The Fighting Life: The Fire and the Darkness of Brian Foster
Any one who has followed this series regularly is used to being knee deep in a wordy introduction. The purpose is meant to build up anticipation and hopefully lay the groundwork for an emotional connection to the article which follows. My motive behind this is due to the fact I want these articles to give you more than you are used to reading. I want the readers to walk away from each installment, feeling a bit of what I felt not only writing, but obtaining the information. My passion in the sport of MMA is to highlight a portion of a fighter's journey and thus far I believe I've been somewhat successful in my ability to do so.
I tell you these things because this installment is going to be much different. Typically in this sport, journalists are kept at a distance for good reason. Breaking news and the race for website clicks make this a competitive environment, but based on my niche only writing fighter features, I've walked somewhat of a different path than most of my peers. I'm far from being the only media member to develop friendships in this business, but where other writers have to remain objective, I dwell in a grey area. While the following details are personal, I felt it was long overdue and this story needed be shared.
The Fire & Darkness of Brian Foster:
I once wrote, "it takes exactly two seconds to like Brian Foster," and looking back it is a statement I stand firmly behind. In early 2011 I made the journey out to Southern Illinois to visit what was then "The H.I.T. Squad" to do a feature on a surging UFC welterweight who was preparing for the biggest fight of his career at UFC 129.
I had interviewed Foster several times before and over that process we developed a familiarity. But at this juncture of my writing career in MMA, I was looking to make my features more personal and my instinct lead me to make a trip. I wanted to break up the routine of doing things over the phone and felt spending time with Foster would be the perfect place to start.
When I arrived at the gym, he was standing next to his pickup truck waiting for my arrival. From jump street it was obvious Foster was 100 % "country boy" 100 % of the time and his apparent difficulties with social media were an immediate ice breaker.
"Man this Twitter sh** is weird," he laughed, brow furrowed as he tapped away on his touch screen. I started to make a proper introduction but after a quick tap on the shoulder he made it clear nothing of the sort was needed. Foster then invited me into the gym and led me to a back office where we could sit and do the interview. As I followed him through the maze of weight equipment and around the wrestling mats, his fellow fighters all stopped to take notice of "media" presence.
Several moments later we found an empty office and got to talking. Foster has always been an excellent interview, but on this occasion he was particularly fired up. Where most fighters are careful with their words, Foster doesn't come with that filter. He speaks exactly what is on his mind, from the heart and completely uncensored. It is the only way he knows how to live his life and it is a quality I would come to know well in the year and a half which followed.
After the duties were complete, I began to pack up my gear, but Foster urged me to stick around for a bit. He was getting ready to go over the river to St. Louis to have a talk with his doctor about an issue which arose during his pre-fight medicals. He was confident all matters were minimal and confirmed this notion by expressing his excitement to grab lunch following the visit. It was an invitation I couldn't pass up and off we went.
As I sat with him in the doctor's office I couldn't help the feeling I was somewhere I shouldn't be. My mind tripped over itself again and again in a storm of over-activity. What if I heard something I wasn't supposed to hear? What if by simply being polite, he had mistakenly invited me along for the ride and I was over-staying my welcome? These were things jolting through my brain and I began to feel uncomfortable. It must have been extremely obvious because Foster picked up on it right away. In his laid back Southern drawl he lightened the mood by telling a funny story about one of his training partners who was sitting directly to my left. We had a quick laugh and as his teammate attempted to cover his face in embarrassment, the doctor came into the hallway.
In his hand he held an envelope which I would later find out contained Foster's MRI. Apparently a few things had arisen on the test but the doctor didn't appear concerned in the slightest. I heard Foster ask him if this would affect his upcoming fight and the doctor calmly told him it wouldn't be a big deal. This is what I heard with my own two ears and we departed moments later with Foster in high spirits.
Once back around the fight dorms we made our way to the lunch spot he had been so excited about visiting. Over the next two hours we talked about our families, upbringings and shared our respective takes on the comings and goings of the fight business. His knowledge of the sport impressed me but it was his genuine nature which sold me on him as a person. I knew I was talking to the real Brian Foster every minute I was with him. Here was a kid with big dreams, the passion to chase them and a bright future ahead. Everything appeared to be falling into place.
