“Super intense.” That’s how David Mitchell described his initiation at Dave Terrell’s NorCal Fighting Alliance. “I definitely got knocked out the first day I trained, and pretty much every day I got some kind of concussion.”
In the early 2000s NorCal Fighting Alliance boasted a strong roster of fighters, including many that would make it to the UFC. The gym also hosted frequent visitors who would become some of the biggest stars in the sport. The gym was tough on David and he was expected to return the favor in hard-sparring sessions, held five to six times a week. However, according to David, the gym saved a lot of its brutality for outsiders.
David remembers “puffy dudes” with shaved chests and veins like garden hoses waddling through the gym doors, looking for a fight. Each was sent back bloodied by one of Terrell’s wiry proteges. David said there were other customers who sought out the gym, but not because they wanted to put up a fight, or even test themselves in MMA.
“Sometimes we had people come in who wanted to get hurt because they were being drafted into the army or some kind of thing. They were supposed to go to barracks and so they said, ‘I want you to break my arm.’ So it was this kind of atmosphere, kind of a thuggy kind of thing. But it was a good group of guys. We got a lot of training in. I learned from some of the best guys.”
David called Terrell a “rough, scary ass dude.” He also said he was the greatest grappler he’s ever seen up close. At NorCal he also trained under Terrell’s master, Cesar Gracie, and scrimmaged against scrap-packers Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez. “Some big names would go down there and spar,” he said. “Frankie Edgar would be there, a bunch of guys from Japan, it was kind of a hotbed at that time.”
The 2000s fight scene in Northern California is the stuff of MMA legend. StrikeForce, the Shamrock brothers and Cesar Gracie were integral forces that not only brought MMA to sold-out arenas around San Jose, but helped destroy the floodgates that had been blocking its passage to the mainstream.
“Being part of that early history; it was exciting times,” remembered David. “Full of possibilities. You didn’t know where it was going to go, but you could tell that MMA was going to blow up.”
In NorCal David grew among giants. Many would have stagnated and decayed in the shade of such dominating figures, but he survived. “I think a lot of that has to do with perseverance and consistency. I don’t think a lot of people, the way I got my ass kicked and my ass handed to me in those first couple of days and weeks, would keep showing up. But then, three or four months later, I was like, ‘Oh I get it. This is what jiu jitsu is, this is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get to this,’ and I just kind of caught it.”
David said after he caught it, it felt like he had a “natural affinity for jiu jitsu.” Once that took, he just wanted to catch other people.
“I remember having this list and being like, ‘Oh, there’s this guy ahead of me. I haven’t tapped him yet. I haven’t tapped Jake Hardgrove.’ The list would go all the way up to ‘Nasty’ Nate DuCharme and Dave Terrell. And it was like, I was just trying to climb that ladder and get a guy I’d never gotten before. Getting my roommate, Nate Loughran – he fought in the UFC as well – trying to get him. Trying to get all these people everyday. Just trying to chip away at that list. I think I was pretty much flat-out addicted.”
After he found success tapping out teammates in the gym David needed to get a bigger, better fix. He needed to fight.
“My attitude was very much ‘macho.’ I wanted to fight. It wasn’t like Jiu Jitsu. I wish I had more of a love or desire to just compete in Jiu Jitsu because, at the end of the day, that would have been a lot less damaging to my health.”
On July 8th, 2006, a year and four months after watching Terrell at UFC 51, David had his first pro fight.
Gladiator Challenge 52: Deep Impact took place outdoors, on a casino resort, at the foot of Mount Konocti. The event venue was on a thin tract of land owned by the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians.
David’s walk to the cage was almost as long as the fight. It required him to traverse a large gravel parking lot, passing t-shirt vendors, porta-potties and mullets. He wore shiny turquoise Muay Thai shorts and a black NorCal Fighting Alliance tee. Terrell followed closely. In the cage David grinned while he waited to fight.
