Making the best of bad

Shannon Ritch never went into a fight thinking he'd lose. He was often wrong. Brandon Mizar/mizarphotos.com

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 21, 2009, issue. Subscribe today!

THE TEXAS SUNSET is a Rorschach blot above the black straightedge of the world. A panhandle sky in the last of the light, red and orange and radiant. A sky in which a man might find anything.

So a man of a certain age and a certain mind might be forgiven if the sight of that horizon fills him with longing and with hope. Maybe if a man could just straighten and gather himself, just get his feet under him and set out for that line where the earth meets the sky, he could go anywhere and do anything and be anyone. Maybe that man, cut loose of his past, could shake off the chains of his failures, could rise to live a life solid and clean. Maybe he could even go out a little glorious, blazing, like the last of the day itself.

Maybe. If a man could just get his feet under him.

Strange thoughts for a Saturday night at the Azteca Dance Hall outside Amarillo, Texas. But this is a night for strange, for the weird turn and the mistaken revelation. This is the night of the fight.

The giant dance hall out on Farm Road 1912 looks like just another equipment shed set down in the tall grass of the Texas panhandle, out among the bean fields, the blackbirds and the wind. But tonight the F-150s and the Ram 2500s are streaming in from the highway to see Shannon "The Cannon" Ritch take on Eric "Big Head" Davila for what's being sold as a Texas welterweight championship. It's the main event on a local MMA card that promises to sell out 4,000 folding chairs arranged across a huge concrete dance floor.

Men, women and children pour through the doors. Some pause to look up at that sky. To find in it what they can.

Shannon Ritch pauses too.

Generously and opaquely billed as "the most active MMA fighter in the world," the 38-year-old Ritch will enter September with an official career record of 43-67. There are people who will tell you that he is one of the world's worst fighters -- maybe the worst. Others will not say that. They'll say instead that, like humanity itself, he abides. That he endures. Persists, even in his miseries.

A few even think he'll succeed. He himself isn't so sure. But his eyes remain on the prize. Whatever it may be.

Like most of us, Ritch labors on life's rocky middle ground. Of his 43 career wins, 12 came against opponents with zero victories. Seven more came against fighters with one lifetime win. He's fought 24 current or former UFC fighters. Against them he's 0-25, with 23 first-round losses. He's lost everywhere from London to Bangkok and to everyone from Frank Shamrock to Jake Shields.

In any other sport he'd be a ham-and-egger, a palooka, a CBA 12th man. But tonight? Tonight Shannon Ritch fights for a belt.

At 5'9", he is well-formed and muscular. He lives at 195 pounds, fights at 170. He's bandy-legged, and his gait rolls him side to side, like a cowboy on a boat. He wears a goatee on a long, pointed chin. The effect is a face as sharp and hard as a hatchet. In photos, Ritch's eyes widen in a look of surprise, as if he's always a little shocked at where he finds himself.

He lives alone just outside Phoenix, not far from the modest ranch where he grew up with a single mother and one sister. He bought his six-figure house with what he's won and what he's earned, those two things not necessarily being the same. Ask him and he'll tell you that he wrestled in high school, had his first pro fight in 1998 and has been inducted into the Universal Martial Arts Hall of Fame. He has one chocolate Lab, an ex-wife and a girlfriend, and he dotes on Brooks & Dunn.

Before the fight, Ritch sat in the lobby of an oddball Texas motel and talked about the jobs he's worked over the years: carpenter, bouncer, bodyguard. In moments like that it's easy to take to him, to see him as he sees himself: a middle-class adventurer who works hard, fights five styles and has traveled the world. A good guy, likable and eager to be liked, he's a natural self-promoter and showman. (Ritch just had a bit part in an episode of CSI. Show business! An MMA fighter is murdered! Look fast to catch two seconds of The Cannon taping his hands!)

But you also get the sense that he's a sweet man for whom things will always go wrong. Not that he's a failure, but that he'll never quite get where he thinks he's headed, because he's someone for whom the world and fate turn by slow degrees in only one direction.

You get the feeling that even though he knows the right answers -- work hard, persevere -- the universe is asking different questions. "Sometimes I feel like I can be the best," he said. "Other times, well … " His voice trails away and uncertainty blanks his face.

But things are looking up, he says. He has a small stable of sponsors -- clothes, supplements, a weapons manufacturer. He's finally able to train full-time. And tonight he fights for a belt, a $2,000 welterweight strap as gaudy and useless as a Fabergé tea service. Sure, it's a local "championship," but it's a long way from the bare-knuckle joints along the Mexican border where he got his start in the early 1990s: "It was the chickens, then the dogs, then us."