What started out as lunch ended up being a stay well into the night as we kicked around with his teammates and chopped it up like long lost friends. Eventually the clock got the best of me and despite the team's invite to crash in the dorms, I decided it best to hit the road. In full disclosure, my reason for leaving was less to do with being tired as much as it was the fear of this merry band of pranksters subjecting me to a humorous form of "new guy" hazing. I figured it best to hit the road rather than wake up duct taped to a cot outside on the basketball courts. Once behind the wheel I realized I was more tired than originally assumed and called up my friend in nearby Springfield to steal his couch for the night.
On the way home the next day, I began to form the article in my head. I wanted to show the MMA community a fighter poised to do big things and when I saw Foster's name pop up on my phone as an incoming call, I queued up a few more questions to add to the feature. Unfortunately, those questions were never used as the purpose of his phone call was to inform me he was no longer fighting at UFC 129 in Toronto.
With heavy disappointment in his voice he explained the UFC's doctors examined his MRI and decided it wouldn't be safe for him to fight. Much like Foster, I had difficulty processing the information, but every question I asked he replied with the same answer.
"They've already pulled me from the card," he stated. "I don't understand any of this."
His response came with good reason because why wouldn't he feel this way? I was five feet away when his doctor assured him everything would be fine. This was a doctor he had seen time and time again during his time at the H.I.T. Squad. Foster had no reason not to believe what he was being told and he wasn't handling the situation well. Over the course of my visit, Foster stated multiple times this fight was going to even out his life financially. It was going to pay the mortgage for his family's home in Oklahoma -- a home he couldn't enjoy due to the sacrifices which come from a professional fighter. I knew there was nothing I could say to make it better and after several moments of uncomfortable silence the call ended.
While things looked grim, they would only get worse in the weeks to come. As Foster searched for answers and how he could set about fixing the situation, he was released from the UFC due to being a medical liability. In a flash, everything he'd given everything to achieve was gone and there wasn't a lifeline in sight for him to grab.
Over the next six months I checked in with him from time to time to see how he was doing. Some days were better than others as he attempted to make peace with his career being over but there were times when we spoke that he couldn't or wasn't willing to hide the way he felt inside. To put it simply, a fighter fights. It is how he provided for his family. It is the one thing in his life that made sense. It was all he knew and he was doing everything in his power to keep it from being over.
We eventually fell out of touch for a stretch, but even though we didn't get on the phone to talk, this didn't stop him from texting me to say good job on a feature I had written here or there. I imagined it was his way of letting me know he was getting by and even if that wasn't the case, I found peace of mind in his correspondence.
It was during this time period he took a different course of action. While suspended in the states, his management was able to book him a fight in England's Cage Warriors promotion. Foster was aware this decision wouldn't erase his situation, but his desire to prove he was healthy enough to fight and the promise of a solid payday put him in the cage with Jack Mason in October. Foster won with a quick submission and hoped the victory put him on the track to returning to the UFC.
Feeling he was back on the right track, Foster took another fight two weeks later in Springfield Illinois. When the athletic commission cleared him to compete, he assumed once and for all the problems of the past where finally behind him.
My own hectic media schedule and travels didn't allow much time to stay in touch but I kept tabs on his progress. A month later I received a call from him out of the blue. Much to my surprise he was in great spirits and was eager to share exciting news. Foster told me his condition had healed and not only was he back to full health but had signed a deal with Bellator to compete in their upcoming welterweight tournament. Just like that, the Brian Foster I had met originally was back. The fire to fight had been re-ignited and the passion and happiness returned to his voice. As a writer I was excited at the possibility of seeing Foster compete in what is Bellator's most talented division, but as a friend I was genuinely happy to see him get back to doing what he loves.
The dark cloud hanging over his life and career finally appeared to be drifting away. Foster snapped himself back into fighting shape and was more motivated then ever before to compete. He felt in his heart that he had something to prove to the world, and it was going to be a pleasure watching him give his best. Even though he wanted to return to the sport's biggest stage of the UFC Octagon, the challenges ahead in the Bellator tournament were just as enticing.
During my trip to Chicago to cover the UFC on Fox 2 event, we were able to meet up for dinner and conversation. His first appearance in the Bellator cage was only a few weeks away and his confidence was sky high. Foster was set to face David Rickels in the first round of the 170 pound tournament and it was a level of excitement he couldn't contain. He was electric as we spoke as he could finally count down the days until he could once again throw hands and test another man's heart.
