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.
Change is a constant in the life of a professional athlete. Whether it is the city-to-city jump of the free agency era or the progression of the sport itself; modern athletes must be able to quickly adapt to shifting tides.
There is little doubt mixed martial arts is a more insulated environment in comparison to the major sports which currently rule the landscape, but this does not mean fighters aren’t faced with similar obstacles.
In fact, inside the cages of MMA, circumstances tilt in the blink of an eye. Decisions made under fire can produce phenomenal results or become the catalyst to a downfall that plays out in devastating fashion.
UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub has a unique perspective when it comes to the peaks and valleys of professional sports. He invested years pursuing the dream of becoming a professional football player and eventually reached the NFL as a member of the Buffalo Bills practice squad.
But when the momentum of his career began to dwindle, Schaub left the gridiron behind and started down the path to become a mixed martial artist.
The Colorado native has experienced first-hand just how unstable the floor beneath can be when you are attempting to make you way in an ever-changing environment. He knows what it feels like to look in the mirror and realize something you’ve worked your entire life to achieve, is no longer a path you can travel.
Those situations provide a unique blend of adversity impossible to measure by any standard. That being said, those are also the gut-check moments that provide Schaub the confidence to proceed without fear. The 29-year-old not only understands there are going to be setbacks along the way but embraces them for the lessons they provide.
“Here is the thing, man,” Schaub told Bleacher Report. “The most successful people I know, whether it is a quarterback for the New York Jets or a Forbes List-ranked CEO, have all experienced failure in their lives. The guys who succeed have at some point failed in what they were trying to do. It’s going to happen. All you can do is learn from it and move on.
"You can’t dwell on setbacks. If a quarterback throws an interception or makes a bad decision, as long as he learns from that and moves forward, he is going to be just fine. The guys who can’t find the lesson to learn and make the same mistakes, those are the guys who won’t last long.
“I’m a successful person. I feel like I could go into any situation and become successful because I’ve been competing all my life. That being said, I’ve lost before, man. I’ve lost big. But in the bigger picture I’ve won more than I’ve lost, but I make sure to take something away from every time I’ve come up short. I take those lessons and move on. It is all a part of the growth process for me.”
For Schaub, the process he speaks of has come fast and furious. He has only been competing professionally just north of four years. Over that time, he has gone from a former football player competing on a UFC reality show to potential title contender to a fighter attempting to stop the backslide of consecutive losses.
His career as a mixed martial artist hit the fast track following his time on The Ultimate Fighter. On the program’s 10th season, Schaub found himself mixed into an eclectic group of fighters, all with varying levels of experience.
He would battle his way to the finale but ultimately come up short in his bout with Roy Nelson. The loss to “Big Country” was a disappointment for Schaub, but he appreciated the experience of being able to compete amongst on one of the most unique seasons of TUF to date.
“A lot of guys who have been on the show talk about the stigma of being a reality-show fighter but I didn’t feel that way,” Schaub said. “When I was on the show it was different because our season was filled with monsters and guys with a lot of experience outside the UFC.
"I’m not saying the competition level is watered down now because there are a lot of talented guys, but our season was different. We had guys like Roy Nelson who is a former world champion. Mike Wessel and Scott Junk both fought in the UFC previously, and our season was a unique mixture.
“The Ultimate Fighter is normally for guys who are up and coming or guys who have three or four professional fights looking to make a name and get that contract. My season was a little different.
"There were some of us who only had a handful of fights under their belt and there were others who had competed in the UFC before. I think a lot of us came off the show more credible than past seasons because the level of competition was higher.”
“The Hybrid” refused to dwell on what went wrong in the Nelson fight and immediately set about getting back into the Octagon. He wanted to get things moving in a positive direction and two first-round stoppage victories over Chase Gormley and Chris Tuchscherer helped him gain his footing.
But while the victories were a solid boost towards the goals he was looking to accomplish, Schaub didn’t feel his time in the cage was yielding the type of test he was desperately seeking. In order for him to reach the next level, Schaub needed to face tougher competition and he set about making that happen.
“Right after the finale, I get Chase Gormley and Chris Tuchscherer,” Schaub said. “I beat both of those guys in under a minute but that didn’t do anything for me. The fans liked it and the UFC liked it, but as a fighter, I didn’t learn anything from those experiences. After Tuchscherer, I asked for a bigger name in my next fight and the UFC gave me Gabriel Gonzaga.
“With Gonzaga, you can still see it to this day, the guy is a monster. That guy is an absolute nightmare. Going into that fight, I remember thinking to myself that this was going to be the fight where I find out if this sport is truly for me. I was eager to find out if I was actually going to be something in this sport or if I was just going to be another guy. Beating Gonzaga answered a lot of those questions for me. The fight wasn’t even close and I was able to put a striking clinic on the guy.
