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The Mitchell Paradox - Part VI: Bulletproof

Previously: David Mitchell gets cut from the UFC. Unemployed, broke, and reeling from concussions suffered inside of the Octagon, he must return to the regional MMA scene. He once fought around NorCal as a hobby, now he has to do it to survive.

Artwork by Chad Stanhope

David Mitchell was cut from the UFC after a defeat at the hands of Yan Cabral on October 9th, 2013. After losing his contract to the largest MMA promotion in the world, he tried to quit fighting. But that was easier said than done.

“I lost four out of five fights. The whole thing – getting into the UFC and fighting in MMA – it was just something that I liked. But I was not good enough to be great, but too good to put it down.”

Something David did end up quitting, however, was his relationship with Dave Terrell; the former UFC title challenger who had inspired David to compete in MMA. After Mitchell’s unsuccessful run in the Octagon, he split from Terrell’s NorCal Fighting Alliance gym.

It was a “big bad break-up” according to David. There’s sadness in his voice when he talks about the ending of his time in Santa Rosa. Perhaps it’s regret that a disappointing experience in the UFC, something Terrell could have identified with, didn’t bring them closer together, but instead tore them apart.

To stay in shape, and stay part of a gym culture, David drove east to Sacramento and Team Alpha Male. It was about two hours from his place in Santa Rosa. He would train at TAM til late into the night and often crashed with Chris Holdsworth before coming home.

Though he enjoyed his first few months with TAM, David still didn’t want to return to fighting. Instead he looked for work at Graton Casino, on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. He signed up for a 60-day training program to become a blackjack dealer. In doing so, he also signed up to work with another Fertitta.

Graton is owned by Station Casinos; the gaming company founded by Frank Fertitta Jr. The company is now controlled by Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, who owned UFC parent company ZUFFA LLC between 2000 and 2016.

When David was at Graton, day-to-day operations were being handled by Joe Fertitta; a cousin to the famous brothers. This Fertitta took a shine to David. He was enamored with David’s tough guy bona fides. He had him teach BJJ to his son.

However, despite how much the boss liked him, David was never going to get a job at Graton. After he had completed training he was told that he was still not qualified to work the casino floor. His criminal record had been discovered.

A friend recommended David try his luck with Red Hawk Casino instead. Red Hawk is outside of Placerville, CA—where, years later, David would find his serenity. The casino is almost a three hours’ drive from Santa Rosa, but just a short hop from Sacramento.

David was accepted into a training program at Red Hawk. During this period in his life he would train at Team Alpha Male in the day and then go to Red Hawk at night. Instead of traveling back to Santa Rosa, David started spending nights in his car, parked next to Folsom Lake.

Trying to sleep on the back seat of his 30-year-old station wagon, with rain pelting against the windows, David tried to resist the lure of the cage. His UFC run had been tremendously difficult. He’d lost and been seriously hurt. Coinciding with that was his police bust and the evaporation of his weed business. His mental health had been assailed throughout those years, too, with deep depressive episodes coming on the tail of his professional disappointments.

But throughout all that, he had been free—at least to a degree. David has plenty to say about how the UFC treats its fighters and the paltry amounts they offer as compensation. But he can’t deny that most of the time, as a UFC fighter, he felt like he was his own boss. He trained on his own schedule and was only beholden to ZUFFA for a few days during fight week.

Taking orders at the casino from people dressed like the crew of the Deathstar, and having to sleep in his car because he couldn’t afford a motel, had David wondering whether this was worth giving up fighting. He knew fighting was pain, but he also knew it paid. The dreams of UFC stardom and six-figure contracts were gone, but there was still gold in the hills around NorCal.

“I could still fight, you know?” said David. “I could beat all these locals. I kill everybody at jiu jitsu, pretty much all the way around. I came out there, to Alpha Male, with a bunch of smaller guys; I felt like a monster.”

David was itching for an excuse to burn his punch-card and go back to the grind of being a professional fighter. Red Hawk soon gave him what he wanted.

The casino, which hadn’t turned him away because of his criminal record, needed him to work the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. That was it for David. The demand brought into focus how different a regular 9-5 was from growing weed and competing in MMA; the only things he’d known in his adult life. In that moment, all the misery that came with the fight-life hustle was forgotten. Instead, he focused on the freedom that came with surviving, by hook or by crook, on his own terms.

