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Sean Gannon nurses several wounds after fighting Kimbo Slice. Courtesy via YouTube

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Obscure fighter of the week: Before Jake Paul, there was Sean Gannon

The first video sensation to turn fight professional was a cop named Sean Gannon. His lone UFC match be may forgotten, but his story shouldn’t.

Sean Gannon nurses several wounds after fighting Kimbo Slice. Courtesy via YouTube

I know. Sean Gannon and Jake Paul are nothing alike. This isn’t meant to be a direct comparison, or obvious clickbait. But it’s a comparison I find spiritually fitting. Jake Paul wouldn’t be getting all these boxing matches with former UFC fighters if he didn’t start his career as a video sensation. Just the same, Sean Gannon wouldn’t have gotten the call to fight in the UFC back in 2005 if he also didn’t start his career as a video sensation. “Wait, who is Sean Gannon?”

Oh right.

I’m not sure I’d ever call Gannon obscure, per se. As most people know Kimbo Slice, most people probably recall Gannon. But casual fans are less likely to know the name at all since we’re now sixteen years removed from his UFC debt (which would be his last professional fight as well). Gannon’s path to the UFC was simple: at the height of Kimbo’s underground stardom, Gannon was the first man to penetrate the facade, taking him out in a full scale face-punching contest.

Ever seen it? You should.

My colleague Milan Ordonez compared it to the fight between Tony Soprano and Bobby Bacala. Which I think is fitting. I might have gone with Shane vs. Tavon in The Shield. Or Dan vs. The Captain in Deadwood. You can take your pick with any fight characterized by the violent collision of sweat and meat; that’s the fight Sean Gannon and Kimbo Slice gave viewers.

And like this fights, everything about it felt dirty. There didn’t seem to be any rules. Kimbo’s entourage looked desperate to protect their golden boy when he appeared to find himself in trouble early on. Whatever technique was exchanged between the two was obscured by the shoddy camera work, and Gannon’s massive hematoma. Gannon did show some skill (just as Kimbo did), with the body work and combination punching. It makes sense when you learn that he had won six open class Golden Glove titles. Gannon’s presence in the UFC might have disgusted MMA purists — “dude got a UFC shot for surviving a beating in some underground gym” — but you might be surprised to learn that the fight itself was put together as a charity fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

The dirty brawl earned Gannon a spot on the UFC roster at UFC 55. And not just any spot. His fight with Brandon Lee Hinkle was part of the co-main event that night. Gannon was getting a real shot at a real MMA future, all because he endured and won a slugfest against a certified backyard brawler. Gannon predictably lost to Hinkle, which prompted Dana White to cut him soon after, and the MMA world continued to turn. Although not near as dramatically as Gannon’s.

As I’ve wandered MMA’s wiki of its most obscure fighters, there’s a recurring theme written right there by Tim Bissell in the stream: “Not every fighter will sell a million pay-per-views like Conor McGregor or be interviewed by Ellen Degeneres like Ronda Rousey. Most fighters will never reach these levels of acclaim or popularity. They will instead never be known by people outside of the MMA bubble. They might also be forgotten by most inside of that bubble.”

It’s a sobering quote because Gannon’s story is more fascinating than any perfunctory title run or reign. Two important things happened to him after his UFC fight. The first was the Boston Police Department claiming Gannon couldn’t perform his basic duties in 2006. The Massachusetts Supreme Court would later rule in favor of Gannon. The second was when he tried to turn in a dirty cop for framing innocent black teens. It’s a dizzying journey as told by Gannon through his AMA from five years ago. It’s surreal to see him ask the denizens of reddit if they know a good whistleblower attorney, an ACLU lawyer, or a second amendment lawyer (Gannon alleges his civilian’s license to carry was illegally seized following his claims).

It’s more fun to read Gannon talk about what it takes to build a fight rep. “Win fights. And strategically, you do a reverse Warren Buffett — he finds the best companies that are undervalued, and buys in. You find the worst fighters that are overvalued, and beat them,” he told reddit. It’s more fun to read his story about Dana White paying for a kidney transplant of the daughter of an impoverished Thailand coach. It’s less fun to read his concern over Boston PD’s surveillance of peaceful protesters, or the courtroom’s discriminatory risk assessments. But there’s no such thing as ‘stick to sports’ when sports are only one part of an athlete’s life.

MMA won’t ever look kindly on Gannon. He was a blip on the Octagon radar. Judging by his appearance at Kevin MacBride’s camp (who is set to fight Evander Holyfield for an exhibition match on the Teofimo Lopez vs. George Kambosos Jr. card), I don’t think he cares. The octagon was just a small part of his life; a life that’s required as much physical as it has moral courage. Fighters don’t have to be essential to tell essential stories.

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