Danny Downes got the news in a text message. He'd been expecting it, and he thought he was ready for it, but he thought wrong.
This was the fall of 2011, a little more than a month after his second loss in as many attempts with the UFC. Before that he'd gone 1-1 in the WEC, beating the much-hyped Chinese import Tiequan Zhang via unanimous decision in the organization's final event.
But 0-2 in the UFC? "Danny Boy" could do the math. He knew he was likely on the chopping block, but the UFC's upcoming event in his hometown of Chicago that January gave him some faint hope. Maybe they'd keep him around for that. Maybe he'd get one more chance. Then he saw the text from his manager.
"Danny Boy cut," was all it said. Not exactly a ceremonious exit.
"Turns out that he didn't mean to send it to me, but it happened nonetheless," Downes told MMAjunkie.com. "It's not a perfect comparison, but you know how you have someone close to you that's been sick, or even in a vegetative state for awhile, and you know you'll lose them? You think you've made peace with it, but once you actually lose them, it still stings."
That was the end of Downes' career as a fighter. Four years, 11 pro fights, and then it was over. He was 25 years old. Now what was he supposed to do?
At first he didn't have an answer. He thought about continuing on as a fighter, trying to make it back to the UFC.
"Maybe I was worried that even if I made it back I'd be a gatekeeper at best," Downes said. "I considered the health implications. I was engaged, and I thought about the financial future of my future wife and family. I saw a lot of guys that stuck around the regional circuit too long and were as sad as Mickey Rourke in 'The Wrestler.'"
Downes didn't want to follow that path, and he didn't need to. He had options. He had degrees in international affairs and German from Marquette University. He'd interned for the Secret Service, done a stint in Dusseldorf for the U.S. Department of Commerce. He could do stuff.
While he tried to figure out exactly which stuff he wanted to do next, he got an offer to write a few freelance articles for the UFC's website. Then it was an article stories or there for the UFC's magazine. Before he knew it, he'd become a part-time MMA writer. And, it soon became clear, he was pretty good at it. He enjoyed it. Maybe, Downes thought, this could be his job. Maybe he could be that rarest kind of MMA media member – the kind who actually knows what it's like to fight in the UFC.
It's not a career transition we see all that often in this sport. Ex-fighters sometimes become TV analysts or commentators, but few have made their living at a keyboard after their fighting days are done. The 27-year-old Downes could be the exception. He certainly has the writing chops for it. He also has a perspective that the MMA media landscape sorely lacks.
"Fighters are pretty open, for better or worse," Downes said. "They don't have a lot of handlers, but a lot of people still don't understand the lifestyle or why they do the things they do. It might not be a bad thing that I understand where they're coming from or why they do those things."
For instance, Downes said, take one of the more frustrating and unavoidable fight game cliches – one that non-fighters will probably never truly understand.
"I know media people hate it when fighters say, 'I had the best training camp of my life,' but the reason you hear fighters say that all the time is because you feel so good," Downes said. "If you're doing it right, you're always getting better. You think, 'I was this good before, and now I'm faster, stronger, better. Who's going to beat me?' You feel invincible."
Downes knows that feeling. He experienced it, even in his two decision losses with the UFC. First against Jeremy Stephens, then Ramsey Nijem, Downes showed up to fight convinced that he really was in the best shape of his life.
"I don't know what happened," he said. "The key was in the ignition, but it didn't turn."
And, as we've seen in the past, you only get so many chances to turn the key in the UFC.
That's another part of the business that Downes understands better than most. He knows what it's like to get fired via text message. He also knows what it's like to have people on the Internet writing about your life, your career, and your passion as if it's of no more than a passing interest.
That's not to say that Downes is in any danger of taking it too easy on the fighters he writes about. In his most recent pre-fight predictions column, "The Downes Side," he compared heavyweight Ben Rothwell to Sasquatch while also opining that Clay Guida "has been involved in more controversial decisions than William Jennings Bryan."
At the same time, Downes understands exactly what it is that keeps fighters coming back for more, even when everyone else around them can see that it's a bad idea.
"It is an abusive relationship," Downes said of fighting. "You're in something, and you know it's bad for you. You can deny it like you can deny anything to yourself, but I know. I've seen guys who stayed in it too long. I've read the science on it."
It's something he finds himself thinking about a lot these days. You read stories on brain trauma, the consequences of repeated concussions, and you almost can't help it. Downes got out of the sport with little more than damaged shoulders, but nobody can tell him for sure if that's the full extent of the bill that will some day come due for his time in the cage.
Recently Downes moved from his longtime home in Milwaukee to San Diego, where his wife got a job teaching history at University of California, San Diego in La Jolla, Calif. He left behind his friends and teammates at Duke Roufus' gym, and he's been trying to start fresh in his new home. He went to a couple jiu-jitsu classes here and there, he said, but it's not easy for him to be casually involved in the sport.
"It's hard, as an ex-fighter," Downes said. "I can't do it recreationally. Part of it is just my personality in general. When I started MMA, I was just doing it for fun, but everything I do, it's like I just have to take it to its extreme. It's hard to get back there because, one, I know if I start doing it I'm going to want to do it again, and two, I can't do it just for fun because I take it so seriously."
That same obsessive personality trait is partly what's driving his interest in a full-time writing career, he admitted. At first, it was just a few freelance stories here and there. But Downes isn't built to dabble in things. He can't help but get all the way in, or else get all the way out.
That's partly why he retired when he did. One day, Downes said, he found himself listlessly hitting a heavy bag in the gym.
"I was just going through the motions," he said. "I was there because I thought I wanted to be there, not because I wanted to be. Before, you couldn't keep me out of the gym. By that time, I despised being there. The sooner I could leave, the better. Couple my respect for the sport and myself, in addition to a little too much pride, and there was no way I would just go through the motions."
So he stopped. He fought long enough to give him a view of the sport that few other writers possess, but got out before it consumed him – and maybe just in time to lend his voice to a media conversation that could benefit from it.
"I never wanted to be one of those people where fighting was my identity," Downes said. "If you wanted to get all Sartrean, existence precedes essence. I was Dan Downes long before I became 'Danny Boy.' I wanted to keep things that way."