"I'm back man," he shouted for everyone to hear. "I'm back and I'm going to make a huge statement in this fight. These boys don't even know what is coming their way."
While it was his charisma which produced the statement, no one sitting at the table had any clue just how prophetic it would be. There was something coming, but rather than a storm of aggression bearing down on his opposition, it was the darkness and uncertainty thundering directly towards him. Brian Foster would never set foot in the Bellator cage and little did he know in a matter of weeks, the rekindled fire would once again be extinguished.
In another painful blow, he was informed just a handful of days prior to his Bellator debut that it would not be happening. The head of the Mohegan Sun Commission, Mike Mizzulli, refused to clear Foster for the bout with David Rickels, and once again he was stopped dead in his tracks. He called me as soon as he received the news and once again it was confusion which took front and center.
"I don't get why this is happening," Foster said. "My health is great. I'm in the best shape of my life and now I'm being told I'm not allowed to fight. This is ridiculous!"
As the conversation carried on and he shared more details, there appeared to be something amiss. Foster was right—his health had improved and he had the medicals to prove it. All things aside, the biggest indicator something wasn't right in this situation came in the complete shock he was exhibiting. Had Foster been trying to pull something over on a commission or been trying to get around the system, he would have at least had some kind of expectation for things to go bad. Everyone involved from his management to his trainers, would have been prepared for the bottom to fall out. I knew he had no idea this was coming and the proof came in a conversation a week earlier.
Foster's debut in Bellator was going to be a big deal for the promotion. In signing him, they weren't getting someone who had "lost" their way out of the UFC or a journeyman looking to make another run at it. With Foster, they had a legit Top 20 welterweight and his debut was building a bit of buzz. Due to my personal involvement and the chance to get a great story, I was going to be a part of his corner team for the Rickels fight. This would have provided an opportunity to tell a great story and I was excited for a once in a lifetime experience.
When he called me to confirm, he also shared a few details about filling up a final sponsorship position. Foster said he had one more day to find a sponsor for a space on his shorts and that he was going to contact a handful of companies. If he had any inclination he wouldn't be able to fight, why would he be worrying about the shorts he was going to wear on fight night? This was one question in a mounting pile.
The apparent details of the situation are this. Mizzulli examined the previous paperwork of Foster's brain condition and didn't feel comfortable with allowing him to compete in the event. He placed Foster on national suspension and deemed he would remain there until proof could be shown to prove otherwise. The decision coming so close to the event left Foster with no time to right the situation. As the Bellator tournament got underway, Foster was once again cast aside.
Having the carpet once again yanked out from under him was the final straw for Brian Foster. It had been months since his last fight and every dime he had to his name went into the training camp for Rickels. In order to have the funds to pull off the camp he also got rid of everything he could to raise the money to pay for it. While it was an extreme step, Foster figured it all worthwhile because he would be back to work. Following the suspension, not only was he emotionally crushed, but in financial ruins as well.
Over the next few weeks the situation ate at me night and day. Not only did I feel bad for someone I had come to know very well, but as a writer that has built his entire career telling the stories of fighters, I couldn't stop the feeling that I needed to help.
Putting myself into the situation was not a decision which came easily. As a member of the media, I didn't want to cross boundaries. Even for someone such as myself who dwells in grey areas, injecting my presence into a fighter's life without invitation set off alarms in my head. Finally everything built up to a breaking point and I turned to the one person who has assisted in every major decision I've made in my career—my wife Renee.
Over the course of my friendship with Foster, she had become familiar with the situation. She knew everything about everything. When I told her I wanted to step in and do something, Renee asked the same question over and over.
"What if he gets hurt, Duane?" she asked. "I know fighters understand it's a possibility with every fight but what if he gets hurt and it's permanent? Are you going to be able to handle this if it happens?"
Naturally my answer to her was that I could. Fighters are a different breed by nature. They get into the cage knowing the person standing across from them is going to do their best to bring violence. I knew this was an understood aspect of the fight game, but it didn't stop her question from replaying over and over again.
Two days after our discussion, the answer came to me in the middle of the night. We were sleeping when our youngest son came into the room after being trampled by the family cat. The little guy was standing at the side of our bed, with crazy hair and sleepy eyes, when it dawned on me how low I would feel if I couldn't provide for him. This made me think of Foster and how this emotion had to be just one of a thousand he was experiencing since his career had been cut short. I went back to sleep that night having already cast my hat into the ring.
