Mike Swick was always a helluva fighter. Fast hands, knockout power, a sneaky submission game. And whether he won or lost, nothing swayed fans from that opinion.
The 36-year-old Swick announced his retirement from mixed martial arts as an active fighter on Thursday, less than a week after his UFC 189 loss to Alex Garcia on July 11, and while the official announcement is fairly fresh, the Houston native is at peace with it.
“Going into the fight, this was the healthiest I’ve been in eight years,” Swick said Thursday afternoon. “I got my health back, my injuries were gone, and I actually felt really, really good for this fight. And there’s no excuse why I didn’t put it together better.
“But it’s funny, because after the fight I talked with (AKA teammate) Luke (Rockhold), and Luke wanted to see me continue fighting, but he made one statement that was as true as anything I’ve ever heard, and I’ve lived by it as well,” he continues. “He was talking about someone else at the time, and he said ‘you can’t have one foot out the door. You have to be all in or all out.’ And I’ve preached that to my guys at AKA Thailand for the longest time. You have to be one hundred percent committed to a point where it’s absurd. You have to miss funerals, you have to not be there for your family, you have to do the things that make you selfish to have success in this career, because that dedication is what it takes to make it to the top or to have any kind of success in this sport. So I’m at the stage where I’m kind of half out the door.”
It’s rare to see any fighter leave on such a note, especially when he can still compete at the elite level, but it doesn’t surprise anyone who knows Swick, and my memories of the Ultimate Fighter season one cast member will always be of a post-fight scene in Florida back in 2006.
The event at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida was over, the post-fight press conference was wrapping up, and UFC staff were making the walk through the casino to vans waiting in the parking lot. It was a three-minute walk tops, and as I walked and talked with Swick, that journey turned into a 20-minute one, as he stopped for every fan who wanted an autograph or picture. If this was the smart phone era, it might have taken even longer for every selfie-seeking admirer to get time with the then-middleweight contender. But he didn’t complain, he didn’t turn anyone away. These were his people, and he was happy to do it.
For newer followers of the sport, it’s hard to describe what fighters like Swick, Forrest Griffin, Kenny Florian, Stephan Bonnar and the rest of the original Ultimate Fighter cast meant to the sport and its fans. The fighters that were the superstars of the game at the time – Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, BJ Penn – they were like stars in other sports: almost unreachable idols who you knew just from watching them compete. Yet through reality television, we got to know Mike Swick, his struggles, his journey, his goals. And to paraphrase UFC President Dana White, we got it, and we liked it.
We wanted to know that fighters were just like us, and Swick was the epitome of who we were. He lost his father when he was just 10, his mother raising him alone from then on, and like any kid of that era, the movies he saw dictated the path he wanted to follow in life.
“It was just movies,” he told me before his 2006 bout against David Loiseau. “The Karate Kid came out so I wanted to do Tae Kwon Do; then (Jean Claude) Van Damme put out Kickboxer, so I wanted to run from dogs in Thailand. So I kept progressing into whatever movie came out and stuff that looked cool.”
His teenage years were filled with martial arts, from kickboxing to Thai boxing and, finally, mixed martial arts. He turned pro at 18, submitting Victor Bell, but he wouldn’t fight again for another four years, as he worked security for a government construction project at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for a year. It was there that he discovered the life-threatening ailment Atrial Fibrillation.
“While I was training, sometimes I would go into a rapid heart rate forever,” he said in 2006. “I would just tell myself that was normal for someone who overtrained themselves, but I was getting worn out. It was like I was running a marathon and I didn’t do anything.”
Medication aided the ailment, but he did have to decide if he would – or could – continue fighting. It was during this period following his return from Moscow that he made his first trip to a place that currently plays a huge role in his life, Thailand.
“I was like the ‘Kung Fu’ guy, searching for answers and looking for Thai camps,” he said in 2006. “I would just show up at different camps and they would just look at me all funny. I really didn’t know how to talk to them; I just told them that I wanted to train. So it was a really weird experience, but I fit into this one camp in Bangkok. They took me in and treated me like I was halfway human and we started training and I had some fights and we became like a little family. So it was pretty cool.”
When he returned home, he knew fighting was in his blood, but would his heart allow it? He decided to get an operation. “It was a one day deal,” he said. “They stuck a tube in my leg and went up that vein all the way into my heart and they applied heat to the extra electrode that shocks the heart and if they hadn’t hit the main one I would have had a pacemaker, and if they had hit the heart in any way, I would have been dead.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Swick would deal with severe health issues, but at the time, the road was wide open for him to compete as a professional fighter, and in May of 2002, he resumed his MMA career, compiling a 5-1 record when he was called for a reality television show called The Ultimate Fighter in 2004.
