AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- For Karo Parisyan fans, it was hard to watch "The Heat" lose a listless fight at UFC 123 to Dennis Hallman, in what was supposed to be his big second chance with the organization.
But it was pure agony -- for Karo and those around him -- to stand by as he worked up the nerve to fight in the first place.
"I feel like I'm dying," he would say to whoever would listen to him in the locker room. "How am I supposed to fight like this?"
These words at the same time annoy and break the heart of his longtime friend and training partner, Andy Dermenjian, who has seen it often enough to throw up his hands and hope for one thing -- that Parisyan simply goes through with it.
"There's nothing I can do for him mentally or physically," Dermenjian said the day before at the weigh-ins. "It's like hitting a wall for me, one that only Karo can break down I can't get past the wall. Nobody can."
Nevertheless, even though Dermenjian was with Parisyan when he backed out of his fights with Yoshiyuki Yoshida and Dustin Hazelett at the last second -- in the process losing Dana White's trust -- he is there for Parisyan. Same goes for his other cornerman, Randy Couture, who does his best to reassure and comfort him.
Just about everyone else doesn't pay Parisyan any attention, as if he were wearing an asterisk for damaged goods. And, really, by the end of the night the sad reality becomes this: Parisyan isn't fit to be in the cage, and the next fight on the docket for him has got to be the one with himself. He didn't train well. He doesn't have a fighter's focus. In the three days leading up to the fight, Hallman was never anything more than a hypothetical situation sitting at the end of a best-case scenario.
Hallman was never the opponent for Parisyan. It was always himself.
Parisyan made judo an exciting and viable art form in the UFC between 2004 and 2007, at one point becoming a top-5 welterweight, all before he began suffering panic attacks prior to his bout with Thiago Alves in 2008.
"I couldn't even sit down man," Parisyan recalled. "Anxiety. My heart was going through the roof. Before the fight, I slept on the mat. I swear to God. I passed out. I was shivering cold and laying on the mat. My friends came in and asked me if I was OK, and for the first time in my life, I said 'no.'"
He really hasn't been OK since.
As an escalating mental disorder that Parisyan feels he has lost control over -- and which the UFC had tried to remedy recently by paying a sports psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Lardon, $300 an hour for sessions -- he developed a dependence on pain medications. Besides Xanax, there are whispers that he has been known to take dozens of Norcos a day, along with regular doses of Oxycontin, to help with a lingering back issue, his kidneys during weight cuts and a lingering hamstring issue.
It's also hinted by those around him that these issues are chimeras -- just excuses for the drugs.
The Catch-22 for Parisyan is that, in a high-pressure sport like MMA, this becomes an Ouroboros -- he doesn't feel he can fight without pain medication and anti-anxiety pills aiding him, and fighting gives him anxiety. Besides that, he has fought since he was 14. It's all he knows.
When Parisyan tested positive for banned painkillers (Vicodin and Norcos) after his decision win over Dong Hyun Kim at UFC 94, it was converted into a no contest and he was suspended nine months. He ended up owing the Nevada Athletic Commission $32,000 -- money he didn't have.
He knows that if he loses to Hallman, the commission takes $7,000. If he wins, the commission takes $15,000.
Of course, these things feed into his anxiety, too. He says he got "too much too soon," and he squandered money on a new house, a new car and an Escalade for his father, as well as an $80,000 wedding.
As he lies on the mat, chalk white, his eyes jet black and his heart racing, these are the types of things that are blowing up in his mind. When they become manifold and he panics, he refers to it as "a hamburger patty becoming like the whole cow." As the fight draws near, his first reaction is to ask if there's anything he can take -- a Tylenol 3, a Percocet, a Lortab, anything with codeine in it.
The answer is no.
Those who care about him say no. On fight night he says he doesn't "think" he'll test positive again for pain medication. He can't be sure, though. If somebody had a Lortab, you get the feeling he'd gladly risk a Dong Hyun Kim incident to take away his hell.
But everyone ignores his pleas. The doctor at the arena assures him that he's doing fine, and reminds him that Xanax is all he can take.
