A man pulls the cord on his chainsaw and watches as a gang of chickadees erupt skywards at the heavy coughs of the motor. He brings the blade to the body of a black oak, were the deep sputtering of the machine is overwhelmed by the high pitch buzz of the saw scarring wood. The noise flies through the tree tops and out over the dark peaks that shroud Lake Tahoe. The man, thick with muscles around his neck and arms, eases the saw through the oak; wood chips stick to his beard and pool at his feet. He inhales deeply through his nose, as if the smell of hot sawdust and spent gas were a panacea.
This milling area inside of his 5-acre farm is where David Mitchell goes to think and forget.
When he acquired the property, in 2017, it was raw and rugged—perched on a mountain of virgin forests dominated by devil’s fur and Ponderosa pine. The property is an hour out from Sacramento, via Placerville, perched above a hydroelectric station. The land has a few small homes, but David lives in a trailer. On summer nights he sleeps in a cabana, in view of wandering bears, mountain lions and “hella tarantulas.”
“I was super depressed and thought that I wanted to kill myself, and stuff like that, before. And when I came up here and finally got a chainsaw and started putting that chainsaw onto the wood? It was like, I’ve been through so much fucking bullshit that – in that moment – everything was just perfect.
“It was just me and the saw and the wood chips flying out and the smell—it was just the best smell; fresh wood, pine chips shooting out. You have to have a sharp chain, and I just started cutting. I still had a bit of money so I started buying bigger and bigger chainsaws and I bought a chainsaw mount and I started blowing up wood. I just started cutting and cutting. I think where I’ve had the most breakthroughs is right there in my little milling spot. It doesn’t look like much but there are piles of wood chips everywhere and I’ve just been milling at it for a while.”
David bought his mountain hideaway, primarily for the cultivation of legal marijuana, with the money he had left over from selling his old home in Santa Rosa. The decision to invest in a farm came after two bolts of inspiration from a pair of disparate sources.
The first, martial arts legend ‘Judo’ Gene Lebell, who David met around the Cali. fight scene. It was at a time when David was wrestling with whether or not it was worth risking his health, and happiness, to continue his MMA career.
“He said, ‘You got a plan?’” remembered David. “I said, ‘Not really.’ He said, ‘A man without a plan is a man without a future.’ And I was like, woah, I better figure out a plan.”
The second source of inspiration came from a book titled The Goat Doctor of the Sierras; a biography of Frank Andre written by Gloria Hockensmith. Andre was born in Austria, but moved to California in 1911. There he practiced a form of chiropractic-infused faith healing. He kept a herd of goats beside his mountain cabin and would charge a flat fee of $3 for his services. He died in 1959.
The book highlights the wild beauty of the mountains around Lake Tahoe. “It was about this place,” exclaimed David. “I had an epiphany. I had to go there. I had to get healed and get better. And I came out here, and it’s been up and up ever since.”
David had farmed weed before, illegally in Mendocino County, but his farming roots stretch back to childhood and the hippie commune where he was raised. Though he said his childhood was a sad time, he appreciates that he had an early start in bonding with nature.
“Ever since I was pretty young, I liked to just see things come out the ground,” he said. “Like that first beginning of the growth.”
David doesn’t say it outright, but it seems that every seedling, to him, represents what could have been. He never specified what it was that made his childhood so sad and I never pushed for that information. As a teen, his life was almost taken in a traumatic car wreck. That crash might have been the first head injury he suffered; one that set the table for a life of brain trauma and struggles with mental health. When David sees a speck of green crawl out from the earth, could anyone blame him for cherishing that unspoiled moment, before life and its predators make their presence known?
Tending this land offers David calming windows into his existence. What he finds when peering through them can hopefully help him along his path to inner peace. And although it’s a long process, the farmers’ life is helping him in a more immediate sense, too; it’s keeping him busy.
“If you have a restless mind and you’re trying to forget the past, a farm is a great place to be. There’s never a dull moment. There’s always something to do.”
“Every day is something different,” explained David. “It’s just one of those jobs where, honestly, I think I got kind of bored of just going to the gym—doing the same thing every day; hitting the mitts, blah blah, blah. I know we got to travel different places. If I had made it a bit better in my career and made some better decisions it could have been more fun, but I just grinded for a long time for nothing – on the same shit – but now everyday is different.”
