The lives of professional fighters are filled with uncertainty; their successes and failures play out in the public eye for all to see.
When the cage door closes and the battle of wills begin, it becomes a matter of opportunity. One walks away victorious, the other defeated, the outcome sometimes determined by only the slightest of margins.
What happens under the bright lights is what the fans are left to debate, but rarely are they given a glimpse into what it takes to make the walk to the cage in the first place.
This is what the climb looks like. This is The Fighting Life.
There is a stark contrast between the golden shores of Palm Springs, Calif., and the rust-colored, sun-scorched Earth of Albuquerque, N.M. In "SoCal" the chilled, laid-back vibe rolls like the waves spilling onto the beach, while New Mexico's jagged presentation evokes thoughts of survival. It is a place where luxury is seemingly nonexistent, and the fighters who train there prefer it that way.
While UFC featherweight Cub Swanson calls both places home, they represent two different aspects of the man himself. Most people would struggle to find a balance, but if there is one thing Swanson has come to grasp, it is how to find comfort in the chaos.
He knows what it feels like to be written off and pushed aside. It wasn't all too long ago that Swanson was considered one of the WEC's top featherweights as he found victory in three out of his initial four outings. The momentum earned him a spot in a title-eliminator bout against rising star Jose Aldo. But after an early mistake and a lightning-flash display of skill, Swanson suddenly found himself pushed to the back of the featherweight division.
Over the next year and a half, Swanson would bounce back to earn victories in two of his next three bouts. He had what it took to get the job done against John Franchi and Mackens Semerzier, but the killer instinct which had propelled his career up to that point appeared to have down-shifted.
Swanson knew the will to fight was still very much intact but was unable to pinpoint exactly what was missing.
Shortly after his Fight of the Night-earning performance against Semerzier, the little blue cage of the WEC completed its merger with the UFC. As the longest-standing member of the featherweight division, Swanson was hoping to start his Octagon career off with a bang against rising prospect Erik Koch.
But after Swanson suffered a series of injuries, his bout with the Duke Roufus-trained fighter went to the scrap heap, and he was forced to look within himself to find answers to the questions that were lingering.
Swanson would be on the shelf for just over a year, but in that time he found the keys to unlock the riddles which were plaguing him. While his return against Ricardo Lamas didn't yield the results he was seeking, Swanson knew he had found balance in his life and was eager to prove himself.
Over the course of his next three bouts, he did exactly that.
In impressive fashion he scored stoppage victories over George Roop, Ross Pearson and Charles Oliveira. Suddenly Swanson's name was once again in the mix for title contention at 145 pounds.
"I credit the change to a combination of things," Swanson said. "Having that bad injury was almost life or death to me career wise. It completely changed my perspective, and now I attack every fight like it may be my last. I know I'm not indestructible, and I know at any point this could all end for me. This is such a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It is something so many people would love to do, and I make sure I enjoy it.
"I've learned how to relax during the training portion and not being so high strung. I've learned how to save it for the fight. I tossed around the idea of seeing a sports psychologist for years, but I feel as though I'm very intelligent and it was something I could figure out on my own. I believe I've been successful in that aspect. Now I run through a lot of mental drills before I fight, and I feel it has made a big difference.
"A year ago I was laying in bed out of commission. I have a lot of belief in myself, stuck with it, and it feels good. I knew I could do it, and that is a very gratifying feeling."
On the heels of a three-fight winning streak, Swanson's confidence is at an all-time high. All of the hard work he has invested over the years is paying off as he comes into his own as a mixed martial artist.
However, whereas now he is a man with unwavering belief in the talents he possesses, this was not always the case. For the longest time, Swanson did not feel at home inside of the cage, and it has been a repeated theme throughout his entire life.
"It's been a long journey," Swanson said. "I really have lived on both sides of the tracks. I grew up as a kid in church and very sheltered. I was home schooled most of my life and only ever hung around with other church kids. Then things changed in my life, and I bounced around a little bit. When I got to high school, in the public-school setting, I just didn't quite know how to fit in, and that became a fear of mine.
