The wild life of the UFC's happiest fighter

Sam Alvey, 36, hasn't won a UFC fight in four years. But he's married to an "America's Next Top Model" winner, and has six kids and 57 pets, including a one-eyed hairless rescue cat. So, he's living the dream. Whitten Sabbatini for ESPN

THERE ARE THREE CREATURES on Earth who despise Sam Alvey, and at this very moment, they are huddled in a corner, glaring at him, waiting for an opening to go around or through him.

"Watch, as soon as I open this gate, they'll band together and run away from me," the UFC fighter says. "They hate me so much."

Sure enough, Alvey opens the gate in his barn and the three black-bellied sheep form a small pack for a few seconds... then rush past him, out of the barn and into Alvey's open field where his horses roam.

Alvey is at a loss. He takes good care of the sheep. He loves them enough to name them Hughes, Jefe and CeCe, so that when he calls out to them, it sounds like "U-F-C." He sounds a little heartbroken as he stares out into the field and talks about the unreturned love of U, F and C. The sheep lurk alongside Alvey's two horses, Khan and Whisper, like quarterbacks hiding behind two big linemen.

At night time, the only way Alvey can get them to come back in is if he walks the horses into the barn, waits for the sheep to follow them in, then closes the gate behind them. They sprint to the corner of their barn stall and give him the evil eye as he closes them into their pen for the night and leaves. He always softly says, "Good night, U-F-C," but they are ruthless with their frost.

"I don't get it," Alvey says. "I just don't. I raised them from the day they were born, and I feed them, and I do everything for them. And they hate me so much." Alvey seems to need a hug at this moment. But mostly his life out here on the farm in Tennessee is a wild and happy adventure. He married McKey Sullivan, winner of season 11 of "America's Next Top Model," and they both ended up with the same basic goals: Have as many kids, animals and UFC fights as possible.

They've had a lot of all three. They're up to six kids under the age of 10, and they are almost assuredly not done. McKey just gave birth to a son in early June, Evander, during a 22-hour home birth at their farm. She's as chill as Sam is. She gave birth at home, with the other kids wandering around and Sam filming it. "It was a beautiful day, and I wanted the kids to see how they were born," she says.

They've raised pretty much the entire farm of animals as though they were beloved babies, too. McKey had all 30 chickens in the house for a while, naming each one of them. There's a Batman 1, Batman 2 and Batman 3, for instance.

At one point, she tells a story about how she took care of the baby chicks. As she talks, she is breastfeeding Evander on one arm and making Swedish pancakes in the kitchen with the other hand. In the middle of it all, a hairless cat with one eye -- Cali Kitty, a recent rescue -- jumps off the counter and onto her shoulders. Cali Kitty just lays across the back of her neck like a scarf as she flips pancakes and nurses Evander. It looks like some kind of impossible TikTok challenge.

When she's done rattling off the chicken names, she mentions their two turkeys, two horses, three dogs, three Guinea hens, the three anti-Sam sheep, four cats, four geese and six ducks. Sam wonders if they should count the turtle, Kevin, that they found alongside the road and put in their pond, but they haven't seen him in a month. Maybe not?

"Why would Kevin ever want to leave?" McKey pushes back.

So Kevin stays in the count. That brings the quick tally to 57, but McKey jumps in and says "That's 57... so 63."

Wait, where'd the extra six come from?

"I'm counting the kids on there, too," she says. "We have 63 heartbeats we have to take care of."

"Then you should make it 64," says their 9-year-old, Reagan, and the whole room is confused until she drops the punchline. "For Jordan."

They all chuckle and glance toward the guest bedroom. Apparently, there is a Bellator fighter named Jordan Winski, a longtime friend of Alvey's, who is living at the house, too. But Sam announces that the 64th heartbeat probably won't be seen much today because he was up all night playing video games.

Fine, let's add in the 33-year-old cage fighter with a 12-3 record and go with 58 non-adults at Alvey Farm.

To fund this adventure, Alvey fights every single time the UFC calls. And that has been often: Alvey is about to have his 24th career UFC fight, hallowed ground in an organization where only 28 fighters have ever gotten past 26 career fights. UFC champions Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey and Bas Rutten fought 18 UFC fights combined. It's a special class of agreeable, durable grinder that makes it to two dozen fights in the Octagon.