“After winning that bout, the UFC gave me Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ [Filipovic]. He is a childhood hero of mine and that was my first real fight inside the Octagon. It was a bloody back-and-forth and I ended up knocking him out late in the third round. That was the first fight where I had to use wrestling and other aspects of my skill set and I learned a ton from that fight.
“Those were both great learning experiences for me. I really felt as if I was starting to grow as a fighter and wanted more. Then I called out a guy like Nogueira and that was a huge test for me. When you look at other fighters who have the amount of experience I have, they aren’t jumping in there with these monsters of the sport. “
Following his victory over "Cro Cop" at UFC 128, Schaub’s stock in the UFC rose to new levels. His name began to appear in talk for potential title contention and was possibly a victory or two away from getting a shot at UFC gold. Looking to keep the momentum rolling on his rise to the top, Schaub sought out a fight with former Pride and UFC heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Both men agreed to the fight and the action went down at UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
From the opening bell, the leather flew as both men traded heavy punches. Schaub had success early as he found a home on the MMA legend’s chin, but the tide ultimately turned in “Big Nog’s” favor as he backed Schaub into the cage where he scored a knockout. The loss brought all of Schaub’s momentum to a halt. But despite the setback, the opportunity to fight one of the most decorated heavyweights of all time in his home country, was an experience he found positives in.
“Every day, I’m around guys like Shane Carwin, Nate Marquardt, Georges St. Pierre, and Rashad Evans,” Schaub said. “I’m surrounded by the best fighters in the sport. These guys are world champions and I want to be on that fast track. I want in on this special club. I want to be where those guys are at. That is the reason I call out these huge names. I want to be at the top of the sport because I’m surrounded by guys who are there. I see it every day and that provides crazy motivation to reach the level they are at.
“I kind of put my career in hyper-drive in an effort to get myself to the top in the quickest way possible. The downfall is that I don’t have the same experience as a lot of these guys I’m fighting but I’m learning as I go. I’m young in this sport and I see every experience, whether it works out in my favor or not, as an opportunity to learn. Fighting Nogueira in Brazil was crazy for me. It was an awesome experience.”
Following the loss to Nogueira, Schaub once again found himself eager to get back into the win column. That opportunity arose in a fight against Ben Rothwell at UFC 145. In the bout, Schaub attacked Rothwell from the opening bell, landing heavy shots that backed “Big Ben” all the way across the Octagon.
With his opponent dazed and victory seemingly just seconds away, Schaub rushed in for the finish and was caught with a big shot, and the fight ended shortly after.
In a matter of seconds inside the cage where crucial mistakes were made, Schaub suddenly found himself in the uncomfortable position of being on the outside looking in at the divisional elite. For a fighter who had put so much emphasis upon getting to the top of the heap, the slide in position was the most difficult aspect for Schaub to deal with.
In order to swing the momentum back into his favor, it was going to take the type of fight that carried both high risk and reward. Fortunately for Schaub, he was able to find that in knockout artist Lavar Johnson and they will throw down at UFC on Fox 5 on Dec. 8 in Seattle, Wash.
“In every fight, I feel as if my back is against the wall or I could be fired,” Schaub said. “But that is why my fighting style is the way it is. I put on exciting fights and I don’t want there to ever be a fight where people can look back on my career and say, ‘man, that Schaub fight was boring.’ That is not my style and that is why I have the fans I have. I also think that is why the UFC appreciates me the way they do.
“Is there a lot riding on this fight with Lavar? Hell yeah, man. I’m not that naïve to say there isn’t pressure riding on this fight but good things happen to good people. All I can do is train hard, bring my A game, and put it all on the line.
“I think a lot of guys in the heavyweight division are scared of Lavar. He might be the hardest-hitting fighter in the weight class but that is why I called him out. If Lavar and I reach into our tool bags I think he’ll bust out a hammer and maybe a screwdriver. If I bust into mine I have one of those crazy Swiss Army knives and all sorts of tools. That is going to be the difference in this fight. I’m a mixed martial artist and he’s a boxer.
“This fight is for the fans. I’m not going to let them down. The first thing I think about is my family and the fans. When I lose a fight, that feeling of letting everyone down is heavy. I know they want it as bad as I do and this fight is for them. He is going to have to kill me to get me out of the Octagon. I got this one and I’m not going to let anyone down.
“I’m still relatively early into my career and I’m learning every time out. Against Ben Rothwell, my inexperience showed. I rocked him then came in kind of lazy and I paid dearly for it. I’m learning and once I get it all down; I’m telling you, brother, it is going to be a fun ride.”
As his MMA skills continue to evolve, Schaub has also traded the cold Denver weather for an ocean view in Los Angeles. The decision to relocate came from the opportunity to train in the Orange County area, a location considered by many to be the Mecca of American MMA.
