Loyalty can be a tricky thing.
Mike Easton has it in abundance. As the UFC’s lone active fighter from Washington, D.C., Easton proudly represents the residents of the nation’s complex and sometimes misunderstood capital. In that case, loyalty is easy to admire. But in the case of his unflagging affiliation with a controversial training camp in the District’s Maryland suburbs, loyalty may be more likely to raise eyebrows.
But first things first. Because at the moment, Easton has more immediate problems, and they all reside on the ends of the arms and legs of fellow bantamweight T.J. Dillashaw, whom Easton faces Wednesday at UFC Fight Night 35. As a loser of two straight, the high-octane 29-year-old may find himself the next contractual casualty if he can’t find a way past Dillashaw.
“I don’t think about it,” Easton (13-3, 3-2 UFC) said in an exclusive interview. “As long as I fight hard and fight good, I’ll be OK. I’ll be 30 next week. I’m an old man in this sport. Well, maybe not old. But I’m mature. Too mature to feel that pressure.”
Three consecutive defeats frequently equals the proverbial kiss of death in the UFC, but company leaders are known to cut slack to crowd-pleasers. Easton qualifies. In April he dropped a close split decision to England’s Brad Pickett, but the back-and-forth contest landed each man a $60,000 Fight of the Night bonus.
The bout’s outcome balanced on a knife blade down the stretch, and Easton believes a small mistake in the waning moments swung the contest for Pickett.
“I feel like I outstruck him, and the takedowns were even,” Easton said. “In the last round, I went for a takedown. We went down but he landed on top of me. I didn’t use my guard effectively. I think that’s what sealed the deal for him.”
Dillashaw poses a similarly stiff challenge. The 27-year-old attended Cal State Fullerton on a wrestling scholarship, but also has dangerous power in his hands and feet. Never afraid to slug, Easton, who holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, hints that each polished ground game may deter the other. That would mean extended striking exchanges.
“He’s a young fighter and he has a hard straight left that he follows up with kicks,” Easton said. “He hits hard and he can strike with me, but I can use my technical way of fighting against him.”
Easton is not just the sole District native on the UFC roster, but also the only one with ties to Maryland. As such, he’s the face of MMA in the area, a historically boxing- and football-happy region that has been slow to embrace the sport.
Easton’s working to change that, one class, one kid at a time. It’s easy to hear the passion—not to mention the loyalty—in Easton’s voice as he makes his case for the life-altering power he sees in MMA and talks fondly about the classes he teaches out of the Lloyd Irvin Martial Arts Academy, located in a nondescript Camp Springs, Md. strip mall.
“My plan is to have the whole D.C. area get into MMA,” Easton said. “It’s rough out there for kids, especially in the African-American community. D.C. is a tough town. The whole town likes to fight. But in MMA, you don’t have to kill nobody. You fight it out like men. Kids today, they just play video games. They don’t always have nothing. They have a lot of anger issues. Maybe they need some discipline. Sometimes, it can be a good thing to go into a class and get your butt whipped.”
But even that classroom is not a perfect haven these days. In fact, the Irvin academy name might be Easton's scarlet letter—if he wasn’t so proud to wear it.
Irvin, the academy’s founder and head trainer, and some of his charges remain the subject of persistent scrutiny, based largely on previous accusations of sexual misconduct.
In 1990, Irvin was acquitted of charges that he took part in the gang rape of a 17-year-old Hampton University student. In October and November, respectively, Irvin students Matthew Maldonado and Nicholas Schultz were found not guilty on felony charges that they kidnapped and raped a female Irvin academy student, whose name has not been made public, following New Year’s Eve festivities at the end of 2012. Misdemeanor charges remain pending.
Despite the fact that no one associated with the academy has been convicted of wrongdoing, the public scrutiny was accompanied by a mass student exodus and a series of accusations about Irvin and the school, which former students said fostered a culture of psychological coercion and sexual harassment.
Easton is cagey—and unfailingly loyal—when discussing the allegations against the academy, seeming to brush off the controversy while simultaneously acknowledging misdeeds.
"He didn’t do anything," Easton said. "A lot of people make mistakes. Before people point fingers, they should look at themselves. What have they done? What’s in their past? Everything that was said on the Internet, those people try to judge something that happened years ago...Haters are gonna hate, and congratulators are gonna congratulate."
At the same time, Easton is effusive in defending Irvin the person, highlighting Irvin’s good deeds and taking critics and ex-students to task for pushing personal agendas and lacking—you guessed it—loyalty.
“I love master Lloyd Irvin,” Easton said. “Master Irvin delivered turkeys on Thanksgiving. If there’s a kid who trains at his gym but can’t come up with the money, he’ll let them train for free. If you met him, I guarantee you’ll fall in love with him. People who leave the team, you see where their heart is.”
In any event, Easton, proud Washington resident and Lloyd Irvin mentee, blocks it all out as he prepares for Wednesday night. After all, he has a job to do. And he wants to keep doing it.
“I go hard in the paint every time," Easton said. "People think nothing good comes out of D.C. But good things do, and I’m proof.”
Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more MMA talk, follow him on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.