David ghosted on Red Hawk and called his friend, UFC featherweight Andre Fili. “Bro, who’s the promoter out here? I need to fight.”

Fili hooked David up with Brandon Ware of West Coast Fighting Championship. It wasn’t long before David was booked on a show.

To prepare for WCFC David moved to Sacramento and trained full-time at TAM. He sublet a cheap pad from a training partner right next to the gym and rented out his place in Santa Rosa.

To make ends meet David had to work the regional scene like never before. He needed to win purses, but he also needed to sell tickets. Shares of ticket sales could equal, or even exceed, the amounts he was being paid to fight. He’d never struggled with promoting himself or selling tickets before, but this time around – without a profitable weed business to keep him afloat – he needed to really sellout.

“I turned into a prostitute basically, at that point.”

Graphic by Chad Stanhope.

David’s first fight for WCFC came on February 15th, 2014. His opponent was Fernando Gonzalez, a thirty-fight vet who’d appeared in Strikeforce, WEC and KOTC.

David said he approached his first post-UFC fight with a “new energy, new zest,” which he attributed to being part of a new team. Walking him to the cage for the Gonzalez fight was longtime TAM trainer Justin Bucholz and UFC vet Danny Castillo.

As he was announced David looked stern, his head angled down at the canvas. When his name was read, it was accompanied by something new: ‘Bulletproof.’ For each of his 16 previous fights, he’d used the nickname ‘Daudi.’ That’s the name he was called as a kid; inspired by a friend his parents had met in Tanzania.

David acquired the ‘Bulletproof’ nickname from a new sponsor: Bulletproof Coffee. Coincidentally, the moniker represented everything he wished he could be at this stage in his career. He’d been wounded throughout his UFC run and was desperate for a return to the days when he scythed through the regional scene, picking up belts and barely getting scratched.

David was far from bulletproof, though. Fortunately for him, Gonzalez didn’t have the skill to expose that.

In the first round of their fight David showed off what he’d learned from Duane Ludwig, snapping Gonzalez’ head back with uppercuts. On the ground he was as relentless as ever; hunting for leglocks, armbars and triangles. He smiled wildly at the end of the opening period. His opponent was exhausted.

Both fighters came out drenched in sweat for the second. David got caught with an overhand, but was able to take Gonzalez down and work his routine; advance position, pepper with punches, look for submissions.

Gonzalez was forced into a game of survival and, as a result, he posed little threat to David. In the third Gonzalez resorted to wild swings, but David – confidence boosted from two dominant rounds – danced past them and landed more uppercuts. After touching Gonzalez up on the feet, David slammed him down with authority. On the blood-stained mat, he took full mount, then moved to his opponent’s back. He rained punches down on Gonzalez. The ref hovered. Gonzalez clearly had nothing left. But this is MMA, the referee needed to see pain to notice that.

David sensed he needed more to get the fight stopped. So he took a deep breath and added some extra torque to his ground and pound. A couple of hard left hands thudded against Gonzalez’s skull, rolling his head around the canvas, finally forcing a stoppage.

It had been almost four years since David had finished a fight. He’d never done it with strikes. When he was pulled off Gonzalez, he prowled around the cage, screaming. In those moments he exhausted the MMA celebration moveset; straddling the cage, fist bumps, high fives, howling at the moon, jumping like Donkey Kong, presenting to the crowd like Russell Crowe’s gladiator.

Eventually David dropped to his knees. He might have sobbed.

His friend Fili conducted the post fight interview. “Thank you Sacramento! Are you guys enjoying the show tonight?” yelled David. As he spoke, the emotion he was feeling was obvious. Fili asked where it was coming from.

“For the first time in a long time I was having fun. I enjoyed the training. I love these guys. I love my old team, Santa Rosa, I haven’t forgotten about you. Mendo county right here, I haven’t forgotten about you!”

When asked what he wanted next, David was clear. “I want Max Griffin! Where you at Max Griffin? Man up. Let’s do this.”

Max Griffin was West Coast’s star in the making, who would hold both welterweight and interim middleweight titles. A long UFC career was yet to come in his future. At this moment though, he was the closest thing to a ‘money fight’ David could get this side of the Sierra Nevadas.

