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The Man Who Might Have Been King

He never looked up. Everything David Terrell did for that year — for days, weeks and months — came at a certain eye level. He hunkered down and insulated himself from the world, shutting down and shutting off everything he ever knew.Terrell raised his eyes to turn on a TV or maybe look up briefly to find something to eat in the fridge; otherwise, nothing. His eyes were fixed on the floor, groping for answers. He moped, with his head swaying back and forth as he questioned himself repeatedly: “Why did you do it? Why did you quit like that?” The drawn shades to his room were not going to provide a reply. Neither were the tussled bed sheets or the shoes and pants lying strewn on the floor. Only 24 hours earlier, he had the world in the palm of his hands. A day later, he did not want to see anyone. As for eye contact, forget it. In the subsequent days, weeks and months to follow, those few Terrell would see were greeted with a darting look, as if something or someone was ready to pounce on him.This is what happens when a dream is shattered, and there was Terrell’s, smashed and broken into tiny pieces after his loss to the late Evan Tanner at UFC 51cost him the vacant middleweight championship. He had so much to gain, so many visions he could not contain them all. Then, just like that, they all evaporated: poof.“I knew I could have been a world champion. It sucks. I just gave up [against Tanner] and just laid there. I beat myself, and for me to beat myself like that, it will probably always haunt me,” says Terrell.However, you should see the 33-year-old Terrell today. You should see the radiant smile on his face each time he runs around after his young son, Michael, his mini-me. Terrell runs the Nor-Cal Fighting Alliance — which he has owned for close to 10 years — in Santa Rosa, Calif. He still trains, though he mainly trains other fighters, like David Mitchell, Nate Loughran and former Bellator Fighting Championships featherweight titleholder Joe Soto.

Above everything, Terrell seems content — for once. He can put behind him the restlessness of what appeared to be a blossoming MMA career, all squelched by one fight and a myriad of circumstances surrounding Feb. 5, 2005: the night he fought Tanner; the night he was beating Tanner; the night that still haunts him. To see Terrell now, one would never know he was near suicidal or that he cordoned off himself in a room for more than a year, as those closest to him thought he turned into a weirdo. He will be forever plagued by wearing the tag of someone who never got the chance to show his best.

“That’s the frustrating part,” Terrell says. “I was nearly suicidal after losing to Tanner. It affected me that deeply. But I look back at that time in general, [and] I wasn’t happy. From the outside looking in, some people may have thought I had everything. I wasn’t happy when I was fighting; it just got old, that lifestyle of going out, and I was always training.

“I’ve spent the majority of my life on this mat,” he adds. “It’s that addiction. Some people like to play chess. I like to train jiu-jitsu. It’s funny, when you have a fight, you hate training. It made me hate it, like it became a job. Today, I love it again. Maybe it’s the time away or my son coming into my life, but I’m happier today than I’ve ever been.”he loss to Tanner still stings.

Terrell was an accomplished high school wrestler who used to work out and take long runs dreaming about being Royce Gracie. He grew up barely knowing his biological father, who died when Terrell was 5, the victim of an accident while serving in the military. Terrell was fortunate that a good man — his stepfather, Mike Camacho — stepped into his life. He was the one who helped cultivate Terrell’s shift to MMA.

Terrell boasted a 54-5 record his senior year while wrestling at 160 pounds. A passion for submission grappling began brewing when he was in eighth grade, around the time his family moved from Sacramento to where he presently lives in Santa Rosa.

The discipline was something fun, and he seemed to be a natural at it. Upon graduating high school, Terrell did not know whether or not he wanted to wrestle in college, so he pursued something else: Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He sought out one of the true masters, Cesar Gracie, at
his gym in Lodi, Calif.

“David was really raw, but a raw talent and the kid was a good wrestler already,” Gracie says. “He was explosive, strong, and I could tell if he could mold that mind of power, he could get somewhere. I was very impressed with that. David’s biggest strength was his willingness to learn. He would come all the way from Santa Rosa, and the drive was kind of far, about three hours roundtrip. He would make that drive two times a week, and he was hungry to learn. Dave really wanted to get good.

“As for weaknesses at the time, I really didn’t see any weaknesses,” he adds. “He didn’t know the art of jiu-jitsu at the time, but you could tell David could do something.”

Terrell began competing at 19. Gracie was getting him fights, many of which came when MMA was still in its infancy in parts of the United States; so many were illegal at the time.

“It was hard back then, and everything was hard,” Terrell says. “My girlfriend’s parents thought I was a loser and my mother didn’t like what I was doing because it was fighting. My pro debut came when I was 19, and back then, it was against the law. The first event I went to was in Stockton, Calif. It was held in a small school rec center in front of what seemed like a lot of people. It seemed like a cool event, but it wasn’t legal.

“I remember at the time it was weird, because the first fight I ever fought in, I couldn’t hit the guy with a closed fist, but I could knee him or kick him in the head,” he adds. “The rules were different then. I was happy to get the experience. I tapped the guy out, but you know what I remember most about that fight? I tap the guy out, and after the fight, the guy I beat says I hit like a bitch. It struck me as funny how he said that and I tapped him out in about two minutes. We almost got into a fight after the fight.”

Many look at Terrell’s rise through MMA and the UFC as meteoric. It was not. As he mastered Brazilian jiu-jitsu, eventually becoming Gracie’s first black belt and prized pupil, Terrell forged his identity the hard way. No one handed him anything as he began making a name for himself in the jiu-jitsu world. He started honing his craft, mixing in more kickboxing and dabbling a little into boxing.

