The Fighting Life: Finding Kyle Kingsbury

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The Fighting Life: Finding Kyle Kingsbury
Photo courtesy of UFC.com

There is a positive energy that radiates from Kyle Kingsbury.

The Ultimate Fighter alum is a hulk of a human being, with broad shoulders and tree trunk legs, but he is quick with a joke and that puts those around him at ease almost instantly. The mop of flowing locks atop of his head is a mixture of surfer and stand-up comic, and one would have to invest a small fortune at the tanning beds to obtain the level of bronze the 32-year-old has working for him.

He strolled through the doors in a tank top and flip flops with a "permanent vacation" feel, but as he pulls up to chat, those notions slowly begin to break apart.

As our conversation gets under way—and Kingsbury shares some terrific insight on the road-trip essentials he and his fiancee Natasha Wicks can't do without—the cracking of mitts pops 20 feet behind us.

Light heavyweight powerhouse Ryan Bader is getting down to business with his boxing coach, and his formerly injured hand is pounding like a hammer on concrete. To our immediate right, resurgent middleweight C.B. Dollaway is attempting to shake off the rigors of a hard grappling session in preparation for his next go, while head coach Aaron Simpson is cutting through the massive facility to make sure everything is in order for the day.

Somewhere in the distance, Ryan Jimmo is doing the robot, and all seems right with the world once more. 

While Power MMA in Gilbert, Arizona is not the gym Kingsbury calls home, the athletes who have committed to the grind on this day are a brotherhood of sorts. They all attended Arizona State University, and once their college days and collegiate athletic careers came to a close they all decided to jump into mixed martial arts at roughly the same time.

Kingsbury and Bader even squared off to determine who moved into the TUF house—and although Bader won that war, the former football player still managed to find his way onto the show after a few twists and turns.

Nevertheless, every member of the group has found success in one way or another in the realm of mixed martial arts, but their individual journeys have all taken interesting turns of late.

Where Bader and Dollaway have returned to fighting their way up their respective divisional ladders, Simpson decided to step into retirement last year and put 100 percent of his focus on coaching.

While Kingsbury was also retired for a stretch, or on hiatus at least, our conversation comes several days after he publicly announced his plans to return to the Octagon. As he uses a foam roller to loosen up his back and hips, the AKA product details the process that went into making the decision to re-enter the chaos of competing in MMA.

My primary job description involves speaking with fighters, and I can't say I've ever heard anything like what Kingsbury had to say.

"For the past year and a half I have been doing Ayahuasca ceremonies, and they've completely changed my life," Kingsbury said.

While I wasn't exactly sure what he was specifically describing at the time, conversations over the next several months would provide the answers to those questions. What began as an interview for my "Fighting Life" series resulted in an education of things not easily grasped.

This wasn't a black-light sitdown with someone who was gong to break down the alleged connection between Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wizard of Oz." This was soul-searching of the peaceful-warrior variety, a vastly different endeavor than a typical fighter interview.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Combat sports are filled with a wide variety of individuals who all have unique motivations and ambitions. Where money, fame and glory are the most commonly cited reasons a fighter steps into the cage, Kingsbury's recent mindset couldn't be further from the norm.

While he's quick to admit those elements were once key factors that fueled his fighting career, they are gone. So far gone, never to return.

As Kingsbury begins to explain the journey that has taken him from battered to enlightened, from pinned down by widely accepted constructs to being a free roaming spirit; something changes in his eyes. There is no doubt the California native has always operated with a comedy-first presentation (a noted affinity for fanny packs at pre-fight weigh-ins,) but the man sitting before me is not the same person I sat with two years ago. 

There is an unmistakable peace about him these days, and he credits a very unconventional process for allowing him to find out what truly matters. Kingsbury went in search of a deeper meaning and discovered an inner stillness in the process.

"The period between my last fight and this one coming up has been a pretty long time," Kingsbury said. "Almost two years have passed. After my eye fracture in the fight with Jimi Manuwa, I had a lot to think about. I was weighing out important things in my life and career.

"I looked at how much I was getting paid versus the damage I've taken; where I could possibly go in a fighting career and a lot of things of that nature. But the biggest pill to swallow was going from 'Fight of the Night' bonuses and a four-fight winning streak and that allowed me to train full-time. And that is the goal. 

"The goal of any fighter is to make it to the highest level and to be able to train full-time, because then you are a professional athlete. That's all you do. That's all you worry about. After my loss to Glover [Teixeira] I had to go back to work. Now, I'm working part-time, then taking a beating like I did against Manuwa, and I really had to weigh things out. Is this what I want to do? Does this make me happy? Is it worth it to take this type of damage, all things considered?"

Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

In order to find the answers he was seeking, Kingsbury relied on the advice of a friend who had recently traveled to South America. On this journey of self, his friend underwent an Ayahuasca ceremony that blew open his doors of personal perception. Upon hearing about the results, the NorCal representative decided to take his own soul-searching to another level.

The ancient ceremony involving the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (the soul vine), which originated in the Amazon but has made its way into the United States with increasing popularity, albeit through highly controversial methods.

Kingsbury knew an Ayahuasca ceremony was going to be the key to finding the answers he sought. He knew the questions and issues he wanted to resolve and dove headlong into the mysterious realm of "the soul vine."

"I've had help throughout my entire fight career," Kingsbury recalled. "One of my coaches is Native American, and he would take me to do sweat lodges. We would do one at the beginning of a fight camp, then again after the fight was over.

