Pushing through long odds has to get old. It’s a great story for the bystanders, but for the person actually doing it, the struggle to succeed in a driving headwind is not a feel-good narrative. It’s decidedly feel-bad, actually.
But if you can get up on top of that headwind, even for a second, well, that’s got to be pretty doggone sweet.
The most tumultuous stretch of Rick Glenn’s professional—maybe entire—life began late last November when, barely a month away from the biggest fight of his career, he announced he would not take part in a featherweight title bout with champion Georgi Karakhanyan at World Series of Fighting 7.
It was odd. Glenn (15-2) had never backed out of a fight before and for the most part had avoided significant injuries during his pro career. Since 2010, the 25-year-old had never fought less than twice in a single year and had twice competed four times before the calendar flipped. Given that a belt was on the line, it seemed the stoic Glenn would have limped to the cage with one foot in a bear trap if need be.
So why the withdrawal? “Personal reasons,” WSOF officials said. For almost a year, Glenn and everyone else kept it there. But as with many “personal situations,” the words pull aside to reveal a dark staircase underneath.
As it turns out, Glenn was fine. Life was not.
“My sister Aubry has brain cancer,” Glenn revealed in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “She’s been fighting it for a year now, and she’s way past what they expected. She’s really sick. I was back in Iowa, and I just wanted to spend as much time with her as I could.”
Not long before Glenn learned the news about his sister, another tragedy befell the family: Glenn’s grandmother, Paulette, passed away. It was a particularly crippling blow for Glenn, whose grandmother had raised Rick and his five other siblings essentially single-handedly in little Marshalltown, Iowa, a place known as much for its meth labs as its farming community.
“I don’t talk to my dad, and my mom lives out of town,” Glenn said and left it at that. “Our grandmother was a parent for us. She raised us.”
Through the fall, winter and much of the spring, WSOF was mum on Glenn’s status. Speculation grew over what exactly was keeping the promising fighter away. Finally, the promotion announced that Glenn would indeed come back to the cage and face Karakhanyan for the title in June.
After eight months out, Glenn finally had his chance, though when he stepped into the cage at WSOF 10, he was a substantial underdog.
The beginning of the fight upheld oddsmaker suspicions. At the time, Karakhanyan was the top featherweight prospect in the sport, and the linchpin of that assessment was the Armenian’s seek-and-destroy mat game. Ten seconds into the contest, Glenn was on his back and in survival mode. He wriggled out of a rear-naked choke attempt and then found himself under full mount.
At the round’s halfway point, Karakhanyan latched onto Glenn’s wrist and extended for an armbar. And it was a very tight armbar, the kind that makes you recoil from the screen. Blood vessels, tendons and ligaments came into sharp relief as Glenn's arm torqued backward and sideways at the elbow, twitching under the hold like an eel on the hook. A submission looked imminent.
“I wasn’t calm at first,” Glenn recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, s--t.’ I just tried to think ‘Don’t tap.’ I didn’t want to lose like that. I kept kind of turning my hand around in it. I thought [my elbow] was going to pop.”
After 20 solid seconds of cranking, almost out of nowhere Glenn’s right leg whipped up and over Karakhanyan’s body. As if with a mind of its own, the right foot sought and gained purchase on the far side of Karakhanyan’s neck and pushed off, forcing Karakhanyan to relinquish the hold.
The audience, still assuming the cobra would snare the mongoose eventually, clapped politely.
They weren’t expecting that escape to be the fulcrum on which the entire fight shifted. As the first round wound to a close, Glenn used his fists to chip away at Karakhanyan, who was seemingly a bit shell-shocked at the armbar escape.
As the second kicked off, Karakhanyan’s ground advantage evaporated. Glenn reversed takedowns and worked himself into top position. That’s when the ground-and-pound began in earnest. Soon enough, Glenn was slamming the point of his knee hard into a turtled-up Karakhanyan’s rib cage.
That grappling prowess came as a surprise to fans who thought of Glenn, who trains alongside Anthony Pettis and other stand-up wizards at Milwaukee’s Roufusport gym, as a striker first.
“My grappling is actually better than my striking,” Glenn deadpanned. “I just like to strike more. I like to be exciting.”
Glenn’s abilities might also have come as a surprise to Karakhanyan. During the rest period between the second and third rounds, a doctor stopped the contest when Karakhanyan said he couldn’t adequately breathe. Freshly cracked ribs were the culprit. Suddenly, the fight was over.
But in a way, the doctor’s stoppage was fitting for Glenn. It happened so quickly, so quietly, so anticlimactically, people weren't sure what was happening or who was behind it. Once again, Glenn had been where he needed to be and done what he needed to do, and the crowd was silent at the end.
No matter. Glenn, the hard-working underdog, was the new WSOF featherweight champ.
“I was like ‘Heck yeah,’” Glenn recalled feeling as his hand went up. “I had proved people wrong.”
But it couldn’t be that easy. Several weeks later, Karakhanyan said on MMAjunkie Radio he didn't think Glenn was “that good” and wondered aloud why Glenn couldn’t finish him despite the rib injury.
Asked about those comments, Glenn attempted to shrug them off. But you can hear the irritation and even a bit of hurt grow in his voice as he examines and re-examines the words in his head.
“I really didn’t react to it. I’m not gonna play into that crap,” Glenn said before pausing. “I actually respected that guy before. I was confused by what he said. It definitely takes away from my victory.”
Glenn pauses again, thinks about it some more.
“He quit,” Glenn continued. “As soon as the doctor asked him, he said he couldn’t breathe. That’s quitting. So, yeah. He quit. ...He’s a punk.”
Does Glenn want a rematch with Karakhanyan? You can tell the thought is tempting. At the same time, Glenn realizes that calling for a rematch is exactly what Karakhanyan wants. So instead, Glenn suggests the Armenian “win a few more fights” before re-entering the title picture.
That allows the new champ to turn his focus to a new challenge: four-time All-American wrestler Lance Palmer. Nothing is official yet, but Glenn did indicate that Palmer was “most likely” his next opponent.
“Lance Palmer deserves it,” Glenn said.
If bystanders are thinking of underestimating his ground game again, they might want to reassess that strategy. After all, this is a guy who trains with Ben Askren, just outgrappled Karakhanyan and recently completed 300 rounds of jiu-jitsu training in one month on top of his regular training. You know, just for giggles.
“One of our coaches gave us a challenge, to do 150 rounds in a month,” Glenn said. “I blew right past that and decided to do 300, in honor of the Spartans.”
That’s the movie 300, of course, the one where a bunch of cartoonish warriors take up spear and shield against the insurmountable odds bearing down on them. Things are less cut-and-dried in the real world, where storybook endings are like unicorns and brain cancer kicks like a mule.
“She’s hanging in there,” Glenn said of his sister. “Every day is a challenge. But she’s a fighter...I think that does run in the family. For sure.”