s important for children and their development, too, getting a foundation from parents with a strong marriage.”
Usman is the former welterweight champ following a loss last summer to Leon Edwards. Despite losing the majority of that fight, Edwards knocked out Usman with a Hail Mary kick to the head in the fifth and final round. He won the rematch earlier this month at UFC 286, a stunning accomplishment for a young man who was once mired in gang life and surrounded by crime.
Edwards is honest about his prospects if he never found fighting. And his outlook is sobering.
“If I never got involved in mixed martial arts, I would have stayed in the life I was in,” says Edwards. “That’s gangs, crime. Nothing good.
“Judging from how my friends turned out, I’d either be in prison or something else in that world. Or I’d be dead.”
Fortunately, Edwards’s mother implored him to get involved in mixed martial arts. The sport has carried him through the bleakest of times, opening new opportunities and relationships that are healthy and whole. Not everyone, however, is so fortunate. Aware of the very real problems that surround children and teens, Kayla Harrison was inspired at a very young age to become a teacher.
“When I was kid, that’s what I wanted—to grow up and be a teacher,” says Harrison, who is now PFL’s signature star. “If I weren’t fighting, I’d be teaching high school English. And yes, I’d be strict.”
Harrison now provides a loving home to her two children, and she was happy to think about how life would have unfolded if she spent her career focused on teaching five-paragraph essays, Shakespeare and Odysseus’s journey to high school students.
“They’re very impressionable at that age, so you’ve got to teach them what’s up,” says Harrison, who created the Fearless Foundation to enrich the lives of sexual assault survivors. (Harrison herself is a sexual assault survivor.) “We need more teachers in the world. It’s often thankless, but it’s a badass job and I would have been honored to do it.”
Israel Adesanya was presented with an option to pursue a life out of fighting. He chose to fight, first as a kickboxer before evolving into a world-renowned UFC middleweight champion. Yet he was tempted to choose an altogether different career.
“I reached a crossroads in my life when I was a teenager,” says Adesanya. “It was deciding between fighting and dancing.”
Adesanya, who will challenge archrival Alex Pereira next week for the middleweight title at UFC 287, does not regret his decision. But if he were not fighting, he would be dancing.
“My friend Lance Savali is on tour right now with Chris Brown, and I could be a backup dancer for all these major artists,” says Adesanya. “If I wasn’t fighting, I’d be doing that. Or I’d be an animator of some type—either 2D or 3D. But dancing really appeals to me. I’d be dancing for all these major artists worldwide.”
Not everyone who was asked about a different career took the question seriously at first. When asked what he would be doing if he weren’t fighting, Marlon “Chito” Vera jokingly said that he would be making money in an illicit manner.
“I’d be hustling in the streets,” says Vera. “Not in Ecuador, but in the U.S.—there’s better money here.”
Admitting he was kidding (“I’m just f---ing around”), Vera took a more thoughtful approach in answering what could have been his life if fighting were never an interest or option.
“If fighting didn’t get to me, I would work on a ranch,” says Vera. “I really like that type of environment—the outdoors, the woods. I’d also have the biggest and best wheat farm. And I know I’d do pretty good because I’d still have my work ethic.”
When asked about a different career, Petr Yan struggled to answer. The idea of choosing a different life outside of fighting bothered him, and he stressed through his translator that he needed mixed martial arts in his life.
“My life never was stable,” says Yan. “Sometimes I don’t even understand how I ended up here in the UFC. But I’m where I should be.”
Yan’s interviews are succinct and straight to the point. Yet he perfectly articulated how—even if it is fun to speculate about what could have been—that these fighters are exactly where they need to be.
“I’m sure I would have found a place in life, I just do not know what it would be,” says Yan. “This is better for me. I am happy to be fighting.”
ONE Championship sells out ONE Fight Night 10
ONE Championship is coming to the U.S. for the first time, and the event is already sold out.
ONE Fight Night 10 will take place on Friday, May 5 at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo., and will be headlined by a trilogy bout pitting Demetrious Johnson against Adriano Moraes for the ONE flyweight title. Moraes knocked out Johnson in April 2021, which marked Johnson’s first KO defeat in a career spanning 35 bouts, but he evened the score last August when he knocked out Moraes with a flying knee—fittingly, the first time Moraes had ever been knocked out in his career.
The card also includes flyweight Muay Thai champion Rodtang Jitmuangnon making his U.S. fighting debut against Edgar Tabares, as well as Sage Northcutt making his lightweight return against Ahmed Mujtaba. In flyweight submission grappling, Mikey Musumeci will seek to leave more people in awe during his bout against Osamah Almarwai, and a meeting of hard-throwing welterweights is also scheduled between Roberto Soldić and Zebaztian Kadestam.
Chatri Sityodtong, chairman and CEO of ONE, is honored to have his promotion welcomed to the United States with a sold-out venue, and he believes this is only the beginning of a monumental surge in popularity for ONE in the country.
“Selling out our first-ever event in the U.S. is a testament to our fan base’s passion for our world-class martial arts product,” says Sityodtong. “We look forward to putting on an unforgettable show in Colorado.
“We are featuring the best of the best across MMA, Muay Thai and submission grappling. We can’t thank our American fans enough for all of their support to reach this historic milestone.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.