Escaping the Dark Shadow

By Josh Gross May 7, 2005
No matter how deeply he wishes, no matter how hard he works, Bobby Hoffman will have difficultly escaping the dark shadow of his past.

Stepping into the cage tonight versus Eric Pele in Primm, Nevada’s Star of the Desert Arena, Hoffman’s professional record, built against solid opposition, is no longer what defines him as a fighter or a man.

Instead, it is the 38-year-old heavyweight’s personal battles — drugs, assaults, a heinous beating of his then 20-year-old wife and the subsequent stint in prison — that precede him to the cage.

“As far as the past, it’s over,” Hoffman asserted to Thursday. “As far as everybody else in the whole entire world is concerned, including the state of California who was most severely upset with a mistake, everything has been handled properly and to its fullest obligation possible. So there’s no need to be living in the past. … Let’s just move on and forget about what happened in the past.”

But that’s not so easy to believe for a man whose history follows him like a noose around the neck.

Returning to Nevada for the first time since losing his fighting license to marijuana more than three years ago, Hoffman will try once again to shift focus away from his “mistakes” back onto one of the few areas of his life where he feels comfortable.

Under the guidance of Alan Joslin’s Team Kihon — a small mixed martial arts gym located a fallen redwood away from Yosemite National Park in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas — Hoffman, say he and his new trainer, is finally ready to make that move.

We’ve heard these claims before, of course.

After the New Jersey Athletic Control Board received a positive Hoffman test for marijuana and overturned his February 2001 knockout of Marc Robinson, the heavyweight said he was done, no more drugs.

Yet so far gone was Hoffman’s judgment that months later he sat in an MGM Grand hotel room as friends lit up hours before his UFC 34 fight versus Josh Barnett.

In his smoke-clouded mind, it was probably fine, especially since he was taking masking agents to cover up his own use.

That night — after Hoffman was stopped in the second round and after taking what would be his second failed urinalysis in six months — marked the start to a harrowing few weeks for the 240-pound Iowa* born-and-bred fighter, whose reputation for enduring obscene amounts of pain was what defined him then.

Hoffman wed his girlfriend Patricia the following day in Las Vegas. Weeks later, out of his mind on Vicodin and Budweiser, Hoffman beat his wife, barely a flyweight, to within a hair of her death in an Ontario, Calif. hotel room the night of their honeymoon.

For the unconscionable act, Hoffman was shipped to a maximum-security facility in Shafter, Calif. before being released to the world a little over a year later. Divorce and a quick return to the ring welcomed him back to the real world.

With the help of King of the Cage promoters Terry Trebilcock and Tedd Williams, Hoffman, who now flaunted “The Bad Seed” as his nickname, quickly returned to his feet, fighting four times in 12 months.

Since prison the self-described “gypsy” — “I just like to travel,” Hoffman said. “You learn something new everywhere you go.” — has bounced around local Southern California gyms. First it was Williams’ academy in Hesperia*. Most recently he spent six months at Beverly Hills jiu-jitsu, during which he made a home on the gym’s mats.

Four months ago a mixed martial arts card in Colusa, Calif. brought Hoffman and Joslin together. “He needed us and we needed him,” said Joslin, a veteran of martial arts since 1972. “It was a perfect match.

“It’s always a concern with anybody having trouble in their past,” Joslin continued. “But, when I met Bobby and if you talk to Bobby one on one, Bobby has made a lot of changes in his life and I think his life is on the right path and in the right direction. And I really think Bobby is seeing a lot of things in his life that make him want to be on the right path now.

“Bobby needed a team that he could trust and that he felt was good to be around. … “We bring him a great training environment, a good solid team that is on its way up.”

“I needed some fresh air,” Hoffman said. “I needed out of the smog of L.A., I think. I think in my heart I’m a country boy and I got up here in the mountains and it really gave me a lot of sense of relief. Made me feel a lot better about things. It’s just clean fresh air and bunch of guys that believe in me.”

“Kihon,” described Joslin, is Japanese for “simple” or “basic.” It’s a core philosophy, the trainer says, perfectly suited for Hoffman. “We want to stay with very humble beginnings. It’s the foundation.”

“Bobby has responded to not only to the [the bare-bones philosophy], but he also took to the tradition, the respect issue. We bow. We respect each other. Bobby took to that like nobody’s business. He appreciated that because he thinks one of the things in MMA that’s lacking is respect. Like I said, Bobby is kind of different guy than he’s been in the past and I think a big portion of it is, you know, we find things in ourself and sometimes what comes out is really who you are.”

Who is Bobby Hoffman?

You’ll find many, like Joslin or Trebilcock, who say he’s a good guy, simply misunderstood.

However, there are others, like Pat Miletich and Monte Cox, who call him mad, a time bomb waiting to explode.

There is no middle ground, it seems. And at times you get the impression that Hoffman’s not sure on what side of the fence to stand.

In the same sentence he’ll speak of “fighting for the spirit of the fight — nobility, respect, be honorable and show humility” only to continue about his desire to “whoop the f___ out of somebody in that octagon.”

“What it is,” he said of the act of fighting, “it’s an expression of a artistic art form that I have — my fighting style is my art form. So it’s my creating side that I’m expressing. I can’t always be the dominant leader. Sometimes I need to be creative. When I fight from now on it’s going to be pure happiness and creativity that you see.”

Jackson Pollack, he’s not. Yet Hoffman is correct: Art comes in all forms. His is a without-pretense style; if you’re the man standing across from him, you know you’re in for a war.

A brawling heavyweight like that, haunting past or not, will always find work. So 10 days ago, in need of a replacement, the King of the Cage called Hoffman asking if he’d fight Pele, the organization’s 340-pound nimble-footed super heavyweight champion.

“No one was going to give me a chance,” Hoffman declared. “I was dead out. Dead out in the water. And now I got this opportunity and I’m going to make the most out of it.”

“I believe in myself, I believe in the person who created me and I believe in Team Kihon,” he said. “And they believe in me. And everything will fall into place properly. So releasing everything wasn’t the easiest thing to do in the world, but by God I done it and it’s made me a better person. You’ll see a better fighter because of it.”

Better fighter? Perhaps. (His pitfalls have rarely manifested in the ring, and there’s a chance Hoffman could take out the champion tonight.)

Better man? We’ll see.

“The true thing that matters to me is that I do it to prove it to myself and to people who believe in me,” Hoffman said.

“I think everything’s going to work out fine in this fight game for me because I have my head on straight,” he continued. “Lord knows they tried to kill me and squash me out bro, but I must be a tough ole son of a bitch because I’m still here.”

No one denies his existence — there are few things more real than Hoffman. How he survives in the murkiness of that far-reaching shadow is what matters now.

(*Editor’s Note: Bobby Hoffman is from Iowa, not Ohio as previously noted. He played college football in Ohio at the University of Akron. Also, Tedd Williams’ gym, Williams Combat Grappling, is located in Hesperia, Calif., not the desert city of Hemet.)
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