"I began to run with the tough crowd, and that got me into a lot of trouble. I was really afraid of not being able to fit in with anybody because I was weird. I'll admit right now I'm still weird, but back then I was afraid people wouldn't like me, so I wanted to be tough and ran with the tough crowd. I'm the type of person where if I'm going to run with the tough crowd, then I'm going to be the toughest. That got me into lots of trouble."
The change of environment turned Swanson's world upside down. The once-quiet "church kid" was now having frequent brushes with law enforcement and would eventually find himself residing in juvenile hall. After experiencing the early stages of the correctional system, Swanson came to the realization that without a change in direction, the road he was traveling came with a one-way ticket to the penitentiary.
Once it became clear that the ability to alter the course rested directly on his own shoulders, Swanson set about finding his way out. His ability to scrap had been proven, but Swanson wanted to test himself inside the fire of professional combat.
At just 20 years old, he dove in head first.
"I got into fighting professionally because I missed competition and I needed something to work towards," Swanson explained. "Lots of people get into trouble because they are just bored at that age, and I was no different. I had nothing to do but get into trouble and finally saw that wasn't the way to go. I had already ended up in juvenile hall, and I knew eventually I was going to wind up in jail.
"I began to focus my time on martial arts, and I stumbled onto jiu-jitsu. From there I was invited to a king-of-the-cage event. I saw my first cage fight, and it blew my mind. I knew athletically I could do it, but I was scared to death. I still didn't like to fight. I avoided a lot of fights because people thought I could fight. I didn't have to fight a lot because of that.
"Getting in the cage and facing my fear against a professional fighter was just about the craziest thing I could think of. I knew I wanted to do it and went after it. That aspect has completely changed for me now. Every fight I ever had all the way up to my final WEC fight against Mackens, it always seemed like a dream. People talk about fighting in their dreams, being slow and not doing too well—that was how it felt.
"I came back from all my injuries; stepped in the cage against Lamas; and ever since then, I feel like I'm mentally there. I'm in complete control, and I'm not worried like I used to be. I get nerves, but they are not the same. I feel like it's my cage and my opponent doesn't belong there."
The results certainly speak for themselves, as Swanson has been a nightmare in the featherweight division in 2012.
Not only has he defeated the opposition, but he's also made it appears as though his opponents have no business fighting him to begin with. Working behind elusive footwork and pin-point power strikes, Swanson's killer instinct has returned as he's folded three consecutive opponents.
In his most recent victory, over Oliveira at UFC 152, Swanson knew his game plan was perfect. In the past, his aggressive nature had a tendency to throw things off, but that was the Swanson of old. Now he goes into fights with complete trust in his preparation and has discovered patience to be a critical aspect of his success.
"I felt great going into the fight with Oliveira," Swanson said. "I was very confident in my game plan and just trusting my ability. I was probably the most on point I've ever been backstage, but when I went out there, I felt like I needed to adjust. He's an awkward fighter but it only took me a second to find it.
"Windows of opportunity don't always show right away, and my coaches are always telling me to be patient. They tell me I'm going to get it and not to rush it. I know if I land my clean shot, I can put my opponent down. For Oliveira in particular, I threw some heat early on. I didn't even throw it to land, but I wanted to get the reaction from him I had seen on the tapes I had studied.
"As soon as I got that reaction out of him that I wanted, I started attacking his body. I knew once I started in on his body he would leave his face open. When I hit him, I knew he was going to feel it. He is a taller, slender guy, and in the beginning of the fight, I didn't care where I landed. I just wanted him to feel my presence and what I brought to the table—especially with him dropping from 155 to 145 pounds, because I'm sure they were thinking the guys at featherweight aren't going to hit as hard. I wanted to mentally freak him out a little bit. It all played out how I wanted it to."
With the calendar taking it's final turn toward the end of the year, Swanson is proud of what he has accomplished in 2012. By putting on exciting performances and earning victories impressively, a future title shot has once again appeared on the horizon.
But even with the momentum he has gained, Swanson is fully aware there are other fighters higher on the divisional ladder.
That being said, he is fully prepared to unseat anyone in his way a long-awaited shot at championship gold.