To make all this possible David needed a working partner. He found that in his friend Mike, a man who had been there for him throughout the roller-coaster ride of David’s life—both in and out of MMA.
“Mike owned an auto shop in Sacramento, he sponsored me,” said David, proudly. “Anytime you’re a poor guy driving an old car the best sponsor you can have is an automotive shop. He’d help me out with breaks, tires, quarts of oil. And even then I would be so broke I would be like, ‘Mike, bro, can you spot me $20?’ and he’d give me cash too and in exchange I promoted the shop and tried to bring in business, which I was pretty good at.”
Mike brought his family to the land where David now spends all his time. David said the set-up has grown to resemble the commune he grew up on. “Eventually I’ll hopefully have my own family here, too. There’s so much land here that I could build a house. I’m just helping [Mike and his family] with their thing now. And there’s a whole other side of the property I haven’t touched yet. And beyond that it’s just wilderness for miles.”
David’s current family includes his girlfriend and their four-year-old son. News of the boy’s conception had sent David into a agonizing spiral. He ran from the responsibility, unsure if he’d ever return. After a trial in the desert he came home to face his reality. He sought treatment, and showed he could be a part of his child’s life. Since the boy’s arrival David has done his best to be a father to him. Today, he ranks this as the greatest of his life’s achievements. Time with his son not only brings him joy, but it’s been instrumental – along with the peaceful humility he finds in farming – in helping him heal. That healing has transformed David into a version of himself that is unrecognizable from who he was at his worst.
Still, David’s life is not without struggle.
His post concussion syndrome (PCS), and possible chronic-traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), still challenge him. As does bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
David said waves of depression still hit him, “from out of nowhere.” They force him to drop into a heavy sadness and fall back into old patterns of self-isolation and flagellation.
“Just one little thing triggers something like that,” revealed David. “My partner did one thing; he broke a bulldozer. I just snapped. I just went into a dark hole for a few days and then he came and found me. I was sleeping outside and he was like, ‘Bro you have to snap out it of it. We need you for the rest of this harvest.’ I was like, ‘Alright. I’m good, I’m done, I’m back.’”
David also has to deal with a myriad of physical triggers that can wreak havoc on his post-concussion brain. A room full of smoke at a marijuana trade show and a zip line in Vegas have both laid him out for days with debilitating vertigo and headaches.
When it comes to PTSD, David’s triggers are anything associated with the actions that contributed to the vast majority of his head trauma: fighting.
“I can’t even watch anymore. I can’t. It makes me feel post-concussed just to watch it,” said David, whose brain has encoded dozens of blows and can replay the sense memory of them whenever he is reminded that he used to fight.
“Sometimes I just feel horrible about what people are doing to themselves,” said David, thinking of fighters who might end up getting hurt like he did.
But even though it makes him sick to think about, the allure of martial arts and competition still has a powerful hold over him. Since leaving full-on cage-fighting, he’s tried to satisfy those urges with professional BJJ—something that didn’t exist when he was coming up.
Even though BJJ does not threaten the kind of damage that has shaped David’s life, it is still fraught with dangers that can elicit unhealthy behaviors for him.
He’s gone into matches feeling sick from PCS and suffered greatly because of it. He’s also taken matches during times when he struggled with his mental health. During these times he’s felt the same backlash of emotion that would plague him after a grueling MMA fight.
And there’s another aspect to this kind of competition that poses a risk to David. Though, it only occurs when he does well.
“I did Submission Underground, not even that long ago. I pulled myself out of one of these holes of depression. I hadn’t trained. I do these crazy things. I fast and then I just can’t eat or I eat too much. I got that match at Submission Underground against Anthony Smith and I was out of the game and I was like, ‘I can’t turn that down.’ So I somehow managed to get myself there. And then I go and tap that dude out, and all he’s been doing since is knocking everybody out in the UFC.”
When we spoke Smith was about to challenge for the UFC light heavyweight title.
“Man, I should be training,” said David. “I beat that guy, I should get Jon Jones next.”
It wasn’t a serious suggestion from David. Though, sometimes he struggles with feelings over whether or not she should return to the cage.
