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Obscure fighter of the week: Justin Wilcox

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Inspired by TUF, he’s an unlikely candidate, but Justin Wilcox’s story is the largely the story of MMA in North American.

Strikeforce: Melendez v Masvidal - Weigh In Photo by Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images

You ever feel the existential sting of reading a list of things that make you feel old? Like how Will Smith is now older than Uncle Phil was at the beginning of Fresh Prince? Or how it’s been long enough for the Taco Bell dog to have lived a full life and died. Over ten years ago. Justin Wilcox got into MMA because of Josh Koscheck after watching The Ultimate Fighter.

I know some hardcore fans just died a little inside. Koscheck? Why couldn’t it be Royce Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba, Frank Shamrock, or anybody else chiseled on the front face of MMA’s Mount Rushmore?

But that’s a little unfair. Despite his roots, Koscheck would go on to fight for a title. Against the greatest welterweight of all time. It sounds goofy at first — Wilcox literally found his inspiration flipping through channels. But inspiration works in mysterious ways. In addition, Justin’s inspiration went well beyond simply channel surfing. Koscheck was his wrestling teammate at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.

Wilcox’s wrestling career ended after he suffered a concussion in the middle of gametime prep. He slipped, hit his head, and knocked himself unconscious. That was all immediately following a match in which he suffered a concussion after a headbutt. A few more bone fractures later, and he’d call it a career. But somehow, someway; what Wilcox lost in the wrestling fire, he found in the ashes of TUF’s drunken, asparagus shenanigans.

The beginning of Wilcox’s MMA career is as fascinating and awkward as the end of his wrestling one. Given your powers of observation, Wilcox’s nickname — The Silverback — combined with the photo above, it won’t come as a shock to know that his MMA career didn’t start at lightweight. It started at welterweight. And his wrestling weight didn’t start at welterweight. It started at light heavyweight (!). His Koscheck-inspired mission began with a win over Bobby Voelker. He kind of flamed out after that, going 2-2 over his first four.

Wilcox would ultimately drop down to lightweight. It was a move that seemed to suit him. At least for a little while. He strung together four straight wins before earning himself a spot on Strikeforce’s roster, and his most high-profile bout at the time. His opponent was Mitsuhiro Ishida. A quick aside on Ishida: he was actually the fighter I wanted to write about today, but I settled on Wilcox because I think a) his story is more interesting b) maybe it isn’t but it’s hard to dig up much on Ishida c) I’m not sure Ishida counts as ‘obscure’ and d) I can always write about Ishida later.

Back to Wilcox versus Ishida. It was the fight that put Wilcox on the map; just not the way he planned. The fight itself is unintentionally frustrating. It’s clear from jump street that Ken Shamrock, doing commentary, has no idea who Ishida is. He describes Ishida as a guy who “likes to be on his back” (Ishida began his career as a Greco-Roman wrestler: all of his wins were accomplished with the kind of grinding, lumbering top control that would have made Matt Lindland blush) and who “likes to work armbars and triangle chokes” (until this fight, Ishida had twenty-one bouts — with not a single win by submission).

Ishida ended up pulling off one of the most spectacular armbars of 2008. Our founding editor was even kind enough to break it down. It was a tough loss, but Wilcox wasn’t done.

Although it almost seemed like it. Shortly before his fight with Rodrigo Damm, Wilcox was open about the cruelty of the MMA payout gods during his time after the Ishida loss. As Dave Metlzer recounted at the time:

As Justin Wilcox gets set for a main event Friday night on cable TV, he vividly recalls a moment that epitomized his plight as a struggling fighter.

Wilcox and wife Leslie were broke, as he was trying to establish himself as a pro fighter. They took their baby daughter, Natalie, to a bookstore because they couldn’t afford to take her anywhere else to entertain her. Natalie created a scene and started crying hysterically after finding something she wanted. “We weren’t going to get it for her because she was crying, but at that moment, the idea I couldn’t get it for her made me say, ‘That’s it, I need to get a 9-to-5 job,’ “ Wilcox said.

...His wife, who was a mixed martial arts fan before he even knew of the sport, talked him out of it.

Not much has changed when it comes to MMA’s ”unique” pay structure. While it might seem like a separate topic for another time, I think stories like these only emphasize how little we actively reflect on it. Wilcox would turn into an excellent fighter. What does that say about the sport? What does it say about the sport that the future of its most promising prospects are preserved by a mere thread? This is not just a UFC problem, though. It’s a sport problem. Even in Japanese MMA’s heyday, fighters at the grassroots level could be paid in whey protein.

I digress because I think this speaks to what makes a lot of these fighters ‘obscure.’ Their stories are filled with uncertainty, and the MMA world being the chaotic milieu that it is, that uncertainty was only amplified. That uncertainty wasn’t lost on Wilcox either. Before Bellator 127, he didn’t mince words about the UFC’s buyout of Strikeforce:

“I was sad when the UFC was going to take over Strikeforce,” he noted at the time. “People were excited but it was like, you guys have no idea what just happened. The UFC came in and said they wanted to support the fighters, but the first thing they did was cut our sponsors. All the sponsor money and everything. It was not a good experience.”

None of this is to say that Wilcox would have been one of the greats or anything. But it does raise questions about how sufficiently competitors get to reach their ceilings when there’s no floor.

Wilcox may be obscure now, but he had something of a Chad Mendes swagger after rebounding from his loss to Ishida. His next string of wins allowed him to six degrees himself into the vaunted history of Shooto: first losing to one of Shooto’s most promising prospects, and then beating its former king in Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Ribeiro — back when Shooto was the only place giving the lightweight division its own gravity.

Wilcox followed up his win over Ribeiro with a no contest to Gesias Cavalcante: another fighter with a ton of promise. Wilcox would hit a bad patch that signaled his twilight. First it was a KO loss to a rising star-turned bust in Caros Fodor (brother to real-life Batman, Phoenix Jones). And then he lost to a veteran-turned future star in Jorge Masvidal in a fight that was relatively close, but ultimately lackluster. Wilcox pressed the action with an active jab, takedowns, and lumbering but effective movement. Outside of a brutal flying knee, Masvidal patiently outboxed Wilcox for a split decision win. It was the bout that earned Masvidal a UFC contract.

For Wilcox, it was back to the drawing board. All of this prompted an ill-advised (though not disastrous) run at featherweight. And then, nothing. For many of these ‘obscure’ fighters, their stories have been self-centered in very broad ways. Wilcox’s story is the opposite. It’s the story of MMA. It’s about whether the sport has fought hard enough to preserve each fighter’s essence rather than simply their existence.