In the past, David had used his charm to sell tickets. He’d smiled, winked and made people laugh, before convincing them to buy out a row at Tachi Palace. But now things were different. He needed those ticket sales more than ever and he didn’t think being nice was going to cut it anymore.

In the UFC he’d seen Chael Sonnen make a career with call outs and being the guy people loved to hate. At this moment in time, Conor McGregor – who was still a year out from his thirteen second regicide of Jose Aldo – was finding fantastic success doing the same. David thought if he could be the Sonnen or the McGregor of this small pond he could keep himself off the street.

Even with this brash style of promotion – which included bombarding Facebook with disses and call-outs, and indulging any MMA fanalyst with enough trash talk that their articles could write themselves – David would have to wait years before he would face Griffin.

Despite not landing his white whale, David went on a tear. Including his bout with Gonzalez, he fought five times in 2014. He won them all and picked up the WCFC middleweight title along the way. Four of his five wins came via first round stoppages—three by way of rear naked choke, and one with a TKO.

“It felt pretty good, felt like I couldn’t lose,” remembered David. “Got a lot of finishes, had a lot of good energy; training more or less full time for more of less the first time. Kind of training to fight for a living.

“It was a really fun time. I met a lot of really cool people. Urijah [Faber] was really good to me, and it was an exciting time with Duane [Ludwig] and Justin Bucholz. And there was just a lot of good coaching and stuff like that. I had a lot of success just finding a new city and a place that felt like home. Sacramento is a really special kind of place.”

Running concurrently with the “fun times” in the cage and on the mats was the relentless grind of self-promotion. David found constantly selling himself to be an exhausting endeavor. During these months he was also doing a lot of partying; bars and clubs were good venues for him to convince people to sponsor him and buy tickets.

“I think maybe, I was really manic,” said David of those times. As David spoke about 2014 he recognized that just thinking of that period was making him feel a similar manic energy beginning to take hold of him. We were chatting about this a week after talking about the end of his UFC run. That interview had regrettably sent David into a days-long depressive episode.

“I mean, I was pretty manic the whole time,” spat David. “I even feel a little manic now. I came out of that depression and I didn’t talk to anybody for three days. So, I’m kind of talking fast now and talking a lot; trying to make a bunch of funny jokes.”

Listening to David speak so rapidly allowed me to imagine what he was like in 2014, in a crowded bar, telling folks he was a fighter; telling them that he could beat up any guy in town, that he could destroy guys in the UFC, that after these rounds of shots, everyone at the table should buy tickets to West Coast Fighting Championships. I could imagine other stories he told me; of stepping outside for a smoke, swiping through Tinder, making plans with a dozen girls, meeting up, meeting their friends, and convincing all of them to buy tickets to the show.

David looks back on these times with embarrassment. “I think that is part of why I got depressed, because of the person that I had become,” he said—hinting at what would come next: the inevitable depression that always follows his mania. David held his sadness off, mostly, throughout 2014. But in 2015, things were different. “Things started unraveling.”

David’s first fight of 2015 was back in his old stomping grounds, Tachi Palace Fights. He had been given a shot at the vacant middleweight title. His opponent was Angel DeAnda, a Gladiator Challenge and WSOF vet who had faced Tyrone Spong and James Irvin. David choked him out in three minutes. He didn’t take a single punch.

Weeks later David talked himself into his heavyweight debut. A fight he’d win, but suffer terribly for.

After his successful return to Tachi, David’s manic high from 2014 was all but worn off. The depression that followed ushered in familiar feelings that he was not worthy of his success—or of any success really. He looked at his winning record, his belt collection, his nice apartment and his stable-enough bank balance and it all started to feel wrong.

“I was like, I just want to be out there. There’s bums all around me and in downtown Sac. and I was like, ‘I just belong out there with them.’ You have this feeling of worthlessness. You experience something completely different, despite what you’ve got. But then you get exactly what you think about. As I learned later, being homeless—it sucks.”

David’s depression-fueled hunger for punishment didn’t just manifest in wistful thoughts about self-imposed struggle. It also lead him into reckless decision making, where he set himself up to be hurt. Several times over his life, this has meant searching out “the gnarliest fight” he could find.

