I first contacted David Mitchell on August 23rd, 2018. I wanted to interview him for my story about the infamous “Uh vai morrer” chant.
I had identified David, who fought Paulo Thiago in Rio at UFC 134, as the first foreign fighter to ever be targeted with that now ubiquitous MMA taunt.
After messaging a number of David Mitchells, I eventually found the right one on Facebook. His profile was sparse, guarded. There were a handful of photos; a sunset, some farming equipment, lots of flowers. A corresponding Instagram account showed chickens and dogs.
I sent him a vague message, hinting at the gist of my story. I asked if he was willing to chat. He said, “Sure.”
I called the next day. The voice on the other end of the phone was cheery, with a relaxed NorCal lilt.
After thanking him for his time and trust – in taking the call without knowing exactly what I wanted to talk about – I ran through my spiel about the project, dramatically building to my discovery; that he was the first fighter to be showered with Brazilian Portuguese screams of, ‘you’re gonna die!’
There was a pause.
“How does that make you feel?,” I asked, worried that David either hadn’t heard the question or that he had and simply didn’t care.
“That’s kind of neat,” he said.
Kind of neat. Not exactly the quote I was hoping for. I had imagined the section featuring David as being the most attention-worthy part of my piece.
We chatted a little longer. I was able to draw out some more info and effusiveness over his fight with Thiago and that chant. We ended the call cordially and I sighed. I wasn’t disappointed in David. I was disappointed in myself for assuming something I felt was significant would spark the same interest and fascination in someone else.
With his recollections and opinions safe in my recorder, I turned my attention to the other subjects I was looking for. My enthusiasm for the article had taken a hit, but I’d done too much work to throw it all away.
Three days later I received a notification through Facebook. That was a surprise. I haven’t had an actual profile there since around 2007; I burned that down after a bad break-up. Ten years later I only maintained an empty profile for tracking down and communicating with subjects.
My curiosity over the little red dot turned to consternation when I saw it was David who had messaged me. Fighters don’t just message you out of the blue, unless something is wrong.
“Everything I said was bullshit,” read the opening line of text. “If you want a real story I’ll give you a different number to call me on. Sorry I fed you some BS, but the real story would require at least an hour and a better signal.”
I had no idea what any of this meant. I thought back to our benign interview, where David didn’t say much of anything. And as I pondered, a sense of excitement started poking through my confusion. Hidden knowledge has always been my drug.
He said, ‘a real story’. That’s something I’ve always said that I wanted. That’s something lots of writers say that they want, but often the weight that comes with it is too much to bear. Sometimes it breaks them. I’ve tried to carry that weight. I’ve done OK. I’ve whiffed on some opportunities. But I’ve made contact more times than not. I might have hit a triple once, too; the kind that ends with a slide into third — cleats just passing underneath the fielder’s glove.
As I wondered what this ‘real story’ was, a rising terror loomed within me. What if this story was too big, too real for me. Maybe I’ve never hit a home run because I can’t. Maybe David would be better off telling his story to someone more acclaimed, more seasoned, someone you’ve heard of. With these doubts came a feeling I can’t explain. A feeling that this was a story I needed to hear.
So we set up a time to talk.
The call was awkward. David was timid, breathless. The easy breezy surf bro accent had gone. I had no idea what he was going to say, so I fumbled around, wondering aloud what it might be—thinking that would help him get out what he wanted to say. Eventually, David told me that he wasn’t being straight when he told me he felt ‘kind of neat’ about my ‘Uh vai morrer’ question.
His honest answer, to a question about a painful loss — posed by a giddy stranger, was brutal. “It felt like shit.”
I fell silent. Thankfully David was brave enough to fill the void, teasing at what was to come.
“I guess it’s not really a story that I was willing to tell, especially without being ready to let go of the sport. Because if I tell you the things I’ve been through, then it would be pretty irresponsible for any MMA organization to give me a fight.”
There was that terror again. What was I getting into? Why is he trusting me with this? What if I screw this up?
“I was going to let it go, but you called me Tim. You called me.”
His voice quivered when he said that. I gulped. I had a responsibility to hear what he wanted to say. He’s right. I called him.
So, I steeled myself, and let him know I would listen to whatever he wanted to tell me. What he shared was shocking. It was sad and, at times, hard to believe.
Over the next few months I heard the account of a man who had spent over a decade as a professional fighter. And, without sparing any detail, I heard about how that eleven years had destroyed him. He told me of the frenzied highs and sickening lows of putting your body, mind and spirit through the pain factory that is the UFC and MMA.
I heard about carnage, crime, addiction, isolation, despair, mania. The through line for it all; immense brain trauma. The injuries to David’s head, compiled with other traumas, resulted in symptoms so horrific that they put his life at risk.
“I probably should have died. It’s pretty miraculous that I’m even here. I don’t know if I’ve done permanent damage. It seems hard to imagine that I didn’t.”
I’ve always known that fighting is hell on fighters. And I’ve dreaded the lives many heroes of the Octagon might have when their time in the cage is over. But not enough that I couldn’t ignore those concerns and continue to feed the news-cycle with fight announcements and ‘how to watch’ posts.
David was the first person to confirm my suspicions about what the sport can do. It’s been harder to ignore ever since. Thankfully, though, the story I’m about to tell isn’t all bad.
“Luckily I was able to find the help that I needed and I’m a lot better now. I feel it in my head and I’m doing a lot better with the depression and things like that. But, my whole story, I guess that it’s the story that I’m ready to tell now.”
Even though he was ready, telling his story wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to write, either. And it might not be easy for you – MMA fan – to read. But, for David this story is not for fans, me or even himself.
“I just want to tell a cautionary story for young men and women who are getting into the sport. Because I didn’t really realize what would happen. We just laughed. Like, ‘Oh sign my life away, here it goes.’”
Here it goes.
The Mitchell Paradox: Part 1 – Intro The Breach will be released on Friday.
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