On Saturday night, Tim Means competes in his 23rd UFC fight when he faces Mike Perry. The UFC 255 bout is his 45th pro fight overall, and his second on a pay-per-view main card.
Those are numbers the 36-year-old can be proud of, mainly because it’s not the statistics he once thought he would be associated with.
“If we're talking statistics, I was a statistic that was supposed to fail,” said Means. “If you're looking at my family and the drug addicts and different temperaments in my family, I'm supposed to be sitting in a jail cell doing life right now, and that wasn't the life for me. I didn't want to be a statistic. I wanted to crawl out and, to the best of my ability, fix the bridges that I had burnt, go back to the community that I messed up in, and now when I walk through a grocery store, people are coming up to me, shaking my hand, asking me how I'm doing, rather than 'Oh, dang, you're still a drug fiend; sucks for you.' I hated that mentality, hated the way people looked at me and I hated the way I put myself in that life. It was my own fault, and I was happy to fix that about myself.”
It's a success story that has nothing to do with championship belts or how many UFC wins Means has been able to secure in arguably the toughest weight class in the promotion. And frankly, it’s not about Means breaking a drug habit and changing his life after emerging from a four-year stint in prison. It’s about staying the course after making that change, because so many have a turning point but then fall back into bad habits. For the last 11-plus years, Means has never gone back to his old ways.
He counts three reasons why.
“I called home on Thanksgiving in 2008,” he said. “My nephew answered the phone and my parents stopped sugarcoating it and stopped lying and saying I was at work, and right away, my nephew asked me, 'Hey uncle, you still in jail?' It felt like I was poisoning the water and poisoning the younger group that looked up to me and my family. I went back, laid on my bed, and I thought, you know what, this isn't what I want to do. I don't want another family member sitting here.”
He pauses. It’s been nearly 12 years since that call, but it’s never left him.
“The call home was really a knife in the heart,” said Means, who then recounts his first visit to county jail, when he was given the clothes he would be wearing for his time there.
“They handed me clothes to wear and they handed me a pair of used underwear and there were a bunch of yellow pee stains that were on it,” recalled Means.
“I have to wear that?”
“Yeah, this is your wardrobe.”
“I have to wear the pee-stained underwear?”
Means chuckles, almost as if to say, this is what his life had become. Then there was the third reason.
“Probably the third would be sitting in prison, being told to go to bed and I couldn't open up my own refrigerator to grab an orange juice,” he said. “I'm a grown man, supposed to be cool, and I have a bedtime, being told when I go to bed. Those were important factors that really changed the outlook. When I first got put into jail, I looked myself in the mirror and I didn't recognize my own face. I knew there was something wrong. There were guys in there for murder; I'm there for a bar fight. It showed me what I didn't want in life.”
At the time, Means was 3-2 as a pro, and if he had any intention of building a record by fighting the easiest opposition possible, he was going about it the entirely wrong way, with his two losses coming against soon-to-be UFC fighters Spencer Fisher and Luke Caudillo. But taking the easy road was not part of the curriculum at the FIT NHB gym in Albuquerque if you trained under Tom Vaughn, which Means did since he was a teenager.
Yet as tough as Vaughn is, there’s no one you would want next to you in a fight more than him. So when Means did his time, there were two people he could always count on – his mother, and Tom Vaughn.
“I remember those times, and all them people that were my friends weren't answering my call,” he said. “Tom was one of those few people that I called from jail with that collect call and he'd answer and ask me how I'm doing and tell me to keep my head up and to look forward to brighter days. And that meant everything to me. The other one was my mom. And those were the two that really stuck by my side through thick and thin, and that meant everything to me for what loyalty was and how people would change in the blink of an eye if you were doing bad.”
What about when you’re doing good? When Means was released and resumed his fighting career, he went 14-1-1 in his next 16 bouts, earning a call to the UFC in 2012. He made it, and of course, Vaughn was by his side every step of the way, just like he’s been over the last eight years as well. That wasn’t always the case in the FIT NHB gym, and it didn’t go unnoticed by Means, who believes that sometimes, you have to hear what you don’t want to in order to change and grow.
“I saw that whenever I started doing good and people started following my bandwagon, then I was the next champ and the next best guy, and that was just smoke and mirrors,” he said. “I didn't need to be patted on the back. I needed someone to speak to me and tell me what I didn't want to hear. I've seen guys, and girls for that matter, in this sport, they change camps like they change underwear, and a lot of those people are having problems adapting in life because they haven't been able to blame themselves and take responsibility for the crap they're messing up with.”