After he won the Tachi Palace middleweight, title David performed his usual routine of unloading onto Facebook; celebrating, bragging and calling out the people who could earn him his next check. This time around David decided to go after one of the more well known and beloved fighters on the scene, Dave Huckaba—a heavyweight.

David lambasted Huckaba, the WCFC heavyweight champion, over social media—telling him, and anyone else who would listen, that ‘size doesn’t matter’ and that he could beat him any time and any place.

At the time of David’s provocations Huckaba was preparing to defend his belt versus Jack May. Huckaba did respond to the trash talk, but it was clear he was more focused on his upcoming opponent – who was coming off a UFC run – than some guy two weight classes below him. However, it seems that the MMA Gods (those bloodthirsty tricksters) had been stirred by the idea of Huckaba vs. Mitchell.

May hurt his back and pulled out of his fight with Huckaba. With David and Huckaba’s online beef one of the bigger stories in the NorCal fight scene, WCFC matched them together. And on February 28th, 23 days after his title win at Tachi Palace, David entered the cage as a technical heavyweight. He barely tipped the scales, at just 210.2 lbs.

Huckaba, who was three inches taller than David, weighed in at 257.6 lbs for the contest. Lord knows how much he weighed when he stomped to the cage that evening in Sacramento. Huckaba received warm cheers from his hometown crowd. David got a smattering of boos.

‘Bad Man’ Huckaba was 22-7 at the time of the fight. He was 40-years-old and coming off a 2-1 stint with WSOF, where he had knocked out Ray Sefo. He had a biker look about him, complete with Cherry Creek flash and a greying goatee.

When the first round opened and the two men met in the middle of the cage, the size disparity was shockingly obvious. The outline of David, who is no small person, could have fit entirely within the borders of his massive opponent.

Though Huckaba looked the more imposing figure, David was able to out-muscle him in the opening round. After testing the big man’s balance with leg kicks, David drove him to the fence and tried to tire him out with an exhaustive clinch game.

David’s gameplan was simple; stay close and don’t get hit. The plan almost went astray when Huckaba shucked off that first clinch. Free from David’s underhooks, he strode into the center of the cage like a cyclops emerging from his cave—club in hand, ready to smite the explorer who had sailed too close to his coast.

On the open canvas Huckaba waved his hands menacingly, black gloves looking the size of bowling balls. David, desperate not to catch one of them, dived at Huckaba’s wide waist. The larger man was surprisingly spry with his foot work, hopping back and away, before using his brute strength to slam David’s back to the ground. Huckaba then collapsed over top of David.

David tried for a triangle, his legs barely able to connect over the massive expanse that was Huckaba’s back. With his legs David worked frantically to get some kind of control over Huckaba. As he did this, his hands entangled with his arms, trying to prevent the enormous man from raining down heavy punches. He did well.

David’s craft on the ground frustrated Huckaba. As did a few little punches from the bottom, which elicited a trickle of blood from around Huckaba’s right eye. After that, Huckaba stood and let David do the same.

David went back to the plan. He punched on the way in, slipped past huge retorts from Huckaba, and then ducked down for a takedown. Against the cage, David patiently isolated one of Huckaba’s tree trunk-like legs and then yanked it out from under him.

Once on top, David peppered away with punches and then tried to set up a kimura. But he got too cute with his aggression, and Huckaba powered up to his feet. With Huckaba rumbling forward, David missed with a spinning back fist. He followed that up with a desperate takedown attempt, which Huckaba stuffed and used to pin David back to the ground.

Huckaba tried to club David in the head with his massive mitts, but the purple belt was able to do enough hand-fighting to keep himself safe. With seconds remaining in the round, Huckaba was able to slip his paws out of David’s grasp. He raised his right fist high and was about to bring it down when the ref tapped his shoulder to tell him the round was over.

On his knees, looming over David, Huckaba thumbed his nose and puffed. Looking down he saw his opponent grinning. Both men laboured to their feet. This had been tiring work.

In the second Huckaba spun David around with a heavy leg kick. When David completed the rotation, he was met with a wicked right hand that glanced over his temple. David swayed out of range and then came back with punches of his own. The fight became a brawl until David shot for another takedown, this one extremely telegraphed. Huckaba stuffed it and then dropped all his weight on David.

