‘The Immortal’ Among Us

On Death’s Doorstep

By Joseph Santoliquito Jul 23, 2014
Matt Brown once survived a potentially fatal heroin overdose. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

The abandoned building they parked behind was a hallow brick shell, about as lifeless as the trio that spilled out of the van that muggy August 2001 night. They were looking for a dark place where even shadows went to escape, a desolate safe zone where a simple heroin spike served as a great elixir.

Matt Brown was already in a comatose state, stumbling in and out of people’s lives, pushing a brink from which few walk away. There was the time he traipsed 10 miles in a raging blizzard to reach the refuge of a truck stop. Another time, he curled up on a train plank, coming down off a Xanax-alcohol high -- 20 yards away from being crimson on a locomotive. Brown’s chicken game with death included falling asleep in a frozen ditch and somehow escaping hypothermia. Then there was the time his mother rushed to see him in the hospital, driving past his totaled truck unaware it was his. The remnants, though, were enough to make her shudder. “I hope no one died,” she thought, only to later see her son patched together by 80 stitches.

Then there was this night and something new: a substantial dose of heroin. It was another great allure, another test of his limits. Brown could have easily led a small-town life, doing small-town things in Bowersville, Ohio, but underneath there was this insatiable appetite pining for more, even if it meant tempting death. That is what it almost came to.

Minutes later, Brown was slumped in the front seat of the van, his face drained of color, a pasty white. The guy who hooked up Brown later told him it was the most heroin he had ever done; and this guy did everything. Fortunately, the girl in the van had medical training and knew what was happening. They dropped off Brown’s listless body at a nearby emergency ward in Dayton and rolled -- another nameless junkie who rode too close to the edge and overdosed on heroin; or so the medical techs probably thought. The doctor that treated Brown told him later that he was clinically dead for a minute.

Strangely, that Matt Brown and the current Matt Brown, mixed martial arts star, are not that drastically different. He still blares Metallica, and he is still self-destructive. Ask his brothers, Josh and Ben. Talk to Brown, and the welterweight who is undefeated over the last three years will tell you the same.

(+ Enlarge) | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com

A dangerous Lawler awaits Brown.
If you think Brown will harbor any latent anxiety when he takes on Robbie Lawler in the UFC on Fox 12 main event this Saturday at the SAP Sent in San Jose, Calif., think again. Stare death in its black, soulless eyes enough times and you tend to believe you are “Immortal,” Brown’s statement to the world that he had emblazed across his abdomen.

“I’m not that different; the only way is all the way and that’s the way I thought then and it’s the way I still think,” said the 33-year-old Brown, who rides the crest of a seven-fight winning streak into his latest appearance.

“When I was going towards the dark side, I went all the way. I didn’t let anyone get in my path. My energies today are focusing on being the best person I can be. That means being the best husband and father I can be. It means being the best fighter. A lot of people will take different lessons from different fables. They don’t learn the lessons themselves. Believe me, I did.

“Everyone goes through it,” he added. “I just went through it at a very extreme level. I’ve obviously done a lot of growing up. Any 33-year old is different than when they were 22 or 23 years old. I didn’t even know what [the] UFC was then, but the moment I saw it, I had to try it. I dried myself out. Without martial arts, none of this would have happened. I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. I had come to a lot of realizations. The first was that I was going to be OK. I had to slow this down and get my life together.”

No intervention was going to save him. It was a very long process. Sentience without drugs came in small measures since Brown had no idea what he was doing to himself and to those around him. It meant ostracizing his family. It meant numerous nadirs, one dipping lower than the next, but he constantly rose, buoyed by the thought that “things were always going to work out for me.”

“I think it’s why I got the tattoo ‘Immortal’ in my late teens,” Brown said. “Nothing was going to stop me. Finally, it became, ‘I want to fight and I’m throwing everything into fighting.’ When I started thinking that I could live this MMA lifestyle, the drugs and the bulls--- filtered out so slowly that there wasn’t, I would say, a last time that I did drugs; but I’ve been clean ever since I turned pro, so it’s over 10 years.”

It took an unwieldy, arduous odyssey to arrive here.

* * *

Ben Brown laughs. The youngest of Christine and James Brown’s three boys, each separated by two years, recalls his brother not so much falling into a “bad crowd” -- Matt was “the crowd” in an incessant party. Josh, a high school wrestler who went on to join the army after graduating, is the oldest and missed some of Matt’s more trying times.

Ben was at ground zero. As early as 7, Matt’s destructive influences launched. The Browns took in an abandoned child who was roughly Matt’s age and had roamed the streets of Bowersville, a tiny enclave of about 400 in the corner of Southern Ohio. The Browns’ houseguest had a history of smoking weed and stealing cigarettes.