The next morning I called Brian to talk about his future. He informed me that since the Bellator fallout, everything fight related in his life had disappeared. His ties with manager/trainer Marc Fiore had been severed leaving him without a gym or a place to call home. In the swell of that storm everyone walked away leaving him with zero options on the table. He described how he had to borrow enough gas money to get back to Oklahoma and that he was doing everything in his power to keep his head up.
In addition to the mounting stress of his life turned upside down, Foster still did not have any answers to what happened in Connecticut. As much as he tried to make sense of it all, the unresolved feelings were eating him alive from the inside out. I explained to him I wanted to help and while I wasn't exactly sure what I could do, I wanted him to know I was going to do my best to help him sort things out.
In his easy and genuine way, Foster thanked me for being there. Since his fight career had come to an abrupt halt, everyone in his inner circle had faded away. He was happy to have a friend at such a rough time and said it was going to help him come to terms with no longer being able to fight. He had done everything in his power to right the ship but nothing was enough. At the requirements of the Mohegan Sun commission he had multiple MRIs done, and even though the tests revealed that the previous damage had healed, they still were not willing to release him from suspension. It was difficult for him to talk about walking away but he knew it was something he would benefit from accepting sooner than later.
When our conversation ended I made a few calls of my own to people I had met working in the business. During these talks I shared the details of Foster's situation and sought out possible options. There had to be something we could do, and it didn't take long for the action to ramp up.
One of the first calls I made was to Brett Atchley from Addison Sports Management. We had become good friends during our time on the fight circuit and he was someone I truly respected. I called him seeking his opinion on the matter, and just as I assumed, he was more than willing to help out in any way he could.
While I continued to make calls, Brett made calls as well. In a matter of hours, we were back on the phone discussing what he was able to find out regarding Foster's future. It came as no surprise to me that there was tremendous interest in Foster from organizations around the world. During his time in the sport, Foster made a name for being the type of fighter who shows up to give his all, a true warrior who was going to bring the ruckus. Once we began to knock on doors, interest in Foster came in fast and furious.
While knowing his stock was still high was nice, the issue with his national suspension was very much front and center. Even though I had intimate knowledge of the comings and goings of his career, the details surrounding the exact nature of his medical condition were largely unknown to me.
In order to get to the bottom of things, I needed to speak with everyone previously involved in Foster's efforts to get cleared. Brian put me in touch with his people, and following an hour long conference call, I had a much better understanding of what we were dealing with.
I was informed that Foster had not only undergone multiple MRI tests but also received a letter of clearance from a doctor. When this was presented to Mr. Mizzulli, he wasn't willing to release the suspension due to the doctor having a practice based in Sports Medicine rather than Neurology. Mr. Mizzuli stated the letter needed to come from a Neurologist and once he had received it, he would be willing to lift Foster's suspension.
The biggest issue which came from speaking with the men handling Foster's situation came in the form of funding. Over the process of obtaining the necessary tests and doctor's visits, whatever funds they once had were now exhausted. MRI's are not cheap by any means; when the men informed me they weren't in the fight business, just people who believed in Foster, it spun my mind to think about the stress for all involved. I finally began to feel as if I had a slight grasp on the situation. We now knew what we were dealing with and what it was going to take to get this done.
In our possession we already had four MRI slides which documented Foster's progression. The initial slide was taken prior to his release from the UFC and the most recent test was done four weeks after the cancellation of his bout with Rickels. The way things looked, all we needed to do was locate a Neurologist to have him examine the slides and make a professional ruling on the state of his condition. Money was going to be a hurdle, but knowing his tests were healthy created confidence amongst our group.
We set about attempting to find a Neurologist who could get us in for an appointment. While I knew it would take time to line up, I grossly underestimated just how long it would take. After attacking the issue from all angles, we were able to get an appointment in early June and the rumbling ground below Foster's feet finally appeared to be settling.
As this was all playing out, he had begun working for a construction company framing houses. He worked long days, doing his best to placate his thoughts about fighting, but as soon as his workday ended, my phone rang. This was the case on a daily basis; even though he wasn't receiving great news, he was seeing people doing everything they could to help. Perhaps the most important factor was the people who were helping him, had absolutely nothing to gain from the situation and were asking nothing from him. I was working on this night and day. With an already insane amount of work on my plate from my own career, I invested every free minute into resolving this issue for Foster.
