Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Drew McFedries – MFS’ Best Supporting Actor gets a Lead Role on Saturday

By Thomas Gerbasi

He was always the one in the shadows in mixed martial arts’ most famous gym. The way he puts it, he was looked upon as “the guy who helps other guys get ready for fights.”

So as the names Tim Sylvia, Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, and Spencer Fisher are instantly greeted with recognition by UFC fans, the name Drew McFedries doesn't exactly ring a bell. In fact, you would have been hard pressed to find any information about the Ames, Iowa native on the internet before November 18, 2006.

But that was about to change when a rib injury shelved Wilson Gouveia for his UFC 65 bout against Alessio Sakara, and McFedries got the call to step in on short notice to be the designated hittee for the Italian banger, a former pro boxer who was finally going to face a fellow standup fighter, and presumably knock the 28-year old American out.

“That was very motivating,” said McFedries. “Whenever somebody expects me to lose, I think I take it to another level.”

He did. In one of the best fights on the UFC 65 card, McFedries went toe to toe with Sakara, eating some early bombs before coming back and delivering some heavy shots of his own which Sakara was unable to recover from, rendering McFedries the victor at 4:07 of the opening round in his UFC debut, lifting his overall pro MMA record to 5-1.

“I think I definitely surprised some people,” said McFedries. “I took the fight on such short notice, I really didn’t give anybody a chance to look at me, and even if they wanted to look at me they couldn’t have found anything. They probably couldn’t even have found a picture of me if they wanted it, so I definitely think I snuck in at the right time. Nobody knew me, so I went for what I knew and I went in there to win.”

And when it was over, there wasn’t an extended celebration, and the Miletich Fighting Systems gym in Bettendorf didn’t close for three days in honor of the conquering hero. When you fight for that team, winning is expected, and when you come out victorious, whether it’s in a small local show or on a UFC pay-per-view broadcast, you act like you’ve been there.

“This might sound cocky, but there was no reaction,” said McFedries when asked how his teammates reacted to his first UFC victory. “For me it was a big deal, but for everybody else, they were like ‘told ya so.’ This was a guy I could beat, and when I watched his tape, I knew I could beat him; I just had to do the things I do in the gym. I said going in, ‘I don’t care what type of boxer he is, I know he can’t handle my hands.’ If somebody goes hands on hands with me, there’s not many guys that are gonna beat me. I know that sounds cocky, but I’m just very confident in my skills. I box with Robbie Lawler on a day to day basis.”

It’s also not a stretch to see the six foot, 185 pound McFedries go ten rounds of sparring with Sylvia, the UFC heavyweight champion, or hit the mat with the likes of Matt Hughes. It’s all in a day’s work in Iowa, but now McFedries could finally count himself as a UFC veteran as well.

“I’ve never been the main character in the gym,” he admits. “I’ve always tried to help other people get ready for fights, and I’ve been training just as long, if not longer, than Tim Sylvia. I remember Day One, he couldn’t jump a rope, and we were grappling together. When I came into it, Matt Hughes was just getting his start as far as the UFC goes, and I wrestled and sparred with him to help him get ready. Tony Fryklund, Jacen Flynn, any of the major guys, I was always helping them get ready for fights, so I never really got that opportunity.”

When it came, McFedries took full advantage of it, and even though he’s made a bit of a name for himself on the world MMA scene and will look to increase his profile with his fight against Martin Kampmann this Saturday at UFC 68, he doesn’t look back at his years of toil in obscurity with any sense of bitterness.

“I’m a pretty humble person and I don’t really expect much of anybody and I don’t expect to get anything I don’t deserve,” he said. “I feel like my fights have been so spaced out that I never really got on a roll, and this isn’t something that defines my life. It’s great, but for some guys, they’ve got the fight game and that’s all they’ve got. I’ve got a life outside of this and I’m happy for that, and I’m also happy about what’s happening for me inside of fighting, so I can’t complain either way.”

McFedries, owner of an Associate’s Degree from Iowa Central Community College, has good reason to be thankful, and it has nothing to do with fighting, as he has battled the ravages of Crohn’s disease, which attacks the intestinal tract. It forced him into an over three year layoff from 2003 to 2006, and had him wondering if he would even survive on a couple of occasions.