Alvey is all of those things, plus he might be the most well-liked character in the UFC. In a world of fighters that ask to be known as "The Axe Murderer" and "The Nightmare," Alvey is... "Smile'n Sam." His dad had suggested maybe "The Grin Reaper" had a little more edge. But Alvey ultimately thought the nickname that fit him the best was "Smile'n Sam," and he's been that ever since.

That's what makes it so hard to believe that the happiest man in MMA hasn't won a fight in four years.

WHEN ALVEY WAS A KID, his mom always said to him, "Don't sweat the small stuff... and it's all small stuff."

Everybody writes that on their kitchen dry-erase board. So it can be jarring to see someone who seems like he's actually able to live that mantra. Alvey is so happy and considers his life a big success... and yet is in the middle of an all-time UFC drought.

He hasn't won a fight since June 1, 2018, right around the time Ben Simmons was named NBA rookie of the year and NFL No. 1 draft pick Baker Mayfield was going to save the Browns. There have been 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and nine MCU TV shows since he beat Gian Villante at UFC Fight Night: Rivera vs. Moraes. "These last few years haven't gone according to plan," he says, and he smiles. He knows what an understatement that is.

Alvey is 0-7-1 during that stretch, taking a string of perhaps ill-advised last-minute offers or accepting late replacements for scheduled fights. Only BJ Penn has ever had that many fights without a victory. If Alvey doesn't beat Michal Oleksiejczuk on Aug. 6 at UFC Fight Night in Vegas, he'll finish out his current contract with the worst winless stretch in the history of the UFC. "This is probably it for me, even if I win," he admits.

And yet you'd never know it as you watch him move about the world. How many of us could go winless four years in our professional lives and be Smile'n' Mike or Smile'n' Michelle around the water cooler?

When Alvey gets done feeding the animals in the morning, he comes inside to feed himself. The UFC has a meal plan for fighters now, and Alvey has worked with a UFC nutritionist to design shipments of packaged foods that work for him.

So he busts out a low-calorie meal of baked ziti from the freezer and heats it up. At some point very soon, Alvey's going to have to worry about his weight. As he heads for the microwave this June 17 morning, he weighs 224 pounds. On the afternoon of Aug. 5, he'll have to weigh 186 pounds.

The kids are lined up along the kitchen counter, scarfing down breakfast. They take turns going back to the couch to hold Evander. He is a remarkably calm three-week-old human. though he does seem to constantly have a look on his face like he's watching a live feed of a frenzied reality show. But in this case, the reality show is "Meet the Alveys," and he is a cast member now.

It's 9:30 a.m. when Alvey, 36, finishes his food, which means it's time for him to go train at a local gym. He has his main camp in California with MMA legend Dan Henderson. But in Tennessee, he found nearby Guardian MMA to get some sparring in before heading out west for an intense seven-week ramp-up to what is most likely his last UFC fight.

He thinks he won a few of those fights -- three of them were by the always-dreaded split decision, every fighter's worst possible scenario where one judge might have missed or overrated one punch or takedown and scored it for the other guy. In those three fights, Alvey actually out-landed his opponents, 184-176, but came out with zero victories (two losses and one draw).

"Split decisions," he says, and he shakes his head, drawing out the 's' sounds in 'decisions' in such a long, disgusted tone that it feels like it should be bleeped. He says UFC brass has told him that they agree with him that he got jobbed at least a few times in the past four years. In this case, those reassurances seem legit, because it's almost inexplicable in today's UFC to see a mid-tier fighter (Alvey has gotten as high as No. 15 but hasn't been ranked in years) go eight fights without a win and still be in the organization.

His likeability is no doubt a significant part of that. Cage fighting can be a brutal survival-of-the-fittest sport, with violent, unconscious ends to fights and to careers, and many of the biggest events benefit enormously when the insults between fighters are as nasty and real as possible. This is a world of mean mugs, not smiles. And yet, Alvey is still as busy as ever. "I've yet to meet somebody who doesn't like Sam Alvey," Henderson says.

So in that way, Alvey is refreshing. He has a manager -- her name is McKey Sullivan -- who handwrites Christmas notes to about 90 UFC employees that her client has ever interacted with. She always includes a family photo, full of smiling Alveys, along with a $5 Starbucks gift card for each person. UFC president Dana White always gets a $10 card.

For better or worse, he's also Dana White's kind of fighter. That means he's taken multiple last-second bouts over the years, none of which he's won but he always showed up. "I'm the fighter that never says no," Alvey says.

