"Now I can go as high as I want to go. The path I was on had a cap and I hate that cap. I don’t want to be there anymore." - Jonathan Brookins
One afternoon in Montreal, Jonathan Brookins stepped into a spiritual shop, a common occurrence for a meditative 27-year-old and one who spent the summer of 2011 as a nomad. A month earlier, Brookins sought interaction from his mixed martial arts brethren when he tweeted the question, “Why do you fight?” Answers ranged from the typical (food on the table, testing the limits of body and mind), to out of the box (to overcome fears by the “ultimate test of manhood”).
A response left blank was from Brookins himself -- until that fateful visit and conversation with the shop’s owner. Brookins was asked what he wanted to do with his life. After stating his current occupation as a UFC featherweight, he expressed an eventual desire to go to India and study Yoga.
“I’m on a spiritual path,” Brookins said.
That’s when he was led to the door. The owner explained his perspective of fighting and MMA as a spiritual pursuit and how people view it as the essence of breaking down other people or barriers. Brookins learned he was different due to his unique journey to break down barriers within himself.
“I realized that’s really why I fight,” Brookins said, “to break down negative things within myself. It really has nothing to do with anybody else anymore. I’ve ceased to even care about any other opponent or anything else because the battle is always internal. The more I can balance myself and better myself then life is always going to be okay.”
Six months ago, Brookins suffered a devastating defeat in the same building he achieved his greatest victory. His first visit to the Palms Las Vegas he defeated Michael Johnson to win Season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter. When he returned he said uncle to Charles Oliveira’s anaconda choke in the second round, and that’s when Brookins (14-5 MMA, 2-2 UFC) hit rock bottom. When he steps back inside the Octagon on the TUF 16 Finale card on December 15 against Dustin Poirier (12-2 MMA, 4-1 UFC), he’ll be in need of a statement victory if he harbors any hopes of becoming a serious contender in the UFC featherweight division.
“It’s been hard on me,” Brookins said. “I’m not going to lie. It’s been tough these past couple of months when I was essentially homeless for a couple of months. It was really, really tough to even keep fighting inside of me. I even told a matchmaker my situation in life right now -- I’m not going to take a fight with just anybody, but they gave me a really tough fight, so here I am.”
Life got hard for Brookins after the Oliveira fight, which he called “an unexpected loss,” but also revealed he “wasn’t prepared for much of what the UFC had to offer” because he brought some inner demons to the sport and never broke any ground. Light years before The Ultimate Fighter, Brookins was an ordinary kid provided enough to enjoy childhood growing up in a mobile home park in Hillsboro, Ore., 30 minutes west of Portland. He was gifted physically, excelling in athletics despite not making Century High School’s basketball team.
There were also times when Brookins mentally checked out. Years before summoning the emotional strength to persevere for six weeks isolated from the world outside of Las Vegas, somehow finding the will to defeat five men to earn six figures, there were many who did not believe in Jonathan Brookins, including the man in the mirror.
“For him his biggest battle was his mind. He would quit. He would break,” Guy Takahashi, Brookins’ wrestling coach at Century High, said in a 2011 interview. “You don’t know what the body is capable of doing. He kept on taking a step back and questioning himself. He wouldn’t see himself with those expectations to win. He didn’t know what it meant to be mentally tough. Not just in wrestling, but in life, and that dragged him down.”
Brookins had nearly dropped out of high school as a senior, the pressures of fitting in as a bi-racial kid combined with the drama of teenage life within the hallways had broken him. Once in college, Brookins’ grades and performance was falling. Then he lost a sister, one of seven siblings, during childbirth and left school to relocate to Florida with his family.
As a matter of fact, the best time in Brookins’ life was the six weeks spent in the TUF house. The confinement from the real world allowed him to get away from everything. Little did he realize it wouldn’t be the first time he decided to run away. He became the Ultimate Fighter -- and his head swelled big enough to allow demons from the past to return and torment.
“As soon as I got out of the house I went so hard in the opposite direction and let my negative habits kind of flourish,” Brookins said. “It all caught up to me and it showed in the cage. I wasn’t coming to fight and I wasn’t coming prepared.”
That’s why he left his house and everything behind to do soul searching. He spent time in New York and eventually Montreal, where he connected with the renowned Tristar Gym to train with a roster that includes UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and rising star Rory MacDonald. As he trained his body to prepare for Poirier, his soul was being renewed.
“When I come here it feels like I haven’t done anything in two years. That’s how far behind I am and it’s real humbling,” Brookins said. “I can envision myself as becoming a master of sorts at everything.
“It was very liberating to lose everything the way I did, to lose attachments to certain people who were kind of negative for me and situations that were negative. I had to hit that bottom to look and access things fully for what they were and putting certain things behind me so I can make some positive, solid ground. I’m not just rebuilding from one loss. I’m rebuilding my life as a whole.”
Brookins once described himself on Twitter as a 27-year-old standing motionless, but, upon a closer look, one moving at the speed of light and old as the universe. When he crashed into the wall in June, the man who emerged as the TUF 12 champion and fan favorite stood broken at a crossroads. For all but six weeks of his 27 years, Brookins placed limits on himself, failing to realize his potential. On December 15, his performance against Poirier will determine if he’s truly evolved as a winner after spending a lifetime figuring out how to lose.
“One path might lead only to a certain height and you can only get to say, 10 feet high. But there’s another path parallel to you and it’s infinitely high,” Brookins said. “You have to walk back down the path that you’re on, go over and then you’re on the path that goes as high as you can. I had to go down a little bit and walk back over to the other path, and now I can go as high as I want to go. The path I was on had a cap and I hate that cap. I don’t want to be there anymore.”