My Adrenaline Junkie Story: From UFC Fighter to Firefighter
10 min read | Mar 2021

My Adrenaline Junkie Story: From UFC Fighter to Firefighter

A former UFC fighter explains how his thrill-seeking personality led to him fighting fires instead of people.

Bob Chillin / Millennial / Progressive / Firefighter

I fell in love with martial arts early. I had seen The Karate Kid, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles and a ton of ninja movies. From age three to 12, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said I wanted to be a ninja. 

My brother and I started training at a strip-mall karate school. I think my dad got us into it just to appease us. I don’t think he cared about most of the stuff that parents try to put their kids in martial arts for discipline or self-defense. “These kids love karate, let’s do it.”

It wasn’t like a totally legit school, but we trained there and competed until we were probably about eight. Then my dad had a work friend who ended up being a super-legit martial artist. He took us into the little training group he had that centered around a style of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do, which is what Bruce Lee pioneered. It was the first pragmatic martial art, trying to take a bit of the others and making one that was more effective and realistic. We started training there, and when we went back to these strip-mall karate tournaments, we were just blasting through: smoking everybody.

My Thrill-Seeking Behavior Started at a Young Age

Our coach took us to the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 at McNichols Arena in Denver. I was ten and my brother was 12, so we didn’t know what we were seeing. Our coach had taken a couple of seminars from Royce Gracie, and he was like, “This Brazilian guy is gonna beat everybody.” My brother and I were like, “No fuckin’ way.” This guy Ken Shamrock, who did a little bit of WWF was there. We thought he was gonna smoke everybody. Then Royce Gracie won the whole tournament, and we were like: holy shit. It blew our minds. I remember our coach saying back then, “If you guys ever see a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school, you need to take advantage of that.” And back then those didn’t really exist anywhere except for California.

We did that until we were probably in like seventh or eighth grade, until it wasn’t cool to be doing karate anymore. Then we started playing lacrosse and football, because when you're 13 you want to play football and not chop boards in half, you know? So we took our hiatus from martial arts. I took a little interest in boxing in high school. Then, when I was at college, I went grocery shopping and saw a big sign that said “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” and I remembered coach saying I should jump into that. So I walked in and asked, “What’s up with this? Is this the same shit that Royce Gracie does?” So I signed up and started going there once a week. Then it quickly turned into two times a week. Then it was every day, and then I was skipping college classes to go. I was good at it and I loved it.


UFC Fighter Should Be at the Top of the List of Jobs for Adrenaline Junkies

I had my first fight in 2005, in North Platte, Nebraska. It was the Wild West back then. The athletic commission kind of sanctioned matches, but not really. Nationally, they sort of delineated between pro and amateur. Usually, pro fights were five-minute rounds, and amateurs were three-minute rounds. In pro fights, you could knee to the head, or elbow to the head, but you weren’t supposed to in amateur matches. But, in reality, there weren’t a whole lot of rules, and there was no real delineation between amateur and pro. 

My first fight there were three three-minute rounds. I asked, “Can I knee to the head?” And they were like, “Yeah sure, fuck it.” I got paid a little bit. I figured, “Fuck it, I’m pretty good at this. I’m having fun with it, I want to compete.” I did it once and I won, and I loved it, so I was like fuck it: I’m gonna do it again. 

The promoter invited me back, and I won that one too. Then my third fight was the first time I had to step-up. “This guy’s done a bunch of fights, he’s good.” The dude had all these tattoos, and he looked gnarly, so I was super intimidated. Then I knocked him out in 22 seconds, so I just kept riding it. By then I was teaching, so I basically lived at the gym. It was my life, and I loved it.

My sixth fight was the first one I lost. It was a boring fight, and I spent the whole time on my back, so I knew I had lost before the judge’s decision. But in my head, I told myself: “I gotta come back and get another win. I gotta get this back.” I was all-in at that point. It was too late to turn around.