Vaughn wasn’t going to let Means go down the wrong path again, so when “The Dirty Bird” was in his gym, the welterweight up and comer got plenty of tough love, which always comes as a surprise from the old school trainer.
“That's what I like about Tom, and one of the things I enjoy the best is if I need the worst part of the plan first, he's gonna give me that advice first and then he'll sugar coat it and move into the good stuff,” Means laughs. “But I love that about Tom. I'm not looking to be patted on the bottom and put on a pedestal. I'm looking to continue to earn my way, continue to stay humble and earn my respect. I'm looking to be that guy every single day because I remember where I come from. I remember being dirt poor, I remember counting change to get to work, I remember struggling.”
These days, things are good for Means and his family. He still approaches every UFC fight like his job is on the line, but given his track record, job security is likely not the case, especially with him getting a prime spot on a pay-per-view main card. And despite winning two of his last three, there are still reminders that he’s not living in a fantasy land where the sun shines every day.
In mid-January, 16-year-old Pedro (Pete) and 14-year-old Mateo Sandoval were killed in a tragic car accident. Means coached the brothers in football and was devastated by the loss. He also had a fight on February 15 to prepare for, first against Ramazan Emeev and then against late replacement Daniel Rodriguez.
“That was the hardest fight I've ever prepared for in my life and it absolutely showed in the Octagon on fight night,” he said. “I was fighting angry and upset against a young, hungry killer that took a fight on short notice for me. It was a fight I probably should have pulled out of, but I was showing my community and the high school here that just because we didn't get our way and just because it didn't work out in our favor doesn't mean we lose. We only lose if we stay down.”
Means lost that night to Rodriguez, but six months later, he was back in the Octagon, where he defeated Laureano Staropoli, putting him in position to face Perry this weekend. All this in the middle of one of the most tumultuous years in recent history. If there was any time for Means to fall back on bad habits, it would have been in the last several months. But he didn’t. There wasn’t a chance of that happening. There’s too much to live for and too many people in his community looking at him as an example of what can happen when you never give up.
“I remember what it's like to be rock bottom, and if I can do it and I can succeed, just in minor things such as being in fights on TV - that's a minor thing compared to the hard things in life - but if I can achieve my own dreams, absolutely anybody can,” he said. “I'm always putting words in the kids' ears around here - the teenagers and my daughters and my brother-in-law's kids - we can do it, and as long as we have that desire to be opportunistic and have that ability to go after something, we'll never be able to fail, no matter what we try to do.”
Tim Means is a heck of a fighter, one who paid his dues, got through the ups and downs and is still standing on the biggest stage in his sport. Whether he gets to the top of the sport and puts a championship belt around his waist isn’t really important at this point, given the impact he’s had on the people back home. Would he be satisfied if his legacy was as a role model and not a world champion?
“I want to get in a title fight, bottom line,” Means said. “I want to be able to put that feather in my hat, with all the cool accolades that have come with my competition stuff and my fighting stuff. But, at the end of the day, it feels a whole lot better not getting chased by the police and having to stand in front of the judge handcuffed and saying, 'You know, your honor, I might have screwed up.' The thing is, when you look here at New Mexico, we're ranked like 44th in the States in opportunity. Man, stop failing on yourself, stop giving up on yourselves because people say we can't do it. I think the hardest aspect of this stuff for people is the way we think. And once people get down on themselves, they're not gonna achieve. So we've got to stop the way we're thinking, stop being mad at each other by the colors of our skin and what color we're on, whether it's blue or red. We've just got to come together as a people again and help each other up and pat each other on the back. In a lot of ways, constructive criticism makes you tough, but man, it's got people so sensitive if you tell them anything they don't want to hear.”
Means may not want to hear that he’s gone from cautionary tale to beacon of hope. He’s not one for getting a pat on the back. But tell him he’s made a difference in someone’s life, and that’s a compliment he would likely take; he just won’t take all the credit for it.
“This has been a year to really reflect on getting better today,” he said. “And that's what Matteo and Pete would say: Get better today. I've really tried to live by that saying. They meant so much to the community, and watching those two young men who were top athletes and super popular - they'd see someone they didn't even know who was down, and they would put their arms around them and say, 'Hey, it's not a bad life, it's just a bad day.' I really want to live my life based on that.
“I have put in the time,” Means continues. “I've bled, I've broke my legs, my ankles, I've broken hands, I have been beat up and put through the grinder emotionally. To make it to a title fight, to do anything like that would be a feather in my own hat and my own goal, but that doesn't define who I am. Wins or losses aren't important; it's just that we're not gonna stay down when we get knocked down. We have to dust ourselves off and get back on that bull.”