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By Joe Hall
July 12, 1996. Defending Ultimate Fighting Champion Don Frye meets newcomer Mark Coleman in the finals of the UFC 10 eight-man tournament.
Frye is undefeated, notes commentator Bruce Beck, 6-0 in the Octagon.
Coleman is a world-class wrestler, says Jeff Blatnick. One who weighs 245 muscular pounds compared to Frye at 214.
Frye is visibly haggard in his corner before the opening bell. A mouse sits below his right eye, reminding fans that this is his third fight of the night. He has already battled in the Octagon for 15 minutes, stopping Mark Hall in a grueling opening round bout then defeating Brian Johnston in the semifinals.
Coleman looks much fresher as he shifts his weight from foot to foot in his corner. No path to the finals is without tribulations, though, and this fighter is fatigued as well. He easily dismantled Moti Horenstein in the first round and dominated Gary Goodridge in the second; but the bout with "Big Daddy" dragged on for seven minutes and dented his energy supply.
The match begins and Coleman shoots for a takedown. Frye stops it with a well-timed sprawl and clutches a front headlock. Coleman explodes out of the hold and moves to his opponent's back.
That's called a short drag, says Blatnick, a great job by Coleman.
And from there, the beating commences.
Coleman cuts loose inside Frye's guard, pounding his foe with a series of right hands that would later earn him the nickname, "The Hammer."
The bout becomes a drubbing, as Frye's face is pummeled by Coleman's endless onslaught. The difference in size and power has been the difference, says Blatnick 3:15 into the fight. Coleman is dominating.
At 4:15, Coleman applies a side choke, but Frye slips out and the fight returns to the feet. Referee Big John McCarthy goads the tired fighters forward while they slowly stalk each other. Frye throws a right and a left, but Coleman ducks and pins him against the cage with a double leg takedown.
The beating resumes.
Kick the shit out of him! roars Frye's bitter former trainer, Richard Hamilton, who is Coleman's trainer for this fight. Frye is stuck against the cage and Hamilton and friends are hurling a streak of evil obscenities straight into his ear. He's over the hill! someone says. Beat the hell out of him! Hamilton adds.
And Coleman obliges with a knee that snaps Frye's head back violently. More knees follow and the fight is stopped to check Frye's right eye, which is bleeding and closing quickly.
You gotta do something son! You understand me? says McCarthy, informing the battered competitor that he can't let the fight continue much longer at this one-sided pace.
Dr. Richard Istrico asks Frye if he wants to continue as he dabs the blood away from the fighter's face. I'm fine, Frye responds.
And the beating continues.
Seven minutes into the fight Frye wraps his arms around Coleman's legs and struggles for a takedown. He's just not big enough, says Blatnick, skeptical that Frye can complete the double leg. He can't. Coleman pounds the side of his adversary's head, stops the takedown and moves to Frye's back, where more punishment is delivered.
Frye escapes a choke attempt at 9:30 and briefly takes the top position on the ground. He is unable to mount any offense before Coleman stands, scoops him into the air and nearly tosses him out of the Octagon. Instead of slamming Frye, however, Coleman drops him to his feet and drills a timely right hand into his foe's cheek. An uppercut follows, then a right, a left and another right stagger Frye onto one foot.
A multitude of right hands landed in that sequence, says Beck.
What a battle! says an energized Blatnick when Frye doesn't go down. What a battle!
Coleman scores a takedown and the assault continues on the mat. More punches, more knees. Finally, after Coleman smashes a pair of head butts into Frye's bloody eye and swollen cheek, McCarthy stops the fight. That's it, the referee says.
The beating is over.
"Mark just overpowered me," says Frye, nearly seven years later. "He came in as a superior wrestler, a more powerful wrestler, and just put the boots to me.
"That loss has haunted me."
The physical beating Coleman dished out that night in Birmingham was brutal, but the psychological pounding of defeat has been much worse.
Frye remembers trying to sleep that night. His eye was swollen shut. His face was inflated over half its normal size. His ego had taken the worst whipping, though. It had been obliterated, irrevocably damaged.
His body would eventually recover, but his mind was scared. He couldn't forget the loss, couldn't move beyond the defeat.
In Don Frye's mind, the beating continued.
This thrashing wasn't courtesy of Coleman, though. It wasn't loaded with stinging knees or painful punches, swollen eyes or smashed cheeks. This was an internal trouncing. For all these years, Frye, with the helping hand of defeat, has been hammering himself.
"It was my only loss for so many years," he tries to explain of his inability to forget. "It was the only blemish on my record for so many years. I just … it just bothered me, and I can't really explain it beyond that. I was just immature.
