This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Eric Spicely loves getting the shit beaten out of himself. He finds pain to be an efficient, effective teacher. It’s a learning style he’s been employing for most of his life as a skateboarder, mixed martial arts fighter and pro wrestler.
The ability to take a lickin’ might not seem like a viable, LinkedIn-endorsable skill for a person’s career, but it’s one that’s taken Spicely close to the highest levels of all three of these sports. I reached out to the athlete/friendly masochist to talk about broken bones, performer rights, and how a chokehold changed his life.
Spicely had lost his UFC debut just two months before his bout with Thiago Santos at UFC Fight Night: Cyborg vs. Lansberg, back in September 2016. Going into the match, Spicely was put down as much as a 9-1 underdog. Those odds made complete sense on paper. Santos had recently brutalized former middleweight title challenger and Strikeforce welterweight champion Nate Marquardt. He infamously made noted NHL enforcer Steve Bosse’s head a wiffle ball for his Louisville Slugger of a shin. This was only Eric’s tenth pro fight.
Plus, the fight was in Thiago’s native country of Brazil. Spicely had to fly from his training camp at the famed Tristar Gym in Montreal all the way to Brasilia. So the odds weren’t just long, they were pretty much stacked against him.
“I was reading what everyone was saying about me on the forums and Reddit—terrible idea by the way. I knew I was being brought in to lose, but right before I walked out [to the octagon] I was like, fuck that, I’m not going out like that.” Eric says of the night.
The fight started and they charged towards one another. “[Santos] threw arguably his best strike and I blocked it... kind of laughed at him and [saw] a little panic in his eyes.”
Then at 2:58 of the very first round, Spicely had the fearsome Santos tapping.
What led to the massive upset victory was a moment familiar to Eric—receiving a whalloping, learning from the pain, adjusting, and moving forward towards triumph. He’d been doing it for over a decade previous to fighting. That’s the basic formula for success—on a skateboard.
Before he found himself getting punched in the face for little money, Eric was skating, trying tricks and eating shit on the weather worn streets of Rhode Island for nothing beyond a few free skateboards. He was flow (a sort of purgatory before reaching full-sponsored status as a skateboarder) for Traffic Skateboards, a quintessential East Coast brand belonging to one of Eric’s skateboarding idols, Ricky Oyola.
“Which was awesome,” he recalls. “I was always inspired by guys like Ricky and Bobby Puleo. I was always really big on style over big hammers.”
You can see that in the way Eric skates. He’s smooth. He does tricks that are pleasing on the eyes, not confounding to them. It’s in the way he fights, too. His grappling is fluid, functional, fun but not overly flashy. That slick pragmatism is what lead him to getting his hand raised against Santos.
But neither path was smooth, there are always potholes along the way. Eric has broken himself skateboarding. Stair sets, handrails and late-night hill bombs are rarely willing dance partners—the grisly x-ray above regarding the latter. MMA has been no kinder. Following the Santos fight he won one more bout before losing three straight in the UFC. A crushing kick to the body, thunderous punches to the head, and a strangulating rear-naked choke led to those respective defeats.
Hard, painful lessons learned.
The ass-kickings Spicely received in the streets on his skateboard surprisingly lead to the ass-kickings he’d eventually end up receiving and doling out in the octagon.
“I was at a party with a bunch of skateboarders and one kid got out of control and starting hitting people, so I took him down and put him in a choke to restrain him. These two guys, who were also skaters that I looked up to, were like ‘damn that was sick, we go to this free BJJ class taught by our friend you should come.’ That’s how it all got started. Without skateboarding, I’d be nowhere,” he said.
From there, Eric excelled. Finding the process of perfecting his skills on a skateboard the same as with fighting.
“I think for me that’s the best way I learn. I never liked school or tests as much—that didn’t excite me. What made me feel good was trying something over and over a million times ‘til it was perfect. All those falls, all those hits make the final product that much sweeter.”
While skateboarding has since moved more into his rear view, its ideals and methods are still ones he loves and that have carried over into a more recent venture—pro wrestling, trying out for the WWE and working with Beyond Wrestling.
“It’s something I wanted to do forever so when the opportunity came up about four years ago, I started training. And just like MMA, I picked it up pretty quickly.”
And maybe unsurprisingly by now, his success in the wrestling ring ties back to that old flame.
“I can thank skateboarding for giving [me] the ability to use and control my body in ways that most people can’t.”
These worlds just won’t stop mixing for Eric—his life a jumble of pile drivers, 360 flips and triangle chokes. Having that constant crossover is where he’s most comfortable.
“Honestly, I should be taking it easy but the skateboarder in me won’t die. I wrestled two weekends in a row before my [last] fight and then two days after—again not the greatest idea. I just like to keep pushing.”
It’s not all sunshine, roses and uppercuts with Spicely’s trio of passions, though. Athletes at the highest levels of each don’t have unions, pensions, any substantive insurance, or even adequate pay for the feats they perform for our entertainment.
“It’s sad… how divided everyone is. There would be no industry without us. But [they’re] cabalistic societies and... only so many people make a lot of money at the top. No one wants to rock the boat and mess up their chances. If we all banned together the profit shares would be much bigger and we’d have benefits. Look at the NFL, the starting salary is 500k per year.”
Wouldn’t that reality be daunting for someone pursuing careers in such physically taxing sports?
“It’s what I love. I’m not concerned with being rich. [Right now] I can be comfortable and do what I love without having to work and to me that’s the ultimate dream. I love competing and being better than I was previously. Hopefully it works out and I transition into something else down the line.”
That’s the driver that will push a person through most obstacles—the love. For Eric it started with skateboarding until he found new ways to get his ass kicked on the way to those fleeting moments of glory. And whenever he does fall on the way, he always picks himself up and becomes that better version of himself. He did it after losing his UFC debut and he’s done it after being cut by the promotion in 2018 following the submission and two knockout losses. Back on the regional MMA scene, Eric has netted two huge knockout victories in a row. He could be just a win or two away from getting back to the big show.
Those painful lessons ultimately leading to positive results.
“Just like in skateboarding, I wasn’t the best. I had to work super hard with my natural abilities to get good. That’s what drives me in MMA. I’m not the most athletic or even have the most fan friendly style, but I want to win and keep getting better and keep doing it my own way—I just got my first KO in 18 fights. That’s what motivates me right there. Just getting better, being the best, while also having fun.”
For Spicely, it’s a dangerous didactic that works.
Follow Cole on Twitter.