Swick was enticed by the opportunity to compete for a six-figure UFC contract, and though he didn’t win the show, his personality and 20-second knockout of Alex Schoenauer on the season finale card on April 9, 2005 guaranteed that this wouldn’t be the last fight fans saw of him.
Winning four more fights in the Octagon, three ending in the first round, Swick lost a decision to Yushin Okami at UFC 69 in April of 2007, and the defeat prompted the Texan to move 15 pounds south to the welterweight division.
The loss was a crushing one for Swick, yet when I spoke to him a few days after the fight to tell him to keep his head up, he found time for a joke, pointing at my tendency to wear light-colored (okay, loud) green shirts and saying that the only reason he lost to Okami was because he was blinded by my shirt and couldn’t see his opponent’s punches coming.
That’s Mike Swick, and his easygoing attitude and sense of humor prompted the UFC to give him his own webshow “Real Quick with Mike Swick,” and in the days before podcasts and the real explosion of YouTube, Swick’s show was a hit, and he was one of the sport’s prime ambassadors.
Yet while he had a promising career and a fresh start at welterweight, where he won his first four fights over Josh Burkman, Marcus Davis, Jonathan Goulet and Ben Saunders, Swick was already starting to deal with what turned into a debilitating issue with his esophagus. Misdiagnosed repeatedly, the ailment left Swick a shell of his former self, but he still showed up on fight night until finally, after back-to-back losses against Dan Hardy and Paulo Thiago, he put himself on the shelf for over two years in order to get well again.
In August of 2012, Swick returned with a Knockout of the Night victory over DaMarques Johnson. He would lose a subsequent bout to Matt Brown in December of that year, and once again, it was back to the sidelines.
This time though, it wasn’t just to heal up, but to start a new life with his family in Thailand. Creating the AKA Thailand gym in Phuket, Swick had a place to call home and a business that would carry him far after his fighting career was over.
Last Saturday, Swick stepped into the Octagon for the last time. He didn’t win, losing a decision to Garcia, but Swick has no excuses or regrets about his last performance.
“I was moving in slow motion,” he admits. “My timing was off and my comfort in the Octagon was different from when I used to fight all the time. And in order for me to gain that back, and get comfortable and fight at my best, it would take one hundred and ten percent dedication. I would have to sacrifice my future and everything that I have going on outside of fighting in order to have a couple more fights where I may or may not look decent. And there’s a good chance I could disappoint people yet again, and waste the UFC’s time and my fans’ time for getting all excited about a fight where I don’t do what I’m supposed to do.
"So this is probably the best time. Of course you want to go out on a win, but this is as close as going out on a win as I can get. And up until the part of me losing, it was incredible to go through the whole fight week experience, talk to everybody, and that walkout, amazing. Getting into the Octagon and mixing it up, that was what I needed and that was what I missed. I wanted to have that experience one more time. Obviously I wanted to win, but at least I got the experience.”
In combat sports, few get to leave on their own terms. You take a bad knockout or a string of losses and you’re basically pushed out the door. That isn’t the case with Swick. He fought the good fight every night, he’s got a wife and two daughters waiting for him at home, and he has a career beyond competing, though he will stay in the game through his gym and the fighters he coaches.
“I can help develop fighters and launch fighters’ careers and have a gym that fighters come to for training,” he said. “I think on a larger scale, that’s the biggest thing I’ll be a part of. And I get to have this for the rest of my life. I get to enjoy their success and live vicariously through all these guys. That makes it (retiring) a lot easier.
It’s the perfect way to go out, and all I can remember from my first interview with the fighter formerly known as “Kid Lion,” was that he told me at the start, “This is gonna be a long story.”
It has been, but a one with a happy ending as well.
“It’s been a crazy journey. It’s 11 years (since his UFC debut), and it’s been incredible,” Swick said. “It’s been the best thing that ever happened to me, it changed my life and now I have something outside of fighting for the rest of my life.”
So how would he like to be remembered by his fans?
“I want my fans to remember me as the guy that went out there and fought and just went for it,” Swick said. “I always went for the knockout, always went for the finish, and I always went there to make the fans excited. That made me happy and that’s what I lived for. It’s entertainment and I went in there to be an entertaining fighter. That was everything to me.”