Cheryl Phoenix always knew her son, Josh Samman, was special. What she didn’t know until his tragic death last October was how special he was, not only to the world of mixed martial arts, but to practically everyone he crossed paths with.
“I had no idea,” she said. “I found so many letters from people telling him that he really inspired them and he didn’t share that with me. So I didn’t know that until after he passed. Complete strangers and people that I had heard of but didn’t know very well were telling me stories about how Josh turned their life around through his support or things that he said.”
That work’s not over yet, so it was no surprise that Phoenix decided to help keep her son’s name alive by starting the Josh Samman MMA Foundation to help aspiring mixed martial artists follow their dreams in a sport that changed Samman’s life.
“When Josh was in the coma and it was very apparent that he wasn’t going to be waking up, I felt we needed to create something good out of what was a very horrible situation,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to continue his legacy, and so, as his friends started coming in, I would ask them, ‘What do you think about this?’ And everybody was so excited about it, and those are the people who are on the board now. As you know, Josh was larger than life, and we wanted to figure out a way to make that continue.”
Samman, a member of The Ultimate Fighter 17 cast, was more than his subsequent 3-2 UFC record. Over the course of his time competing in the Octagon, the Florida native also did charity work, wrote a haunting memoir, The Housekeeper: Love, Death, and Prizefighting, contributed to several websites, including UFC.com, and was a talented musician. But more important than all those things was how he affected the lives of those around him. He made everyone feel like they were the only one in the room, and his desire to live life to its fullest wasn’t a cliché, but an inspiring reality.
Yet as Phoenix points out, if it weren’t for mixed martial arts, none of that would have been possible.
“It gave him such an avenue for all the energy and feelings he had,” she said. “He was a kid and he wasn’t exactly an honor student when he was a teenager, and he always said that it changed his life and turned his life around. It gave him something to channel all that into and he hadn’t found anything like that before. So even though I was deathly afraid of him doing it, in retrospect, it was the best thing – besides (Samman’s girlfriend) Hailey (Bevis) – that ever happened to him.”
The death of Bevis in 2013 changed Samman’s life, but MMA still gave him purpose, with his 2014 knockout of Eddie Gordon being a cathartic and seminal victory for him. Now through scholarships presented to fighters by the foundation for equipment, tuition for training and travel for advanced training, other athletes can continue chasing their dreams in the sport.
“You may be 18 and taking your first fight, but we’d like to help you like people helped Josh and Josh helped other people.” --Josh Samman's mother, Cheryl Phoenix, on the purpose of the Josh Samman MMA Foundation.
“We didn’t have a lot of money back then, but Josh got a lot of support from sponsors when he was starting out, and not everybody has that or knows how to go about getting that, so we’re trying to get the word out,” Phoenix said. “You may be 18 and taking your first fight, but we’d like to help you like people helped Josh and Josh helped other people.”
Seventeen scholarships have already been awarded to athletes in Florida and Georgia, and while it’s bittersweet that Samman isn’t around to see this, Phoenix is happy to see her son’s legacy live on.
“It’s very rewarding, but it’s also really sad,” she said. “But what’s helped me has been able to meet some of the recipients. One young man, John Harrison, he’s from Georgia, and he got his scholarship and there were a lot of people around. But after we gave it to him, I went up to him and said a few things about his application that I really appreciated. And he wrote the nicest Facebook post after that about how good that made him feel and how he’s committed to helping others and continuing his MMA career. So that part made me feel that we’re doing this, it’s a good thing, and we need to keep on doing it.”