For nine-year MMA veteran Damien Brown, hand-to-hand combat was always about finding freedom. A former infantryman in the Australian army who was deployed in Afghanistan and returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder, the man who now goes by the moniker “Beatdown” found solace in kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu as he struggled to transition back into life as a civilian. What started as an escape mechanism soon evolved into a burning passion, with Brown turning pro as an MMA fighter in 2010, eventually signing with the Ultimate Fighting Championship six years later. He represented his home country of Australia over a two-and-a-half year stretch where he posted a 3-4 record, including a “Fight of the Night” winning performance against Frank Camacho in Sydney. Today, now he’s one of the lightweight division’s most intriguing free agents.
Fresh off of two consecutive victories under Japan’s Rizin FF banner -- a scintillating come-from-behind submission victory over fellow UFC alum Daron Cruikshank on New Year’s Eve and a unanimous decision over then-undefeated Koji Takeda -- Brown is currently in the process of locking down his next promotional home, and caught up with Sherdog.com to talk about what comes next. In a wide-ranging interview, which occurred while Brown was driving to the Gold Coast’s Eternal 46 event last weekend, Brown talked about his career highs and lows, the opening of his new gym, continuing to work in the corrections system as a prison guard and the state of the 155-pound division outside the UFC.
“Rizin had indicated that they wanted to extend my contract” Brown said, echoing statements he made to Sherdog earlier this month. “We’re thinking that that will probably happen. I like fighting in Japan, I like fighting for Rizin -- they’re a fantastic promotion. The staff and the matchmakers, they treat us awesome. Anything I need they get it sorted. You can’t fault them. They’ve only had 15 shows, and they treat fighters well already. They have fantastic production, all the theatrics and stuff. It’s unreal.”
Brown is known for having itchy knuckles -- if you don’t believe me, take a quick perusal of his Twitter page -- so it is perhaps unsurprising that in addition to advanced negotiations with Rizin, his management has also corresponded with the UFC and Bellator MMA throughout the year, though those talks are muted at the time of writing. The way Brown relays this information, it’s obvious his primary motivation is competing on the biggest stage possible for the most amount of money, but with sand quickly passing through the hourglass, he’s equally driven to get a fight date and jump back into training camp.
“We had a small discussion with Bellator and we did talk to the UFC before UFC 234 in Melbourne, as a late replacement for someone, but the opponent’s team chose someone else instead of me,” Brown disclosed. “The UFC are obviously are open to me coming back fighting for them, they treated me fantastic when I was there. [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby was always nice to me, and I didn’t make a d---head of myself when I got cut.
“For me, I do like to compete regularly,” he continued. “If I was to sign with a big promotion, I’d expect to fight three times a year. Ideally, I’d fight four to five times a year. I feel like Rizin will give me three to four fights a year -- and their contracts are only exclusive in Asia. That’s why guys can fight for Bellator and Rizin at the same time, and have crossover fights, because Bellator don’t go to Asia. I feel like signing with Rizin, and then fighting elsewhere if I wanted to, [is a good option]. If Rizin said, ‘We don’t want you until November,’ then I would look to get a fight in between and clear it with them.”
Brown’s enthusiasm to get a contract and an opponent is palpable, and is made all the more impressive by the litany of side hustles keeping him occupied outside of competition. The 31-fight veteran still works as a prison guard inside the Queensland corrections system -- in his words, he likes keeping a “certain amount of risk” in his life -- and as of last month opened a gym, Base Training Centre, in Brendale. As Brown tells it, owning his own martial arts studio has always been an aspiration, one which came to fruition after he reached a crossroads moment when the UFC released him last year.
“When the UFC let me go, said to my wife, ‘Now’s the time,’” Brown said. “Who knows how long I was going to [continue] fighting for. I was 33 at the time [and] I [needed] to open a gym, otherwise I was going to work in corrections as a prison officer for the rest of my life. The same happens to [Australian Rules] football players and that -- they don’t make enough money or whatever then they just get a full-time job and are done… I feel like, if I was to not open a gym, or do some kind of coaching, then I would do all my hard work [an] injustice. So I felt like, with the experience I had, passion for instructing and coaching, this was right. I’ve been an instructor in every job I’ve ever had, so, I feel like I’ve I can pass the torch to people. Instructing people, mixed with my experience and the things that I would do, I felt like I had something to give and I can do that by opening a gym.
