Some places are lonelier than others, and the place he’d found himself on this particular night was the most solitary of these. It was at this moment that he’d realized his life would never quite be the same, that it had become something else entirely. But this was the product of the choices he’d made for his life and tonight was the sum of its many crooked parts.
He wasn’t alone exactly. There were thousands of people in attendance, but the crowd that had gathered was of little consequence to him now. Craning his neck, he looked out over them. They were chanting his name, even screaming it. The mob wasn’t angry, but they wanted blood just the same and he knew that it was his job to give it to them.
“The sound of the latch on the gate is the scariest sound you could ever hear,” he told me one time when I had come to him conveying an interest in becoming a prizefighter. A few years later, I would experience firsthand that ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard that very noise and I knew there was no turning back.Not without having to look “The Eastside Assassin” in the face and see my failure in his eyes.
Mikey Burnett was born in Tulsa on April 12, 1973, the fourth son of Mormon parents. “This is how it all starts,” he tells me, referring to the hardships of being the youngest sibling. “We really tormented each other. But I got it the worst.”
Mikey remembers being a wrestling dummy for his older brothers, in their own right accomplished amateur wrestlers who loved to throw their weight around at home. Mikey tells me this, lying on his back on the wrestling mat of his gym, his clothes drenched in sweat. His tone never changes when he recounts these moments, almost as if the comments are scripted, but there’s no way for that to be true. He talks about them as if he saw them on television or read them in a book somewhere but you can tell his words are personal only to him. “I can’t go back to those days,” he says, “so why even try. I can’t go back and be a better brother. I can’t go back and change the outcome of this fight or of that fight. I can’t go back and make the business of fighting be more honest than it was at the time. This is how it all went down and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
In 1978, Mikey began his amateur wrestling career. He was only five years old, but in the state of Oklahoma this is how it’s done. “It’s a geographical thing, really. If I were born somewhere else, say, California or Texas, we might be talking about baseball or football right now.” But we are not, and in some Middle America families, to do so would border on blasphemy. Growing up in Oklahoma,b at least as recently as a few years ago, you were steered toward this sport and it is something of a religion to many children and parents alike. On any given weekend, you will find hundreds of grade-schoolers packed into gymnasiums and field houses across the state. Parents, bordering on fanatic, screaming at underfed children sporting tiny singlets and headgear to protect their ears from disfigurement. “This is what we do,” Mikey says. “This is what we’ve always done.”
There are very few things Mikey is overly private about anymore. He wants people to know how things went for him over the years so that the listener might be able to avoid some of the same mistakes. When he speaks about how it was to grow up in a strict Mormon household, you get the impression he is conflicted about how his religious upbringing relates to his life today.
His ideas about religion today have a definite Eastern flair to them, with references to “living in harmony with the Tao,” but this conversation always leads back to being brought up Mormon. “These things chose me,” he says during one of the many soapbox sessions he gives to the young mixed martial arts students at the south Tulsa gym that bares his name. “But to think one religion isn’t connected to the other is ridiculous. We are all part of one thing, and it all works and fits together. You just have to figure out your responsibility in things.”
In 1993, the phenomenon of Ultimate Fighting was born on pay-per-view, and an eight-man tournament took place at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. Like many future combatants, Mikey watched this spectacle in awe from the couch in the living room of his parent’s home. Wide eyed, he stared at the screen as mammoth men did battle against one another in an octagonal shape cage appropriately dubbed the Octagon. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he remembers of that night. “Those guys were huge.” This assessment was mostly true, but it was the smallest of the combatants to reign victorious that night, a relatively unassuming looking man from Brazil named Royce Gracie. “He showed us a different way to fight,” Mikey says, referring to Royce’s fighting style of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or “The Gentle Art” as it is translated to English. “He would take a person’s size and aggression and use it against him. The bigger and meaner you were, the more it seemed you were at a disadvantage against him. For years this fighting style had existed amongst the Brazilians, but they had kept it a secret from the world on purpose. They showed us that night that there was an easier, better way to fight.”
And so the sport of mixed martial arts was born.
Mikey attended a function at Rhema Bible College in 1996. Also in attendance was a competitor from the Ultimate Fighting Championship 3—they’re now at 150 and counting—named Kimo Leopoldo, a gigantic man from the Hawaiian island of Oahu who was the first in the sport to give Royce Gracie a competitive match. They spoke at Rhema about fighting in the UFC and it was during this conversation that Mikey first decided he should give it a try.
“They were finally starting to separate fighters by weight classifications in the UFC and in smaller organizations across the country. The idea of fighting never made sense to me until this happened. It was becoming a legitimate sport and I saw a real future in it.”