My Best Adrenaline Rush Story Is When I Fought in Japan

I fought for ten or 11 years as a pro. I fought for a company called Strikeforce. They got bought by the UFC. Then I fought for the WEC, which at the time was like UFC Light. Those were awesome fights; I loved that organization. It was the same company as UFC, it just had a little bit different management. I fought for them twice, and then they got absorbed by the UFC. I fought for UFC once and lost the decision. 

At one point, I ended up fighting in Japan. Japan has its own hybrid thing called shoot boxing. They have a big tournament every two years called the S-Cup. It’s mostly Japanese and Dutch fighters, and they have a couple of American kickboxers come over. It’s basically Muay Thai rules, but you can do standing throws or standing submissions. You can hip-toss somebody, or suplex them or whatever. It’s kind of its own thing. And it’s huge in Japan.

That fight happened on short notice because my kickboxing coach, who is probably the best American-born kickboxer, had a ton of international success. He called me after I fought this guy at 1STBANK Center in Broomfield, Colorado. He asked, “Hey how’s your weight?” I was like, “I’m fine, why?” He was like, “Do you want to do a kickboxing match in Japan in two weeks?” I said sure, and he said the promoter would send details. 

The guy I was supposed to fight was the 2006 world champion. The promoter texted me his name, and YouTube wasn’t that big back then in 2009, but I searched him on YouTube, and there was a laundry list of fights all against dudes that I idolized—Andy Souwer, Gilbert Ballentine, Ramon Dekkers, Andy Souwer again. I was like, “Oh fuck, what did I just get myself into?” And my MMA coaches said, “Don’t do this.” But in my head, I knew that if I went to Japan and I lost a kickboxing match, it wouldn’t matter. Nobody would have to know. And if I can beat this world champion at his sport, I could make a big deal out of it. So once again I said: Fuck it.

The Whole Experience Was an Adrenaline Rush

Combat sports are huge in Japan. Kickboxers were like pop stars. Big fighters would get mobbed in the street like Backstreet Boys. But it was all run by the yakuza. It’s different there because it’s pretty open. They have like, office spaces: “That’s a yakuza office space.” It’s not underground. You’ll know yakuza dudes because they have the tattoos. It's all wrist to neck, like the movies. If you catch anybody from flak from anyone, they’ll take care of it. If you lose your luggage, just tell them you’re with K1 kickboxing, and they’ll get your luggage to you real fast. 

We got picked up at the airport, and about 20 minutes into the drive, my wife was like, “Where are they taking us?” I specifically remember pulling up to the hotel. The driver got on the phone and talked, in Japanese, for two or three minutes, then put the car back in drive. My wife was like, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, here we go, they’re gonna kill us.” I said, “Chill out. They’re not gonna kill us. Yet.”

They took us straight to the office of the yakuza guy in charge so he could meet me. It was probably how before you bet on a horse, you want to examine them. We go to his office and it was the most balling-ass office I’ve ever seen. He's there in his badass suit, and you see tattoos peeking out. I was overwhelmed—in way over my head—I don’t know what I got myself into. 

So, I upset him. I won. I kicked him in the head and knocked him out. It was a huge upset.

I don’t even think they raised my hand after the fight. Everybody was silent. It was a weird scene. They canceled the afterparty. The day after the fight, I was on cloud nine, but we couldn’t really leave the hotel, because we were terrified. Then we got a phone call in the hotel saying that Mr. Takeshi would like to see you in the lobby. I was like, “Nope.” My wife was like, “Nope.” But the Australian guys who were coordinating things took us down and the yakuza guys gave me an envelope full of uncirculated U.S, bills, serial numbers in order. That night they took us out and we had a fucking blast hanging out with them. 

Things felt better after that, but I was still scared as shit spending the money, which is what I bought my wife’s engagement ring with. I was handing over an envelope full of cash at the Shane Company, waiting for bars to slam down and the cops to come in. It was like slo-mo, then she marked the first bill and was like, “OK thank you, sir.” Inside, I was like, “Oh fuck, oh thank god.” But still, as far as experiences go, that was definitely the highlight of my career. 