"With the way the UFC is, when you win and win big, it catapults you," Swanson said. "The problem is I'm still behind a couple of people. I can see why that is the case, but I feel like I'm right there. I believe I'm in the title picture, but because of my loss to Lamas and Koch's injury forcing him out of his title shot, I feel I'm behind those two guys.
"I definitely don't believe the Korean Zombie [Chan Sung Jung] should be ahead of me. He may be right there, and if he comes off the injured list, that fight makes a lot of sense. Those are the fights I'm looking for. Those names I mentioned are all exciting fights for me. There are also guys like Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo. Those are the guys you get excited to train for.
"I'm very happy with my performances this year. The only thing I get pissed off about is when I come into fights as the underdog. For this last fight, I heard I was, but I also heard I wasn't. The two fights before, against Roop and Pearson, I definitely know I was. It kind of annoys me that people think these guys are going to whoop me. I smile, train hard and win. Then people say the guys I beat were never that good to begin with. It feels like I'm being discredited for getting solid wins. I just want the credibility I feel I deserve and to get big fights.
"I'm ready for anything. If they offered me a title shot, I would be more than willing, but I hope I'm not more than one fight away from getting one. I'm excited for whoever they put in front of me, but I want the big fights. I want somebody who is going to put on an exciting fight with me, and I want it to be a big draw."
As he waits for the UFC to call with his next challenge, Swanson will focus on continuing his progression.
While his team of coaches works to sharpen his skills and push him to become a better fighter, his growth outside of the cage is fueled by his willingness to give back to others who are traveling down the same roads he mistakenly navigated in his past.
In between his training, Swanson makes time to revisit the same juvenile hall where he spent time as a wayward youth. It has become a passion in his life. In the process of helping to provide a role model, Swanson is bringing the chaotic days of his childhood full circle and further strengthening the determination of the man he has become.
"When I go back to work with the kids in juvenile hall, it's great," Swanson said. "I talk to them and explain to them that I was right where they are standing. I was literally in the same uniform they are wearing. To me it is a moral obligation, I feel, to give back to those kids, because I'm not some random person telling them they can make it out of there. I used to be there, and I believe I can be a good example for them.
"The big thing is I get their respect. In a lot of situations, the kids don't respect their teachers in general. Coming in as a UFC fighter, it immediately gets their attention. Doing what I do and coming from where I come from, I felt kids would respect me more than the average person. When I begin to tell them about the mistakes I've made, it starts to become something they can relate to. I don't know if I've made a difference yet, but I hope I have in some way.
"It is something I cherish above other things because those kids are in need and most of them are just misguided. That's how I was. I wasn't a bad kid. I was just an idiot at the time. I've turned my life around, and I'm one of the calmest, mellowest guys out there. I get it all out in the cage, and the rest of the time I'm all smiles. I hang out with my chick and eat cookies if I'm not in training. I have no ill will. I get it all out inside the cage."
For Swanson, spending his time looking backwards is not an option. He locks his focus on the here and now with only the things he can control receiving his attention. As a veteran of the sport, he understands the importance of what makes a fighter's stock rise and fall and has no intention of back-sliding.
But a lengthy career in MMA has allowed the 28-year-old to experience the sport from all sides. Swanson wholeheartedly believes his greatest achievements are yet to come and accepts the missteps of the past as the stepping stones to a bright future.
"I feel I've just now opened the door into my prime," Swanson said. "I'm open minded and I have great coaches around me. I have five striking coaches that I work with. I have all these coaches to learn from. They are all awesome, and Greg Jackson is very open minded and teaches me to be that way as well.
"I've put in my hard work. I've done everything I've said I was going to do from the get-go. Winning and losing is on me. I'm going to take that home, but at the end of the day, I want the fans to see a good fight. That's what I do, and that is what I'm here for. I just want the fans to appreciate that, and when people want to watch my fights, it makes me happy.
"I believe you shouldn't have regrets. I think things happen for a reason, and I feel like everything good or bad that has happened in my life has made me who I am right now. I accept the things in my life, and I'm happy with who I am today. I'm trying to be better everyday. I'm going to keep growing in my life. I'm going to keep evolving and keep working to become the best possible version of the person I am."
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