Mikey segues into discussing the early days of his career and things get animated. “I was going nowhere, doing drugs and committing petty crime when I was too poor to eat. Let’s face it, the whole thing boils down to the fact that I needed a job so a few months later when I was told about a competition being assembled locally by Dale Apollo Cook, I decided to throw my hat into the ring.”
With very little training, Mikey made it to the finals of that tournament, before being defeated by a local professional kick boxer with far more experience. “It was enough to make me want more. I was hooked.”
At the time, if you were American and you wanted to learn this style of fighting, there was really only one place to go. Ken Shamrock had early success in the UFC and had put together the first notable team in the history of Mixed martial arts, The Lion’s Den. “You hear all the time, stories about people who left home for the riches of Hollywood with little or no money in their pockets and a backpack strapped to their back, but that’s exactly what I did,” Mikey says. “A close friend paid for my plane ticket because I had absolutely nothing.” As Mikey is telling me this, a smile spreads across his face. “To be honest with you, I didn’t expect to be in California for more than a couple days. And when I got there, I was certain it would not take long for them to run me off.”
Mikey had traveled all that way for an interview with the team. There were absolutely no promises and the tryout itself was said to be nearly impossible to complete. “They ran me until I was nearly dead. Up and down the stadium bleachers and around the track. Then it was 500 jump squats, 150 pushups and 20 pull-ups, all without stopping my count and very little rest in between the different exercises. After that, when I was exhausted, they had me fight a few of the already inducted members of the team one after the other. The only real memory I have of that day, was Ken Shamrock yelling at me to get up as I regained consciousness from being choked out.”
For Mikey, the next few years of his life would be spent becoming the man who many considered to be the best fighter in the world in his 175-pound weight class. But the price of fame in such a profession can exact an awful and destructive price. “The stress of the whole scene was killing me,” he says. “The sport itself was so young, and every time some interest group or the media mentioned us, it was always something negative. Hell, even the government was calling us barbarians [John McCain publicly admonished the sport as “Human Cockfighting”] and they warned us that we were most certainly going to die from some horrific injury at one of these events. After a while, like anything else, you start to believe the things you’re told over and over again.”
He paints a hypothetical, to drive home the point. “Picture it like this,” he says. “If someone were to tell you today that eight weeks from now, we are going to lock you in a cage with one of the most danger- ous men in the world, and nobody is coming out until the other guy is either unconscious or broken in some way, would it make you a little uncomfortable? It did me, so I did what I had always done when I felt nervous and fearful. I sedated myself.”
In the early days of the UFC, there was no drug testing to speak of, and on the rare occasion where there was testing, it was sparse and random at best. There was an outlaw identity attached to the society of athletes that participated in these events, and their behaviors outside the cage often reflected as much. “We felt like the lunatics everyone was saying we were,” Mikey tells me, a bit more animated now. “So few people were willing to cross that line back then, and those of us who did were oftentimes not the type of people who were capable of making the best choices in other areas of their lives. Steroid abuse was rampant, and so was cocaine. But like anywhere else in society, the substance that was causing the most harm was the alcohol. For my- self, what was always the most damaging, was the painkillers. They kept me going physically and emotionally and I couldn’t stop because ultimate fighting was finally beginning to pay the bills.”
To watch the promotion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one might get the impression that these competitors are well compensated for what they do. But this is very seldom the case. Promoters are notoriously cheap and often convince young fighters to fight in their promotions for free. In the beginning of a fighter’s career, he can expect to earn as little as $200 for his effort—well under minimum wage, given the amount of training it takes to survive. “I won’t let the fighters I train compete for free,” Mikey says. “That’s absolutely crazy. The money is there, even in these local fights at the Indian Casinos. Take a look at it like this: A 43-year-old 19 man who is coming off a string of losses fought on free national television (ESPN) the other night and he made $3 million. The mixed martial arts champion of the world fought on a pay-per-view UFC card last weekend and made $250,000. Nobody even watches boxing anymore. Somebody’s getting screwed.”
In 1998, after a string of victories in The Octagon, Mikey was pitted to fight against another successful Ultimate Fighter named Pat Miletich for the inaugural UFC Lightweight Championship of the world. Miletich was the poster boy for the new weight division and was a slight betting favorite, but Mikey was confident he would win. “I knew he couldn’t take me down and I knew my striking was better than his, so taking that fight was a no-brainer for me.”
What Mikey didn’t take into account were the interests of the governing body of the UFC and their belief that Pat Miletich was the future of the sport. Mikey lead in every important statistical category and, to those who watched the fight, the numbers didn’t adequately reflect how completely dominated Pat Miletich was that night. Nevertheless, a mysterious point deduction for a phantom low blow and overall biased scoring from the judges resulted in a champion not named Mikey Burnett being crowned. “Life was moving so fast by this time and I could barely comprehend all that was happening around me.”
