The Man Who Might Have Been King

Forging a Legacy

By Joseph Santoliquito Dec 24, 2011
Cesar Gracie File Photo

Gracie remains a mentor.
After winning a few fights in Japan, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva told Gracie he was willing to give Terrell a shot in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Terrell went back to Japan and continued winning. He also suffered a broken left hand, the beginning of what turned into a series of nagging-type injuries that would plague him for the rest of his career.

“It’s weird how you can train and fight all year and then have things happen,” Terrell reflects. “I also trained way too hard. I wanted my confidence high going into these fights and would do whatever it took to get into shape. I definitely over-trained, and it weakened my body. One time, I had a Tommy John [ligament] tear in my right arm, and every time I punched, I screamed; the pain was that great. In 2008, I was supposed to fight Ed Herman [at UFC 78] and tore ligaments in my foot. It was stuff like that killed my confidence.”

* * *

Terrell never shied away from challenges. In his professional
MMA debut back in August 1999, he plunged in and took on Vernon White on short notice. Terrell was 21 years old. White had 33 fights under his belt at the time and had already tested himself against esteemed fighters like Bas Rutten, Frank Shamrock, Pedro Rizzo and Kazushi Sakuraba. Terrell lost a unanimous decision but raised enough attention to get other fights.

“David got used to winning, and he took losses too hard,” Gracie says. “We’re talking about someone who was so good in gi and non-gi competition. David not only went undefeated; no one scored a point on him. That was the impression he put on people. In the Abu Dhabi [Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships], he reached the semifinals and lost, but I think looking back, all champions learn from their losses. David was winning, and he put too much pressure on himself.”

Terrell won to such a degree that he took on 2000 Olympic silver medalist Matt Lindland at UFC 49 in August 2004. It was Terrell’s sixth “recorded” professional fight, and “The Soul Assassin” came in touted as UFC’s next big thing. Terrell gained instant fame by pummeling Lindland in a mere 24 seconds. The victory changed his world and set up the February 2005 title fight against Tanner that eventually altered his world even more.

“Looking back at all the fights I won, I always took three-and-a-half months to train for my fights, and I [had] already fought three times [in 2004],” Terrell recalls. “Tanner was already set, Joe Silva told me, and, after fighting Lindland, it’s the first time I ever made 185 pounds. After the fight, I skyrocketed up to 235. I had six weeks before the Tanner fight and it definitely played tricks on me, dieting and training as hard as I could for five weeks.”

It all comes rushing back to him. Terrell walked out there and kept his sweater on. He did not feel right. He was even unhappy with his appearance, so much so that he was reluctant to remove his shirt.

I feel like I have found
myself. I think I can still
be competitive, but it
has to be worth my while
to come back.

-- David Terrell

What was draining him more than the weight loss was a closely and deeply guarded trust he felt he broke. It deflated him more than any punch Tanner would drop on him.

“I’ll be honest about what went on.” Terrell feels compelled to confess. “It was an ex-girlfriend who got an abortion, and I thought God was mad at me. I wanted to have the baby and I didn’t want to have that weigh on my mind. One of the last things I remember walking out to the Tanner fight was talking to God when I was coming out. I told God that I would give him this win. When I came out in the fight and dominated so bad, I was hitting Tanner and choking him. It was pretty much the first time in my life I laid back and thought, ‘God take this from me.’

“I just gave up,” he adds. “I was always known for having heart and the whole God thing was messing with my head. It wasn’t like me. You shouldn’t be in the title fight of your life thinking about a girl with an abortion. It’s something I wished I had a better frame of mind for, but it is something that will always haunt me. I gave up.”

That night, current Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez uttered a few profound words to no one in particular: “That was like watching Superman die.” The next time -- and last time -- Terrell fought, he forced Scott Smith to tap out to a rear-naked choke at UFC 59 in April 2006. He owns a 6-2 record, with four submissions. That has been it.

Terrell’s legacy can still be written on what he achieves as a trainer. He has a promising team developing, and he has not completely ruled out coming back, either. He recently addressed an undiscovered problem he had for years with his sinuses, undergoing an ear operation that could be the stem of Terrell’s constant sinus infections flaring up around fight time. He has molded what he learned under Gracie into his own patterns and systems. Terrell is seeing another side of life, too, chasing after a 3-year-old, barbecuing for the first time, and he just bought a fishing rod last year.

“I love what I’m doing today,” Terrell says. “It feels good building these guys from scratch, trying to be there for them. There’s no way I can take things back, but I can’t have any regrets. The fights and jiu-jitsu have been good for me. Career-wise, there are some regrets that I can’t change, but with everything that’s going on around me, the sport has been really good to me. I feel like I have found myself. I think I can still be competitive, but it has to be worth my while to come back. I definitely live a comfortable life. I spent time with my family. I am content and fulfilled.”

Call has seen the transformation. A friend who was lost for a time has found himself again.

“I’ve seen Dave come through the other side,” Call says. “I wouldn’t say Dave lost himself, but after the Tanner loss, he was battling depression, and even during that time, he didn’t seem happy. Since fatherhood, I’ve never seen him happier. He has a cute, amazing little son, and it’s scary how close they look alike. Dave is the kind of guy who might want to fight again on his own. He’s that kind of guy. He’s a very unique guy full of surprises.”


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