Ritch is no Horatio Alger. Google his name and you'll see the baggage he drags behind him. Message boards savage him (Why is Shannon Ritch still fighting?), and it's widely assumed that he's thrown a fight or two. He fights his own life out of a crouch. Bad choices cast long shadows.

Despite that, or because of it, Shannon Ritch is at once an MMA touchstone and an MMA punch line. He's the fighter who never gives up -- but who once tapped out because his opponent's cup was digging into his back. He's The Aristocrats of mixed martial arts, the joke that every fighter shares but tells differently. "It took you two minutes to knock out The Cannon? I did it in 45 seconds!"

Benji Radach is a very good fighter. At 19–5 in the UFC, IFL and Strikeforce, he's the real thing. "Shannon has a good heart," Radach says. "I like him a lot. After I beat him, I got to know him, and now we're friends.

"He has some talent. He's just never put it all together. Look at the people he's fought -- there are a lot of big names on there, guys who used a win over Shannon to advance their place in the fight world. But man, I don't understand how he does it. You see these message boards and hear fighters joke about how quick they knocked him out. I couldn't deal with that."

Ritch hears the wisecracks and the put-downs and is alternately defensive and quietly resigned. But there remains in him a kernel of indestructible pride. "I'm the gatekeeper," he says. "If they can't get past me, they don't belong up there."

That is indisputably true. Still, he wants to put all the small money and small minds behind him. He's won his last four fights -- his longest streak this century -- and he's trained 10 weeks for this one, serious as a deacon for the first time in his career. Tonight will make his case. The Amarillo fight will make his case. It has to. He doesn't have much time to make things right.

Shannon Ritch spent his first day in town driving around with Jim Larsen, the fight's promoter. They took the title belt in the jump seat of Jim's big red pickup to show off to sponsors. They went to the Chevy dealership and said howdy and passed around the belt, giving out tickets to the fight as folks oohed and aahed. Jim reminded everyone that the belt was made
special just for this show and that the cage out at the dance hall was the biggest setup in North America -- 33 feet across. The UFC is only 32 feet across, he told them. Only 32.

Shannon shook hands and politely said thanks. Then they drove off to the next spot while Jim talked into his cell phone.

The next night, Larsen arranged a photo op at Lowery's Saloon, out on Amarillo's west side, by the water tower. About 75 people showed up, and there wasn't a man among them who didn't love God, pretty strippers and beer -- potential ticket buyers. They watched Ritch, Davila and the belt pose for photos. At one point, Davila took off his shirt. As soon as he walked away, Ritch whispered, "Did you see that? He'll never make weight. Look at him -- heavy. I got him."

Thursday morning, Ritch and Davila went on local radio to hype the fight. For two hours, the friends exchanged notions about knees, elbows, persistence, violence, courage and knowing your place in the order of things -- anything to fill those 4,000 seats. Later that day, in his final training session, Ritch went five five-minute rounds and looked sharp. But everyone looks sharp when they spar


Then Friday, at the Holiday Inn, there was trouble at the weigh-in. Things started late, and there was free beer, so a few of the 100 or so fans were hammered by the time the fighters stripped down. Along with the shouts of "Marco Polo" coming from the Holidome pool, there were drunken hoots and hollers for the half-clad fighters. Especially for the women on the card.

But that wasn't the trouble. Trouble was, Big Head couldn't make weight.

Ritch came in at 170 on the nose. But Davila came in five pounds too heavy, at 175 and not another ounce to lose after a day and a night in the sauna.

Then the frantic negotiations. Larsen and the fighters crowded into a conference room to cut a deal. Davila, ashamed, faced the wall. Under the hoodie, dehydrated, he might have been crying.

"We can still fight," Larsen said, "and the belt goes to Shannon if he wins. If he doesn't, we don't award the belt."

He explained that Ritch could penalize Davila for every pound he was overweight.

"Could be $500 a pound," he said. This on a purse where Davila might make four grand. Ritch looked at the floor. "Maybe a hundred," he said.

Everyone agreed, shook on it and walked back out. While those kids splashed and screamed in the pool, Ritch leaned over to Davila and whispered low into his hood, I'll kick back half.

After all, Big Head has seven children.

Backstage on fight night, Ritch seems nervous. "He's always jittery like this," says cornerman/second/friend Todd Handel. "Nervy. Antsy. Just the way he is. He's good."

Nearby, Ritch paces and breathes, paces and breathes. "I've never had all my friends to a fight before," he says to no one in particular.

Out front, the show starts. It's a sellout. Fighters enter in a deafening haze of generic speed metal, applause, colored lights and manufactured smoke.