“But now it’s hard for me to even watch a fight. Man, I almost feel bad for everyone who still has to do that. I feel bad for Jon Jones; it feels weird to say. But at the same time there’s a part of me that wants to come back, be famous—make it happen. Even after everything I told you man, I would still get back in there if it was worth it. But it’s a bad idea.”
Throughout our interactions, this paradox has become what fascinated me most about David. His grievances with MMA, and especially the UFC, are myriad and warranted. He has suffered tremendous pain on the canvas, both inside arenas and gyms. His life, including his very perception of life, is forever altered by the affects of punches, knees, and elbows to his skull. Yet, as he said, he still yearns to do it all again.
David has more to lose than gain from fighting, though. And – thankfully – he knows this.
“But the plan is clear now: this land. I’m going to put everything into it, this place, and just be a farmer. Be a cultivator, and do whatever. I might get into some equipment. I’m really dope with heavy equipment. The plan is not MMA. As far as MMA, man, I’ve got to let it go.”
Part of David’s process of letting go has been sharing his story. He sees these articles as an opportunity to unburden himself with his MMA past—to let it all out before leaving it behind for good. David also hoped that by being brutally honest, and divulging all the sordid details of his career and health issues, he would effectively burn a bridge with the spor. He would make it impossible for a promotion to take him back; just in case his temptation to return ever got the best of him.
Telling the story has another purpose, too, though. One that is not for David, but for anyone else who might be considering following in his footsteps.
“I just want to tell a cautionary story for young men and women who are getting into the sport. Because I didn’t really realize what would happen. We just laughed. Like, ‘Oh sign my life away, here it goes.’”
“It just feels important to tell the story,” reiterated David. “It’s hard too because I don’t want to sound like I’m fucking whining and a sore loser, just because I didn’t win the big fights or something like that. I don’t want to seem like, ‘Oh poor me.’ A lot of these are mistakes that I made. It’s not like Dana [White] hit me in the head directly. It’s almost like I’m a victim of circumstances and bad decisions. It added up to some really serious head trauma that was so scary, pretty scary; hard to function on a daily basis.”
Despite these daily struggles, David is safer and happier than he has been in a long time.
“I’m in a much better spot now,” he enthused in one of our first chats. “God, I’m thankful that I’m so much better.”
Apart from the day to day work on his land, one of the places David feels best at is a little patch on the farm he calls his “special meditation spot.” It’s festooned with vibrant bursts of colour, thanks to David’s extensive collection of cannas. They’re his favourite flowers, and he’s relished collecting and planting dozens of varieties. David said he feels most blissful when meandering between the flowerbeds, hose in hand, watering the cannas, and then meditating among them, eyes open, so that his mind can feast upon their exotic hues.
“I look at the flowers and just realize how blessed we are to have this place and just be really grateful and just enjoy it more than anything.”
Whether this happy place, along with his family and true friends, can sustain David’s contentment and health remains to be seen. He knows those factors won’t do it on their own, and that it requires a lot of work from him. It’s work he’s eager to do, though. As he tries to focus on these positive things, danger still remains. It lurks in the shape of things that once sustained his sense of self-worth; things that simultaneously damaged him, both physically and mentally. As someone who has listened to, researched, and been charmed by him, I’m desperate for David to continue finding his place among the cannas and for him to keep defining his value by what he gives to his loved ones, the land and himself. He’s suffered too much in pursuit of martial power and victory to feel safe. All in the service of a sport – and those who run it – that offered him no protection from the risks he was taking.
David’s story is unique. But, even within his personal highs and low are echoes of hundreds of other stories from people who have been broken, and are still breaking, because of prize-fighting. The sport promises, like no other competition, a true revelation of a person’s mettle, skill and survival instincts. For those anxious to prove to the world that they are alive and moving forward, despite what they have seen and experienced, it can be a drug that’s hard to quit.
Even when the highs pale to the lows; and perhaps even with ample information about the costs, deficits, and debts of competing, there will be no shortage of tributes willing to run the gauntlet that is pro MMA. There will be no shortage of watchers, either. No matter that fighter and fan know full well the damage this sport does, they still struggle to turn away. They exist in a paradox of love and hate.