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The Mitchell Paradox - Part I: Into the Breach

The first of this 8-part literary non-fiction series introduces former UFC fighter David Mitchell, as well as the origins of both his MMA career and head trauma.

Artwork by Chad Stanhope

We’re always making memories. Some last just a second – like a sound we hear once, or a stranger’s face we pass by. Others are stored for only minutes, before getting flushed away. However, some memories stick and form the landmarks we use to navigate our minds.

All types of memories start out the same way. Every experience we have – whether its memory will vanish in a near-instant or remain with us onto our death bed – causes neurons to light up with activity and build connections, in the form of synapses, with each other.

Each of our experiences causes a unique formation of neurons to come online. If that experience happens again, that same formation lights back up. The more it happens, the stronger the synaptic connections become. The strongest formations gain entry to long term memory banks.

Formations of neurons that make it to long term memory can be built on by repeating the corresponding experience, or by augmenting that experience with new perspective, context, and additional information. Doing so further strengthens and expands the bonds between neurons, developing small hamlets on our brainscapes into teeming metropolises. The most used memory cities of your brain become complex, efficient and crammed with information.

Settlements people don’t use or improve upon fall into disrepair. The roads crack, the sewers flood, weeds claim everything. The memories stored there fade and smudge like newsprint left out in the rain. This happens with age, too, even to the strongest and most visited places.

And there’s something else that rots these neural cities: brain trauma.

Blows to the head kill neurons and the synapses that connect them. A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is like a bomb going off in our memory banks. The explosion can destroy whole blocks, ruin infrastructure and cause blackouts. And what survives the blast could suffer an even worse fate.

Impacts to the head elicit a reaction involving a protein called tau. Ordinarily this substance exists peacefully within the axons of our neurons. But when the brain receives trauma, tau leaks out, corrupts and clusters. Scientists don’t know why. The tau clusters slowly choke the life out of cells. They strangle the structures of our memory cities, weakening the foundations until they crumble and fall.

Destroying memories isn’t the only thing these bombs can do. Tau clusters cause dementia and psychosis, as seen in sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The cities of David Mitchell’s inner landscape have been ravaged more than most.

After making it clear to me that he was interested in telling his story, we agreed that first he’d take some time to think it over; to make sure that he could live with seeing his secrets poured out onto a billion screens. He also wanted to test if it were even possible to tell his story. If he could remember all he’s been through.

To do this, David ventured deep into the pockmarked ruins of his mind. What he found there was disappointing, but not a surprise. Much of his past was gone. What David uncovered from the rubble represented just high-and-lowlights, not a lot of stories in-between. This was upsetting. It meant he might not be able to deliver on his promise to fully tell his tale of life and near-death in fighting.

However, any angst he held over that was dwarfed by the nauseating – physical – sickness he felt during this dangerous self-exploration. On that journey David realized that he didn’t just need to know whether he could live with his story being public; he needed to know if he could survive telling it, too.

While David was figuring this out he drove from his farm near Lake Tahoe to Mendocino County, to camp and hike with his girlfriend and young son.

It was in the wilderness around Laughlin, in the Ukiah Valley and headwaters of the Russian River, that David took the deepest dive into his memories. As he struggled to recall and organize his thoughts a familiar feeling crept over him. The world was spinning.

While walking a trail, past bushes of coyote mint and scrub oak, he wondered if he’d come down with something. The ground was moving under his feet. His head felt full of oil. His stomach churned. People get dizzy when they come down with a cold or stomach bug, he thought, maybe it’s just that. Or perhaps it was the altitude. But, deep down he knew that wasn’t it.

These feelings were the result of David’s memories. The ones that were still standing.

“I can’t even watch an MMA fight without suffering some level of PTSD,” said David when we reconnected and talked about his time in Laughlin. The dizziness on the trail was, as he put it, the result of “reliving the harrows of my MMA experience over the last several years and longer.”

Scientists call these intrusive memories. They’re formed during highly stressful events and can elicit the same feelings an individual had during their exact moments of trauma. The science that explains this process isn’t all there, yet. But imagine a grand memory city built on horrible experiences. Any time the mind travels to a town like this, each building and intersection teems with recollections of sadness and pain. Even the shortest visit here, even just a drive-by, is enough to trick brain and body into believing what was in the past – the experience that formed this cluster of neurons and synapses – is actually happening now.

