Fred Ettish: Where Is He Now?

Into the Fire

By Brian Knapp Mar 25, 2009
Stable and content for the first time in years, Ettish completed high school and joined the military. For four years in the mid 1970s, he ate, drank and slept the Marines.

“It was a good time,” he said. “Those were four good years.”

Still, the decision to leave home was not easy to make.

“I was 17 years old, had just graduated high school and was living with a foster family,” Ettish said. “I lived on a farm. I thought it was heaven. I wasn’t getting beaten. I wasn’t being told I was stupid. All I had to do was milk cows and do my chores.”

Into the Fire

Ettish’s long love affair with martial arts dates back to 1969 and led him down a road to Mammoth Gardens in Denver -- site of UFC 2 “No Way Out.” Dissatisfied with the state of tournament point fighting, the Matsumura Kenpo Karate disciple sought new challenges and sent a letter to Art Davie, founder of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, pleading to be included on the card.

“He sent a letter back telling me there was no room on the card and, basically, ‘Don’t call us. We’ll call you,’” Ettish said. “I got a phone call about Ken Shamrock breaking his hand and them having to move an alternate up to fill his spot. They wanted me to come in to replace the alternate, and I told them I’d definitely like to take the opportunity. This was less than two weeks before the show.”

Ettish packed his bags for the Mile High City and an event that featured UFC 1 winner Royce Gracie, a man against whom everyone -- including Ettish -- wanted a shot. Competing seemed like a long shot, however.

“I asked under what circumstances would I fight and they said only if someone doesn’t show up, gets sick or injured,” Ettish said. “I asked to fight the other alternate, but they told me since it was a 16-man tournament, there wasn’t time. They let me know everybody was there and told me they’d definitely get me on the next UFC or the one after.”

Promoters found other uses for Ettish on site. They needed manpower.

“It was chaos,” Ettish said. “They asked me if I could help out. I was basically a fight wrangler, bringing fighters up to the staging area.”

Fate had other plans. Sambo stylist Frank Hamaker, a submission winner over Thaddeus Luster in the opening round of the UFC 2 tournament, withdrew from the competition with a hand injury. Suddenly, a quarter-final slot was open.

“I’d just brought up [Minoki] Ichihara, the guy who fought Royce in the first round,” Ettish said. “I was going downstairs to find the next fighter at the same time Rorion Gracie was coming up the stairs. He grabbed me by the arm and asked, ‘Are you ready to fight?’ I had to make a quick decision. I had to go find my guys in the crowd, drag them backstage, get my gear, stretch and try to get myself prepared. This all happened in about a 10-minute window, and I was headed out to the Octagon.”

Photo Courtesy: Fred Ettish
Though he tried, Ettish could not flip the switch, and he was not prepared for the spectacle he faced when he emerged from the dressing room.

“I wasn’t able to get my mind right,” he said. “I checked out psychologically.”

Shortly after the fight began, Rhodes clipped Ettish with a pair of thudding right hands that sent him tumbling to the canvas. Blood poured from his face. Rhodes was relentless with his follow-up attack, and his heavy blows forced the prone Ettish to cover up.

“I got hit pretty hard, and my eye went white,” Ettish said. “For at least two hours after the fight, I couldn’t see anything. Johnny Rhodes is a tough guy. He gave me a good whipping.”

The physical beating took its toll, but it paled in comparison to what confronted Ettish afterward. Met by an avalanche of ridicule, Web sites -- most notably the Fred Ettish Fetal Fighting Online Dojo -- sprang up and mocked his legitimacy as a martial artist. Hate-filled e-mails and handwritten letters came, too. To this day, Ettish still fields his share of jokes.

“It was incredibly difficult,” Ettish said. “I’ve been judged and ridiculed based on three minutes and some odd seconds. The severity of it and the depth of it went way over the line. Nobody wants to be ridiculed like that. I think that’s unfair, but at the same time, I’ve had to suck it up and put my big boy pants on.”

‘Disgustingly Healthy’

Life after his failed appearance at UFC 2 did not revolve around martial arts, as Ettish performed valuable works outside the sport.

“I did a variety of things,” he said. “I started in an adult residential facility, where we provided a structured living facility for them. I started as a line worker and moved my way up to the director of the facility. For a time, I got involved in children and adolescents. I got burned out.”

Burnout brought him back to his roots, and Ettish learned to deal with his demons. He now leads a fulfilling life as a family man, father to a 27-year-old son in North Dakota, and has returned to active service in MMA, having served as a judge and referee in Minnesota alongside close friend and former World Extreme Cagefighting welterweight title contender Brock Larson. Training now consumes most of his free time.

“I’m up at 6:30, take care of some things around the house and head to the gym for some workouts,” he said. “I teach classes in the daytime and evening. I get home between 8:30 and 9:30 at night, grab a bite to eat and reintroduce myself to my wife.”

In prime physical condition for a man in his 50s, Ettish recently took part in a 62-mile bike race around Kansas City to benefit brain disease.

“I saw an ad,” Ettish said. “You could choose your distance -- between 10 and 62 miles. I’m not the brightest guy. I always like challenging myself. I’m fighting Father Time, but I’m not going to tap out.

“I’m in excellent health,” he added. “I’m so disgustingly healthy it makes people sick to look at me. I can run a 5K race, race in a 62-mile bicycle race without any training and swim a mile in 30 minutes.”

Still, one wound remains that time cannot heal. He struggles daily with the unexplained death of his newborn baby 13 years ago.

“I had to bury a son,” Ettish said. “There’s nothing like burying one of your children. I never got over it. There are still times when I break down in tears. He was born and died within minutes after a perfect pregnancy. I lost my father at an early age, lost one of my young students and buried my Okinawan teacher, but nothing compared to that.

“My ex-wife did everything right. We never found out why he died,” he added. “I’d go back and relive UFC 2 every day -- I’d take that beating a hundred million times -- if I could have my son back.”

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