How do you spot an alpha male? Is it a matter of overwhelming size or strength? Dominance over surrounding herd members? Perhaps there’s a classic vocal pattern, or distinctive markings or behaviors or haircuts.
Many of the sports world’s top dogs exhibit plenty of common traits. But those rules are less hard and less fast in MMA, where not every elite athlete comes cleanly cut from the same colorless cloth.
For proof, look no further than Andre Fili, a face-piercing, earlobe-hole-stretching, science-fiction-loving, crazy-hair-even-by-fighter-standards-having, cranium-tattooing, loud-music-listening featherweight who also happens to be one of the sport's most promising prospects at 145 pounds.
Despite his treacherous and unusual road to pro MMA—not to mention a lack of any prior combat-sports pedigree to speak of—Fili has hit an undeniable stride since finding an unlikely training home in the Wrestling Champion Ken Doll factory that is Sacramento, California’s Team Alpha Male gym.
“Not all of us are Type A personalities or Muay Thai standouts or stud college wrestlers,” Fili said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “All I really was was a screw up. Kids and people who feel like outcasts, maybe they can relate to me.”
And even if they can’t, they should probably still learn his name. At age 22, Fili is already 11-1 as a pro, including eight wins by stoppage. His only loss, back in 2010, happened because of a freak knee injury. Talk about silver linings, though: His opponent for that fight, Derek Burnsed, was a Team Alpha Male member, and the loss spurred Fili to join the camp.
“They’re like a second family,” Fili said of the team, which is spearheaded by former champ Urijah Faber and populated with lighter-weight luminaries like Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez. “It’s good to be around that. It’s a positive way of living and fighting. All those guys are winners and just into being productive people. There’s a lot of love there, and it’s contagious. You drink the positivity Kool-Aid and you get better.”
At a wiry 5’10”, Fili knows how to use his length (and some deceptive strength) in the vertical and horizontal phases of the game.
“I guess I’d describe it as aggressive,” Fili said of his style. “I do counterstrike. I’m working to sharpen things up. I want to be a specialist everywhere. I just want to sharpen up my ground game and be precise.”
When Fili first discovered fighting as a boy in Northern California, he did so far from any gym. And his first teachers on the subject were far from trained professionals.
“My dad was really violent to my mom, and my mom was really violent toward me,” Fili said. “It carried over. It made me unafraid of confrontation. I started leaving the house and just staying gone. There were a lot of fights. It was chaos...There were lots of drugs around. I was pretty good about staying sober, but still I was just doing the wrong things.”
Fili tried his hand at wrestling in high school, but he wasn't focused and didn't stick with it. Eventually his street fighting ways led to more structured environments, which over time led to the MMA cage.
Despite an upbringing that would harden many young men to fear (or at least the public acknowledgment of such), Fili freely recalls the pure terror of his cage-fighting debut. You’d never guess it by the stat line, though: He won by TKO in 61 seconds.
So was he a little more self-assured in his second fight? Nope; terrified again. This time, the TKO took 16 seconds. That early-career dervish led someone to bestow Fili with his first nickname: “Fury.”
Turns out experience wasn’t the cure for Fili's fear. At least not the kind of experience you get in the cage or the streets.
“I used not to train or cut weight the right way," he said. "Going in there, I knew I hadn’t done the right things. But now I know I’ve done everything the right way. I feel like I’ve grown more in the last two or three years than any other time. All the bad stuff was only a couple years ago, but it feels like a long time ago. ”
To date, Fili has made his biggest impressions under the Tachi Palace Fights banner. He was one of its biggest stars, in fact, when the promotion decided to shut its doors a few months ago. Tachi leaders recently reversed course on that self-imposed demise, announcing a return in August. Fili recently said he was unsure whether he would return to TPF as a fighter, but whatever course he takes, thumb-twiddling isn't a part of it. For now, he's set to fight Adrian Diaz May 3 in the West Coast Fighting Championship promotion, where he’s the reigning featherweight champion. He seems determined not to let promotional limbo get under his skin.
“It doesn’t bother me in terms of stalling on my own career,” Fili said. “I just feel bad for all the other fighters.”
That perspective is standard operating procedure for the man whose Twitter profile proclaims him “your next favorite prize fighter.” The claim doesn’t feel like a brag coming from the humble, affable Fili. Here’s a guy who wears himself on his sleeve, from his tattoos and piercings to his love for comic books and head-bleeding punk and hardcore shows (he also used to emcee in a local hip-hop group).
“I listen to a lot of music most people can’t stand,” he admitted.
Because hardcore shows don't tend to pay the bills, Fili works during the day for a company that coordinates upkeep on foreclosed properties. Even so, Fili was able to fight six times in 2012. And even with Tachi’s interruption, he remains confident in a busy future.
“Within a year, I see myself in the UFC, putting wins together,” Fili said. “I’m one of the top 145ers in the world. I train with world-class guys and I keep up with them, so that gives me huge confidence. When I get to the UFC, I’ll do some serious things.”
Until then, Fili seems more than content to serve as a living specimen of a different species of alpha male.
“Some people don’t see themselves represented in fighting,” Fili said. “I think it’s OK to be an individual and an outsider. But it’s also OK to be a winner.”
The Beaten Path is a new article series profiling MMA prospects. Read the previous installment here. Scott Harris is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @ScottHarrisMMA. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.