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Terry Etim and disposable heroes

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The phone rang. This fighter always picked up. He did so, I think, out of kindness, politeness and eventually routine. But, make no mistake, Terry Etim never, ever wanted to be the story. Even when he was the story, when an eye-catching knockout or submission win rightly placed him front and centre, he didn't necessarily want to talk about it, his lines forced through gritted teeth. “Put it in your own words,” he'd beg me whenever I bugged him for an interview. “You'll be able to say it better than me anyway.”

Could be the day after a big win or a few days before a big test. Either way, Etim didn't want to talk. Reckoned you would do a better job than him. With words, that is. Reckoned you would better explain his thought process. Absurd, I know. Each time he said this, I laughed a hopeless laugh. We both did. We'd then chit-chat for five minutes, often about nothing to do with him or his sport, before going our separate ways. “Just make me sound good,” he'd say in closing.

For a few years I was Terry Etim's unofficial ghostwriter – blogs for UFC.com, columns for his local newspaper – and in the context of that relationship he was a godsend. He let me do the work at my own speed and on my own terms. He allowed me to make stuff up. Well, within reason. He didn't meddle. He didn't want to approve. He didn't leave me waiting on a return call. He was the fighter I wanted the rest of them to be.

On the rare occasions when he did feel like speaking, Etim's approach was endearingly low-key. He'd mumble a lot, his shrugs were almost audible, and he'd typically give you a one-word response when the hope was for at least two. Moreover, his Liverpool accent was, even to the ears of a fellow countryman, often so strong it redefined what it meant to be English. Part of his charm, you might say; the only thing more synonymous with Etim than head-kicks were subtitles.

It wasn't aloofness or laziness that made Etim this way. In actual fact, he chose to keep shtum because he simply saw no point in waffling. He'd rather have been in the gym training or, better still, in the cage fighting than conversing with me on the phone once a week for the best part of three years. When put like that, I could sympathise. What's more, Etim had no designs on being famous, nor a burning desire to use martial arts as a vehicle to further his name, establish a brand, develop a clothing line, open a health club or even just get rich.

The shy Scouser wasn't like that. A man of simple pleasures, he had eyes only for the gym, upcoming opponents and UFC gold. His was an unapologetically straightforward journey. He was also, for a short time, one of those rare cases: a prospect good enough not to have to run his mouth in pursuit of attention.

Between, say, 2008 and 2010, Terry Etim was the must-see fighter from the British Isles. He was my favourite at least. Skinny and pale to the point of almost being relatable, he did things the others couldn't do; knockout and submit; punch and kick; fight long and short. There was an improvisational quality to his game – call it raw potential – that always teased greater things to come. He was beating up experienced opponents but somehow doing so with a poise and composure that not only belied his tender age but also disguised the nerves, the anxiety and the pain; fighting, when he did it, was made to look easy. He was smooth.

Some were brave enough to go as far as to compare him to Anderson Silva in the way he carried himself and had a knack of finding an opponent's head with kicks. Maybe. Maybe not. It's no exaggeration, though, to say he was one of the reasons 15,000 fans packed arenas in Europe at five o'clock in the evening, some five hours before the main event, and remained rooted there for the duration. If Etim was on the prelims, you arrived early. You made sure of it.

Etim, after all, was set to become Britain's first UFC champion of the modern era. At least that's what we were told. That's what his performances suggested. Bigger names, the likes of Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy, those who filled plum spots on the main card, were further down the road in their respective careers and far better salesmen. But people in the know were of the belief that it was Etim, the quiet man with the noisy kicks, who would eventually surpass the rest of The Brit Pack and rise to the top. So many tools, so much potential, so much time on his side; he was winning UFC fights with ease in his early twenties.

Around this time I happened to find myself in a crowded Liverpool nightclub following a night at the fights – boxing rather than MMA – and suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder. It had to be a bloke, I thought. Probably tall and angry. It was fight night. The place was teeming with testosterone. The hand was heavy, almost a grip, delivered from up high. My fear then manifested in a slow, ominous turn, akin to Per Mertesacker attempting to fetch a forward who just broke the offside trap, and an accompanying wince.

“Yes?”

To my relief, what greeted me was the smile of Terry Etim, who had made a beeline for the familiar face in his hometown and seemingly wanted to chat. Discuss, converse, engage, chinwag. All of that. I hadn't knocked someone's drink over. Nor had I stepped on someone's foot. Instead, Terry and I, in the middle of a Liverpool nightclub, proceeded to reminisce about his recent win over Brian Cobb at UFC 95 and talk in a way we never did over the phone. We did so uninterrupted. No selfies, no sniffing Scousers offering him out and me something else. No dictaphone. No questions. No point.

The thing that amazed me that night was the anonymity Etim enjoyed even in his hometown. There he was surrounded by scores of Liverpudlians, a couple of weeks on from a knockout win in the UFC, and not once was he stopped or disturbed. He wasn't complaining – this was exactly how he wanted it, remember – but it was a sign, nonetheless, of a young star on the rise in a sport still finding its feet. A sport whose competitors, even the ones thriving, lacked the profile of their footballing or even boxing counterparts. It made me wonder, only briefly, if Terry's soft-spoken, easygoing nature would always hold him back. I then resigned myself to the fact he probably didn't care.