Mikey’s next fight would be against an Olympic silver-medal winning wrestler named Townsend Saunders, and the promise of a rematch with Miletich loomed in the balance. The challenge against Saunders would be to not allow the world-class wrestler to take him to the ground. Against Mikey, Saunders never did. “Leading up to that fight, everybody kept questioning whether I was capable of fighting Townsend Saunders on the ground,” Mikey says. “And I kept asking, What made them think I was gonna have to? It’s hard to take somebody to the ground when you’re getting punched in the face so that’s exactly what I did.” Mikey won that fight handily and would anxiously await his much anticipated rematch with Miletich, but the UFC would not make good on their promise of that fight and the opportunity would never come.
Disillusioned and hurt by all that had taken place recently in his career, Mikey retired from fighting at the age of 26 and returned to Tulsa, where he focused his attention on becoming a coach and mentor to younger fighters. At a place called Mikey’s Gym in East Tulsa, he opened his own version of The Lion’s Den and he spent countless hours teaching the next group of fighters the trade he’d learned. He started a family—he has a son and a daughter—and juggled his time between his two families: one at home and the other at the gym.
By then, the UFC was in serious financial troubles and was said to have been on the verge of financial bankruptcy. It was about this time that a parent company named Zuffa, owned by casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, would purchase the fledgling fight promotion and begin the slow evolution of the event into what is often referred to as “the fastest growing sport in the world.”
What Zuffa did to save the sport was simple: It developed a reality show to be aired on Spike TV, where a group of potential fighters would train for a single-elimination tournament to take place over an entire season, with the two finalists competing for a six-figure contract with the UFC. It was a huge success. Television ratings soared throughout the season and when it came time for the final match of the year it had reached unprecedented numbers. Like millions of people across the country, Mikey watched the show on television that night and he felt the sport of prize fighting beckoning him back. “Teaching martial arts for a living is very rewarding,” Mikey says. “But Ultimate Fighting was big business now and I knew I could still compete at a high level. So when they came up with a theme for The Ultimate Fighter television show that was based on the comebacks of former fighters, I knew I had to give it another shot.”
They called it The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback, and the cast was composed solely of fighters who had once competed in the UFC but had never won a title. Most of the cast members had known each other over the years and some of them were close enough to be considered friends. “In this sport you don’t get to choose who you fight and sometimes you even like the guy you’re fighting,” Mikey says. “But it’s a competition, and it’s a business and we all understand that.” That season, the TV show followed the cast members through a training camp and into the cage as, week by week, another competitor would be sent home with a loss. For Mikey, the trip back home came early when he was defeated via triangle choke in the first round by a fighter named Din Thomas.
Mikey didn’t know it at the time, but he was fighting that night with a broken neck. There are conflicting reports as to how this injury took place, but everyone seems to be in agreement that it happened during the filming of the show. A bitter lawsuit took place between Mikey and Zuffa, with Mikey claiming that the injury took place during training for the show. Zuffa steadfastly attributed the injury to drunken horseplay at a cast member’s house. Mikey lost his suit against the UFC and has since been countersued for damages and lawyer fees. To add insult to injury, his diagnosed medical condition has caused all sanctioning bodies to declare him unfit to fight anywhere in the world.
With the glare of the limelight dimming rapidly on his back, Mikey retired from fighting and returned once more to the hometown that has always favored him. He is happy to be back with his family and close friends. It’s been several years since he has entered the cage as “The Eastside Assassin” but, to this day, he can seldom walk down the streets of Tulsa without someone reminding him of where he’s been and what he’s done. At night you can find him at his gym on Harvard Avenue teaching newcomers and the rare teachable professional the sport he helped pioneer, that has tried so desperately to forget his name.
Since his time with the UFC, Mikey has been able to keep the demons of addiction at bay, and he is to this day living a life of sobriety. He credits the birth of his son for this transformation and he is adamant that he will never return to a lifestyle that would reflect poorly on his family. “A lot of people have speculated over the years about why I retired from fighting at such a young age,” he says. “But the truth of it is very simple. I wanted to be the person that my son thought I was and I couldn’t have it both ways. If I wanted to be a father, I had to sacrifice that other part of my life, and really, it wasn’t a very tough decision.
“So that’s how it happened. That’s how we got to this point.”
He’s still talking from his back, stretched out on the gym floor. “If I had it to do all over again would I change any of it? Probably not. I’m raising my kids and I’m teaching others the sport that, despite the harm it’s caused me, probably saved my life.” His eyes are closed now, squinting in what looks like pain but his words say otherwise. “In the end you have to look for something real. Family. Friends. This is what I’ve found. These are things I know to be real.”
Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 22. Nov. 15, 2012.