His opponent – a man with the word ‘PAIN’ tattooed across the middle of his chest – kept his face on lock-down; his hard eyes and puckered mouth aimed at a loose and lively David. Their fight went to the ground early, with both men rolling over the blood of duels past—dried brown atop the sour yellow canvas.
Terrell sat in the shadows, chin in his hand, peering into the cage through dark glasses. He looked calm, but sprung to his feet and screamed whenever David was in danger. Over the lifespan of the three minute fight, David went for a heel hook, toe hold, arm bar and eventually a picture-perfect triangle.
When the referee saw the tap and called off the fight, David threw his hands in the air and rolled to his knees. Then he put his knuckles to the mat and performed four push-ups before bouncing to his feet.
He’d win his next 10 fights. Eight by submission.
“I was just able to outsmart the guys in there,” said David. “I kind of took the ‘fighting without fighting’ mentality.”
Even though early MMA had been defined by the success of Royce Gracie, the rank and file of the regional circuits hadn’t wised up to BJJ. Terrell’s team, powered by Cesar Gracie, was an exception. Against bar brawlers and hobby boxers (who didn’t know an americana from an anaconda) David had little trouble finding ways to make them quit.
“A lot of those fights were like taking candy from a baby.”
During this time, excluding a battle with the fighter formerly known as John Koppenhaver, David was taking more hits at Terrell’s gym than in pro-bouts.
“I had three mounted guillotines, all for some kind of title, and I don’t think I took a punch in any of those fights. I just got the guy on the ground, got them out of position and just latched onto their head – just like Jake Shields showed me – and I just put them away. It was easy. But then the fights started catching up.”
David said he remembers “pure joy and pleasure” being a common feeling during that 11-0 run. However, in David’s life feelings of ecstasy have rarely come without a side-dose of heavy sadness. But for now, this was all about the good times.
“We were partying, eating In-N-Out Burger after every fight, getting fucking wasted. I was living the American Dream, I suppose.”
In fighting David finally felt like he had an identity he was proud of. He liked being known as a tough guy, a badass—the dude who could end your life in a street-fight. Having strangers hold those opinions helped him feel the same way. He felt invincible. It was exactly what he needed to help him forget how fragile he really was, as had been demonstrated by that blowout back on the I-5.
David said he leaned into and loved his public image as a fighter. He used it to sell tickets, snag sponsors, and “schmooze girls.” He also needed fighting to be his public image, since the only other thing he was doing had to be kept secret.
“I wasn’t really fighting for money,” confessed David. Back then he’d invested his modest purses and sponsor fees in a plot of land in Mendocino Country, in an area of the U.S. known as the Emerald Triangle.
The triangle, which includes Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties is the largest cannabis-producing region in the country. Growers have flocked to those areas’ rugged highlands since the 1960s, coveting the land for its excellent cultivating conditions and its privacy.
Cultivating marijuana was David’s main source of income in his twenties, while fighting was his hobby. As he got better at his hobby and started to identify more as a pro-fighter, David cut back on his involvement at his illegal weed farm.
As his win streak grew towards double figures, David was training five days a week. Terrell’s gym was his home base, but he also made trips to Jackson’s in Albuquerque and Fairtex Muay Thai in San Francisco. And he went to Concord every Thursday to roll with Shields, Melendez and the Diaz brothers. Weed was left for the weekends.
David was making plenty of money, he was developing into a fighter fit for the world’s biggest stage and he had a rich social life. But all was not well.
You don’t fight in a cage 11 times and not get hurt. David said he busted his meniscus “or something like that” and cracked a rib early on. “Shit like that.” But he was yet to feel any of the symptoms of brain trauma that would later overwhelm his life. He was getting rocked, though.
“I remember one time being stung by Terrell and damn near being knocked out,” said David. “And ‘Nasty’ Nate Ducharme picked me up over his head and knocked me clean out. I’m sure that those injuries were slowly adding up behind the curtain. But, as far as my perception of it, I kind of laughed off other peoples’ concerns about my head.”