The undercard is made up mostly of area beginners, and their grand entrances often take longer than their fights. Ugly and percussive, the fighters crash into one another, then fly apart like cymbals. No rhythm or flow, just the cartoon tangle of fists and limbs. The heavyweights, slow and soft, are both bleeders. They exchange sharp blows to the face, then go down exhausted and bloody. It looks like Greenpeace footage of a Japanese whale hunt. Somebody wins because somebody has to.

In the dressing room, Ritch's new agents pump him full of killer instinct.

"He's yours, baby!" says one.

"This is your moment!" says a second.

"You just get it done!" says the first.

"You just climb that ladder!" says the second.

"This is for the belt!" says the first.

"For the belt, baby!" echoes the second.

Ritch paces and breathes, paces and breathes. The crowd out front is row after row of Mohawks and fauxhawks, moms and dads and red-eyed kids, tough guys and tougher girls, tiger-striped Zubaz and blurry tattoos done in that Iron Cross typeface, that font beloved of Goth tweens and mixed martial artists. Affliction! Just another Saturday night in America!

Around 10:20, a fight breaks out near the men's room. As ticket holders crane for a look, someone is swept up and out in a cloud of bouncers.

Finally the main event is called.

"Five rounds, banging for the belt! Are you ready, Amarillo?"

Amarillo is.

Davila enters first. The solemn, slow-motion, speed-metal procession includes an entourage of two dozen. Subwoofers pound. The crowd erupts. Davila climbs the stairs and ducks into the cage. He bobs, weaves, shadow-boxes.

Then the PA booms out honors and airports, "Russian world champion ... fought in Burma, Thailand, Japan, Holland ... over 100 fights ... " And from the faraway darkness and rising smoke, "the most active MMA fighter in the world" begins his long, bowlegged walk.

Wearing a white Jabbawockeez mask, Shannon "The Cannon" Ritch approaches his destiny. The throng roars its madness. He mounts the apron, bobs, weaves and punches at the air. He sheds the mask for an unfamiliar look of grim determination. The losing stops now.

There he stands: Shannon Ritch, a fighter for the rest of us. Fighting, as we all must, just to stay even. Fighting on behalf of everyone everywhere who ever got it wrong.

Both men are compact and muscular under the lights. But at the stare-down they succeed only in looking very tired. The audience pours out its noise.

Bright for the first time now is the lacework of tattoos that Ritch wears like a shawl around his shoulders. Tattooed over the length of his back is a crucified Christ above the phrase Via Con Dios. The Savior glistens with sweat.

When the bell rings, Ritch does as he's promised. He comes out hands high, kicking with the right leg. He pivots at the hip and sends a series of low exploratory kicks to Davila's left knee. He wants to chop him down and fight on the floor.

What Ritch does not want is to stand and trade punches. The uselessness of something as delicate as a human fist against the enormity of Big Head's big head is obvious. Better to take the man down, grapple him, get the submission, especially if Davila's weak from cutting weight.

That's The Cannon's strategy.

And Davila knows it.

So the 32-year-old grabs Ritch's leg, turns and levers him down. They scuffle on the canvas, Big Head forcing The Cannon flat.

Now they grunt, tussle and roll, straining against each other in the brutal increments of a fight on the mat. Barely moving, but every muscle tensed to win an inch, a grip, a submission, an escape.

The light and the noise flare hot, white, loud. And in this one moment, the urgency and hope of the last week, of the last 10 weeks, of the last 38 years, bleed away.

You've experienced this moment yourself. Time stops, split to its smallest measure, and becomes a thing so fine there's no before, no after, no past, no future, nor even what lies between. There is only who you are and what you want. You make no decision, yet everything is decided.

Later, you won't remember how things came to be. This you'll call Fate or God or Destiny.

Athletes know this moment. Soldiers and presidents know it too. Whole lives, whole armies, whole nations move through it. Wars and kingdoms are won and lost inside it.

Cage-side, the moment is sensed, not seen. There is no change in anyone's expression, no panic in Ritch's corner as he works to tuck his chin.

Maybe a man can change.

Now Davila chokes him up slow with an arm triangle, squeezing hard, one big biceps pinned to the hinge of Ritch's jaw. Veins bulge. In the arm. In the jaw. Harder now. Squeezing. Both men motionless. Faces red.

Ritch can't buck him. Can't roll out or roll over. Can't straighten or gather himself. Can't rise.

If he could just ...

If a man could just ...

If he could just get his feet under him.

One minute 15 seconds into the fight, not quite as long as it took to make his entrance, on the rough, red canvas of the biggest cage in North America, at the center of all those people and all that noise, at the center of a dance hall adrift in the wind and the tall grass, at the center of everything that spins and grinds beneath the stars, under a long, black ribbon of Texas sky and an endless, indifferent heaven, The Cannon taps out.

He fights again on Oct. 9.

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