“To me, the kid was crazy and I couldn’t believe he was doing these things; I had all of these boundaries, and that kid was doing whatever he wanted,” Matt said. “I was really drawn to that world. I saw it and became desensitized to it at around 10. This other friend, who was a year younger, lived with a stepdad and had a mess of a life. His parents were big partiers. By the time he was 10, he’d steal his dad’s weed and alcohol, and he was giving it to me. I thought he was crazy, but I wanted to try it. Whatever it was, I was drawn to that, and it’s about the same time that I got into heavy metal. I still like it and the lifestyle to this day, but I didn’t smoke or drink on a regular basis.”

That came later.

By high school, Matt was delving into deeper miasma. Greeneview High was a small-time school rutted in its myopic ways. An old guard of politically connected coaches froze him out. For his part, Matt began to realize the athletic clique was not accepting, so he picked up a guitar and lost interest in playing sports -- a real dagger considering it was all Josh, Matt and Ben did growing up.

“Sophomore year, I didn’t give a s--- about anything; I didn’t fit in,” Matt said. “I didn’t want to hang with these douchebags. These sports kids wanted to bully me. I wasn’t putting up with it. I’m sure that there was some anger there, but I didn’t fit in with our small-ass little town.”

Matt did not know where he was socially, but he knew where he wanted to be. The druggies and stoners were the easiest, most accepting crowd. They wore all black and smoked weed, rebelling against everything and everyone. “Here we are, like us or not, and so what if you don’t” was their mantra. Apathy followed.

“That’s when it began spiraling out of control; I was doing drugs in the mornings before school, during school, after school,” Matt said. “Life was a party. Acid, cocaine, meth, mushrooms, I did it all. My junior year, it was commonplace.”

James Brown, or “Bo” as he was known by family and friends, was not having it. He was a traditional man ingrained in Midwestern stoicism and self-reliance. Bo believed in tough love. If his boys were out of line, the hammer came down with a no-tolerance thud; but something did not fit under Bo’s roof. That brewing tempest was Matt, and father and son often clashed about his wayward ways.

Bo was ill-equipped to handle it. He was 1950s hard knocks. Matt was 1990s chill. All the yelling and screaming zipped through one ear and out the other, as it did with most any teenager.

“Matt had no real ambition to do anything,” said Ben, 31, an artist. “I never had to go out looking for him. I remember periods of time after he graduated high school when I wasn’t sure where Matt was living or what he was doing. I also remember my father being really upset with him, but I don’t think my dad really treated Matt that fairly then. A few times my father did try to reach out and deal with Matt calmly. I always thought Matt would outgrow his problems. I was in some denial, too. I didn’t want to believe what was going on. I also didn’t feel it was my place to confront him about it.”

Until one instance, where Ben refused to drive Matt to a party. He had suspicions.

“I didn’t want to contribute to what he was doing,” Ben said. “Matt blew up. We never really had a rift in our relationship, other than that. I was still in high school and very naive but assumed everywhere Matt was going back then would be with the kind of people who were into trouble and drugs.”

Apparently, Ben was not so gullible. He was steadfast, though. Matt, meanwhile, could not hold a job. He was a vagrant, bouncing wherever he laid his head. That included about 30 stays in jail -- once for eight months for breaking probation on DUI, drug charges and assorted other felonies. Ben was the only one at Matt’s sentencing hearing, and Ben and his mother were the only two to visit him in jail. Matt was locked up so frequently the family even had a special Matt-stays-in-jail rule: there was no bailing him out -- a tenet Josh once broke.

“Yep, I was there in the orange prison jumper when Ben and my mom visited,” Matt said, lowering his voice. “You can say that was a rock bottom, but there were a lot of rock bottoms. I couldn’t have asked for better brothers, but I probably put Ben through more than I put my parents. There were times when Ben was the only one that stayed by me.”

Josh, 35, an attorney who’s a state government lobbyist, goes back to when he originally left for the army in June 1997. Matt was there to say goodbye, under a badly shaved head, with globs of matted hair here and some skin there, wearing all black. Defiling himself was Matt’s way of defying.

“I would call my parents once a week and they would tell me about the trouble Matt was getting into,” said Josh, who asked to be redeployed after the 9/11 attacks. “You could see where he was going. My mom was really worried he was getting into drugs, but Matt never thought he was doing anything wrong. When we spoke, I tried to encourage him about doing other things. Matt always thought he would get through it; he would always tell me that it’s not that big of a deal. None of it made sense to me. Ever since he was a kid, Matt was always liked and people gravitated towards him.

“I can laugh about it now, because Matt used to annoy the hell out of me,” he added. “I remember in elementary school, he was getting good grades without even trying. He always had those natural abilities and is fundamentally a person with a lot of drive at independence. Matt was this great athlete that didn’t care. He was the James Dean-type, too cool for school. He’s still the same person. The things that make Matt so great today are the things that made him so self-destructive. He can drain out the noise and focus on what he has to do.”

Finish Reading » Just off center, tugging at him quietly is the lure. Addicts are never fully cured. They continue to take steps every day, the specter of the next high forever lurking. Matt’s fight goes on. Correcting the mistakes of his 11 losses keeps him in ready mode. Before, the focus was on negating what his opponents did well. Now, the thrust is on what he does well to win.


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