“I sustained plenty of trauma early on, but it didn’t really bother me,” continued David. “I guess when I got knocked out by Mike Pierce [at UFC 162], that was probably the first time that it was really a concern—when I couldn’t remember where I was or I lost a couple of years of my life and minutes that still haven’t come back. I still don’t remember getting knocked out, but I also don’t remember the hour afterwards or the hour before. So, I guess back then I should have had some concerns.”
During his pre-UFC years David said he was having headaches and seeing stars almost daily; thanks to the hard sparring, which often boiled over into full blown fights at NorCal Fighting Alliance. “We would just go in there and battle it out and we wouldn’t really be happy unless we were a little punch drunk. I don’t think we realized what we were doing to ourselves.”
Despite feeling the effects of all these blows to the head, which were far less severe than what he would later experience, David brushed off his and anyone else’s concerns for his safety. The woozy feeling after training wasn’t enough for him to pump the breaks on his so far stellar fighting career.
In 2010 David’s tenth victory earned him the Tachi Palace Fights (TPF) welterweight title belt. By this time he was firmly on the UFC’s radar.
At 10-0 David heard chatter that a UFC contract was incoming, and he felt ready to take the next step in his career. But he just couldn’t turn down one more appearance for Tachi. He had a belt to defend, a great respect for matchmaker Richard Goodman, and an opponent who was itching to fight him.
The ‘Tachi Kid’ Poppies Martinez was a darling of Tachi Palace. He hailed from the Tachi Yokuts tribe and the Santa Rosa Indian Community of the Santa Rosa Rancheria, which owned the Tachi Palace Resort and Casino.
Before facing off with David, Martinez was 19-6 (1) and coming off a long stint in World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). His shot at David’s TPF welterweight title lasted under two minutes. It went down like the majority of David’s fights at this time: he got Martinez down and did what Jake Shields taught him, this time choking his opponent unconscious for a technical submission victory.
After this there was no doubt that David’s talent had outgrown the local circuit. The offer from Joe Silva came quickly. “I remember where I was when I signed the UFC contract. I was at Tachi Palace, and I remember the promoter being pretty sad that I was going to leave him. I felt like it was time to go to the UFC, but maybe I wasn’t as ready as I thought.”
Signing for the UFC felt like what David was supposed to do. This was what his team had been working towards. There were guys in the gym who would have killed for that opportunity. These factors pushed David towards signing the contract. But beneath all that, there was something else going on in, something that was a far more powerful motivator.
“I was suffering with some depression, which is not what you’d think about someone who was 11-0. You’d think they’d be pretty stoked.” David learned early on that depression doesn’t care about how well you’re doing. “I think if you’re not happy, then your happiness kind of runs out and the wheels start coming off.”
The neuroscience around depression is murky. Chemical imbalance had been a favored explanation, but there’s no consensus on which of the billion or so chemical reactions in the brain can create intense feelings of despair. Some researchers are focused on other possible culprits, like the damage to neurons and the connections between them.
Depression has been a part of David’s life for as long as he can remember. This unwanted guest has shown up in times of stress, but also in times of growth—or during periods when outsiders would remark, “Wow, you’ve really got your shit together” or “Man, I wish I had some of what you’ve got.”
David ‘Daudi’ Mitchell (11-0) was the envy of many he encountered in 2010, but he still felt worthless. And it was this, far more than ambitions of being a champ or pressures from the MMA industry, that put his name on a ZUFFA contract.
“When I took the UFC contract, part of me was like, man I’m getting depressed and I’m not doing very well. Maybe if I take this contract, that will force me to step it up. It never works that way. It’s the opposite. I guess the pressure kind of snapped me in half. I had these crazy injuries that started happening and things started falling apart with my team and the results were not the best.”
In the next installment of The Mitchell Paradox David joins the UFC and his world starts to fall apart.
The Mitchell Paradox - Part III: Octagon Blues will be released on Friday, only on Bloody Elbow.