The Nicest Monster You’ll Ever Meet

By Greg Savage Mar 6, 2009
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Looks can be deceiving. Pick any old, tired cliché that describes the dissonance one experiences when a massive hulk of a man greets you in a soft-spoken tone.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised when I walked into the gym to meet Shane Carwin for the first time. But I still was.

And apparently I’m not the only person to grapple with this dilemma.

“When he first came into my gym, I was afraid to say hi to him,” laughed Carwin’s boxing coach, Trevor Whitman. “He reminded me of Shrek.”

Minus the green pigment, I suppose.

“The funny thing about Shane is he is the gentlest guy ever,” Whitman said. “It’s funny because he was walking through the gym the other day, and he’s staring down all the bags and he has this look on his face like he wants to murder the bags. I kind of laugh, and he looks over at me and asks, ‘What are you laughing at?’ I said, ‘What are you thinking when you’re looking at those bags?’ He’s like, ‘Coach, there is a rip in that bag,’ and it’s just completely opposite of what I thought he was thinking. He’s got this demeanor that looks so rough and tough, but underneath it he’s just the nicest guy in the world.”

This is far from the only incongruity. Carwin, a Division II national champion wrestler in 1999 for Western State College in Colorado, spends his days juggling myriad responsibilities, but they all pale in comparison to his first priority in life -- his 8-year-old son, Camden.

Shane Carwin exclusive interview.
Sure, there is the fighting career that takes him an hour each way from his home in Greeley, Colo., to Denver to train at Whitman’s school. There is also the full-time engineering job. Let us not forget about the volunteer assistant-coaching position he holds down with the University of Northern Colorado wrestling team.

That is a full plate for anyone, much less a fighter trying to break into the highest levels of a sport with top athletes who do nothing but eat, sleep and live the game.

Where do these paternal instincts and time management skills come from?

“My mom worked hard, and it’s probably what we saw growing up. Mom raised three of us on her own, and I know that wasn’t an easy battle for her,” reflected Carwin, the youngest of the three, who holds an engineering degree from The Colorado School of Mines in tandem with his environmental technology diploma from Western State. “She was 32 years old, left with three kids and took care of us all by herself, without any help. So maybe that’s what I grew up seeing, what I knew in life. Just work hard and engage yourself, and good things will happen.”

And the best thing to happen to Carwin, if you ask him, is Camden. Being there for him as a father, something he never enjoyed as a child, is a privilege the 34-year-old family man/engineer/mixed martial artist refuses to subordinate to his multiple careers.

“My son, Camden, he’s awesome,” Carwin beamed. “He’s academically and athletically gifted and he’s in second grade and he’s full of life. I want to be there every step of the way for him. It means a lot to me. Those are the things I missed growing up, and I can appreciate the things I missed and be able to give to him.”

Headed into the biggest fight of his career Saturday on the main card of UFC 96, the undefeated heavyweight will have the support of his family and his team, Jackson’s MMA. Home to top fighters Georges St. Pierre, Rashad Evans, Nate Marquardt and Keith Jardine, among others, the elite group has become another family for Carwin.

The camaraderie displayed in the team’s interactions would be almost sickeningly upbeat in another setting, but the results assuredly support the method. St. Pierre and Evans already wear UFC gold, and Carwin is the next hopeful for the camp.

Eliot Marshall, of “The Ultimate Fighter” fame, spoke glowingly of his teammate and his chances of reaching the summit of the UFC heavyweight division.

“He’s the new breed of heavyweight for sure,” Marshall said. “He’s not just this big goofy guy that can push guys that are smaller than him around. He’s going to be the champ. … Like I said, that size, along with the skills that are coming, man, it’s just impossible.”

One big question surrounding Carwin is his shockingly small amount of ring time for someone with 10 fights. He has logged a total of 11:13 and has never gone past 2:11 in a fight, which was his first one.

While it seems to be a concern for many prognosticators, head trainer Greg Jackson doesn’t see the ring time as a big problem for his charge.

“I really believe, just because he’s so intensely competitive, that he’ll be fine. He trains extremely hard, so I don’t really foresee it being a problem,” said Jackson, one of the sport’s most respected trainers. “Most of our guys are pretty well mentally prepared for a long, drawn-out war by the time they get to fighting. I fully expect the thing to go 15 minutes of fighting because I think Gonzaga is just unbelievably tough and unbelievably fast for a heavyweight.”

If Carwin is able to overcome the odds and take the next step in his progression, it will have quite a bit to do with the men he trains with. One of the key people in designing his program, aside from Jackson and Whitman, is Christian Allen, Carwin’s jiu-jitsu coach in Denver.

Allen made it clear that the goal going into the fight is to gain the upper hand in the positional battle with Gonzaga.

“[We are] working his top game, looking at a lot of submissions that Gonzaga likes to work for and looking at defending those and his position in general,” Allen said. “His grappling is world class because of his wrestling and because of his positioning. He’s not going to get in those bad positions that other people are, where he could be vulnerable to submissions.”

With a fighter of Gonzaga’s caliber, though, that is easier said than done. Carwin’s trainers know this is a big step up for their fighter, but they are confident he will not only impress this weekend but for as long as he wants to fight.

“He’s at the bottom of his game right now, and when he goes out there and beats Gonzaga, it’s going to show that man, this guy has a huge future even with his age being 34 years old,” Whitman said. “This guy is just starting; he’s just learning. He’s a white belt level when it comes to the game, I believe, and he’s got so much ahead of him. For him to be at the start of his game, it’s going to be amazing eight years from now.”

Carwin, for his part, acknowledges the upgrade in competition but welcomes the rewards that come along with it.

“It’s going to mean a lot,” he said of his duel with Gonzaga. “It’s the next step up in competition, and it’s going to put me right there in line for getting a shot at that title. It’s a big step up, and I’m excited for that challenge.”
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