Though he cannot be absolutely sure, Will Brooks reckons the first fight he ever saw likely featured his older sister.
Brooks lived in Chicago with his mom, sister and brother. He'd seen fighting in the movies like every other kid, but this was the first time he'd ever seen a real, live fight. His sister and someone from her school got into a bit of a scrap one day; it served as Will’s introduction to fighting, though it would not be the last. Not by a country mile.
Brooks played football throughout high school, and he did “a little wrestling” here and there. He was a good athlete and ended up going to college to play, at Harper College just up the road from Chicago in Palatine. At Harper, a chance meeting with an old friend from high school ended up changing the course of his life.
Brooks and Nick Redding had been friends for years. But Brooks and Redding lost touch after high school, as so many do, until one day they ran into each other at a local Starbucks. Redding was attending a different college in the same area. He even lived in the same apartment complex as Brooks, but neither man knew it. They exchanged greetings and then phone numbers, promising to start hanging out with each other more often.
Like so many kids in the 1980s, Redding grew up taking karate classes. "He fell in love with combat sports," Brooks says. "But I wasn't into it that much."
He heard about Ultimate Fighting Championship back in 1993, when Royce Gracie donned his white pajamas and reinvented what we thought we knew about hand-to-hand combat. Brooks thought it was one of those late night pay-per-view things, like those commercials with the women with the big hair and little clothing advertising their special phone numbers where you could call for a relaxing good time. In other words, he didn't pay much attention to it at all.
"I blew it off," Brooks says. "I didn't think it would be anything."
Redding knew Brooks had wrestled back in high school, and told him he should come check out his new gym; Redding needed wrestling partners, and Brooks fit the bill. Brooks went to the gym, which specialized in different facets of mixed martial arts. He decided to try his hand at Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay thai classes, and then he fell in love with the sport. He never considered doing it for a living. He didn't even know making a living with mixed martial arts was a viable option.
But he kept doing it anyway, and one thing led to another, and soon he found himself standing in a cage for his first amateur fight.
"I fell in love with it, and I decided I could do it for a living," Brooks says.
Brooks did not exactly fill his parents in on his plans. He told them he was going to be a professional athlete, as that has much better connotations to parents than "professional cagefighter."
"Once I started amateur fights, they got used to the idea, and they knew I was probably going to stick with it," Brooks says. "By the time I wanted to turn professional, nobody was surprised."
Brooks made his professional debut in 2011, beating J.R. Hines by TKO in just over two minutes. He plied his trade on the local Chicago fighting scene until late 2012, racking up an undefeated record and a reputation as someone to keep an eye on. In December 2012, he got a call from Japan: the now-defunct Dream organization needed an opponent for Satoru Kitaoka. Was Brooks interested in taking the fight?
"That was a turning point for me as a person. When I got into the sport, I was just a football player. I happened to be an athlete with a little bit of a wrestling background, and I had a competition background," Brooks said. "But I still wasn’t sure how it would felt to compete against a high-level guy in someone else’s backyard."
Brooks capitalized on the opportunity, finishing Kitaoka in the second round of their Dec. 31, 2012, fight. He was used to facing opponents that would give him a slight test of his skills, but not give him more adversity than he could overcome. "I don’t care what fighters say. When we first get into the sport and promoters think we have ability, you are a little catered to," Brooks says. "You get some fights that are going to build you up."
The win over Kitaoka was a real test, and Brooks had passed with flying colors. He had arrived, both as a mixed martial artist and as an athlete, and it gave Brooks confidence in his future.
"It let me know that if I take care my body, and I put myself around the right people, I can do special things," he says.
His professional career took off after the Kitaoka win. Bellator Fighting Championships, the erstwhile No. 2 fighting promotion in North America, booked him for a fight against Saad Awad in February 2013. Awad knocked Brooks out in just 43 seconds, handing him his first professional loss. He rebounded with a win over Cris Leyva a few months later; he has not lost a fight since, and in May 2014 he captured the Bellator interim lightweight championship with a win over Michael Chandler.
Since the big win, Brooks has seen Bellator go through a tumultuous period. Its founder and former CEO, Bjorn Rebney, was unceremoniously dumped from the company at the conclusion of his contract; he was replaced by Strikeforce founder Scott Coker. Stories have circulated about Rebney and his time in charge of Bellator; his much-discussed public spat with Eddie Alvarez, the current lightweight champion, did not help Rebney's case with the public or many of the fighters on his roster.
But Brooks never had a problem with Rebney.
"A lot of guys got rubbed the wrong way by Bjorn. Here's the thing: Everyone wants everything to go their way, but sometimes it doesn’t. And when that happens, the promoters get shots taken at them because of it," Brooks says. "My relationship with Bjorn was fine. He never did me wrong. He gave me an opportunity to build myself up, and I appreciated him a lot. I wouldn’t be here without him giving me that opportunity to fight Michael Chandler. I hope nothing but the best for him."
Brooks has not spoken with Coker since the change in leadership. He has heard the stories of Bellator doing away with their tournament structure, which disheartens him. He believes the tournaments are a great way to build younger talent, though he admits they are not suited for veterans and others who have gone through the tournaments one or two times.
"The tournaments are good to get exposure and experience and build skills. But they shouldn’t have tournament vets in there. It shouldn't work that way; it should be a talent builder. They should add new faces and build new talent for the organization," Brooks says.
"I'm a huge fan of that idea. But there’s rumors about the tournaments being completely gone. I don't want to see that happen. I know that tournament gave me an opportunity to put my face on the map here in the United States, and I would hate for that to be gone."
Brooks has no idea who his next opponent will be. Before Rebney's departure, there were indications the company would give Chandler another title shot at Alvarez. This was nonsense, as Brooks holds a victory over Chandler and has the interim championship. With Rebney gone, Brooks is not certain if he'll be stepping in the cage with Alvarez or Chandler or another foe.
In reality, he does not care who he faces. He'll fight anyone, as fighters often will. Mostly, he's excited about the immediate future, because it seems as though a promotional competition is heating up between the UFC and Bellator. On Sept. 5, the two companies will hold competing events on the same night, within 15 minutes of each other in Connecticut. The UFC is loaded for bear with a main event featuring Gegard Mousasi vs. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza; heavyweight bruiser Alistair Overeem is also on the card.
Bellator is also putting on a stacked card. Professional wrestler (and current TNA heavyweight champion) Bobby Lashley is scheduled to make his Bellator debut; "King" Mo Lawal and Cheick Kongo are on the card and a bout between Patricio Freire and Pat Curran headlines the event.
It is one of the better cards Bellator is capable of putting on, and it shows that they aren't backing down from the UFC's challenge. Brooks is excited by the prospects of going to war with the biggest fight promotion in the world.
Who should Eddie Alvarez fight next?
"They’re coming out with a bang to go after the UFC. Dana White has been more than willing to say that Bellator is not a competitor," he says. "But now, we’re in the background saying: You can say what you want to, but we are doing everything we can to shake things up."
In the meantime, Brooks will continue waiting on a fight, and he'll continue to place importance on fan interaction. He is responsive on Twitter, carrying on conversations with any fan who approaches him.
"More guys just need to stop taking themselves so seriously, open up and be a regular person and stop worrying about a persona they put on. They need to stop worrying about offending their sponsors," Brooks says. "Let everything take care of itself. I’m just trying to have fun."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.