“As a fighter, I know it felt as if it was rapid, but David was fighting and doing these back-alley bulls— tournaments for years; he actually had a long run of competing for no money, but he loved it,” says Tom Call, Terrell’s business partner and adviser. “Dave lived a little life of poverty for a time there, and he really has evolved as a business coach and a leader right now, but he worked his way up.”

Gracie was right there by his side, serving as coach and confidante, all while taking on assorted other roles.

“The thing with David … it was a perfect storm of a lot of thing going on. Number one, I didn’t have many students at the time, and I was able to give him a lot of attention,” Gracie says. “Jiu-jitsu was not very popular in the United States, and I know Royce Gracie was winning some fights at the time. I was trying to build up my student base and I was trying to prove something, and I wanted to establish myself as a good teacher. I really put a lot of time and energy into David. He was willing to learn, and we started doing tournaments and he would mow through people.”

After winning a few fights in Japan, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva told Gracie he was willing to give Terrell a shot in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Terrell went back to Japan and continued winning. He also suffered a broken left hand, the beginning of what turned into a series of nagging-type injuries that would plague him for the rest of his career.

“It’s weird how you can train and fight all year and then have things happen,” Terrell reflects. “I also trained way too hard. I wanted my confidence high going into these fights and would do whatever it took to get into shape. I definitely over-trained, and it weakened my body. One time, I had a Tommy John [ligament] tear in my right arm, and every time I punched, I screamed; the pain was that great. In 2008, I was supposed to fight Ed Herman [at UFC 78] and tore ligaments in my foot. It was stuff like that killed my confidence.”

Terrell never shied away from challenges. In his professional
MMA debut back in August 1999, he plunged in and took on Vernon White on short notice. Terrell was 21 years old. White had 33 fights under his belt at the time and had already tested himself against esteemed fighters like Bas Rutten, Frank Shamrock, Pedro Rizzo and Kazushi Sakuraba. Terrell lost a unanimous decision but raised enough attention to get other fights.

“David got used to winning, and he took losses too hard,” Gracie says. “We’re talking about someone who was so good in gi and non-gi competition. David not only went undefeated; no one scored a point on him. That was the impression he put on people. In the Abu Dhabi [Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships], he reached the semifinals and lost, but I think looking back, all champions learn from their losses. David was winning, and he put too much pressure on himself.”

Terrell won to such a degree that he took on 2000 Olympic silver medalist Matt Lindland at UFC 49 in August 2004. It was Terrell’s sixth “recorded” professional fight, and “The Soul Assassin” came in touted as UFC’s next big thing. Terrell gained instant fame by pummeling Lindland in a mere 24 seconds. The victory changed his world and set up the February 2005 title fight against Tanner that eventually altered his world even more.

“Looking back at all the fights I won, I always took three-and-a-half months to train for my fights, and I [had] already fought three times [in 2004],” Terrell recalls. “Tanner was already set, Joe Silva told me, and, after fighting Lindland, it’s the first time I ever made 185 pounds. After the fight, I skyrocketed up to 235. I had six weeks before the Tanner fight and it definitely played tricks on me, dieting and training as hard as I could for five weeks.”

It all comes rushing back to him. Terrell walked out there and kept his sweater on. He did not feel right. He was even unhappy with his appearance, so much so that he was reluctant to remove his shirt.

What was draining him more than the weight loss was a closely and deeply guarded trust he felt he broke. It deflated him more than any punch Tanner would drop on him.

“I’ll be honest about what went on.” Terrell feels compelled to confess. “It was an ex-girlfriend who got an abortion, and I thought God was mad at me. I wanted to have the baby and I didn’t want to have that weigh on my mind. One of the last things I remember walking out to the Tanner fight was talking to God when I was coming out. I told God that I would give him this win. When I came out in the fight and dominated so bad, I was hitting Tanner and choking him. It was pretty much the first time in my life I laid back and thought, ‘God take this from me.’

“I just gave up,” he adds. “I was always known for having heart and the whole God thing was messing with my head. It wasn’t like me. You shouldn’t be in the title fight of your life thinking about a girl with an abortion. It’s something I wished I had a better frame of mind for, but it is something that will always haunt me. I gave up.”

That night, current Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez uttered a few profound words to no one in particular: “That was like watching Superman die.” The next time — and last time — Terrell fought, he forced Scott Smith to tap out to a rear-naked choke at UFC 59 in April 2006. He owns a 6-2 record, with four submissions. That has been it.

Terrell’s legacy can still be written on what he achieves as a trainer. He has a promising team developing, and he has not completely ruled out coming back, either. He recently addressed an undiscovered problem he had for years with his sinuses, undergoing an ear operation that could be the stem of Terrell’s constant sinus infections flaring up around fight time. He has molded what he learned under Gracie into his own patterns and systems. Terrell is seeing another side of life, too, chasing after a 3-year-old, barbecuing for the first time, and he just bought a fishing rod last year.

“I love what I’m doing today,” Terrell says. “It feels good building these guys from scratch, trying to be there for them. There’s no way I can take things back, but I can’t have any regrets. The fights and jiu-jitsu have been good for me. Career-wise, there are some regrets that I can’t change, but with everything that’s going on around me, the sport has been really good to me. I feel like I have found myself. I think I can still be competitive, but it has to be worth my while to come back. I definitely live a comfortable life. I spent time with my family. I am content and fulfilled.”

Call has seen the transformation. A friend who was lost for a time has found himself again.

“I’ve seen Dave come through the other side,” Call says. “I wouldn’t say Dave lost himself, but after the Tanner loss, he was battling depression, and even during that time, he didn’t seem happy. Since fatherhood, I’ve never seen him happier. He has a cute, amazing little son, and it’s scary how close they look alike. Dave is the kind of guy who might want to fight again on his own. He’s that kind of guy. He’s a very unique guy full of surprises.”