Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Justin McCully – The Ten-Year Overnight Success

By Thomas Gerbasi

For most mixed martial arts fans, Justin McCully is the training partner and cornerman for former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz, the ‘long-haired guy’ best remembered for jawing at Ken Shamrock in the Octagon after Ortiz-Shamrock II last July.

So when he makes his UFC debut this Thursday against hard-hitting Antoni Hardonk at The Palms in Las Vegas (Spike TV 8pm ET / PT), it would be easy to look at him as if he just fell out of the sky and simply lucked into a plush television slot.

You would only be getting half the story though.

“It is kinda like that and it’s almost a slap in the face,” said McCully when asked what it’s like to be deemed by some as an ‘overnight success.’ “You’ve been in the game for so long, the hardcore fans know you, but the mainstream audience is who we’re playing for, and to get in their eyes and show them what I’ve got is a genuine opportunity, and all of us fighters wait a lifetime for it. There’s thousands of fighters out there, but there’s only a few spots on these big shows so to be considered for that is great, and to be able to show these mainstream fans who I am and what I can bring to the table is a real good opportunity and I’m really happy to have it. Say everything does go my way and I shock the world of MMA that night, it’s gonna be a dream come true.”

The key words above are “in the game for so long”, and McCully is far from an overnight success whose association with Ortiz got him into the UFC. In fact, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find out that the 31-year old Californian has taken the long road to the biggest show in the world, a road that was far from smooth, and one that began in 1997, when he made his MMA debut with a draw against Kenji Akiyama at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, Japan.

At the time, McCully’s brother Sean was already into his fighting career, and the UFC was heading into what would be commonly known as its ‘dark ages’, with the show on its way to being booted off cable television while it was playing to half-filled venues. McCully remembers those days vividly.

“When I went to my first UFC event, I think it was somewhere in Alabama or Oklahoma and there were several hundred people in the audience and we were looked at as human cockfighters at that point,” he recalled. “I was fortunate enough to make my debut in Japan, where the sport is highly respected and the fans are highly educated. Here, the fans were throwing beer at you and yelling ‘hey, kick his ass – stand up and fight and stop wrestling around like girls.’ They really had no idea and were uneducated about the sport.”

Over the first three years of his career, McCully would make his way through the bigger shows in Japan, such as Pancrase and Rings, and he also made stops in Europe and Aruba while taking on talent like Evan Tanner, Mario ‘Sucata’ Neto, and Mikhail Illoukhine. His record was spotty at 4-3-2, but he was learning the ropes of the game.

Unfortunately, after a submission loss to Ed de Kruijf in October of 2000, McCully had a daughter on the way and some decisions to make because mixed martial arts wasn’t paying the bills.

“I started doing some professional wrestling as well and trying to make that work because the sport was dying,” said McCully. “It wasn’t a guarantee whether we were gonna have a place to compete and have a paycheck coming in. So I came up with other forms of income, whether it was doing some stuntwork in Hollywood or trying to become a professional wrestler. It was really, really hard. I also had a daughter – she’s five now – so for the last five years I’ve become creative with my finances in how to take care of her and still stay in the game because this is my one true love. Coming out of high school, I saw the first Ultimate Fighting Championship and went ‘holy smokes, these guys just got into a brawl and the winner got $50,000 for the tournament and all he had to do was beat up three guys? That’s great. Where do I sign up?”

He laughs, but at the time, the state of the sport was no laughing matter. Zuffa wouldn’t swoop in to take over the UFC for another year, and they would struggle as well until breaking through to the mainstream with the first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ in 2005.

Meanwhile, McCully would fight only once between 2000 and 2006, decisioning Dario Amorim in Brazil in 2003. He held out hope that someday he would be able to fight again on a full-time basis, but he couldn’t sit around waiting for that day to come. In fact, there were points where he was prepared to dump the sport.

“That’s happened to me two or three times along the way,” he admits. “You have potential bookings that fall through. For Antoni Hardonk, thank goodness I was there to replace Frank Mir. Back in the day, they would have just scratched the fight from the card and he wouldn’t have had a payday. Three different times during my career I’ve said, ‘hang up your shoes and get a job.’ And I did, I sold life and health insurance. I was stuck there, doing 50-60 hours a week, hammering the phones trying to scratch up that change and I was miserable. I felt like I needed to get back to what I loved and that’s this sport. I wouldn’t feel right doing anything other than this sport, and I’ve tried, so it’s good to be here.”

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