As Henderson listens to the beginning of a question about Alvey's willingness to take any fight, he purses his lips in disapproval and then interrupts: "It hasn't helped his career route not being more careful with opponents and being ready to go," he says. "Taking fights on short notice hasn't really helped him."

Millions of Americans can probably identify with the push-pull fighters like Alvey sort through. Make the bosses happy by taking the job? Or advocate for yourself and push back against management?

Alvey has made his choice, and he has no regrets. As he drives to the gym, he nods along during a back-and-forth conversation about how many of his fellow fighters agitate against the UFC's pay practices. How can heavyweight champion boxers get $20-30 million per fight and the UFC champ, Francis Ngannu, got $600,000 for his last defense?

Alvey gets it; he just disagrees.

"I don't know about other fighters, but the UFC has been really good to me," he says, and he admits he's not the best person to critique, for example, how the organization can pay fighters about 20 percent of revenue when other major sports leagues are closer to 50 percent going to athletes.

"The UFC pays well," he says. "I know people like to complain. My wife and I lived fairly well in California with three children with nothing but a UFC contract. I'll always defend that."

Exhibit A of how Alvey feels about the UFC? His baby's middle name, Evander Dana Alvey. So Evander Dana's dad won't be leading a fighter union picket any time soon.

Alvey has found a spot for his large pickup truck outside the gym, and he pops open the back to pull out shin guards and gloves. He mentions a call from six months ago, when he had just lost another fight and was at a YMCA with his entire family when UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard called. He pulled McKey into a side room and put the call on speaker. He thought this might be the moment he'd dreaded, when the UFC let him know it was time to move on.

But instead, Maynard said the UFC would let him fight out the final bout on his contract, and specifically mentions how much everybody at the UFC enjoys working with him. As he gathers his gear, Alvey again confesses he's pretty sure this will be it for him in the UFC. He says he'll make $75,000 for his next fight, another $75,000 if he wins, and $21,000 for wearing Venum gear into the Octagon.

Alvey is an action fighter who likes standing and banging, which his coaches bark at him for, but it often has him in the conversation for one of the UFC's end-of-card bonuses. That could be another $50,000 for his likely UFC farewell fight. Throw in the $250,000 profit the Alveys banked from the sale of their California home a year ago, and Alvey has a nice financial bridge if retirement is around the corner.

He opens the gym door and says he hopes he wins and gets another contract... but even he realizes that's probably optimistic. His 6-year-old son, Crosby, bounds into the gym behind and asks what dad will do if he's not in the UFC. The kids are young enough that they've seen him win and lose -- mostly lose -- but they've never seen Dad not in the UFC.

Alvey says he'd like to keep fighting, maybe in Bellator or Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. If that doesn't work out -- and there's a very real possibility that Alvey hits the free agency market on an 0-8-1 anti-heater -- Alvey is a huge pro wrestling fan who grew up dreaming of being in the WWE.

He says in a worst-case scenario, he could always retire from MMA, teach jiu-jitsu classes and help his wife manage other fighters. His name resonates around here: There aren't many guys in the world who can say they had 51 pro MMA fights (Alvey is 33-17-1 overall) in four different weight classes, let alone in central Tennessee. "I'm Smile'n Sam Alvey, baby," he says with a smirk, pulling on his sparring gloves.

He's certainly the biggest star in the gym that morning. Alvey could crush pretty much anybody here without breaking much of a sweat, but that doesn't stop everybody from taking their best shots. A thin but strong guy in a tight "NeverEnding Story" T-shirt comes forward with a few front kicks, catching Alvey pretty hard in the gut. That gets Alvey's attention, and he starts to march forward and eat up territory.

Alvey's skill set is solid across the board for a professional fighter. But he's a bit of an oddity in MMA because he has no real blue-chip asset to fall back on other than being a tough guy with some power. He's not a black belt, or an All-American wrestler, or a Golden Gloves champion.

He does, however, know how to walk down guys in "NeverEnding Story" T-shirts, and Alvey begins to exert his ability to dictate where the sparring will happen. For the last two minutes of this three-minute round, he puts a spatial squeeze on his opponent, landing light punches that could have put the Bastian superfan down if Alvey really wanted to.

The bell rings, and everybody in the room switches partners. Alvey faces off with back-to-back big guys, both about 6-foot-4 and north of 250 pounds. The second sparring partner is the gym's co-owner, Matt Maskovyak, who Alvey can't control. Maskovyak, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, is able to move forward, bouncing from foot to foot.

