The Long, Strange Trip of Mike Swick
By Thomas Gerbasi
“This is gonna be a long story,” said Mike Swick, and he’s right. But for those who think that the rising middleweight contender simply fell out of the sky and into our living rooms as a member of the cast of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’s first season, you’d be wrong.
As hard as it may seem, there was life for Swick BT (Before TUF), and what a trip it’s been so far. From world travels to experiencing different cultures to dealing with medical issues that threatened his budding fight career, he may very well have seen it all in his 27 years, but luckily for him, he found mixed martial arts to keep the adrenaline flowing.
“I went through so much that it’s hard to get excited about things,” admits Swick, “but there’s nothing more exciting than getting in the Octagon and fighting before 15-20,000 people. This is definitely the perfect job for me.”
Born in Houston, Michael Swick was your typical kid who fell in love with whatever martial arts movie was current making the rounds at the local multiplex. Where Swick deviated off course was that his mother supported his new love so strongly that she would put him in martial arts classes, beginning with Tae Kwon Do, when he was only eight years old.
“It was just movies,” he laughs. “‘The Karate Kid’ came out so I wanted to do Tae Kwon Do; then (Jean Claude) Van Damme put out ‘Kickboxer’ so I wanted to run from dogs in Thailand. So I kept progressing into whatever movie came out and stuff that looked cool.”
As the years went on, martial arts became more than just a hobby for Swick; it was a way of life, and sometimes that meant that he missed out on some of the things his buddies were doing as typical teenagers.
“I was always the kid that was training for something,” he remembered. “Growing up, my friends would be like ‘let’s go do this and party all weekend,’ but I was always the one who couldn’t go because I had something coming up. All my friends were coming home, kicking back on the couch and watching their favorite TV show and I’d come home from school and it was straight to the gym to train.”
By 18, Swick – who had progressed to kickboxing, Thai boxing, and mixed martial arts, was fighting in amateur fights, and a year later, on November 7, 1998, he made his pro debut with a submission win over Victor Bell.
Fighting wasn’t going to pay the bills though, at least not yet, so his mother got him a job working security for a government construction project – in Moscow. Needless to say, the Texas kid had a bit of a rude awakening during the year-long gig.
“It was different because I had never been out of Texas,” he said. “It was a very interesting change to say the least, with the difference in weather from Texas to Russia. I went from 110 degree summers to -30 degree winters.”
He also had a language barrier to deal with, but he says that he picked up Russian fairly easily.
“Every second that I wasn’t at the embassy, I was out in town talking to people and I picked it up,” said Swick. “I lost a lot over the years but I can still speak okay Russian and understand it. I’m not fluent, but I can order a mean cheeseburger.”
Between his job at the US Embassy (Swick and his mother were the first mother-son team to be granted Top Secret government clearance and to work on such a top level government project overseas) and getting acquainted with the nightlife in Moscow, Swick did find time to train, working with American fighters who were in Russia for the Absolute Fighting Championship show, as well as training some US Marines.
The year in Russia was a crash course in life for Swick, and something that certainly made up for the years that he was stuck in the gym while his friends partied. But while overseas, Swick got a serious scare – a life threatening one.
“In Russia I found out I had AFib (Atrial Fibrillation), which means I had an irregular heartbeat or fast heartbeat,” said Swick. “While I was training, sometimes I would go into a rapid heart rate forever. I would just tell myself that was normal for someone who overtrained themselves, but I was getting worn out. It was like I was running a marathon and I didn’t do anything.”
One day, Swick estimates that his heart was beating “at like 200 beats a minute for like an hour.” He was rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation, and given medication to regulate his heart rate. And once he got back home to Texas, at 20 years old, Mike Swick had some serious decisions to make about his life.
“I’m battling about how I’m gonna be a fighter because I have to take this medicine every day to make sure my heart doesn’t have these palpitations, and the medicine makes you kind of groggy.”
Tough call. So what did Swick do? He went to Thailand to train in the birthplace of Muay Thai, his latest passion.
