The Ultimate Fighter has produced all shapes and sizes when it comes to fighter types. It gave us future world champions who mesmerized us, like Tony Ferguson. It gave us ham and eggers to respect, like Mac Danzig. It gave us fighters we openly laughed with, laughed at, and it even gave us outcasts like Jason Thacker. Thacker would have been a great story for this column if Chuck Mindenhall’s first-rate storytelling didn’t already cover the bases of the man they once called ‘strange brew’.
And then you had the type who didn’t fit into any of those categories. That’s where Tom Murphy fits. Murphy would retire from MMA, undefeated. 6-0 according to Sherdog; 8-0 if you count the amateur fights on his record. Which, I have to say, I find strange. Why make these distinctions? Many fighters have “professional” matches on their records against fighters who only fought once, and given what “professional” MMA has given us in the past — let’s get real. How far distanced is Kimbo-gate and the Yamma Pit from this three-on-three derangement or the “brilliant” combination of arm-wrestling and MMA?
I’ll go with 8-0. It actually sounds like Murphy had a career. Which he did. On the surface, Murphy’s entry into the sport feels plagiarized from others. He wrestled when he was younger. Somebody whispered the words ‘Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’ into his ears. And that cross-training eventually led to the Big Show.
He had a few regional fights before landing a spot on TUF: Season 2. Season two was a massive disappointment for MMA nerds. Well, MMA nerds hated TUF. But to the extent that TUF had any value to ‘high-brow’ MMA fans, TUF 2 was a comedown. Season one was filled with prospects people knew about beforehand, and the quality stood out during the matches. That was still true of season two, but to a lesser extent, and bringing heavyweights into the fold meant your garden variety heavyweight blubberfests. The “welterweights” were obviously lightweights doing three toddlers stacked camo. And Rich Franklin and Matt Hughes made Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture look like Daniel Day-Lewis and Daniel Day-Lewis’ clone.
Despite an otherwise perfect professional record, Murphy would lose on the show. He lost to Rashad Evans, who would go on to be the light heavyweight champ. It was nothing be ashamed of, especially as Murphy nursed a knee injury. Ironically, it was Rashad who would feel the ‘shame.’ Hughes didn’t take kindly to Evans’ showboating, and Murphy is more or less remembered as the nameless collateral damage of the fight.
But Murphy would get his chance again at UFC 58. He won by TKO over Icho Larenas. And then the music just...stopped. There was a bit of misfortune involved. Not only would Murphy have to pull out of a bout at one point, but so did three of his scheduled opponents. Remember, this was back when the UFC was doing shows once every two months with a much more limited roster. At some point Murphy simply got lost in the UFC aether. He finished his career in Canada, winning three more fights after making his UFC debut, and then called it a career.
‘Seriously, dude? You brought us here to talk about some dude who had some fights and then didn’t?’
As I said. Everything about Murphy seems copy and pasted. Except of course, literally everything else. For one, Murphy wasn’t even the one who signed up for TUF. One of his sisters applied on his behalf. Two, and most importantly, Murphy didn’t grow up idolizing a bunch of action heroes despite growing up in a tough Philly neighborhood. His life wasn’t sheltered enough for him to dream about being some wannabe Alpha. He literally grew up in his own tub. Okay, that was for dramatic effect. But he did sleep in his bathtub for a year. Why? His parents, despite having very little money, gave his bedroom to a runaway when he was in school, where they ran a self-run shelter of sorts. Not being homeless but living with homeless people was something he grew up with.
Needless to say, it shaped him in very unique ways. Fighters tend to have an unhealthy relationship with the sport. It’s rarely mutual. Either they wake up in an arena wondering how they got there one too many times, or injuries force them to leave it behind. Murphy ended his career the way he lived before it: by giving.
He’s now a motivational speaker for Sweethearts and Heroes. Granted, ‘motivational speakers’ are often shorthand for someone who obnoxiously talks at you rather than to you. Sometimes they can’t even muster that. Murphy is not that kind of motivational speaker. He talks to kids about bullying. Interestingly enough, he uses his UFC career as a fun springboard for it no less. Why? Because ‘fighting sucks’, to paraphrase Tom himself. He takes great pains to make the distinction between competition and fighting.
I scoured the internet for what I could. There are a number of good interviews you can find, like here and here, for example. I like how Murphy talks about bullying. It’s interesting enough and a worthwhile aside. Lessons of his range from what to do when you’re on fire (literally) to ‘poking a corpse’ — an exercise that is very much what you think it is. The reason? To get children into the habit of taking action. This struggle between action and inaction is why even as adults, we’re always lost. We don’t vote, we don’t ask for help, we don’t save money — which is why financial emergencies end up being disasters — and when we’re kids, we don’t confront bullies. We know this because most instances of school bullying happen in front of an audience. There is, of course, a lot more to be said about bullying, and the unique ways it’s embedded in our cultural DNA.
I won’t go there. After all, now’s not the time for that. I’m just glad Murphy never told himself that when he could have been a punk kid like me, berating his parents for giving a homeless kid my room like I would have. I’m glad Murphy never told himself that to the homeless Vietnam vet he took in. Most of us have good excuses for not being a 6’2, two hundred-plus pound asskicker. We don’t, however, have good excuses for not being a charitable one. Murphy will never be on MMA’s Mount Rushmore. But he’s winning the most important fight, which makes him a far more important fighter than the names who do a lot less with a lot more.