Stout took on Thiago Tavares at UFC 142 on Jan. 14 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, marking his first fight ever without Tompkins in his corner. Hominick worked his corner and, according to Stout, did a more than credible job. Tavares won by unanimous decision.
“Mark did a great job, but I got stuck trying to explain what Shawn used to do,” Stout said. “It was definitely in my head. I had a hard time getting into a rhythm early in the fight, but I think time will heal that and we’ll get used to a new way of doing things and figuring each other out. Not a lot of guys have been with the same coach the way we all have our entire careers with Shawn. Shawn would see guys changing coaches, and he’d always pick those guys to lose because it takes two or three fights to get it. The next fight, I’ll be set to go.”
Time, too, may heal Stout’s deep loss. There on his fridge door sits a picture. It may have been taken after a workout, who knows, but it carries a sincere connection. It shows Stout, Horodecki, Hominick and Tompkins, all grinning with their shirts off and their arms interlocked over each other’s shoulders.
Now, Stout hauls a personal mission into the cage: he fights for two, himself and the burning memory of a coach who changed his life. It was Tompkins who instilled into Stout why he fights -- to have that hand raised and know it is the best feeling in the world. However, Stout carries a far more important responsibility to his old coach. “What I’ll probably miss the most is not seeing him walk through the cage door after a win,” he said. “Shawn was always the first person I was looking for to give a big hug. He allowed me to experience having my hand raised so many times. Now I do it for him and his legacy and this thing we all helped Shawn build. It’s a torch he passed down to me and some of the other boys.
“We shared tears of joy, had so many highs and lows together and had a closer relationship than most people will have in their lives because it transcended so many different levels,” Stout added. “Shawn wouldn’t want a sad picture of us mourning him. He would want us all remembering the good times we had to take that with us. I remember all the good things about him and honor him that way. I know that’s how I would want to be remembered; talk about the things that I did. For someone like Shawn, who did more in a short lifetime than most people will do in their entire lives, if you look at it that way, he was pretty blessed.”
* * *
Hominick was looking for someone to take his skills to a greater plateau. The 29-year-old lived just outside of London, Ontario, and, when he was 17, heard of this local guy who might be able to help. What Hominick found turned out to be more than a coach; Tompkins was a life tutor and someone who could channel his raw energy into effective power in the cage.
“I had been training for five years and really wanted to take my striking to a higher level,” Hominick said. “I was 17 when I met Shawn, and if you’re a teenager and you meet a guy like that, he’s larger than life.”
Tompkins was the one to whom everyone in the gym turned for answers. He carried a genuine, caring smile and a sage wisdom beyond his years. There was nothing fake about him.
“That’s what attracted you to him,” Hominick said. “You wanted his approval, and you trusted him. Shawn was the one who made you feel confident you could beat anyone. I remember my first UFC fight -- UFC 58. I was going up in weight and was a 5-to-1 underdog, and Shawn was more confident than I’ve ever seen him in my life. He gave me that confidence, and it’s something I carried with me into the fight.”
Hominick scored a second-round victory over Yves Edwards, forcing the American Top Team veteran to submit to a triangle armbar.
This has been a difficult time for Hominick, just as it has been for Emilie, Stout and Horodecki.
“You know, it’s funny; everyone works hard in this sport, but it’s when the cameras aren’t on that shows your real commitment, and that was Shawn,” Hominick said. “He always told us it’s a marathon and not a sprint. On my wedding day, I gave Shawn a gift, a pocket knife that said, ‘My friend, my mentor, my best man’ on the handle of the knife. I asked Emilie if I could have the knife back. It sits by my bedside.
“The life skills he gave me and the memories are what mean the most to me. I remember Shawn’s passion against Jose Aldo at UFC 129,” he added. “After all the years and the grind, all of the ups and downs, I remember looking out at 55,000 [fans] at a fight I was in. I remember Shawn and I looked at each other and realized, ‘This is what it’s all about,’ without saying anything to each other. It made all the hard work and dedication pay off. That will stay with me for a while. Shawn will stay with me forever.”
* * *
Horodecki had been studying traditional karate since he was 6. Now 24, he first came into contact with Tompkins during a demonstration at Horodecki’s karate school. He was instantly drawn to this coach who simplified complex tactics to a point that everyone -- even a wide-eyed 13-year-old -- could understand.
Horodecki was fortunate. “The Coach” began teaching kickboxing twice a week at his school, and when Horodecki was old enough to drive, he began training at Tompkins’ school.