“I’m one of those guys who just set a goal and go for it,” he explains. “I don’t really care who supports me or who’s with me.”
All by himself, unable to speak Thai, and with truly no direction in terms of having a place to train or stay, Swick found himself on the outskirts of Bangkok with one goal in mind.
“I was like the ‘Kung Fu’ guy, searching for answers and looking for Thai camps,” he laughs. “I would just show up at different camps and they would just look at me all funny. I really didn’t know how to talk to them; I just told them that I wanted to train. So it was a really weird experience, but I fit into this one camp in Bangkok. They took me in and treated me like I was halfway human and we started training and I had some fights and we became like a little family. So it was pretty cool.”
It wasn’t all roses, as Swick was rapidly coming to a crossroads when it came to the issue with his heart, and when he came home, he decided not to ignore it any longer.
“The first time I went to Thailand I was taking medication and I just didn’t care – I was gonna fight through it,” he said. “But it took its toll on me, so I had to make a choice whether I was gonna have surgery or not be a fighter or be athletic. The doctors all told me not to do it (have the surgery) because they only usually do it in old people who can’t take fast heartbeats because if they make a mistake, I’d either have a pacemaker or get killed. You can take medicine your whole life and be fine, but you obviously can’t be an ultimate fighter.”
Since you’re reading this now and waiting to watch Swick fight this Saturday night at UFC 63 against David Loiseau, you know what his decision was.
“I made the choice to get the operation and it was a one day deal,” he said. “They stuck a tube in my leg and went up that vein all the way into my heart and they applied heat to the extra electrode that shocks the heart and if they hadn’t hit the main one I would have had a pacemaker, and if they had hit the heart in any way, I would have been dead.”
It’s times like those when you realize that the stuff that makes a fighter has nothing to do with a left hook or triangle choke. When faced with losing a shot at a dream, Swick was willing to risk it all. All of a sudden, 15 minutes with Loiseau doesn’t seem so bad.
Just two weeks after the operation, Swick went back to Thailand to get in fighting shape for his assault on the middleweight division. The day he left? September 10, 2001. And when he arrived in Bangkok the next day, the world had turned upside down.
“The taxi driver’s telling me about bombing the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and I’m thinking that he’s threatening me and that he’s some kind of terrorist taxi driver, so I’m thinking about rear naked choking him,” said Swick. “But then I get to the hotel and the bell man told me about the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center and I was in disbelief. So the first week and a half I was over there, I was just watching BBC News. It was depressing. I had just left America and now it was like a war happening.”
Considering the first 22 years of his life, the last five have been relatively sedate. Swick has compiled a 9-1 pro MMA record, beating quality foes like Joe Riggs, with his only loss coming to Chris Leben in 2004. In between, he made a name for himself on the first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and also for ending his first two UFC fights in a combined 42 seconds (none of his UFC bouts have gotten out of the opening round). In addition, Swick has become a tireless spokesman for the sport, complete with his own web show “Real Quick with Mike Swick” on UFC.com.
But when you talk to him, one thing’s obvious. Despite all the outside the ring gigs, and his potential to be one of the UFC’s next crossover stars, Swick’s sole priority is getting in the Octagon and winning. And it doesn’t get any bigger right now for Swick than taking on Loiseau, who is coming off a punishing five round battle with UFC middleweight king Rich Franklin, which he lost via unanimous decision.
“I’m not gonna judge him (Loiseau) and say, ‘hey, it was a bad fight,’” said Swick. “Obviously, everyone can have a bad fight, and I think he had a bad day, on top of the fact that Franklin is a really tough opponent and was dominant. I can’t look past the fact that it could have been a bad day and there could have been all kinds of issues going on, so I don’t judge him just off that fight. I look at every fight that he’s had in the UFC and he does have weaknesses, so what we’re gonna try to do is exploit those.”
That’s been the key element to Swick’s success in the UFC thus far – finding an opponent’s weakness - and it’s something he’s been able to do rather quickly. And if you’re not ready for a fight from the moment the bell rings, you may get caught cold.