The Man Who Might Have Been King

The Soul Assassin

By Joseph Santoliquito Dec 24, 2011
David Terrell has not ruled out a comeback. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood

He never looked up. Everything David Terrell did for that year -- for days, weeks and months -- came at a certain eye level. He hunkered down and insulated himself from the world, shutting down and shutting off everything he ever knew.

Terrell raised his eyes to turn on a TV or maybe look up briefly to find something to eat in the fridge; otherwise, nothing. His eyes were fixed on the floor, groping for answers. He moped, with his head swaying back and forth as he questioned himself repeatedly: “Why did you do it? Why did you quit like that?” The drawn shades to his room were not going to provide a reply. Neither were the tussled bed sheets or the shoes and pants lying strewn on the floor. Only 24 hours earlier, he had the world in the palm of his hands. A day later, he did not want to see anyone. As for eye contact, forget it. In the subsequent days, weeks and months to follow, those few Terrell would see were greeted with a darting look, as if something or someone was ready to pounce on him.

This is what happens when a dream is shattered, and there was Terrell’s, smashed and broken into tiny pieces after his loss to the late Evan Tanner at UFC 51 cost him the vacant middleweight championship. He had so much to gain, so many visions he could not contain them all. Then, just like that, they all evaporated: poof.

“I knew I could have been a world champion. It sucks. I just gave up [against Tanner] and just laid there. I beat myself, and for me to beat myself like that, it will probably always haunt me,” says Terrell.

However, you should see the 33-year-old Terrell today. You should see the radiant smile on his face each time he runs around after his young son, Michael, his mini-me. Terrell runs the Nor-Cal Fighting Alliance -- which he has owned for close to 10 years -- in Santa Rosa, Calif. He still trains, though he mainly trains other fighters, like David Mitchell, Nate Loughran and former Bellator Fighting Championships featherweight titleholder Joe Soto.

Above everything, Terrell seems content -- for once. He can put behind him the restlessness of what appeared to be a blossoming MMA career, all squelched by one fight and a myriad of circumstances surrounding Feb. 5, 2005: the night he fought Tanner; the night he was beating Tanner; the night that still haunts him. To see Terrell now, one would never know he was near suicidal or that he cordoned off himself in a room for more than a year, as those closest to him thought he turned into a weirdo. He will be forever plagued by wearing the tag of someone who never got the chance to show his best.

“That’s the frustrating part,” Terrell says. “I was nearly suicidal after losing to Tanner. It affected me that deeply. But I look back at that time in general, [and] I wasn’t happy. From the outside looking in, some people may have thought I had everything. I wasn’t happy when I was fighting; it just got old, that lifestyle of going out, and I was always training.

“I’ve spent the majority of my life on this mat,” he adds. “It’s that addiction. Some people like to play chess. I like to train jiu-jitsu. It’s funny, when you have a fight, you hate training. It made me hate it, like it became a job. Today, I love it again. Maybe it’s the time away or my son coming into my life, but I’m happier today than I’ve ever been.”

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Evan Tanner File Photo

The loss to Tanner still stings.
Terrell was an accomplished high school wrestler who used to work out and take long runs dreaming about being Royce Gracie. He grew up barely knowing his biological father, who died when Terrell was 5, the victim of an accident while serving in the military. Terrell was fortunate that a good man -- his stepfather, Mike Camacho -- stepped into his life. He was the one who helped cultivate Terrell’s shift to MMA.

Terrell boasted a 54-5 record his senior year while wrestling at 160 pounds. A passion for submission grappling began brewing when he was in eighth grade, around the time his family moved from Sacramento to where he presently lives in Santa Rosa.

The discipline was something fun, and he seemed to be a natural at it. Upon graduating high school, Terrell did not know whether or not he wanted to wrestle in college, so he pursued something else: Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He sought out one of the true masters, Cesar Gracie, at
his gym in Lodi, Calif.

“David was really raw, but a raw talent and the kid was a good wrestler already,” Gracie says. “He was explosive, strong, and I could tell if he could mold that mind of power, he could get somewhere. I was very impressed with that. David’s biggest strength was his willingness to learn. He would come all the way from Santa Rosa, and the drive was kind of far, about three hours roundtrip. He would make that drive two times a week, and he was hungry to learn. Dave really wanted to get good.

“As for weaknesses at the time, I really didn’t see any weaknesses,” he adds. “He didn’t know the art of jiu-jitsu at the time, but you could tell David could do something.”

Terrell began competing at 19. Gracie was getting him fights, many of which came when MMA was still in its infancy in parts of the United States; so many were illegal at the time.

“It was hard back then, and everything was hard,” Terrell says. “My girlfriend’s parents thought I was a loser and my mother didn’t like what I was doing because it was fighting. My pro debut came when I was 19, and back then, it was against the law. The first event I went to was in Stockton, Calif. It was held in a small school rec center in front of what seemed like a lot of people. It seemed like a cool event, but it wasn’t legal.

“I remember at the time it was weird, because the first fight I ever fought in, I couldn’t hit the guy with a closed fist, but I could knee him or kick him in the head,” he adds. “The rules were different then. I was happy to get the experience. I tapped the guy out, but you know what I remember most about that fight? I tap the guy out, and after the fight, the guy I beat says I hit like a bitch. It struck me as funny how he said that and I tapped him out in about two minutes. We almost got into a fight after the fight.”

Many look at Terrell’s rise through MMA and the UFC as meteoric. It was not. As he mastered Brazilian jiu-jitsu, eventually becoming Gracie’s first black belt and prized pupil, Terrell forged his identity the hard way. No one handed him anything as he began making a name for himself in the jiu-jitsu world. He started honing his craft, mixing in more kickboxing and dabbling a little into boxing.

“As a fighter, I know it felt as if it was rapid, but David was fighting and doing these back-alley bulls--- tournaments for years; he actually had a long run of competing for no money, but he loved it,” says Tom Call, Terrell’s business partner and adviser. “Dave lived a little life of poverty for a time there, and he really has evolved as a business coach and a leader right now, but he worked his way up.”

Gracie was right there by his side, serving as coach and confidante, all while taking on assorted other roles.

“The thing with David ... it was a perfect storm of a lot of thing going on. Number one, I didn’t have many students at the time, and I was able to give him a lot of attention,” Gracie says. “Jiu-jitsu was not very popular in the United States, and I know Royce Gracie was winning some fights at the time. I was trying to build up my student base and I was trying to prove something, and I wanted to establish myself as a good teacher. I really put a lot of time and energy into David. He was willing to learn, and we started doing tournaments and he would mow through people.”

Finish Reading » “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.”
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