But Alvey has a quickness advantage, so he gets off light punches and kicks first. Maskovyak is able to counter and challenge Alvey enough that by the time the bell rings again, he's got a good sweat going. "That's the goal -- burn 1,000 calories and shake off some of the rust," Alvey says.

The next round is about to start, and Alvey squares up against a surprise sparring partner: It's McKey. She's a longtime jiu-jitsu practitioner who loves to kickbox at the gym when she can. On fight nights, she is one of Alvey's corner people, and sometimes the only person that can rattle Alvey's cage when he needs to adjust his game plan during a fight.

On this morning, she brings the other five kids to hang out in the back room of the gym while she gets some rounds in. She has on golden gloves and is the only person in the room wearing headgear.

The bell dings, and the husband and wife tap gloves and start measuring up each other. McKey says she's 6-foot, but her reach seems longer than that. She is not messing around: She zips in a front kick that connects with Alvey's midsection, then another. The second kick makes a thud noise and Alvey lets out a groan. "Holy crap," he says, and takes a step backward.

He gathers himself and pushes forward, throwing a few light jabs, and she fires back for the next two and a half minutes. At the end, they tap gloves and move on to new partners. You know what marriage therapists always say... couples that front-kick together stay together. "It's like a date night for us," she says later. "That's the most eye contact we ever have."

At the end of the workout, Alvey is drenched in sweat. He did indeed get a decent workout. On the drive home, he's going through his losing streak and again lamenting MMA judges as he maneuvers his pickup truck through the winding back roads of Murfreesboro.

From the back seat, Crosby interrupts: "Dad, if I was a judge, I would judge that the person who wins the fight gets to win the fight."

Sam smiles. He looks proud, like a dad whose honor just got defended. "Me too," he says. "I've been screwed too many times by the judges."

A few seconds pass before Sam chuckles and says to no one in particular, "Split decisions."

THE ALVEYS HAVE A VAN that is more bus than van. It seats 15 comfortably, and when they load up the whole gang, it's quite a busy scene.

On a road trip in June, they head for Chattanooga for a local MMA card. Alvey just started doing commentary on the B2 Fighting Series broadcasts, and it's good fights, with good pay. Alvey likes that it's another possible revenue stream if his career is indeed winding down.

Sam is driving, and each kid has a lollipop in one hand and is working over a mint chocolate chip Klondike bar in the other throughout the two-hour drive. For the first hour or so, it's hard to hear their little voices from the back because of how loud the van can be on the highway. The whir of air is one notch below an airplane at 10,000 feet as Alvey makes his way down the interstate.

As Alvey drives, McKey tells what is a fantastic midwestern love story. They met at a Renaissance fair in Wisconsin 17 years ago, when they were both teenagers, and their first date was coffee at a local truck stop. Sam paid using money from his job at the fair, which was selling steak on a stick for $4.50.

Steak on a stick, he explains, is meat that is steak-ish but definitely not real steak. "It's actually pretty good," he says. They've been together ever since, despite long periods of living apart.

Perhaps the toughest stretch was 2008, when McKey was selected for Season 11 of "America's Top Model." Sam had fought all over the country at that point, training away from her for weeks at a time. But Top Model was a long grind for them. McKey says the entire cast was told to not speak to each other at all unless cameras were rolling, and phone calls to Sam were infrequent and very short.

It felt like somebody had stuck their relationship in the back of the freezer for a while. "They'd come in once a week and hand us all a cell phone, and we all had to take turns," she says.

She won the show, and their relationship survived. But modeling was more of something she happened to be good at, versus in her soul. She wanted to be wherever Sam was, and they wanted to get married and move to California and start a family.

California ultimately wasn't for them. They didn't like how densely populated it was, and Alvey mentions the California taxes an estimated 74 times in conversation. They both decided they wanted to find a big chunk of land somewhere with lower taxes and the space to build their own unofficial zoo, with lots of kids and animals.

First they had Reagan (now 9 years old). Then came Ival (7), Crosby (6), Ali (3), Alister (almost 3) and then Evander (now 2 months old). They refer to Alister and Ali as twins, but they're actually a few weeks apart. Right before McKey had Alister, the family got certified to foster, and they brought baby Ali into their home.

