Fight of a lifetime
Nate Quarry never played a sport until his 20s; his
next challenge is a comeback
By Mike Chiappetta
NBCSports.comPosted: Mar.6, 2007, 3:48 pm EST
Anything is possible.
That's what Nate Quarry believes.
But his mind wasn't always so big, so able to
grasp the larger complexities in life that he sees
today. Because life, it's often dictated by those
around us. And if they don't tell us when we're
young that anything is possible, how would we
Nate Quarry (c) 2007 Zuffa LLCNate Quarry is
fighting back from major back surgery.
Nate Quarry didn't know, not until well after the
age where the decision he eventually made
should matter. When we dream big as children,
friends and family are supposed to tell us we can
do it. When we dream big as adults, they're
supposed to tell us we're crazy.
What then of Quarry, who dreamed big for the first
time when he was already an adult? Excuse him
for the late start, but his upbringing probably
wasn't like yours. So when he was 24 years old,
he was just learning things others had known all
along. He'd discovered things about himself,
about others that made him question everything
in his life. The door of possibility was wide open,
and he decided at the age of 24, that it was time to
walk through it.
Here's the thing about professional sports. You
don't just one wake up one day when you're
already in your 20s and decide you're going to be
a pro athlete, that you're going to hit Roger
Clemens' fastball or chase Tiger Woods up the
fairways at Augusta or trade punches with Floyd
Mayweather. You're not supposed to be able to
accomplish such specific, demanding goals at that
There were a lot of things Quarry wasn't supposed
to do at that age, either. Yet each time he did, he
learned more that the world wasn’t always what
people said it is.
He was 24 years old, had never played an
organized sport in his life. Not football, not
baseball, not basketball. He'd never been to a
dojo, engaged in a muay thai clinch, executed a
single leg takedown or threw a left-right
"I had," Quarry says, "a very different upbringing."
He was, in many ways, a blank slate.
Perhaps that's why the impossible seemed so
attainable to him. He was questioning everything
he'd been told, so if someone told him it was too
late to chase athletic stardom, he'd tell them he
needed to find things out for himself.
Self-discovery is one of those terms you hear on
The Oprah Winfrey Show, a phrase that you'd
never hear uttered on a sports broadcast. But for
Quarry, it was a very real part of the journey to
what he is now: a UFC fighter.
For his entire youth into his early adulthood,
Quarry was a member of the Jehovah's
Witnesses, growing up in the Christian
denomination where life focused on school, bible
study and home chores. There was no time for
socializing or doing most things that most
American teenagers do. Sports were forbidden.
"It's a very strict religion. In my mind, it's a cult,"
says Quarry, now 34 years old and a decade
removed. "A cult needs to control its members 24
hours a day. They don't want them seeing that
anything outside of their religion is better than
what they're being offered inside that
For years, this was his reality, his life.
A curious mind, however, is a difficult thing to
contain. Quarry began slowly venturing away
from his comfort zone and toward the rest of
society, joining a gym to lift weights, meeting
people that caused him to question what he'd
From time to time, he'd visit a local comic book
store and chat with the owner. After a while, he
became such a regular that the owner, a guy by
the name of Jamie Hayes, asked Quarry if he
wanted to meet up over beers later. This is one of
many ways friendships are made, but for
someone who'd lived such a sheltered existence,
it seemed out of the ordinary. Hayes was not part
of his religion, so why would he want to spend
time with Nate? What would they talk about?
Quarry declined the invitation, as he would time
and again, until finally after a few months, he
relented in his doubts and met the acquaintance
Seems like a good guy, he thought.
Not long after, Quarry met his family.
Genuinely nice people, he realized.
For Quarry, visiting their home was like
discovering a new civilization. Within a couple of
years, Quarry was the best man at Hayes'
Nate Quarry(c) 2007 Zuffa LLC"The Rock" is one of
the most unlikeliest pro athletes, never playing a
sport until he was in his 20s.
"I was told from day one of being with the
Witnesses that there are no good people outside
of the church, that there is nothing else out there
and that we're the happiest in the world," he says.
"Then, I started to meet these people that weren't
Witnesses, yet they were very nice people, they
were helpful and kind. And I started thinking, this
is different than what I've been taught. And it
really opened my eyes and made me think more
about what else is out there."