“I had some pretty tough bouts,” he admits. “I had been hospitalized twice where I personally thought that this was it. They were trying things on me and they weren’t working so there were times where I didn’t think I was gonna wake up the next day. I wasn’t really sure what was gonna happen.”

Thankfully, the treatment finally took and you can figure out what McFedries’ first stop was.

“As soon as I got out and as soon as I felt halfway decent, I always found my way back to the gym,” he said.

And staring at death’s door does change the way you look at things considerably.

“I think that being sick definitely changed my outlook on life and how I go about doing things because it was so hard for me,” he admits. “People get up in the morning and do whatever they do, but they don’t really think about their health because nothing’s ever happened to them. Me, I watch my diet more, I don’t drink as much, and I don’t do those things I used to do. I used to go out drinking and go train the next day and it wouldn’t bother me. Now, if I try to do those things, I won’t recover for three or four days and my whole program is screwed. So I’m really thankful for just being here, let alone being able to compete in the UFC, which is one of the top platforms in the world.”

It’s a hard thing to face your own mortality in that way. It must be even tougher for a fighter – someone trained in the art of combat and in prime shape physically – to go through. And McFedries didn’t go through the process alone, though his support system wasn’t what you would expect it to be.

“My family doesn’t play a big role in my life,” said McFedries when asked his family’s thoughts on him fighting after his near-death experience. “My mother is gone right now, I don’t really know where she is – I think she might be in prison or something like that. I don’t really talk to my father and I never really have. So family doesn’t even play a role in my life.”

So who does he turn to? His real family in the MFS gym.

“Those are my brothers,” he said. “We sweat together, bleed together, cry together, and do everything together. Our life experiences all reflect on each other, and I’ll tell you, if those guys weren’t there for me, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“If you come from a family where you’ve got a brother, you know what it’s about – you beat me up, I beat you up, you still love each other and you’re always gonna be there for each other,” he continues. “That’s just how it goes.”

But why fight? Why do something this physically and mentally demanding after being forced to the sidelines for so long and after having your body attacked by something more powerful than a right cross to the jaw or a knee to the midsection?

“It’s an outlet,” he said. “I’m a very ‘to myself’ person, and if I don’t have a physical outlet, I’ll lose it and end up fighting anyway.”

And when you look at the big picture, competition in the athletic arena is precisely what has kept McFedries alive, in a sense, for almost half his life, something he owes to a Bettendorf legend, Merv Habenicht, coach of five State champion football teams at Bettendorf High School and a member of the Iowa Football Hall of Fame.

“I had been expelled from middle school, they had me in Special Ed classes because of my behavior, and at the end of my sophomore year in high school I met a coach by the name of Merv Habenicht who helped me,” said McFedries. “He got me out on the track running, and he had me competing against other guys. That’s when I realized that I didn’t have to fight these guys. There were people I didn’t like who were on the track team, and I could go out and beat them in a race and it was just as satisfying as beating them up would have been. Everything got channeled through my physical performances and it carried over to football, wrestling, and basketball. Then I went to college and played football and soccer there.”

The next step for McFedries was the fight game, and after a 5-0 amateur career that saw him end all of his fights in the first round, he entered the pro ranks and lost his debut in the second round to future UFC middleweight title challenger Nate Quarry. He hasn’t lost since, though it’s taken him five years to get his five pro fights in.

But he’s here now, he’s a UFC fighter, and he’s taking each fight as it comes without looking too far into the future. That’s a good attitude to have, and one that allows him to enjoy each moment for what it’s worth.

“I have my good times, but I don’t really sit on them too long,” said McFedries. “I enjoy them, but I know that life has to go on. I know that there are gonna be bigger and better things and I have to keep going. It’s easy to say ‘I’ve been in the UFC’ and that’s it, but I’m hoping I can come back and have a couple more exciting wins and keep going with this thing. I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’m happy with the way my life is and I’m very thankful for the things I do have and I don’t look past them.”

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