“Shawn pretty much raised me,” Horodecki said. “He was like my second dad. I’ve learned just as much if not more from him. Me, Mark, Sam -- we were his boys; that’s what he called us. You got the sense when we fought, he fought, because Shawn was right in there with us. I knew how emotional it was for me when we fought.
“I could see the pride he had in all of us,” he added. “When we lost, he took it very personal. Shawn did put a lot of pressure on himself. He bore the weight of over 30 guys on his shoulders. We were his team, like a team and a famous coach, Vince Lombardi.”
Like Lombardi, through time, the self-imposed constant burden of attaining success began to wear on Tompkins. He had to bleach his hair blonde because, according to Horodecki, his mane would grow gray as a fox otherwise. In fact, Horodecki noticed pictures of Lombardi in Tompkins’ house.
“Shawn was like Vince Lombardi,” he said. “He was like the Vince Lombardi of MMA because he cared so much about his fighters.”
Tompkins had an enormous impact on Horodecki’s life. For the last five years, he spent more than half the year living with Tompkins and Emilie in Las Vegas.
“It was a great relationship that we had,” Horodecki said. “We could be friends and buddies outside the training room, but inside the room, it was, ‘Yes sir, yes sir.’ I knew where the line was drawn. With Shawn there, I never walked into a fight that I didn’t think I could win. Shawn was tough, but I could say he treated everyone [the same], no favorites.”
Horodecki was just about to start training camp for a fight he was scheduled to have in late September. That Sunday, Aug. 14, he noticed a sudden surge in calls to his cell phone, many of them from the Las Vegas area code. Finding it curious, he picked up.
“It was a writer from one of the websites asking me if the news was true,” Horodecki recalled. “I had no idea what he was talking about. He asked me to confirm if it was true that Shawn died. I was, like, ‘What?!’ That’s how I heard. I was driving home, and my heart just collapsed. It was unbelievable; it didn’t seem real. Even today, I think back that I lived through what I lived through. I’ve been mad, been sad and pissed off. My coach is gone. I’m using it to fuel me; I want to do this for myself, but I want to do this now for Shawn, to continue his legacy and make him proud.”
On Nov. 12, 2011, under the Bellator Fighting Championships banner in Rama, Ontario, Canada, Tompkins for the first time was not there to wrap Horodecki’s hands. Horodecki fought to a majority draw with Mike Corey. It was a positive first step.
“The whole mindset of that fight was very tough,” he said. “It dawned on me that it wasn’t going to be Shawn wrapping my hands; he’s been the only one who’s ever wrapped my hands. It was emotional in the hours and days leading up to the fight.”
Horodecki has Tompkins’ watch, and one of his prized possessions is a rather tattered, old T-shirt the late trainer wore, complete with the armpit stains and faded logo of the original Team Tompkins insignia on the back.
“I was fortunate to have years and years of a great person in the training room, a great coach and a great leader,” Horodecki said. “I’ve said it before, that if there was anyone I would walk to the end of the world with, Shawn would be the guy I would want to lead me. I really, really miss him. I’ll continue this because it’s all I know, and I’ll continue to fight this fight for him.”
* * *
Tompkins’ incandescence still resonates with Emilie. She has moved on from counting the seconds and minutes without her husband and now counts time in weeks and months. She knows time is the only salve for the wound.
“This has been tough on her, and I’ve always known how strong Emilie was,” Stout said. “She was always an optimistic person and always looked on the bright side of things. She never dwells on the bad things in life. I know how bad she’s hurting, but she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. That’s important to her. She doesn’t want to bring people down around her. She wants to celebrate Shawn’s life.”
Emilie has received an incredible outpouring from the MMA community during the last seven months. UFC President Dana White personally called her to express his condolences and pledge his support for whatever she needed. He was one of many in the MMA family to extend that promise, which is why Emilie wants to stay involved with MMA in some capacity.
Part of her time has been devoted to creating a charity in Tompkins’ name. One area that has proven helpful was the new series of Hayabusa coaching equipment featuring Tompkins in commercials. It was a project on which he worked for a few years, and it finally came to fruition. A 30-second clip for someone channel-hopping in a lounge chair may be insignificant, but it means a great deal to Emilie.
“Shawn was my life,” Emilie said. “We had a business based on him, and we lived Shawn’s dream. I’d like to keep his name alive by keeping his business alive. I have to find a way to move on -- and I will -- because he wouldn’t want me crying and feeling sad. He’d want me upbeat and celebrating his life.”
Emilie knows all she has to do is simply close her eyes at any time and Tompkins will always be there, holding her hand while walking on the pier on that moonlit night, a gift-wrapped passage of time forever frozen.