David did his best to try and find a triangle or an armbar, but Huckaba was too strong. The true heavyweight then decided to stand-up. He flicked his wrists at David; telling him to get up. David smiled, put his hands behind his head and gestured no, you come down. The ref stepped in and joined Huckaba in asking David to stand.

With both men on their feet, the fight – which had looked like something out of UFC 1 from the outset – now felt more like bull-riding than fighting. David was tired and woozy. Despite his exhaustion, he charged Huckaba—swinging and missing. Huckaba threw him down and then smashed him about the ear with frightening hammerfists. Huckaba then forced another stand up.

David tried the Butch and Sundance move again, charging at Huckaba. This time he landed; two shots square on Huckaba’s jaw. He then went for the takedown. He landed that, too. David was gassed. But he was in secure position on top for the first time in the fight. He moved to full mount and threw spaghetti arm punches down at Huckaba.

“If David Mitchell finishes Dave Huckaba, there will be a riot in this crowd, I almost gauran-damn-tee it,” was the call from the announcer—shocked to see David finally able to summit the giant fan-favourite.

With David on top of him, pestering him with punches, Huckaba tried to spin out of mount. He grabbed David, hoping to drag and pin him underneath. But David knew what was happening. Gracefully, he shifted past Huckaba’s limbs and took his back. David swung his arm under the Goliath’s throat; pulled him back and that was it.

The two warriors shared an exhausted hug on the ground. David was still gasping for air when the referee raised his hand. He could barely stand. His new heavyweight title belt was awkwardly placed over his head.

His friend Fili held a mic to his mouth.

“That was a crazy fight. Probably the finest of my career,” said David over heavy gasps for air.

Against the heavyweight David had showed guts, resilience and a high-degree of skill. The fight, which he’d sought out as a sort of punishment, had earned him a decent pay day and another belt. David went out drinking to celebrate, not knowing that more punishment would be waiting for him.

“I woke up the next day with a piercing headache and it didn’t go away for about two years.”

David cites the aftermath of the Huckaba fight as the time he first noticed he was suffering from post-concussion syndrome. He doesn’t know if a hard punch from Huckaba is the sole reason why, or whether Huckaba’s offense was just the final straw for his brain—which had been rattled thousands of times across years of fighting, training and mischief.

It’s at this point in his life that David, with a head full of bees, began to careen towards rock bottom. The symptoms of concussion began swirling with issues stemming from mental health. His mania, depression and that nightmarish headache started to conspire in 2015 and drive him towards a dangerous place.

But before he could get up to speed, David received a very surprising call.

“Hey, you want to come back?”

It was Joe Silva.

David was shocked. Throughout these months of hustling and grinding on the local scene he never expected it to pay off with a return to the UFC. That’s not what he was working towards. He hadn’t had the luxury to think that far ahead. When the offer came, to fight Luke Barnatt on a card in New Jersey, David was unprepared.

This part of the story came up in multiple conversations with David. Each time we touched on it, he found a different way to say he was “too angry” to accept the offer.

“I had so much anger and resentment built up,” said David on one of those occasions. “I turned him down. I didn’t want to go back to the UFC. I was angry at that machine.”

Today David looks back on that decision with alternating feelings of relief and regret.

“I thought about when you said again, ‘How you feel about your UFC run’ and I said it was pretty miserable,” said David towards the end of our time speaking with each other. “I thought about it more, man. Joining the UFC, that was the worse decision of my life. I totally ruined my life, it was terrible, and then I thought almost the next worst decision I made was not going back when I had the chance to go back.”

David’s paradoxical feelings on his time with the UFC were with him as soon as he turned down Silva. He remembers confiding in UFC and Strikeforce vet Mike Kyle, who had since moved on to construction. David remembers Kyle telling him, “We’ve all got to serve somebody” and that he’s, “better off serving Dana White than Walmart.”

After doubting his decision to return to the UFC, David reacted in the worst possible way.

“It hit me, man. I should have took them fights. Instead I just kind of lashed out and took the worst fight I could take against the gnarliest, heaviest dude I could find and I didn’t even train. I was just depressed and that lead to some really severe head trauma.”

In the penultimate installment of The Mitchell Paradox David hits rock bottom as he tries, and fails, to outrun both his depression and the damage done by so many blows to the head.

The Mitchell Paradox - Part VII: Crazy Train will be released Friday, only on Bloody Elbow.

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