All Things Considered, I Was Very Fortunate When It Came to My Health

I went my whole career with no real injuries. I broke my nose plenty of times. I broke my hand once, and had to have surgery on that. But I mean, my knees are fine, my hips, my shoulders. I never really had any serious injuries until my last fight. 

I was 30, and I got elbowed in the face hard enough to break my orbital all the way back. I remember talking to the surgeon, and he said, “The layman’s way to describe it is: Your eye is sinking into your face.” So I had to have surgery on that, which scared the shit out of my wife. She thought I was gonna be blind in one eye. She got pregnant pretty shortly afterward, and said, “You gotta find a real job. You can’t do this shit anymore.” Which is kinda funny, because she was pretty much managing me at the time. Then that injury happened and she went from all-in to all-out, which I get. But it was very abrupt.

I knew it wasn’t gonna last forever. You can’t fight people forever. I was winning and losing, I wasn’t smoking everybody like I was at the beginning of the career. I didn’t really have an exit plan. I’m okay with computers, but I didn’t go to school for it. I had a criminology degree, which my college doesn’t even offer anymore, but what the fuck was I gonna do with that?

Careers for Thrill-Seekers Are Challenging

I don't really know when the idea to become a firefighter first popped into my head, but I thought it seemed like a cool gig. I had a buddy I trained with who’s a firefighter, and he’d told me a couple of times, “Dude it’s a sweet job for fighters. You get a good amount of time off. You can work out on shift. It’s steady pay, the benefits are good, you're not hoping you get a fight for a big paycheck a couple of times a year.” I entertained the idea in my head, but didn't really pursue it for years.

I actually applied in 2014, but I failed the psych exam. The lady said, “So tell me about this MMA stuff.” I said, “Oh, have you ever watched the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or ever heard of it?” She’s like, “No,” in a disgusted voice. I kept trying to give her what I thought was a decent overview of MMA. “So the idea is they take all these different styles of martial arts and have them compete against each other in an organized fashion to see which martial art is the most effective.” And she’s like, “Okay,” and just stared at me. I kept trying, “It’s a legit sport,” and trying to compare it to other sports. I got to the point where I was like, “Have you ever heard of Peyton Manning.” And she’s like, “No.” And I was like, “I am fucked. I am so fucked.” And so I failed that. She was like, “You fight people in a cage for money?”

The second time I took the psych exam, it was the same lady, but this was two years later. I walked in like, ah fuck, hopefully she doesn’t remember me. When I walked in she said, “Good to see you again.” I could tell I was getting tanked already. But the second time around, I don’t know if I piqued her interest, but she talked about MMA a little more openly, and it seemed like she knew a little about it. We had a pleasant conversation, and I moved on in the process, and that was it.


I’ve Accepted That I’m an Adrenaline Junkie

It's a lot of EMS calls. I see some crazy shit. I work in a pretty dangerous city. We see a lot of overdoses; I've seen a lot of people die.

They have a bunch of weird synthetic drugs these days. They have one called Black Mamba that’s real fucking bad. It’s some sort of synthetic psychotic. It’s like the stories you hear of people with superhuman strength fighting off like ten cops: zombie type shit. I’ve seen some situations where it's like, “We need to call a fucking priest.” We need an exorcist. Straight up.

I remember one of the things they asked me is why did I want this job? And part of it is probably an adrenaline thing. It’s exciting! Running into a fire that sounds rad! But I think also part of it was I love not doing the same thing every day. That is most of the appeal of everything I’ve done in my life. I love to fight and change it up. I really like the idea of going to work and not knowing what I am getting into. I think that was a lot of it. The schedule’s great, I like the pay. Doing exciting shit, that might be the biggest part of it. But also I love that there's no monotony to it.

I never know what the fuck I’m doing. It’s always unexpected.

This Narrative Belongs To:

Next Up