"All we would do before is the sweat, and that is to purify, detoxify and gather our minds. Then we would come back after the fight and reflect on everything. We would talk about where we wanted to go next, and he would tell me stories about different cultures, different indigenous tribes, and I would tell him, 'Wait until we do a traditional sweat' with a big smile on my face.

"Finally, we got to doing the traditional sweats, and I had heard about Ayahuasca. This is before any of my losses and was spread out over my career. I had a buddy who went to Peru to do some soul-searching and just wanted to kind of break out. He told me to look into it.

"I talked to my guy about it and he said we were going to find this medicine. We found some guides who could take us through these ceremonies, and I've done five of them in the past year-and-a-half. Each one—in its own right—has changed my life for the better in several different ways.

"These changes have come through visions, through realizations of different truths, and it is the most introspective thing I've ever dealt with," he added. "It completely changes your perspective on all of your relationships with your friends, family and yourself. It flips you upside down and changes how you see the world. It shakes you around and breaks the mold of all the cyclical thinking you have.

"Everyone thinks the same thoughts over and over again. It takes something to snap you out of that before you take a hard look at what you are doing and see things from a different angle."

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

While Kingsbury attempted to unlock mental barriers during his year-and-a-half away from the cage, he was also dealing with some serious physical issues as well.

His slugfest with the heavy-handed Manuwa left him with a fractured eye socket and a two-fight losing streak. A broken physical state is one thing, but for a fighter like Kingsbury who had been reliant on the post-fight bonus for his blood, sweat and sacrifice, things change quickly in the void.

That said, competing in the athletic realm was all he had ever known, and Kingsbury went into his first Ayahuasca ceremony looking for guidance as to whether his days of testing his will inside the cage had come to an end, whether there was a future for him on the sport's biggest proving ground.

"I went into my first ceremony with a lot of questions," Kingsbury said. "Those questions were largely based around my fighting career. Am I going to fight again? Do I have it in me to be a fighter? Do I still have the anger, desire and passion to do it?

"When I first got into fighting I was like a lot of people first getting in the game, where you just want to tear someone's head off. They are not martial artists. It's not about personal growth. It's about getting in there and shredding somebody. For a long time, that is the reason I fought. But as I grew, fighting actually helped me shed that, and I was a much happier person. 

"So I wondered if I still had that in me, and whether or not you need it to be successful. Do you have to be angry and want to hurt someone? I had several questions going into my first Ayahuasca ceremony, and those things got ironed out very quickly. I had all the answers and then some. It also broke down the concept of what it means to be a fighter.

"I would go back to that line in Fight Club where it says, 'You're not your job. You're not your clothes. You're not your car.' You are not any of those things, and it's easy to see that is a great line, but I had not really ever digested it until that moment.

At that point, I understood that I'm not even Kyle Kingsbury. I'm not a physical body or any of that. I'm this soul...or whatever it is. These ceremonies completely pull you out of your ego in a positive way. Right then, I realized it doesn't matter if I ever fight again. Secondly, it changed the way I look at what I would consider 'me.' Everyone describes themselves as something. 

"When you are a kid growing up until you are an adult with a job, that's what people describe themselves as. For a long time, I didn't want to say I didn't fight anymore and tell people I bounce and bartend at a strip club, which is what I do to make money. I didn't want to admit that, and that kept me from retiring alone. Just the ego alone kept me from retiring.

"It wasn't until my third ceremony where I got in there and realized how to break free from the labels I put on myself."

After a series of intense experiences through the Ayahuasca ceremonial rituals, Kingsbury obtained a clear understanding of how he should progress forward. He knew his days as a mixed martial artist were not yet finished, but that the next time he stepped into the cage would mean more than it had ever meant before.

Of course, carrying a two-fight losing streak and coming back from an extended layoff are always going to create added pressures, and when combined with his next bout coming in front of his hometown crowd, the perfect storm of stress began to form.

Yet that is precisely the way Kingsbury wants it to be. When he steps in against Patrick Cummins at UFC on Fox 12 on July 26, the ASU product wants the chaos and stress to be at its zenith, because that is where he will find out what his journey has yielded.

Kingsbury has reached a calm and understanding about his life outside of the Octagon, but if he can apply the tools he's acquired through his quest to build inner strength and peace of mind, then the experience will be a success no matter how the chips fall on fight night.

"In all the things I've learned, and all the inner peace I've found inside, I now want to take that and see if I can apply these things in the biggest testing ground known to man," Kingsbury said. "Fighting inside the Octagon is the most stressful situation there is. I want to see if I can get into the Octagon, with a guy trying to rip my head off in front of my home crowd, on Fox, and see if I can keep the inner stillness and remain calm when I step into battle.

"If I can do that....then that means I can do it anywhere. That's true personal growth. That's sharpening my inner self more than anyone could ever do for me. 

"It is the only reason I want to fight again. I've done a lot of interviews leading up to this fight, and people keep asking me about my comeback, Pat Cummins and whether or not I want to get on another win streak. None of that is important. The only thing that is important is the test for me.

"Can I get out of my own way? Can I get out of my own head and perform? If I can come in with a quiet mind, then win, lose or draw, I'm happy. 

"This fight is going to be in front of my home crowd, and I want to show these guys what I'm made of. I don't like how I performed against Bonnar, and I want to put on a good performance for them. I want to show them how I fight, what I'm made of and how I've improved.

"But the victory for me, is whether or not I can come into battle with a clear mind and inner stillness. If I do that, then I know I've succeeded. If I can, then I know I've come a long way, and this thing has served me.

"Even if I end this thing with a 4-5 record in the UFC and never fight again, I'll know I accomplished something." 

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. 

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