"I can't even shower," he said on the way over to the fight. "The water hurts my skin and my heart just starts pounding."
There's nothing like watching a man go through withdrawal cold turkey just as he prepares to fight.
"Back when I was Karo," he said on Thursday in his hotel room, "I would be in a suite right now. I made $500,000 in 2007 alone, and I made $100,000 on the Kim fight before sponsors. I had an eight-fight contract worth over a million dollars."
One of the common things Parisyan says is "back when I was Karo." At just 28, sitting in mute horror for a preliminary bout, where all the consequence belongs to him and not the UFC, he's no longer that Karo Parisyan. Not the one who went bare-knuckles at 14 against a 23-year-old Mexican champion in Mexico. Not the one who submitted Dave Strassner with a rolling kimura in his debut at UFC 44, or who nearly broke Georges St. Pierre's arm at UFC 46, or the judoka who beat Nick Diaz, Chris Lytle and Matt Serra in consecutive fights to catapult himself into the contender talk at 170 pounds.
This Karo is suffering the dreaded associative spiral that has now become synonymous for him with fighting. Just seeing the Octagon makes him fill with dread. He says he's claustrophobic. That he can't handle the idea of all these people watching him under a microscope. He says when he lies in bed during a panic attack it's like being in a casket.
A couple of nights prior, when sitting with UFC matchmaker Joe Silva for an otherwise easy-going conversation, Parisyan began to slip into the dark place talking about his fight. Silva, who had been keeping things light so as not to trip the wire, then looked him straight in the eye and said, "Just show up and put on a good performance."
He then threw out an adage meant to shed light onto Parisyan's outlook, saying, "You ever heard the old samurai quote, that the man who is not afraid to die can never be defeated?" There was a moment when Silva searched Parisyan's eyes to see if it registered. If it did, he can't tell.
As UFC coordinator Burt Watson's voice crashes down the hall to summon Parisyan -- "Alright, time to roll to the hole, baby! Let's go!" -- Karo starts shuffling ahead against his every want and desire. For a moment, it almost seems stoic. He's terrified, but he's going anyway. It's a moment of courage. This will be the moral victory for Karo Parisyan and his fans. That he was able to make it to the Octagon. That's all he can take from the experience. That he went through with it.
"It's beyond explanation, what the brain is capable of," he had said the day prior. "At its worst, I wanted to put a bullet in my head. Just to stop it from rushing."
Parisyan loses unceremoniously to Hallman, who TKO's him the first round. On his way back to the locker room, people shower him with invective. "You suck!" they yell.
Afterward, even Hallman seemed crestfallen that he had to beat a one-time storied fighter who was now a shell of himself.
"The only thing I'm not happy about is I am the guy who had to beat Karo," he said after the fight. "I'm a big fan of his. I really hope he redeems himself and comes back and is able to overcome this loss and is able to kick somebody else's butt."
If Parisyan is to do that, he will first have to overcome his addiction to pain medication and the demons that plague him. He will have to do it in another organization, as well, as he was told on Monday that he has been cut from the UFC. Dana White informed him, perhaps for the last time, that he "wasn't UFC material."
It was hard to watch Parisyan go out that way. He is one of the more likable guys in the game. After catching wind of Karo's release, his friend Dermenjian said to me, "I wish him a great MMA career, but he needs to take care of his personal problems first. I hope years from now when they mention Karo's name, they'll recognize him as a great fighter and a legend, not a waste of talent. Time will tell."
Throughout the days leading up to his fight in Detroit, people teased Parisyan about the incident on the "Ultimate Fighter" series, when he infamously asked Nate Diaz, "Don't you know who I am, bro?" He is used to the ribbing, and generally laughs it off. He even says he should market a T-shirt that embraces that line -- "Don't you know who I am, bro?"
The irony is that it falls on Parisyan to answer the question himself. Right now the answer is nothing less than a fighter's worst nightmare.
That is, irrelevant.
Chuck Mindenhall is a features writer at FIGHT! magazine, and can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.