Last Monday our obscure former fighter of the week was the incredible, uplifting tale of Jeff Joslin. Joslin was forced to make a dramatic choice between his ambitions and his sacrifices. It was so much fun revisiting the story, Joslin himself even sent me a DM on Twitter. How cool is that?!
Well drop those smiles, Bloody Elbow readers, because this week’s entry is not that tale.
Since I’m pick names out of a hat during this time of rest without relaxation, don’t expect a theme. Just stories. Today’s story just happens to be about Gerald Strebendt: a fighter whose career trajectory went from strange to downright criminal.
Before getting to Strebendt’s ignominious current situation, let’s set the stage. There was a two-year stretch from 2004 to 2006 when the lightweight division didn’t even exist. The UFC scrapped the weightclass after UFC 49, and reinstate it at UFC 58. Maybe it’s fitting that the lightweight division would stare at the abyss for two years following Gerald’s presence.
Strebendt wasn’t like Joslin, a fighter who entered the Octagon with legitimate title contender aspirations. Which isn’t to say he was bad. The ‘Finishing Machine’ was just a solid, if unspectacular, fighter with one dimension—an aggressive submission game. He cut his teeth in Gladiator Challenge alongside future UFC veterans like Jake Shields, Joe Stevenson, Keith Jardine, and Herb Dean (yes, that Herb Dean).
Gerald made his debut for UFC 44, facing off against the then-unbeaten Josh Thomson. The story behind the fight is unlike anything you’ve heard. Despite his tendency toward crazy conspiracy theories, Bravo unpacks more of Strebendt’s story, and makes some great points about MMA coaching in general.
Too long, didn’t watch? Here are the CliffsNotes: Strebendt won all of his fights by submission. Then a Muay Thai coach came in and taught him some striking. It was enough to earn him the coach’s personal blue ribbon. That meant that, heading into the UFC, Strebendt wasn’t just ready—he was ‘Bangkok Ready.’ A lifelong grappler – a grappler throughout his amateur and professional career – he had just picked up striking for six months, and suddenly he was going to walk into the UFC octagon with a mongkol and bless the cage with the wai kru dance.
That’s right. Six months to become the Dieselnoi of Coos City. The Pud Pad of Portland. The Buakaw of Beaver State. The Tong Po of 10th Planet. And yes, Thai names are some of the absolute best.
Turns out, word of mouth has a special power. Strebendt was so convinced by his own hype that Thomson would later admit that he himself bought it (!). Gerald’s UFC debut started right where he wanted it. The fight itself was a lot of fun. Strebendt threw up heel hooks, used rubber guard, quarter guard, attempted armbars, omoplatas, gogoplatas, and that’s probably not even a full list. I saw the fight live and I could never forget Joe Rogan screaming “He’s got the gogoplata! He could have the gogoplata!”
‘Thanks Joe, but what the hell is that?’ I remember asking myself. Again, this is in 2003. We didn’t have spirited discussions on Bloody Elbow about say, the future of specific jiu-jitsu techniques at the time. Strebendt didn’t get his shin choke, but at least he put up a fun fight before getting TKO’ed.
Or so you’d think.
Chael Sonnen had a different take, adding a wrinkle to the story about the fight I didn’t know existed. I always wondered why Strebednt didn’t get another shot. I know the UFC wasn’t interested in lightweight at the time. But it was on life support long enough to think he’d get another chance. On the contrary. According to Sonnen, Strebendt didn’t so much get TKO’d by Thomson’s ground and pound as much as he used it as a way to get out of the fight.
“Not to embarrass Gerald in the least,” Sonnen started, “but guys, to tell you the story the way it happened—Josh Thomson threw a punch that missed by a Texas mile. And Gerald Strebendt collapsed to the canvas as though he was unconscious. That punch had more air in it than popcorn…
“So the interviewer at the time says to Josh Thomson, ‘Tell us about the punch.’ And Josh Thomson’s watching it on the big screen and he’s like, ‘Man, this isn’t on me.’ And he simply says, live into the PPV audience camera, ‘It missed.’ So how’s that gonna work at the UFC? You fall unconscious to a punch that never landed? Yeah, you’re not fighting in the UFC anymore.”
Strebendt would go on to make history: scoring MMA’s first twister in 2004 against Dave Elliot at a Cage Warriors show. After that he would make history for different reasons.
It started out in 2005, when he became the key witness in a murder trial. It was the kind of situation they produce Netflix shows around. It’s missing some key ingredients: like lions, and tigers and mullets. But it had all its own weirdness: like a convicted murderer with fake jiu-jitsu credentials, and connections to the godfather of Middle Eastern jiu-jitsu. His story had turned into a rural crime thriller, with infidelity, double crosses, and life insurance policies at stake.
Strebendt would squeeze in two pro fights following the Torre case, beating Will Shutt and losing to Lyle Beerbohm (his last bout).
It wasn’t the last we’d hear of Strebendt, though. He would be charged with murder in 2014, after using a semiautomatic rifle on a man, David Paul Crofut, following a traffic collision. The charges would later be dropped on account of ‘self-defense’ and reduced to criminally negligent homicide. It could have been a wrap on Strebendt’s story, except after he was released a year later, he was soon arrested again for sexually abusing an underage girl he coached at the 10th Planet gym in Eugene, OR and sentenced to 28-months in prison.
For now, that’s where Strebendt’s tale ends. There aren’t many lessons to be gleaned. He made some bad decisions in the cage, and took some incredibly terrible actions outside of the cage. His story is hardly the only one in the MMA sphere to wind up on such an inglorious note; but even still, it’s weirder than most. All that momentum led to dire consequences for Strebendt, but more importantly — to tragic consequences for the victims around him. We won’t be able to say this for many fighters on this growing list, but obscurity seems like the void where Strebendt belongs.
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