“We took six months and we found a place,” he added. “I’ve put everything I have into it. We sold our house, I’ve built the best place I possibly could -- that looked clean, that would last for a long time. I bought quality mats, I bought tough quality equipment. I’ve done everything possible to make it a great place to train.”
Owning and operating the facility has been a boon for Brown’s professional ambitions, giving him a home base to sharpen his tools and a bridge to leave his full-time career in corrections. As the 34-year old expounds on the journey from concept to opening day, though, it’s clear that his motivations are anything but self-centric.
“I feel like not only can I give back to professional fighters and amateur fighters, people who want to learn how to defend themselves, but I feel like I can help a community of people that aren’t supported in the way that they should be” Brown said. “That’s basically emergency services, military and Queensland corrections. They’re not helped properly.
“Martial arts gave me balance, clarity and freedom” he continued. “A lot of people are trapped in their lives. It doesn’t matter whether you got PTSD or you just work 12 hours a day, day in [and] day out, a lot of people are trapped in their lives. I always felt like jiu-jitsu and martial arts in general gave me freedom from my life. I use martial arts as an escape. And I feel like people in general could use it for that reason too. More importantly, people who suffer from PTSD and mental illness could use it for that reason. The thing that jiu-jitsu brings is: When someone’s trying to twist your arm around your back, you’re not thinking about how f---ing s--- your life is.”
It’s hard to disagree with Brown’s proselytizing attitude on the virtues of martial arts, especially given its transformational impact on his life. His account of his time after his tour in Afghanistan -- from denial, to guilt, to trying to convince himself his trauma wasn’t as serious as those of his counterparts, to eventually finding clarity through MMA -- is nothing if not inspirational, as is his desire to use MMA as a force for therapy and liberation.
“I get to wake up Monday to Friday, six o’clock in the morning, to go train people all the way until eight o’clock at night,” Brown said, with obvious pride. “That’s a pretty good lifestyle. I get two training sessions a day; I train like a professional athlete and I coach people outside of that. I get my weekends with my family and I just work once or twice [in corrections] here or there. It’s a pretty good lifestyle, and I’m very appreciative of it. Working out there one shift [at the prison] just reminds me that I’ve got it really good.
“I want to have professional fighters [too],” he added. “I want to take someone to the UFC. Coach them into becoming a world champion. I want that; I love cornering fighters and have a real passion for that. But I feel like I can help people who need help, not just people who want to be good at something.”
Our conversation moves to Brown’s future, and a broader conversation about the depth of talent outside the UFC. In Brown’s eyes, fighters outside the Octagon don’t get anywhere near their due, and he admonishes the narrow-minded perception prevalent amongst some fighters that competing for the market leader is the only indicator of talent.
“Everyone goes on about how the best fighters in the world are in the UFC” Brown said. “Well, I think that’s rubbish. If the best fighters in the world were in the UFC, they’d all be signed at 0-0, but that’s not the case. The UFC signs fighters from outside the promotion -- it’s just good promotion and good marketing. Look at Eddie Alvarez, who just got smoked [in his One Championship debut]. That dude that Eddie fought [Timofey Nastyukhin], nobody had heard of him. Sage Northcutt just got starched by a kickboxer who was 7-1 in MMA. There are guys all the way across this world that are awesome. There was a guy who fought in the Professional Fighters League the other day that was 34-1.”
As for Brown’s immediate future, he’s more than happy with status quo, splitting time between his gym and the Team Compton Training Centre, The Garage Grappling & BJJ and Broz Jiu Jitsu while he waits for confirmation that he’s been signed.
“I’m just happy man,” Brown said in conclusion. “I’m in no rush. I’m in a really good place. I’ve got the gym, I’ve got my students, I’m a dedicated coach. Outside of that I spend time with my family on weekends, and whatever fight comes up, I’ll take it… I feel like in the next 2-3 weeks I’ll have a contract and fight locked in. I won’t be out too long.”
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.