Gray Maynard: Putting Ghosts to Rest

"If you do the hard work and you truly believe in what you are doing, success is going to come." - Gray Maynard
UFC lightweight Gray MaynardSanta Cruz is a place where ghosts blend in.

A sleepy marina town an hour south of San Francisco Bay, in the early stages after sunrise, the infamous “Golden Gate fog” floats in patches down the coast. As it moves inland to intermingle with the redwoods and slip through the hills, larger collections tip toe up to the shoreline to compliment the gray tones of the day.

In this setting, the Northern California nook takes on a face a bit less recognizable to the stereotypical promotional brochures of the “Golden State” and shows its natural alliance to the green backdrop of its neighbors in the Pacific Northwest.

In the easy nature of the place, the rain falls in spates before noon, but it is held at almost near certainty that the elusive sun will eventually break through. Once this happens, the haunted ghosts of morning fade away and slip easily back into the ether from which they came.

This is the place Gray Maynard now calls home.

While the metaphorical description of specters lingering then dissipating into the day paints an overly descriptive picture, the parallels drawn to the current life of the former lightweight title challenger are as clear as the 2 o’clock sky over Santa Cruz in June.

He’s chased the greatest of goals and demanded the most of himself in the process. With a thoroughbred, blue-collar work ethic and the mental rigor the majority of individuals couldn’t pay, Maynard has sacrificed and paid the price to make his dreams a reality. Yet, despite the investment and the proven formula, the biggest rewards have lingered just beyond his touch.

In the swell of expectation and public opinion, the eye of the storm hovers directly over the fight capital of the world in Las Vegas, Nevada - which it just so happens - is the place he’s associated as home more than any other. That said, this is where it gets a bit tricky where his roots are concerned. His mother Linda and father Jan still live in the outskirts of the city, but the youngest of their two children never stayed in one place all too long.

The story of Maynard’s ambition is the stuff of wrestling folklore. With his father and Uncle’s accomplishments in wrestling as a young Gray’s motivation, the Las Vegas native set out to earn his right to the name he carried. From the age of five, the majority of his time was spent in wrestling rooms and on mats across the country proving he belonged with the best of the best.

With his sights set on competing for the prestigious St. Edward’s School in Ohio, his father told him he first needed to win a Nevada state title, which Maynard accomplished in his sophomore year, going undefeated to claim the prize.

Next, he would move on to Ohio looking to further his quest, and his success at St. Ed’s made him a blue-chip prospect ready to rock on the next level. While Maynard had been dreaming of wrestling in the yellow and black of Iowa since he was a kid, and everything about his personal style on the mat met the “Iowa way” mindset, a returning national champion in his weight class made that a tough haul.  Instead he set his sights on Lansing and the green and white mats of Michigan State University.

While he would go on to be a three-time All-American for the Spartans, his inability to claim the one goal he had tunnel vision towards - the NCAA Div. I National Championship - ate away at the fibers of his soul.

Once his collegiate career came to an end, that particular dream went into the ether and would revisit him at every turn.

The ringing memory of those chapters would turn to white noise as the next chaotic phase of his life took hold. Maynard traded in the singlet and the head guard of his grappling days for four ounces of leather in the realm of mixed martial arts. Blessed with an abundance of natural toughness, a sharp mind for detail, and an outstanding wrestling pedigree, success came fast and furious for the Nevada native in his new discipline.

It only took three years for “The Bully” to ascend the ranks of the lightweight division and get his opportunity to compete for UFC gold, but in a familiar twist of fate, the ultimate achievement lingered just out of reach when announcer Bruce Buffer read the judge’s decision - a majority draw - at the conclusion of his epic bout with Frankie Edgar at UFC 125 on New Year’s Day in 2011.

In the two years that have passed since that night at the MGM Grand, Maynard’s life has been a chaotic blur of obstacles, missteps, triumphs, heartbreak and change as he’s attempted to regain his footing as a mixed martial artist.

Nevertheless, it was also during this stretch where something inside of him longed for the one thing he’d never truly accomplished - establishing his roots - and this spark in the darkness led to the greatest shift and sea change he’d ever known.