Schaub splits his training time between Mark Munoz’s Reign Facility and rolling on the mats with Ryron Gracie at the Gracie Academy. On any given day, some of the best fighters in the world stroll through those gyms and Schaub is excited to learn as much as he can whenever the opportunity arises.
While the benefits of training in Los Angeles have proven perks, when it is time to fine-tune the final stages of his training, he returns to Denver to get into fight mode.
“I live full-time in L.A. and train with Mark Munoz at Reign three or four times a week. It’s about an hour drive up there that I make. The rest of the time when I’m in L.A., I’m at the Gracie Academy with Ryron Gracie. I do my everyday training in Los Angeles and then about five or six weeks out from a fight, I come to Denver and train with the usual suspects.
“I came to L.A. because I needed a change. I kind of put things in cruise control when I was in Denver where I was just going through the motions. I had to address that because it’s not my style. When I say ‘camp’ there is no ‘camp’ for me. This is a lifestyle.
"I could fight this weekend if the UFC asked me to. I’m always in shape, always ready to go, and when I come to Denver, it is to get into that fight preparation mode that’s different from my everyday training. Coming back to Denver is my way of flipping that switch.
“Out in L.A., there are so many different guys to work with and so many different coaches. Training with guys like Mark Munoz and Ryron Gracie every day is crazy. It’s beautiful out there and everything is gorgeous. Personally, I need to be near the water. I hit the gym and train every day, but in a way, going to the ocean helps me clear my head and provides an escape from the grind of training. The ocean helps me disconnect and get away when I need to.”
With the hectic grind of training and the recent rough patch he is experiencing in his career, keeping a positive perspective is crucial for Schaub. Assisting him at every turn is roommate and close friend Tim Tebow. The former Denver Bronco turned New York Jet has experienced one of the most meteoric rises in the current era of professional sports and has remained positive despite the setbacks he's had to deal with.
“You are who you surround yourself with,” Schaub said. “Tim is one of the most positive, hard-working individuals I know. He’s super-focused, determined, and always looking at the positives in every situation. That is why our friendship works.
“I don’t think I would have made it as far as I have if I didn’t have total belief in myself. There is no one who believes more in me than me. I know I can do this. I know I am going to be the UFC champion one day and it’s only a matter of time. There are going to be bumps in the road, setbacks I have to deal with, but I have learned from the mistakes I’ve made.
"Even in this recent rough patch, things haven’t been that negative around me. They certainly could have been because this sport has a way of focusing on the negatives, but the fact things have remained positive is a testament to the fans I do have.
“If you have haters and people that doubt you means you are doing something right. I’m the most positive person there is. I think the vibe I give out attracts other positive people and I believe that is the main reason I don’t receive all the negative attention.
"Have I made some mistakes in my last two fights? Hell yes, I have. Do people realize I have talent and there is a lot of potential there? I truly think so. I really feel this is the reason fans stick by me. “
At the end of the day, when Schaub assesses everything he’s been through up to this point, it all comes down to the quality of the journey. He knows all the talk of potential and best-laid plans can and will change in the blink of an eye. It is because of his own unique personal experience that he makes sure to appreciate every step along the way.
Schaub knows what it is like to be standing on the other side of the fence and he uses those memories to push further, to work harder, than he ever has before.
“What a lot of people don’t know or may be shocked to find out is five years ago I was that super fan,” Schaub said. “The first UFC was in my hometown of Denver, so I’ve been a fan of the sport since the beginning. I went to a Mr. Olympia show and the UFC had a booth there. I’ll never forget that day because Wanderlei Silva, Josh Koscheck, and Forrest Griffin were there signing autographs.
"I waited in line for over two hours to get an autograph from them. I was the super-fan. I know what it is like to be on the other side of the rope and if you have a bad experience with a fan, it’s a bad thing. They are who makes the sport one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
“We have amazing fans in the UFC. They will wait two hours in a line. I know exactly what they are feeling because not too long ago I was in their shoes. I know what it is like to meet one of your favorite fighters. To be able to shake their hand, get an autograph, and they appreciate you. I’ll always make time for the fans because they make this thing special. It will always be my style.
“It’s totally surreal for me. I know people say it is cliché, but if you set your mind to something and believe it is possible, you can achieve it. I know that sounds corny, but I’m living proof it is possible. A few years back I was in line waiting for autographs, but I took the athletic ability I have, trained my butt off, and now I’m the one sitting at the table signing autographs.
“Someday people are going to look back on my career or at my fight record and say, ‘Remember when Schaub lost to Nogueira and Rothwell? Man that’s crazy.’ People are going to look back at those fights and see they were my launching pad to becoming a UFC champion.
"I’m telling you, man, the changes I’ve made have everything clicking. I’ve taken this time to recognize the mistakes I’ve made and make the adjustments. This is going to be the launching pad to a crazy career inside the Octagon.”