Which brings us to his other discovery. Around
the same time, he was watching television when
he saw a mixed martial arts broadcast and fell in
love. A few days later, he stepped into an MMA
gym for the first time. He was 24 years old, and it
was the very first time he engaged in any type of
"I walked into the door thinking, 'I'm a big guy, I
must know how to defend myself,'" he says now,
laughing. "I trained with guys that were 40 pounds
lighter than me, and I was getting choked out and
armbarred. It just amazed me how skillful they
were with the things they could do so smoothly. I
was hooked from that moment on. I realized this is
a whole other aspect of life I've never seen
before, and I wanted to be a part of it."
By this time, he was openly questioning
everything he'd been taught. He left the church
behind, was excommunicated and lost many
lifetime friendships. He's spoken to one of his
sisters just once in the last eight years, and only
speaks with his mother three or four times a year
("I accept her life, and I hope she accepts mine,"
But as a person, he was growing. And as an
athlete, he was soaking up everything he was
taught. After training for just a few years,
including with current UFC heavyweight champ
Randy Couture, he decided to quit his job at a sign
company to train full-time.
The ultimate breakthrough
In 2001, he made his fighting debut against Drew
McFedries on an Extreme Challenge card
highlighted by Matt Hughes, and won via second-
round TKO. All three fighters would later go on to
fight in the UFC.
But his big break wouldn't come until late 2004,
when he was cast on the first edition of UFC's
Ultimate Fighter reality show. But then, before he
had a chance to fight, he suffered an ankle injury.
However, he'd commanded such respect for his
performance and professionalism that Dana White
asked him to stay on as an assistant trainer.
He made his UFC debut in the finale of the reality
show, scoring a first-round TKO over Lodune
Sincaid, then followed it up with two more first-
round stoppages over Shonie Carter and Pete
Sell. The fast-rising Quarry was green-lit for a title
match against longtime middleweight champ Rich
Franklin for November 2005.
That bout didn't go nearly as well, as he suffered a
brutal first-round KO. The clip has been played ad
nauseum by the UFC, Franklin landing a powerful
left hook and Quarry falling back to the mat like a
tree dropping to the earth.
But while the knockout was painful, what was
even worse was the crash, re-injuring an already
existing back condition, a degenerative disc that
led to two vertebrae grinding against each other,
causing constant pain. It was so bad that he
couldn't lean over into the sink in the morning to
wash his face, so bad he couldn't lift up or carry
his daughter around.
The resulting operation was a major decision, one
he waited several months to make until all the test
results and diagnoses concluded that this was the
best course of action, even if there was the
possibility that he might never fight again.
"I believe with hard work, anything's possible,"
Quarry says. "What I've noticed so often is that
people accept the fates they've been given.
They're told by a doctor that they'll never walk
again, be healthy again, so they believe that and
accept it. In their mind, they say, 'this is my lot in
life. This is the way it's going to be.' But I'm not
that way. I've spent my entire life becoming that
which I was never meant to be. I thought, I'm
going to continue living my life the best way I
know how and I'll get where I want to be."
The injury that could've ended his career has
slowed him down, but hasn't stopped him. Three
weeks after the surgery, he was hiking in the
Nevada mountains. Six months after, he was
training full speed. He feels his time away from
the octagon gave him a chance to think about and
examine his training and mistakes. He's changed
his training regimen, focusing on specific
disciplines that he feels his game was previously
lacking. His strength is returning and says his
boxing is much improved. The only thing holding
him back from a return is ring rust and timing, but
he's hoping to be back by the middle or end of the
He has a few other projects in the works, too. He's
been cast in a movie called "Never Submit," and
he'll be on an ESPN show called "The Saltwater
Experience," soon, joining with fellow fighters
Alex Karalexis and Paul Buentello in taking
children with multiple sclerosis on a fishing trip,
giving them a chance to do something they might
not otherwise get to do.
Until then, the question he hears the most is when
he'll be back.
"I don't want to rush anything," he says. "I want to
take my time, get in there, have a few real good
battles to really remind me what fighting is all
about – that you're supposed to get hit, you're
supposed to get taken down, you're supposed to
be in a bad position and fight your way out and
come back and win. That's what I'm looking for, to
get some of those wars under my belt and
remember what fighting was all about."
That's what he's always done, even if it didn't
always take place in a cage.
E-mail Mike Chiappetta at michael.
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