"Some people can't handle losses. Some people get angry if things don't go their way and they take their ball and go home. Basically, I sat around with my bottom lip stuck out for six years until I got this rematch."
It was the thought of a rematch that fueled Frye's exit from a lucrative life as a professional wrestler to his return as a fighter. His stubbornness brought him back, his yearning to right what went wrong that night in Birmingham. And once he was back, he pushed for the rematch and urged Pride promoters to put it together. They signed the fight for June 2002, and it appeared as though Frye would finally have his shot.
Then, while training for the rematch, Coleman was temporarily paralyzed and badly injured his neck. The driving flame behind Frye's comeback was abruptly extinguished.
"I pretty much forget about all my anger towards Mark," says Frye. "I was more concerned about his health. You know, because he's a father, has two little girls, and that's more important than my ego getting stroked. So I didn't care about it. I quit caring about the fight."
Even though his rival healed quickly, Frye's desire had largely left. Besides the injury, he had come to know Coleman through the years. That's right: He actually likes the man who beat him.
"Mark's a standup guy," says Frye. "He's a really good guy. He's a good father. He's a loving father. And he's going through some tough times. It's really hard to build up any hate or any animosity towards the man when he's got other problems going on that are more important."
With his motivation expired, Frye ceased requesting a second bout with Coleman. Then, a year after the rematch fell through, Pride made a deal with iNDEMAND cable that would create a ripe situation for a stellar rematch. The cable provider agreed to begin hosting Pride events, which will significantly increase the show's American audience. To cater to the new American fans, Pride promoters contacted Frye wanting to set up a showdown with Coleman. Negotiations followed and the deal was signed.
After nearly seven years filled with aspirations of revenge and capped with feelings of guilt over Coleman's injury, Frye says the fire that has been burning is now cooking on a different level.
"It's not the anger and animosity level," he says. "It's a respect level. And it's also a last match level, because this is going to be the last match for one of us and maybe both of us. So we both want to win this match. This is going to be a historic event because we could both walk away from mixed martial arts after this fight."
To ensure that he quells the torments of the past seven years, Frye has consulted former UFC great Frank Shamrock to guide him through a rigorous training camp. "Basically, he takes me out to the park and lets a couple pit bulls attack me, maul me for half an hour, and that's prepping me for the fight.
"I've been doing the same old thing, the same old Don Frye fight for years now. And I haven't improved or changed or anything, and the sport has evolved around me. So I needed to change something. Also, I needed to get out of the house to gain my focus. And Frank seemed like the logical choice, and he's proving that."
In addition to the gameplan that he is devising alongside Shamrock, Javier Mendez and Crazy Bob Cook, Frye says the size difference that plagued him years ago has since disappeared. The 31-pound weight discrepancy has vanished; the strength disparity is gone. This match, says Frye, will come down to where the fight takes place.
"I think I beat him on the feet," says Frye. "I beat him on the feet, and he beats me on the ground. The battle is going to be both of us trying to keep the fight at our own advantage."
Where the fight is fought is important, but Frye may be casually underestimating the battle of heart. That's not to say that Coleman's spirit isn't strong. It's just that Frye's is heralded as legendary.
He's recognized as a warrior, and, even though he says his motivation has shifted, one can't help but believe part of Frye's determination is to deliver himself from the demons of defeat. If he loses, he says they'll never cease torturing him. Even in valiant defeat, Frye says he'll never rest easy knowing he strived for redemption but failed.
"I think they'll still eat at me -- worse than ever," he says. "I'll just have to try to learn to accept it."
In victory, Frye will contemplate retirement. A few years after his loss to Coleman, Frye became a father. He has two girls, a 2- and a 3-year-old. The stakes are different now than they were that night in Birmingham.
"Preparing for this fight's really tough," says Frye. "I had to leave the house to get focused and my little girls are getting older, and I'm enjoying being around them more. It's a lot harder to leave them because the fact that they know I'm gone. Where as when they're young and they're infants, they don't recognize a time period or whether you're present or not. Now they recognize the fact that I'm gone and they're asking questions as to my whereabouts. And they're saying they miss me, so that's having a big effect on me."
But Frye is a born competitor. He is an obstinate winner, an inflexible champion at heart who is held hostage by defeat. And through the years it has been defeat, not Mark Coleman, that has been the elusive opponent he longs to conquer.
Even if he overcomes Coleman, the beating persists.
"And if I beat Coleman," he says, "which is my plan, I'd like to walk away, but there's always the [Hidehiko] Yoshida [loss] haunting me then. Then I have to decide if I want to saddle up and get after that one."
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