The sickness David felt in Laughlin, which matched how he felt after taking terrifying damage in the Octagon, had him doubting whether or not he wanted to talk about his past. “I definitely thought that I should just maybe let it go,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, is this really a story I want to relive?”

But it was too late. Those days of contemplation already had David reliving the story, and feeling the consequences. “Well it’s too late to protect myself, now,” he realized. “Might as well get it out there.”

Later on he would find a more important reason to push through the pain of his recollections. “Maybe I can help somebody coming up in MMA, and just give them a little reality check of what it’s really like, and that not everything goes as planned. A few mistakes add up. Next thing you know you’re in a really bad spot.”

It’s comments like these that made us both feel comfortable enough to continue, albeit with some ground-rules.

To limit David’s exposure to intrusive memories and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) we agreed to limit our chats to around ten minutes, with plenty of downtime in-between. We also agreed that David could pull the plug on any conversation he wanted, or the whole thing altogether, if he felt uneasy or unwell.

Those boundaries, his experiences in Laughlin and a disclaimer from David that his memory might prevent a perfect presentation of his history, came in our third conversation. Towards the end of that call David reminded me that his is, “not an easy story to tell.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d told me that. But this was the first time I realized he wasn’t talking about me or what I was trying to do. “It makes me want to cry, but I’m all cried out.”

How could I respond to that? It was later down our road together that I learned the best response was to not say anything, but to keep listening. In this moment, I said something like, “I understand,” which I really didn’t. Then I said that, if he did tell his story – to the best of his ability – I believed it could have a positive impact. I really believed that. I still do.

At that moment, David seemed to agree.

In our first actual interview we tried to establish when David first hurt his head. His best guess was a time way before he ever put on a pair of MMA gloves.

When David was 14 he and his family headed up the I-5 for a vacation. David was in the backseat of the Mitchell family van alongside his sister. There was a boat tied to the roof. At some point in the journey, one of the van’s tires started wearing thin.

While traveling at 70 mph the van’s front passenger side tire suffered a full blow out, forcing the vehicle into a wicked fishtail. With the van careening down the freeway, the knots holding down the boat began to unravel. When the boat came loose, the van started to tip. It rolled twice. David was ejected along the way.

David’s body thumped and skidded across the tarmac before coming to a rest on the hard shoulder, leaving lashes of blood along the way. He was unconscious as the twisted mass of aluminum and steel rolled towards his defenseless body. What remained of the van slowed as it approached, but it still fell on the boy. It didn’t crush him, though.

In its burst to freedom the boat had carved a huge dent into the body of the van. It was that dent that fell towards David, its edges landing—mercifully—on either side of him.

David was gravely injured, but alive.

“I woke up with a helicopter coming to get me and I spent like four days in the hospital. I had a deflated lung. I had a big crack on my head and they stapled me together. I had a broken collarbone. I almost died in that accident. I probably should have died.”

Brain injuries are especially damaging during adolescence. When we’re teens our brains undergo a near total remodeling process, with large portions of the childhood brain getting sheared away and replaced with new structures and connections. While the brain is in this pliable state it is weaker than usual, and blows against it cause far more trauma than they would in a more developed organ.

The crash was a harrowing segue for David. The ignorance and sense of indestructibility that comes with being a child was shattered — violently. The aftermath was pain, injury, recovery. An adolescent David couldn’t be blamed for wondering if this was what growing up was supposed to be like.

David was born in Berkeley, CA in 1979. His father, originally from Cornwall, England, left his homeland to sail the world. His mother, an American, met him along the way. Together they traveled the globe before settling in the U.S. In Tanzania they met the man they’d name their son after, another Englishman and a benefactor of sorts, who went by ‘Daudi’—Swahili for ‘beloved’ and a common stand-in for the name David.

As a child David only ever heard his Swahili name. In most places in the U.S. that would make him stick out, but at Hog Farm, a white kid called ‘Daudi’ was pretty ordinary.

The hippy commune David grew up in was about 40 minutes north of Laughlin. It was established by the activist Wavy Gravy in the 1960s and is famed for its involvement in Woodstock. Today the commune operates a number of sites, the community David grew up in housed maybe 20 people year-round.

It’s hard to draw a line from David’s childhood on the commune, built on concepts of peace and love, to the path that would lead to professional cage-fighting. That’s something I asked David about, maybe a little too much. “I got into MMA because I loved it, man,” he said once, sounding frustrated, defensive. “Maybe it wasn’t the best decision, but I had some good times, too.”

