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Conor Heun - Not Your Typical Prizefighter

"I don’t have any ill will towards Ryan. It’s just the place that he’s
put himself, and that’s in front of me and in front of my dream. I can’t
stand for that." - Conor Heun

Strikeforce lightweight Conor HeunConor Heun’s father Jim had a picture hanging on the wall of his office that wasn’t the usual shot of a bowl of fruit or the Colorado mountains. Instead, it was a pretty notable cartoon of a stork holding a frog in his mouth while the frog wrapped its hands around the stork’s neck. The caption? “Never Give Up.”

“That stuck with me and it’s something that resonates with me,” said the younger Heun, who took that adage to heart and brought it into his mixed martial arts career, most notably in a bout with Magno Almeida last September that saw him caught in a tight armbar in the second round.

“Magno’s a submission wiz and I’m a wrestler,” Heun recalled. “It’s the classic matchup back in the 90’s. What happens if you take a jiu-jitsu guy down? You get armbarred. Well, that’s what happened. But he didn’t realize that I was willing to sacrifice that for the win.”

What Heun sacrificed was his health, or at least the health of his right arm, as he refused to tap to Almeida, even when it was clear that his arm was being taken to places it wasn’t meant to see. Eventually, Heun got free, dislocated elbow and all, and he not only made it through the second round, but he won the third and the fight.

Never give up.

“Tapping out to me is giving up,” said Heun, who improved to 9-4 with the win. “If you knock me out, I’m out, that’s it, that’s my body saying it’s done, and if you choke me out, I’m out. But other than that, I have a real hard time giving up, and that’s what tapping out is.”

So he didn’t do it. As simple as that sounds, it’s much more complex than that, but in the Reader’s Digest version, Heun’s stay in Strikeforce hadn’t been the most successful entering the Almeida bout. He had dropped back-to-back decisions to Jorge Gurgel and KJ Noons, and a third consecutive loss might have earned him his walking papers, and he knew it.

“Yeah, I’d be out of a job,” he said. “I knew that going in. And I knew he was gonna catch me, as #$%$ up as that sounds. But I knew what I was getting myself into. I’m a pretty intuitive person, and I knew that that fight was gonna be a rough fight. But I knew I was gonna come out victorious.”

Now for the more complicated part. Conor Heun doesn’t see things the way most professional fighters do. For them, MMA is a sport, a competition. They will shake hands with their opponent before the bout, and do the same afterward. Heun will do the hand shaking part, but when it comes to everything else, this isn’t just a sport for him, something he made clear with a nearly 1,500 word blog that could best be described as the Heun manifesto.

“MMA is a sport but “fighting” is not,” he wrote. “Boxing is a sport. Wrestling is a sport. Jiu Jitsu is a sport. These sports have scoring systems in place designed to determine the winner and the object is to score more points than your opponent. Fighting is not a sport. In fighting, the winner is the guy who walks away able to return to his family with his freedoms intact. In the defense of one’s freedoms and one’s family, the total destruction of one’s enemy is justified. MMA is a sport but it is based on fighting, because of this it is a brutal and savage sport.”

Heun’s piece shot through the MMA world in the past week, leading up to his Strikeforce bout against Ryan Couture this Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, and with good reason, as it touched on many aspects of fighting and his place in the fight world that don’t get discussed too much, at least on the record. But Heun bravely bared his soul for the world to see.

“I’m a deeply emotional person, and writing is a way for me to express some of those feelings in a productive manner and sort of step back and take a look at my own dysfunction sometimes,” he chuckles. “But I think it speaks to some people. People can tell that it’s real, people can tell that it’s from my heart. I posted it on the Underground (Forum) and it’s got something like 16,000 views. But I’m not sure if people really know what to think about it.”

Of course, the bullet point was Heun’s comment that “On March 3rd in Columbus Ohio I will fight Ryan Couture and I will use everything in my power to destroy him,” but as the Colorado native makes clear, “I don’t have any ill will towards Ryan. It’s just the place that he’s put himself, and that’s in front of me and in front of my dream. I can’t stand for that. And that’s what he wants. He wants a great fight, I want a great fight, and we’re gonna go out and throw down. But understand where I’m coming from. I’m going to war and I’m willing to die.”

It’s a blunt and harsh statement, and while there are dangers inherent in any contact sport, you never want to see anyone leave the field of play forever changed by the act of competition. Heun has left forever changed though. The refusal to tap in the Almeida bout wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, and going in, he knew what the repercussions could be. But he’s dealt with them, even if some don’t realize what they were.

“I think informed fans understand the repercussions and I actually feel that I may have done a disservice to the fans a little bit by the video I posted a couple weeks after the Almeida fight, saying ‘hey, I’m fine,’” he said. “It was a long and arduous recovery, a lot of physical therapy, my arm doesn’t go straight the way it used to anymore, but I wouldn’t take that back. I wouldn’t have gone back and done it any different.”

And if you wonder what Jim Heun thinks of his son’s fighting philosophy, you need not look any further than his corner on the night of the Almeida fight, as he was there, remaining as his son describes him, “my biggest fan.”

Heun remembers the weekends growing up when the Friday night before a wrestling tournament involved a trip to Blockbuster Video to rent old UFC tapes and watch them with his dad, who was also his coach. But his father’s influence went way deeper than that.

“When I was a little kid, I had bunk beds in my room and my dad was my wrestling coach,” recalled Heun. “That top bunk always had a kid in it from his team that was struggling with his family, had abusive parents, or an alcoholic father, and he was always opening our home to other young men to give them a respite. And he taught people double leg takedowns and arm drags, but he also taught young boys how to be men. And I believe that’s gonna be my highest calling.”

In fact, that’s a big reason why he does what he does. It’s not for fame or glory, but simply to provide a better life for himself, everyone around him, and maybe even some people he hasn’t even met yet.

“I’m fighting because eventually I want to open a gym, I want to have a place that I can call home, I want to have a place for me and my girlfriend where we can live and raise a family that no one can take away from me, whether it’s an apartment or a house,” he said. “I want to own a place where I can live and then I want to start teaching. I started fighting professionally in 2006, but I was a very small, very angry young kid growing up and I was in a lot of fights where there weren’t contracts and where there weren’t refs and judges, where people were trying to beat me down and take my freedom and marginalize me. And that’s where my fighting started. And I believe I’ve got some karmic debt that needs to be repaid for things that I’ve done back then, for guys I met in the street that didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. And I feel that the way I’m gonna be able to do that is by living a life of honor and integrity and acting as a role model for young boys. And I feel like in our society there are so many kids who don’t have positive male role models in their life. They don’t have anyone teaching them what it means to live with integrity and how to be a man.”

Yet all those dreams will have to be put on hold if he loses to Ryan Couture this Saturday night. Maybe now you’ll see why he thinks the way he does.

“Hopefully, I can take care of Ryan and get him out of the fight quickly with minimal injury to him or myself, collect that win bonus, and move on to the next fight,” he said. “If I can finish four guys this year, and that’s my goal, I think that puts me in line for a title shot.”

That would be some year. Heun knows it too, and he wants the world to follow him on that journey.

“I hope it inspires people to chase their dreams because that’s what I’m doing – I’m chasing my dream.”

And he’ll never give up.