With every aspect of his professional life in disarray, Maynard turned his focus to the personal and decided there was more to life than what his ambition to compete could produce. He and long-time girlfriend Jess decided not only that their lives were better served in some far off place together, but that it was time to start their family.

The hectic noise of the fight business had become their lives, and they simply decided they wanted more. With a baby on the way and the urgency for a different brand of peace in their lives, they packed up everything in their name, and made way for Santa Cruz.

While this may be a story about ghosts, his relationship with the situation is more about a man finding peace for the first time, more than it is a story of a man haunted by his demons. He’s in the process of putting those specters to rest - and as difficult as that may be - Maynard is determined to put them away once and for all.

“That would be huge,” he said. “There are a lot of those little ghosts and I do want to put those to bed. There are a couple goals I have that would go a long way to making that possible. One is winning the title. Another is being a good dad that raises a couple of kids that turn out to be awesome and happy individuals down the road. I know I can do those things. I know I can get the title and it hurts because I haven’t done it yet."

***

“Gray won’t be home until later tonight so I’m going to give you guys the tour.”

With daughter Estella in tow, Jess explains Gray has gone “over the hill” today for training and will not return until much later in the day. From their home in Capitola, Maynard makes the hour drive north to San Jose to train at the heralded American Kickboxing Academy. After his sessions at AKA and the first leg of his commute behind him, he stays up there to do his strength and conditioning as well.  We settle in to shake off the rain of the day, and after exchanging the usual travel small talk, we set about seeing the sights in what can be best described as the “hippie beach bum” world of Santa Cruz.

While waiting for Maynard to return from San Jose, we stroll through a constant blend of mom and pop operations and enjoy the laid back chill of the NorCal scene. In this time Jess also explains how they’ve handled the recent loss of a family member in their bull terrier Hank. Where most fans believe Maynard carries the nickname “The Bully” because of his strength and overpowering fighting style, he actually adopted the moniker because of his love for the breed of dogs.

Where Hank was Gray’s first bull terrier, the couple also has Ruka, who has been with them nearly as long. When she gets to sharing the details of Hank’s passing, the story becomes all the more heartbreaking in how the turn of events unfolded.

They had traveled to Las Vegas for his fight against surging contender T.J. Grant at UFC 160. UFC President Dana White had determined that the winner of the lightweight tilt would earn the next title shot at 155 pounds. With championship gold the ultimate goal and the road to it now clear-cut, Maynard had the opportunity he had been waiting for in front of him.

Unfortunately for the AKA-trained fighter, the Canadian beat him to the punch that night and Maynard suffered a knockout loss in the first round of the bout. With the disappointment of the setback stinging him, Maynard was informed of his dog’s fading health and rushed back to Santa Cruz to be with him in his final hours.

He made it back just in time to say goodbye, and shortly after his arrival, his friend and companion was gone.

“I got Hank just before I started my last year in college,” Maynard recalled. “I got him and didn’t really know what I was going to do with a dog that needed that much attention. It was kind of crazy because suddenly I had this dog to take care of because he needed me. It was unreal but we became so close because he went everywhere with me.

“It’s hard, man. But it’s kind of a new chapter and you are always going to hold on to the times that were awesome and special. You keep that and then you keep going. I have a baby now and a house here…you just have to keep going. It’s part of life and there are some tough times in life. Tough times don’t last but tough people do. I keep that in my head.”

If that wasn’t a heavy enough issue to deal with, three weeks after my time with Maynard in Santa Cruz, I received word the family’s other dog Ruka had also passed on. In a phone call to offer my condolences, Maynard shared his belief that Ruka had died from a broken heart. Much like the phenomenon that happens with elderly married couples, once one partner has passed away, the life in the one left behind seems to fade quickly.

Despite the immense pain of the situation, Maynard took comfort knowing in his mind and heart the two best friends were reunited in a better place. Then of course there is the inclusion of a wide-eyed beautiful little girl in his life, one that absolutely melts him before our eyes when he walks through the door.

In an instant, one of the toughest men in a sport filled with tough guys, now suddenly reduced to doting ball of sincerity and sentiment.