Before he was a fighter David was a gym-rat. He hit the weights while trying to break out of a funk brought on by feelings of under-accomplishment, laced with embarrassment over a DUI charge.

In the gym David discovered that his body responded well to training. He was thrilled about getting in shape, but improving his health didn’t feel like an end goal. Rather, it felt like a step to somewhere else. But he didn’t know where or what that was. Then he saw something on TV that looked like the answer.

It was the late 1990s and MMA was in its infancy. The decade started with bars dragging their mechanical bulls and pinball tables aside to make room for rickety cages lined with chain link borrowed from construction sites. Later came basement pay-per-view parties and VHS tapes being traded in brown paper-bags, like contraband.

By the turn of the century, Y2K was delivering on its revolutionary promises—at least in the realm of MMA. ZUFFA LLC was born on January 1st, 2000, and soon after MMA became entwined with the letters U-F-C. Fights became easier to find, they were at blockbuster on DVD.

David was obsessed with MMA before the sport crossed over into pop culture. When the ZUFFA-era began he was already practicing martial arts (specifically gwonbeop), watching fights with his friends, and brawling with them in the backyard afterwards. Fresh from slapping around his buddies with ill-fitting boxing gloves, on the dirt patch they’d worn into the lawn with sneakers poking out of foam shin-pads, a girlfriend remarked, “If you want to get serious with this, you ought to go train where they do this stuff.”

He liked the idea, but he didn’t know where to go. Nobody did this stuff where he lived.

In early 2005, however, David had figured out how he was going to become a fighter. His plan came together when watching UFC 51. That show’s main event featured two of the sports biggest, and most feared, stars; Tito Ortiz and Vitor Belfort. Ortiz won the fight, with a split decision.

Before the headline fight, Andrei Arlovski tapped Tim Sylvia with an Achilles lock to win the vacant heavyweight title. But it was a bout even further down the card that caught David’s attention; Evan Tanner vs. David Terrell for the vacant UFC middleweight title.

That night David watched Terrell walk to the cage wearing a silk boxer’s robe over a grey hoodie; the letters ‘KTFO’ printed on its chest. Terrell was making a tongue-in-cheek nod to his UFC debut, where he defeated Matt Lindland with punches in just 24 seconds. The scouting report on Terrell had been that he was a Cesar Gracie jiu jitsu black-belt and little more.

As he swaggered towards the cage, Terrell’s name flashed onto the screen. Underneath it, ‘Born: Sacramento, California’. David smiled. Sacramento was over three hours away, but it was still his neck of the woods.

Then Tanner walked out with trademark stoicism; wearing a top-knot and the word ‘Believe’ etched across the back of his shorts.

With both fighters in the cage, Mike Goldberg read off a bare-bones tale of the tape before introducing a greying Bruce Buffer. “Ladies and gentleman, two of the finest mixed martial arts warriors in the world have now entered the Octagon. And for both of them, it all comes down to this one moment in time.”

UFC 51: Tanner vs. Terrell
Evan Tanner lands an elbow strike on Dave Terrell at UFC 51.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“Introducing first, the fighter standing to my left. This fighter holds a black belt in Gracie jiu jitsu and a mixed martial arts record of nine wins, with one loss. Standing six feet tall, he weighed in at 185 pounds. Fighting out of Santa Rosa, Calif--” Wait, what? thought David.

Santa Rosa was just an hour and a half away. This changed everything.

David’s mind was drifting before Buffer finished his spiel. In his head he was driving to Sonoma County, stepping into Terrell’s gym and learning this mysterious and esoteric art known as ‘Gracie jiu jitsu’.

The contest between Terrell and Tanner didn’t last long. After surviving a guillotine, that had Joe Rogan screaming “This might be it!” Tanner got on top of Terrell and punished him. Terrell covered up as punches clubbed off his temples and elbows slammed onto his cheeks. Herb Dean hovered over the action like a condor, before eventually grabbing Tanner’s shoulders to tell him it was over.

“A dominating and humiliating defeat,” crowed Rogan. For David, the loss didn’t dull any of Terrell’s shine. He wanted to follow in this man’s footsteps—even if they lead to pain. He was going to Santa Rosa.

In the next installment of The Mitchell Paradox David runs through the NorCal regional scene, but trouble is never far behind him.

The Mitchell Paradox - Part II: 11-0 will be released next Tuesday, only on Bloody Elbow.

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