Jeremy Horn is one of a kind. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood
He was content with anonymity, the seated-in-the-back-of-the-class type, slumped down trying to meld with the desk: indistinctive, unassuming, the walk-through-the-rain-drops kind of guy. He closed his eyes and kept walking, hoping nobody noticed. It was a twilight stroll through a local park that created a stir about Jeremy Horn in his native Omaha, Neb.
What launched Jeremy Horn into becoming Jeremy Horn was a disturbance that caught his peripheral vision. Horn heard the cries of someone being jumped by three teenagers, beaten so badly that their sneaker trademarks were branded on the victim’s face. Horn heard, saw and then reacted. He grabbed a stick and pounded the three assailants mercilessly before he noticed the victim happened to be his younger brother, Marshall.
Astonished, Horn grabbed his brother, slung him over his shoulders and carried him home -- a living Boys Town montage. Omaha found out no one messes with Jeremy Horn. Not long after, the world of mixed martial arts discovered the same.
Boys Will Be Boys
If there were an MMA Hall of Fame, Jeremy “Gumby” Horn would be a charter member. His professional career spans more than 15 years and 150 fights, many of which remain unaccounted for as the result of having taken place prior to official records being kept. The former UFC light heavyweight title contender helped pioneer MMA, fighting in smoky honkytonks filled with the smell of stale beer, where pipes and drapes served as locker rooms and featured attractions were fought in dog kennels on wrestling mats or makeshift cages with faulty boards.
In those nascent years of MMA, countless guys lined up during weigh-ins, with their piercings and tattoos, each hoping that the skinny kid that was all bones would be his opponent that night. It was usually a bad choice. Horn almost always proved them wrong. That has long been the case with Horn -- the guy with whom some has-been high school bully would pick a bar fight, only to regret it later when he was a bloody mess counting his teeth in his hands.
Horn came from a jiu-jitsu background, and long before the UFC rose to global prominence, fighters like Horn fought for hardly any money and little recognition, grabbing the sport by the scruff of the neck and helping to move it from its underground Internet roots into the mainstream.
“Guys like [UFC President] Dana [White] came in and took it further, but without guys like Jeremy Horn, this sport would have died a long, long time ago,” says Monte Cox, who has been Horn’s manager since the outset of his career. “Jeremy is a real pioneer; he’s a legend. Jeremy is still getting fights for decent money. They know the name and respect what he’s done. He can beat all the club guys, of course. Jeremy can still beat half the guys in the UFC. Jeremy has to find new motivation after 15 years and 100-some fights; and how long can you train for something? But he’s still dangerous, and he has all the tools. Jeremy has an amazing ability to last and exist.”
It all stems from a rough-and-tumble childhood spent in a large, drafty home as the third of four boys raised by a single mother, Ruth. She used to work the odd jobs, juggling two and three workloads and sometimes as many as 16 hours a day, toiling over a stove as a school cook so she could be near her sons. She made pillows and mended for people.
When she was not close to her boys, mayhem tended to ensue, and with Ruth’s trying work schedule, those times were often. The boys -- Sid and Matt Anderson from a previous relationship and Jeremy and Marshall Horn -- often filled their idle time with crazy games.
Sometimes, those games featured mom playing a prominent part, like the times when the boys climbed the swing set in the family backyard and Ruth threw objects at them, forcing the boys to dodge them. Other pursuits involved Jeremy riding around on his bike as his three brothers tried nailing him with an 80-pound heavy bag. Still, other pastimes had the sons buying beat-up bats and crutches at the local Goodwill; each one took turns traversing the 25-yard width of the backyard on the rickety crutches, hoping to reach the other side unscathed from their bat-wielding brothers. Black eyes were normal. Leave four boys alone, and something is bound to happen.
“I suppose maybe that’s why fighting never seemed to be that frightening to Jeremy,” says Matt, 40, who runs a painting company in Omaha. “We played with heavy bags and swung bats at each other. What else was there? And we would fight all of the time. We were boys. I remember chasing after Jeremy on his bike with the heavy bag, which almost weighed as much as him. It was a rough neighborhood.”
So rough that three neighborhood thugs thought they would try some younger, unsuspecting kid walking through a park one day. The trio smashed Marshall into unconsciousness, when they, too, were thrust upon by what appeared to be a ninja, sans the black garb and samurai sword. The skinny kid demolished them, seemingly possessed. Word soon got out.
“I remember coming home and seeing my brother, Marshall, and [the] sneaker scab ‘Trax’ [was] spelled across his face,” Matt recalls. “That was it, though. Jeremy never bothered anyone to begin with, but, after that, we’d walk around with what you could call a quiet confidence. Soon after, these kids tried coming up to Jeremy to steal his bike. The story goes [that] they said, ‘Either you hand the bike over, or we’ll pound you and take it.’ Jeremy stood his ground and simply said, ‘You can try.’ They backed off. They knew better.”
Horn is today the proud owner of the Elite Performance Gym in Salt Lake City. He has had possession of the facility for six years now, and, yet, he is still able to hop on a plane at a moment’s notice and fight. In his down time, he trains fighters and even operates his own fight promotion, Elite Fight Night, which runs four times a year in Utah.
He owns an 88-21-5 professional MMA mark and has come a long way from the scrawny kid that used to pedal his way up and down Florence -- Omaha’s hilly section -- on multiple paper routes. Before MMA, the most athletic venture he had undertaken was playing the role of 12-year-old tag-along to older brother Matt each time he worked out at a local martial arts gym.
“We really just raised ourselves, and I remember Matt coming home and I wanted to do what he was doing,” Horn recalls. “None of us were athletic or did any sports. I first started training when I was 12, and it wasn’t so much the discipline of jiu-jitsu, as much as [it was] something I enjoyed doing. I mean, back then, everyone wanted to be Bruce Lee or Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme. I was a really, really shy kid. I’d be surprised if you could find 10 people from my hometown who knew who I was.
“When I first started training, it was all for fun. We’d go in and learn some technique. That was it. There weren’t any competitions looming around the corner,” he adds. “It’s when I decided to try it. You’d fight anyone who was there when I first started; it’s why I laugh about things today and some of the guys complaining about the weight classes. In my second or third fight, there was no governing body to judge the weight classes and they had two weight classes, lightweight and heavyweight.
“It was in a tournament and I weighed 194 [pounds], and the cut off weight was 190. I was four pounds over the limit, which made me a heavyweight,” Horn continues. “If I knew the cut off, I would have dropped the four pounds. Instead, my first fight is with a guy who was 210, and I won. My second fight, my third fight overall, the guy was 285. I lost, but at no point did I think he beat me because he was bigger than me. He beat me because he was better than I was at the time. I didn’t care [that] he was 100 pounds heavier than me. The idea of fighting someone bigger than me didn’t scare me, because I’d been doing it my whole life with my brothers, Sid and Matt.”
Finish Reading » “I’m pretty mellow for the most part, and people today still have a tough time believing that I’m a fighter. I get it all of the time.”