Appearing on a reality television show typically involves endangering little more than your sobriety, your dignity and perhaps your good name. But in Cody McKenzie’s case, the audition room he stepped into contained 300 other reality-star hopefuls looking to kick his ass.
Fortunately, he was itching for a fight, too.
The 6-foot, 152-pound McKenzie strode into the Omni Charlotte Hotel with nothing more than his samurai-style knotted hair, a few days’ worth of facial hair and a grim determination to succeed. He was vying for a spot on The Ultimate Fighter 12, the latest iteration of a Spike TV reality show about up-and-coming fighters looking to win a gig with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
In the past 17 years, mixed martial arts has gone from being dismissed as a blood sport to one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. The unruly (as in, there are few rules) style of its matches requires competitors to be well versed in multiple fighting disciplines — boxing, kickboxing, judo or any other martial art. UFC is the sport’s flagship league, translating high-energy fighting into pay-per-view dominance. The UFC is making a lot of money, so tryouts for The Ultimate Fighter naturally attract a lot of top talent.
“I’ve never seen that many guys in my weight class, all cauli-eared up,” the 22-year-old McKenzie recalled about the tryouts, where 300 people vied for 28 spots. “I started warming up right away, doing sprints and doing jumps because everyone else was standing around there all nervous…They’re all looking at me like I’m an idiot and I’m looking at them like, ‘You guys are idiots.’” The tryout consisted of three stages: grappling, striking and an interview. During the grappling portion, McKenzie banged heads with a fighter who had a three-inch height advantage.
Shortly after the grappling session began, McKenzie made his opponent tap out (concede defeat) with a modified guillotine choke he dubs the “McKenzitine.” In a traditional guillotine, a fighter wraps his arm around his opponent’s neck and wrenches up, blocking both the windpipe and a carotid artery. McKenzie’s variation puts the opponent’s head right in the inside crutch of the elbow, pressuring both carotid arteries — thereby making his opponent pass out faster.
While preparing to begin the striking portion of the tryouts, McKenzie was approached by Joe Silva, the UFC vice president of talent relations.
“Silva came up and was like, ‘Bro, you’re done,’ and I was like, ‘What?!’” says McKenzie, now able to laugh about it. “He goes, ‘You’re good, get off the mat.’” After his performance in the first stage, the judges had looked up McKenzie’s stats and professional record — allowing him, along with other standout fighters, to skip straight to the interview.
The fighters trying out for Ultimate Fighter weren’t just trying out for a spot in the league, they were trying out for a role in a TV series. And like any reality TV show, the more outrageous the personality, the better.
“So I went in there with a couple drinks in me,” recalls McKenzie. “I brought them a couple drinks, but they didn’t want them. So I drank ’em. We got along pretty well.” Just like that, McKenzie was in.
Originally from Cordova, Alaska, McKenzie has dreamed of being in the UFC since high school. A self-admitted former sufferer of little-man syndrome, McKenzie and his friends would hold backyard boxing matches at Cordova High School. McKenzie says while a volleyball match would be taking place in the high school gym, a much larger crowd of 200 to 300 kids huddled around the warring pugilists on the baseball diamond.
At age 15, he moved to Metaline Falls, Wash., where he helped start the wrestling program at Selkirk High School and began training with Pride Gym Muay Thai. When he turned 18, he moved to Spokane to pursue a career in MMA.
For the past four years, McKenzie’s been training with the Fancy Pants Fight Team at the School of Boxing and MMA in Spokane Valley. He literally lives at the gym. He not only works out and spars at SOBMMA, he also teaches classes in exchange for residence in one of the former bingo parlor-turned-gym’s back rooms.
“It’s hard for these upcoming pro MMA fighters,” says SOBMMA owner Dennis Tanksley. “They have to train two or three times a day, and then they try and work part-time jobs to feed themselves.”
McKenzie supports himself by going back to Cordova and spending three months a year fishing for salmon and saves money however he can. He still drives the same 1986 Ford Ranger he bought when he was 16.
Still, with all he has invested in the sport, McKenzie sees being on Ultimate Fighter as just another leg in his journey.
“It’s a good opportunity. A lot of people are counting it like their only opportunity, selling their cars and banking in on it,” says McKenzie. “I’m not banking a lot on it because I know I’m not going anywhere. This is my life. This is what I do.”
Ultimate Fighter 12 premiered on Spike TV on Sept. 15. Watch Cody McKenzie pit himself against some of the best upcoming MMAers every Wednesday (until he gets knocked out, or wins).