The day of the appointment my nerves were put to the ultimate test. I sat in the waiting room for five hours until the Neurologist was free to examine the slides. After taking a look he sat me down to discuss his findings.
"Everything looks fine," he said nonchalantly. "I don't see any reason why he can't fight."
His words put my spirit through the roof as I finally heard what I had been waiting to hear for so long. I couldn't keep the smile from my face but when the doctor continued with his assessment, I quickly returned to the bottom floor.
He informed me while the MRI looked fine, he wouldn't be able to attach his name to the case. The doctor explained the liability involved would be too great of a risk and he wasn't interested in placing himself in such a position. While I understood his reason, it brought the harsh reality of the situation crashing down upon me. Despite a clean MRI, finding a Neurologist who understood how the fight business works was going to be extremely difficult. It was going to be a merry-go-round of chance and with no money to spend, the window for success was diminishing.
The next two Neurologists said the same exact thing. They saw nothing of concern but couldn't risk the liability involved. After each setback I tried to keep Foster's spirits up but hitting roadblock after roadblock was taking its toll on us both.
In early July we received interest from a promotion in South Carolina. The CEO was dead set on signing Foster and had the means to see this thing through. He promptly scheduled an appointment with a Neurologist and had us overnight the slides. It was his intention to have Foster fight on his card in late August. While it wouldn't give Brian a lot of time to prepare, Foster was simply thankful for the chance to get back into the fray.
Once again re-invigorated and inspired, we set about looking for a training situation that would snap him into fighting shape in quick fashion. I reached out to my good friend and media colleague Damon Martin to check his Ohio resources and I contacted the fighters I knew in Indianapolis. We were able to find a great location in Indianapolis with a great team who could push Foster back into fight shape.
We now had momentum in all areas. Due to the time restraint, we had to act quickly, and we decided Foster would come stay with me in Indy while he trained for his fight. Again, we had no disposable funds and had to utilize every possible option to save money.
During this time Foster was the best I had ever seen him. While nothing was set in stone, he could go about his day knowing the possibility of doing what he loved was still intact. He no longer needed to stare blankly out into the void, and for the first time in a long time he was truly happy. It was a great feeling to know that we were not only helping him find his way back to fighting, but happiness as well.
It was the second Tuesday in July when I learned that the progress in South Carolina had slowed. I was informed that the Neurologist found nothing negative on the slides and was willing to sign off on the paperwork, but only if Foster would agree to more testing. The doctor wanted to run a contrast MRI and have Foster see him for several appointments. With Foster in Oklahoma, multiple flights to South Carolina would have been difficult to pull off but the bottom line cost of having the tests run was beyond anything we could do.
The news broke my heart and I knew the phone call I had to make to Foster was going to be one of the most difficult things I had ever done. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I dialed the phone and less than five minutes later, I sat alone in silence. Foster listened to the news, politely thanked me for everything I tried to do for him and excused himself from the call. I knew his world had once again been leveled and I felt terrible for getting his hopes up. I knew in my heart he didn't hold me responsible but that didn't make it hurt any less.
The emotions which have lingered are the reason for this article. With everything I have experienced throughout this trying ordeal, I feel that people need to know about what Brian Foster has gone through. Over the past two years he has endured having his career taken away from him at multiple turns. Despite the hardships, he still presses on.
If this was the case of a fighter attempting to keep a faded dream alive or hanging on past his prime it would be easier to deal with. But it's not. This is the story of a fighter who has battled back from adversity but cannot progress because of roadblocks positioned around every corner. All Brian Foster wants to do is fight and I can't help but to feel as if I've failed him in some regard. Everyone walked away from this kid when he needed them the most. While I wasn't capable of helping him find the road back to the cage, I can still shine a light in the darkness.
This is the one thing I can do. It is my greatest hope that one day he'll have the opportunity to once again do what he loves. While this matter remains unresolved, I've found a great friend and an inspiration in Brian Foster. We weren't able to accomplish the ultimate goal on our journey but the process taught us a little more about what we are made of. That's the only way Foster knows, and I'm a better man for having met him.
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