Friday, March 2, 2007

Fighting his Demons

By Troy Mezera

Jason Gilliam lies in bed exhausted, but fails to fall asleep.

His desire to rest is replaced by a rapidly beating heart and a wandering mind. A feeling once caused by the cocaine he consumed is now created by a more simple stimulant.

His profession causes the excitement. Muncie's Gilliam, 34, is an Ultimate Fighter, a highly-trained and conditioned athlete who fights for a living. On Saturday, he will fight at 155 pounds in UFC 68: The Uprising.

"My heart will beat hard just thinking about how I can finish the fight," said Gilliam, who will become the first mixed martial artist from Muncie to fight in the UFC, the sport's top professional association by most accounts. "I have been dreaming about this since I saw my first UFC fight when I was 16 years old."

Gilliam is part of one of the fastest growing sports in America. But what tempts a grandson, son and a father to risk bodily harm in front of thousands of people in arenas and hundreds of thousands around the world watching on pay-per-view television?

"These are the modern-day gladiators," said recently retired Wes-Del High School wrestling coach Bill Robertson, who coached Gilliam for nearly 12 years. "They just want to go all out, put everything on the line, and you rarely see that. (Jason's) got all the tools to make it."

Early troubles
Making it, just surviving daily life used to be a struggle for Gilliam.

He didn't last in the U.S. Navy. He said he wasn't mature enough.

His college experience was a short one. He wrestled for a year at Lincoln College, but after he transferred to Ball State University his demons put a choke hold on him.

Gilliam said he drank to excess and became addicted to cocaine in the mid- to late-1990s.

"It's hard for me to admit that I let something get ahold of me," Gilliam said.

The self-described patient man had to wait out his time in a jail cell in Johnson County, Ind., when he was charged with possession of cocaine in May 1998, just six months before his son Gabryell was born.

Nine years have passed since Gilliam found himself in serious trouble with the law. The jobs he has held since that time have included factory positions around Indiana and "wrench-head" jobs in Kentucky, but Gilliam's passion lies somewhere else.

"Jason's a fighter," said Chas Bowling, Gilliam's manager and friend. "This is a fighting sport and he's going to try and hit you."

The UFC is one of several professional mixed martial arts leagues around the world that sell a highly-violent product. Gilliam is well versed in several styles of fighting, including JuJitsu, wrestling, boxing and some karate. Those who know him well say he can control his aggression outside of the cage.

"He's one of the nicest guys you will ever meet," said 16-year-old Muncie resident Skylar Timmons, who Gilliam helps train at Bowling's.

The man who once had problems with excess now deprives himself of much, including processed foods, the occasional beer and chicken wings, to keep up a strict training regimen.

Waking around 7 a.m. every day for the past 2 1/2 months, Gilliam works out 5-7 hours a day and eats six very formulated meals that are evenly spaced throughout the day.

"I'm the kind of person that needs to be motivated by the dangling of a carrot," said Gilliam, who lost nearly 50 pounds to sign his three-fight contract with the UFC. "This could make life for my family. Shoot, I could pay off my grandmother's house. It's been a struggle and a lot of sacrifice, but this is a huge, huge carrot."

The vegetable he speaks of is cash. A lot of money could be Gilliam's if he performs in the fight Saturday and in future fights.

Bowling and Gilliam estimate that if Saturday goes as well as possible, Gilliam could take home upwards of $40,000 in a maximum of 15 minutes of fight time. His earnings could include a fight purse, incentive bonuses and sponsorship payments.

The UFC pays fighters for the night's best knockout and the evening's best submission.

"I've never seen Jason so motivated for anything else like he's motivated for this," said Bowling, who has known the fighter for about six years.

Vegas, and its oddsmakers, say Gilliam is a huge underdog to Jamie Varner, a 22-year-old from Arizona. Most betting sites list Gilliam as at least a 4-to-1 underdog, but Gilliam and Bowling say the smart money is on Muncie's top fighter.

"He's big for 155 pounds," Bowling said. "He's going to have a big size and reach advantage in this fight and in most fights at this weight. He's just going to be much bigger than a lot of the guys he fights."

Varner is listed at 5 foot, 8 inches, while Gilliam stands a shade over 6-feet tall.

Gilliam has never lost a fight as a mixed martial arts competitor. Only once did he fail to end the fight by way of knockout or submission.

The guy that knocked out so many bad habits will now have a chance to knock on the door of big money and massive fame. His red, black and white hair, a self-promotion technique, will be seen by 18,000 fans at sold-out, Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday and by an estimated 400,000 people on television.

But more than the fame and the money, Gilliam said he will forever owe the sport for the way it has improved his life.

"Mixed martial arts has changed my life," he said. "It gave me a reason not to be an alcoholic, not to be a bum. There are no factory jobs, so for something like this to come along, it almost seems prearranged. I am the person I am today because God had a bigger plan for me. I definitely wouldn't be this healthy and I've made so many good friends. I just hope to give back to those that have given to me."


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