The van ride gets a little harrowing as Sam describes bringing home Ali at 3 days old, fostering her for a few weeks and then filing paperwork to formally adopt her. Six months later, before the last adoption hearing, a distant relative came forward and made a custody claim. The Alveys' attorney warned them that adoption can be an unpredictable, grueling legal process, so even though they were at the 1-yard line, it was impossible to predict if they'd win or lose the case.

The judge ultimately ruled for Sam and McKey, and Ali came home with them for good. Sam had begun game planning to flee the country to Mexico City, where he'd fought a few times and fallen in love with the community. "I never lost faith," Sam says. "But just the possibility of losing her, I started thinking about moving. She was our daughter."

Now they have what they always wanted, and it sure seems like they are living their dreams. Their plan is to get licensed to foster kids in Tennessee, and McKey says she has no plans to stop having kids herself, either.

They have the perfect demeanors to have 64 living beings under their care. The scene is nonstop potential chaos, with missing shoes and forgotten toothbrushes and frequent bawling. But their chill vibe is palpable, so the kids never seem to have meltdowns. The term for the opposite of helicopter parents is "free range parents," and you couldn't find a better term for Sam and McKey out here in Tennessee.

There is some melting, though. McKey leans forward from her seat by the van door because Reagan lets her know that Alister's entire Klondike has just slowly melted across him, all over his clothes, all over his car seat, green ooze dripping down onto the van floor. It looks like a melted-down Shrek.

She scrubs him down as much as she can as she hovers over two van seats, across Reagan's lap. She doesn't seem to even feel the natural urge felt by, oh, 100 percent of parents to groan and snipe at the kid for splattering chocolate and green goo all over. The only thing she mentions comes after she slides back into her seat and realizes why it had been so loud in the van for the past hour. Turns out, that door she was sitting against the entire time wasn't actually closed.

She calmly asks Sam to pull over so she can close the door and maybe, you know, not plummet out of the van going 70 mph.

"Just... when you can," she says.

A mile or two later, Alvey pulls over and McKey slides the door closed once, then again, just to be sure, and then it's back onto the interstate.

ALVEY IS HOME BY HIMSELF on a June afternoon when the sky gets dark. Like, "The Wizard of Oz" dark. And fast. It isn't one of those storms that is on the way -- it didn't exist. Then it did. Now it's here.

The trees and bushes in his yard start to sway and then they just lean back as the wind pushes them down. Raindrops start to land hard sporadically like somebody's flicking the side of a 2-liter bottle over and over again. In the front yard, the kids' trampoline looks like it might get trampolined up and into the air.

Alvey bolts out into the yard and starts to round up chickens. He recently began letting them outside the pen, so they don't venture far, slowly exploring the yard a few more feet every day. But they still hustle around and around and around as Alvey tries to herd them, and finally, he gets all 33 into the pen. "I've seen the movie Twister," Alvey says. "I don't want the chickens to blow away."

Oh, wait, make that 32. There's one chicken who just meanders around and then darts away, and Alvey can't do anything about it. It's amusing to watch a guy who earlier in the day was able to control every inch of sparring against 250-pound black belts now fail so miserably as he chases one chicken. Alvey eventually shrugs and gives up. His free-range parenting style applies to the chickens, too.

The storm is officially here, rain blasting down now in big, powerful waves. They had a tornado in the area a few weeks ago, and the conditions seem ripe for another. So Alvey picks up the pace. The geese and ducks all go out on the water, and the cats and dogs have made their way into the house.

All that's left is the horses... and the three hateful sheep. They don't seem worried at all, wandering around together near each other like a basketball team with two centers and three point guards. The sky is downright scary at this point.

He runs through the barn and out into the field, and the sheep scatter at the sight of their arch enemy. He rushes over to the horses and pulls one in, which leads the second horse to follow. The sheep watch from afar but ultimately scurry over near the entrance to the barn. The barn door is blowing so hard he thinks it might fly right off and head off toward Alabama.

The horses drift inside the barn, and the sheep do their regular perplexing routine. They inch closer and closer toward the horses, even as their evil nemesis stands by. Alvey is hoping they'll hustle so he can get out of the 50 mph gusts currently blowing across his property.

Maybe it was fear of the storm, or perhaps the sheep are warming up to Alvey. But two of the three break into a full-on sprint along with the horses. The third wavers for a bit, but he doesn't hang back for long. Right about when Alvey is going to give up on him and lock down the barn, the third sheep gallops in.

As Alvey closes their barn door, he's soaking wet and still mostly despised by the sheep. But he's smiling, because somehow it feels like he finally got a split decision to go his way.