“It’s everything to me,” Maynard said about being a father. “I always knew I wanted two or three of them. This is a start and it’s a game changer. It’s absolutely a game changer, but you have to keep it in perspective. I have to work to take care of them. With the Grant bout, I had them in the hotel room with me all week, and it was awesome, but I need to keep it in perspective that this is a job.

“They won’t be with me for this fight because that little girl completely melts my heart every time I’m close to her and I can’t have that the week of the fight. You have to evolve but the key is doing what’s best for her. As of now - at this point - it’s whoop some people’s asses. I’ll take off the Tuesday of fight week and that’s when I’ll switch gears. And that’s the key to this sport…just having that switch. Being able to walk into the cage and not be Gray anymore and become that guy who is going to kick the guy’s ass who is standing across from me. I’m a cool guy and I’m laid back, but that’s not who I am in the cage. On that Tuesday when I get on the plane to go to Vegas, I’m not a dad…I’m a fighter. I’m flying in to do a job and that job is to beat Nate Diaz any way I can. The day I get back I’m a dad again. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to stop and just turn all those feelings off, but that is what I have to do to flip that switch.”

***

“Are you serious, bro?” Maynard laughs as he stares at me quizzically and points to the window directly to our left. “The ocean is right there and you are ordering a cheeseburger?”

The rest of the table, which consists of my wife, Maynard’s significant other, and former Strikeforce middleweight champion and lifelong Santa Cruz resident Luke Rockhold, erupts with laughter at my expense.

Admittedly a steak and potatoes man to a fault, the lure of the absolute freshest seafood I could possibly imagine isn’t enough to sway me on this day. And no matter how much the collective believes I was aloof to the option, I hold steadfast in ordering a burger.

It would be an issue suitable for a proper ribbing at multiple turns, but it is in moments like this one on the pier where Maynard’s genuine persona is front and center.

There is no escaping the ingrained jock nature of his presentation. Maynard is a rock of a human being. While his stature isn’t overwhelming, his frame is solid even when he’s out of “fighting shape.” But outside of the initial impression is pretty much where the parallels to his career end.

The rough edges of his trade are miles away from how he carries himself in his personal life. And these days with his home in Santa Cruz, he’s about the closest thing to “surfer pacifism” if there ever was such a thing.

Where jock-types can be bullish, Maynard is on the other side of the line. He’s quick with a joke but is also the rare breed of human who prefers to listen rather than talk. He leans in the direction of whoever is telling their story to show they are genuinely getting his attention.

Another quirk…almost alien in fact is that he doesn’t watch television. Furthermore, he has never seen a single episode of the fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter where he made his introduction to the UFC fan base. Where that may seem slightly strange, he has never had cable necessary to do so.

Up until four months ago that is, when on a whim, they finally decided to have it installed. Where he initially thought the decision regrettable, Maynard admittedly has got caught up in “DIY” programs, which he blames on the upcoming total renovation they are preparing to do on a recently purchased property.

In his mind, the lack of a rapid-fire “doom and gloom” news cycle and 500 options to keep the body stagnant are just a few less stresses.

For a man who fights for a living and has done so in various fashions since early childhood, confrontation and conflict are non-existent in his life. That said, a good chunk of the stress of a high profile career were left behind in Las Vegas, but the good natured prankster has always existed.

Where fighting and the MMA community is our common bond, Maynard would prefer to talk about anything but. Business is business and the fighting life is all consuming, but these days, he’s found a great appreciation for letting the stresses of all things fight related wash out with the tide.

In his professional career and his place in the lightweight division, Maynard has never been more in limbo than he currently stands at the current time. Nevertheless, with his family just getting started and finding a home in Santa Cruz where they can settle down, his footing as never been more grounded than it is right now as well, and the paradox isn’t something which is lost on him.

“It feels like I’m establishing roots and that’s what I want for my kid,” Maynard said. “I want her to have a place that is home. Me, I’m always going to be going all over the place. I love to travel and go train with different people. I love to learn new things and meet great people. But having a home here in Santa Cruz is more for them. I want them to have a place they can feel settled and of course it’s great for me too.”

