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Horwich dreaming big

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Matt Horwich has taken his celebration into the stands.

It is Sept. 9, 2006 and the International Fight League is in Portland for the first time. Horwich, a member of the IFL's Portland Wolfpack, has just collected his first IFL win in impressive fashion. Shirtless, Horwich is hugging fans, who are mixing their excitement with the wet realization that fighters sweat.

This isn't staged. Horwich is simply caught in the moment. And fans who were clean and dry a moment ago are smiling and cheering him on. One of the true eccentrics of any professional sport, Horwich has endeared himself to fans as much with his quirky character as his fighting.

"It's a beautiful universe and God is an amazing artist," Horwich said. "I thank God for sunsets, stars, virtual particles, MMA, beautiful women and rock-and-roll."

Usually carrying a tattered bible, the 28-year-old tends to dress like a buffed-up version of Ducky from Pretty in Pink. He usually holds an expression like he has a secret the rest of the world has yet to discover.

"Instead of looking for what we think the world needs, we should look for what makes us feel alive," he said. "Because people finding their hearts and feeling alive is what the world needs."

A standout submission fighter, Horwich (18-9-1) has beaten the likes of Vernon White, Josh Burkman and Jason MacDonald. This Friday, he will fight Kazuhiro Hamanaka of the Tokyo Sabres at the IFL in Everett, Wash.

I caught up with Horwich at one of his favorite haunts, the Delerium Internet Café in Gresham, a suburb of Portland, Ore. He hangs out here to check his MySpace account and search for fight footage on YouTube. He also drinks coffee, but is drinking water today. He gave up lattes after overdrawing his bank account.

"I didn't know it was overdrawn and they were charging me for every overdraft," he said. "So I was paying $35 for each drink."

Despite a steady paycheck from the IFL, he has no Internet access at home. He shares a three-room rental with four others. One of his closest friends crashes on the floor.

"It doesn't bother me," he said. "I'm a hippy-type of guy."

Interviewing The Fightin' Hippy is an experience unto itself. Conversation flows from God to quantum mechanics to heavy metal and back to God again, sometimes within the same sentence.

He drops his mantra -- "Every positive choice adds up" -- five or six times and then wonders how it would work on a t-shirt. He speaks of poetry and songs about physics and courage. Only rarely does he talk about MMA and then usually against the backdrop of epic mythology.

"We all have dreams of being a hero and beating bad guys and of daring feats," he said. "I want to live like David, a musician, a warrior, do awesome things; live with bravery and an adventurous spirit."

Horwich is a hardcore "spiritual" Christian, referring to God enough to draw the attention of other café patrons and waxing about connections between all things. But he is not preaching. His faith simply permeates everything he does. Whether or not you agree with his beliefs, you can't deny his passion.

"I think a lot of people misrepresent God's views," Horwich said. "Some people see a conflict between some scientific views and some religious views. I don't feel that way. It doesn't say in the Bible 'Thou shalt not explore the universe.' It's the opposite. Spirituality is about living life to the fullest.

"Jesus didn't come here to threaten us into line."

Soon he is discussing Pharisees, his nomadic life, Rocky movies and Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," a pre-fight staple. Then he begins gesturing with his hands, barely able to contain his excitement as conversation shifts to physics and the Grand Unified Theory. He has been reading Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein and offers a free-flowing dissertation on subjects ranging from relativity to anti-matter.

"I've been thinking about virtual particles and gravitons," he says. "I'm really excited about that. And neutrinos. Neutrinos rock out."

Neutrinos are particles passing through matter and space nearly undisturbed: much like Horwich before he found MMA. He lost interest in school when he began to perceive his teachers as child custodians instead of knowledge seekers like himself.

"I wish I had done better in school," he said. "But it didn't captivate my attention."

Moments later he is struggling with a simple math equation before talking about his dream of owning a ranch.

"I want to get some land so all my friends can hang out and follow their dreams," he said. "I want a place where people can come and recover their hearts and find out what their destiny is. I also want to grow organic foods."

Horwich's road to the IFL began in Petaluma, Calif., where he first saw the UFC. As a 17-year-old, he saved $1,000 to train with Royce Gracie for four weeks in Torrance, Calif. However, when he returned home, Horwich found his motivation wane and he began experimenting with crystal meth.

"Drugs are easy to get caught up in when you are young and searching for something," he said. "I lost track of my dreams."

Eventually, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail for drug possession. Horwich looks back on the experience as a turning point. Clearing his head, he decided to get out of Petaluma, heading to Las Vegas and then North Carolina. He ended up in Seattle hoping to start a band.

"I went back and forth between wanting to be a musician or a martial artist," he recalled.

Unfortunately, the Seattle music scene in 2001 was not looking for another classically influenced heavy metal lead guitarist. On a couch at the café, Horwich tries to educate me on the virtues of Megadeth, Slayer and Manowar, which was apparently influenced by Spinal Tap fashions. Without a band, he packed his guitar to odd jobs and read poetry at open mics while squatting in abandoned houses with friends.

"Life was simple," he remembered. "I'd party, play guitar and search for something. I don't think I've had a lot of bad times, but I definitely prefer now. I'm having the best time in my life."

After about two years of sketchy existence, Horwich met a family that began his religious conversion. Suddenly Horwich saw his life in different terms. On the café couch, he delineates clear distinctions between being "Christian" and being "religious." He talks about "making a difference" while mixing bible quotations with personal maxims rapid-fire, sometimes without segue.

"We were all born into a great story that was made before the dawn of time," he said. Adding, "Love is the strongest motivator, stronger than hate." And, "The difference between a hero and coward is that a hero overcomes his fear."

After dedicating himself to Jesus, Horwich rededicated himself to fighting -- as a desire to test himself. He sought out AMC near Seattle, Wash. and Team Quest in Portland. He has also trained with B.J. Penn and Eddie Bravo. Opponents failed to show for his first few fights, but Horwich recalls the first that did.

"I won by rear-naked choke," he said, smiling. "I was so happy that I finally got in there and was able to fight."

He built a 15-6-1 record before the IFL came calling. Years of subsistence living ended with one signature. He fought once for Seattle before moving to the Wolfpack. Horwich said the IFL pays him $1,000 every two weeks, $11,500 for a win and $6,500 for a loss.

"Now I have less to worry about financially," he said. "It's been a big weight off of my shoulders. Now I am putting everything I can towards being the best I can be. I'm saving my money. I'm thankful for the opportunity. I want to keep my spiritual focus and hopefully win the middleweight grand prix."

The IFL grand prix is expected to happen later this year. Horwich is 3-3 in the IFL with two losses to Jamal Patterson.

"I would love to fight him again," Horwich said. "Jamal is a great guy. It's nothing personal. Everyone wants to overcome a big challenge and he has been a big challenge for me."

But Patterson has also helped Horwich focus. His entire day is spent training, watching fights, studying the bible or pursuing spiritual exercise.

"I have dreams," he said. "I'm in the sport at the right time. We are seeing way bigger paydays. Hopefully I'll be the No. 1 middleweight fighter at least once, get a big payday, buy my ranch and live happily ever after with the girl of my dreams."

Brad McCray covers mixed martial arts for Sherdog.com