Still, the year 2009 was a good one for Etim, arguably the best of his career. After kicking Cobb in the head at the O2 Arena, a second-round stoppage that triggered those 'Spider' Silva comparisons, Etim then showcased the full extent of his repertoire with a couple of submission wins. The first was a D'Arce choke of Justin Buchholz and the second was a guillotine choke of Shannon Gugerty. Both bagged him 'Submission of the Night' bonuses. Both moved me, and others, to proclaim him talented enough to one day become UFC lightweight champion.

Yet, what we failed to realise is that every other country had a Terry Etim of their own. His dream, his path, the expectation placed on his broad shoulders, none of those things were exclusive to him or to us. We weren't alone. Brazil's Rafael Dos Anjos, for example, wanted exactly what Terry Etim wanted. He was of a similar age, he had couple of early defeats to his name, after which he'd made improvements, and Dos Anjos, like Etim, felt that fulfilled potential would be signified by a UFC lightweight title around his waist.

He was right. Lo and behold, he'd get what he wanted. But before that, in April 2010, Dos Anjos and Etim fought to see who was closer to the finished article. They compared prototypes amid the sweltering heat of Abu Dhabi, inside an Octagon surrounded by sheikhs, and it was Dos Anjos, not Etim, whose design was more elaborate, its structure more secure.

“It took me a little while to get over that defeat,” Terry said to me later that year. “There's no point moping around and getting fed up, though. It's happened, you can't do anything to change it, you might as well just move on. The annoying thing is, everybody seems to want to talk to me about the defeat. That's the first question I get. I want to forget the defeat, erase it from my memory, yet everybody wants to know how it felt to lose and how I'm looking to bounce back from it.”

He called himself 'The World's Worst Loser'. I laughed when hearing the term, but recall it being a laugh unreciprocated. Apparently it wasn't a joke. The frustration, nay, pain in his voice remained. If he didn't want to talk about victories, he really didn't want to discuss defeat.

 

A wheel-kick heard around the world... A bus' smashed windscreen.

In telling an edited version of Terry Etim's story on his behalf, as is my custom, I'll omit certain details and remember and honour his one request: “Make me sound good.”

Frankly, I know very little about Etim's current state, physical or mental, nor do I know much beyond what I have read in the news. I haven't spoken to the fighter since 2012 and our unorthodox form of correspondence didn't exactly lend itself to a penetrating character insight. I knew only a pencil sketch of a man; I knew him best as the fighter on fight night, the version he chose to project, the one he felt most comfortable revealing; I was kept at bay by a rangy, six-foot-one lightweight. But now, with Etim back in the news for the wrong reasons, it's hard not to reflect on the time that has passed with sadness. After all, in that four-year period he has suffered subsequent losses, those things he hated, and also a bad ACL injury. I merely read about it. 

It's the nature of sports, perhaps. We all have heroes or favourites and they are relevant and important to us for as long as they are active. After that, we move on to the next and they, these disposable heroes, move on with their lives. Or at least try to move on with their lives.

Try, though, is the operative word. I know that now. I also know that for every Conor McGregor or Michael Bisping there is a Terry Etim, someone who did the same thing for a living but did it differently; someone whose life, as a consequence of their approach, will also be different. The likes of McGregor and Bisping ensure they will never be forgotten, much less struggle in retirement, but it should be remembered that they are the exceptions – the ones who suss the game, to whom showmanship comes naturally – and not the rule. For the most part, fighters are fighters for a reason. They fight as a form of expression. They know no other way; they know nothing else. Alas, when that form of expression goes, they often have nothing else.

For years Terry Etim was told he had the potential to be a UFC champion. Told so many times it lingered like an echo in a cave and soundtracked his every move, his gym sessions, his Octagon walks, his fights. He'd hear it from coaches, fans, UFC commentators, even opponents. Occasionally he cleared his throat and allowed himself say it. “I know I have the ability to beat everybody in this division, and I'm only going to get better,” he said – actually said – to me in 2010. “There will be fighters who are marginally better than me in certain areas – their specialist areas – but I feel confident that I'm the most well-rounded lightweight out there. I know I'm good enough to win that UFC title. I just have to be patient.”

At some point, however, the dream died. Patience wasn't enough. His last fight was nearly three-and-a-half years ago. He is still just 31 years of age.

The phone rang.

It was now January 2017 and I was trying to reconnect with Etim in the hope of getting some quotes. Could have simply fabricated them, I suppose, but it had been a while. I wanted to make sure our agreement was still in place. The quotes, I would tell him, were to be used for a Fighters Only feature about the relationship between fighters and coaches. I wanted to know when the time was right to move on, switch camps, alter the approach, and Etim, it was suggested to me, might be a good example of someone who stuck around too long, someone whose aversion to change may well have cost him the UFC lightweight championship.

The phone continued to ring... And ring. 

Terry Etim didn't answer. I'm not even sure it was the right number. I found someone else instead.