As the meal carries on and takes a turn toward conclusion, I finally decide to give in and try some of the seafood the table has been pushing my way. My efforts to do so were on the sly because I didn’t want them to believe the peer pressure had taken hold, but just as the satisfaction of fresh tilapia hit my pallet, I glance to see Maynard shaking his head and laughing.

Which brings about the conclusion - just because he’s not saying anything doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention. He simply enjoys real company and has neither want nor care for those of a not-so genuine variety.

 “It’s not that I’m not trying to be anything, I’m just staying true to who I am,” Maynard said later on the patio overlooking the beach. “I am a person that enjoys life to the fullest and I’m never going to be anything other than that. I try to be the best person I can be and enjoy the time I get to spend with whoever I’m with because those moments are special. I love to learn about people who are real, honest and genuine people, but I can’t take it when people are different depending on who they’re around.  

“Some people try so hard to be something they aren’t and I can’t deal with that, man. That’s a huge turn-off and so weird to me. Why try to be something you aren’t? How much better is life when you can just be yourself? That’s how I am, man. I’m a guy who loves life and whether it’s hanging with a few cool people at a bar or I’m sitting around a bonfire with my friends and family, I love every second of it.”

***

It has been months since I sat with Maynard and his family on the pier overlooking the steady crawl of people milling around on the beach, and during that time he has been preparing for his next challenge inside the Octagon. The easy summer setting has turned to countless hours of forging iron inside the walls of the gym, all in the process of turning Maynard into the hammer he needs to be to get things back on track.

Where every fight presents something new, this particular scrap will come with a strong sense of the familiar as it will be the third time he steps into the Octagon with fellow former title challenger Nate Diaz at The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale on Nov 30. They’ve locked up on two previous occasions with each getting the upper hand at least once. The first came in a semifinal bout during the TUF 5 tournament and the other coming as the main event on a Fight Night card in 2010.

Where each fight meant something in some regard, this go ‘round will feature two former contenders looking to re-establish their footing in a division that is threatening to pass them by. Both have their backs pressed to the wall and Maynard refuses to let Diaz be the man that snuffs the flame on his title hopes once and for all.

To ensure his success he’s put his guidance in the very capable hands of the men who run the gym he now calls home, and where the brash Stocktonian has drawn him out into a street fight in the past, Maynard vows to not let that happen again.

“All the top guys have great camps,” Maynard said. “They know day to day what they are going to do and who they are going to be working with. Now I have that and it’s great. You can’t have a lot of unpredictability in your preparation and that has hurt me in the past. That creates a lot of stress and it’s just a situation you can’t have during camp. Those things are gone and it’s a lot easier now.

“I mean it’s not easy, but it’s a lot easier. I’ve come to grips with the place I’m at and I know I’m the best in the world; I just have to go out there and prove it. I just have to do it. I’m better than him. I believe I’m the best fighter in this division and I just have to go out there and prove it. And that’s okay because I’m willing to do it. I’ve come to grips with it.

“I’ve grown a lot,” he added. “That has been a big step too. That last fight with him, that’s not who I am. The place I’m at now, we have a great coaching staff and have a great strategy. I’m just going to do what they tell me to do.”

When Maynard steps in to complete the trilogy with Diaz, everything he holds dear in his fighting career will be on the line. He’s been heralded as one of the top lightweights in the world for the past three years and has come inches - painfully close inches - away from holding that coveted strap.

But where those goals sit in his mind, immediate steps must be taken. And to set his machine in motion, the hard work has to be invested. That said, Maynard subscribes to the notion that simply working hard isn’t enough. There has to be that one special element to put it all together and that element is belief in what you’ve set out to do.

“It’s all there but the key is that you have to believe in what you are doing,” Maynard said. “Hard work is a key, but if you don’t believe in it, the results aren’t going to be produced. If you do the hard work and you truly believe in what you are doing, success is going to come. If you do things that way you’ll always be prepared and you’ll always have the outcome you are expecting.

“Now is the time.  Now is the time for me to get this done.”

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