Last summer at a media luncheon, a reporter sarcastically asked UFC president Dana White how it could be true that fight sports like boxing and MMA helped individuals make better lives for themselves. White, no bleeding heart, was trying to make a point about how many people had used the discipline of training and professional opportunities of competing in fight sports to turn their lives around.
"You can't tell me punching saves lives!" the reporter was quoted as saying, incredulously.
The crass writer could not have seen through his own snark to realize how ignorant his comments made him look. The point doesn't need much arguing but, suffice to say, that, with the abundance of studies showing the positive psychological, physical and social effects of competitive sports as well as seemingly endless anecdotal tales of fighter after fighter pulling themselves and their families out of real violence and poverty, to say nothing of a common sense understanding that any type of disciplined work, including that found in gyms across the world, is character-building, the writer proved himself to be a poorly read and out of touch reporter of a singular variety.
Fight sports, of course, are the toughest sports. It isn't the punching and kicking that magically helps lay and expert practitioners alike better themselves.
Learning skills, working hard, maintaining discipline and developing a sense of self-worth. These are the things that fighters talk about when they say "fighting saved my life."
Alex White fought for his life long before he began to train martial arts. And, it's hard to say if that training "saved" his life all over again.
If fighting didn't save Alex's life, though, it dramatically changed it for the better.
When Alex White was four years old, he drank gasoline placed in a milk jug near other jugs that were filled with lemonade. Friends say that he died three times before his family was able to get him to a hospital.
When doctors finally did get a look at poisoned little Alex, they said it would be a miracle if he lived past 10pm. That was twenty one years ago.
The gasoline accident burnt his vocal cords, damaged his hearing and that all led to a minor speech impediment, but Alex proved stronger than anyone could have imagined. On Saturday, Alex White, now an undefeated professional fighter, will make his UFC debut.
There was a lot of rough living in between that early childhood trauma and becoming one of the world's best fighters for Alex, however. The Missouri native was bullied much of his life.
As a young adult, the shy and meek White was in and out of homelessness, working for close to nothing at a McDonald's. Then, one day, Alex walked into Joe Worden's fight gym, which was near the McDonald's he worked at.
"He walked in and told me, 'Hey, I'd like to try this. I don’t have any money but I'll clean the gym, do whatever I have to,'" Worden remembers of their 2008 meeting.
"I had never had anyone come in like that. He had a speech impediment, was shy, didn’t want to talk and wouldn’t look me in the eyes. He had his head down, looked embarrassed. I thought, 'I don’t know about this kid.' But the more he trained, I realized he was something. He was always quiet, never said five words through a practice but he worked hard....I guess he was bullied his whole life. Now, he was 19 and he decided to do something about it."
Do something, he did. Alex trained consistently for a year before Worden entered him in competition.
First, came amateur boxing. Alex entered a Ringside world tournament, the biggest one in the country, according to Worden, and beat five opponents in five days.
Alex put in the work, day after day in the gym, improving by leaps and bounds. "He has something I can’t teach," Worden says.
"He's all heart."
Alex kept on winning. First, in boxing, then in MMA. Over the past five years, in fact, White has gone 15-0 as an amateur in MMA, before turning pro and going 9-0. Alex also went 12-0 as an amateur boxer and recently made a successful pro boxing debut.
He's also a perfect 4-0 in kickboxing competition. More important than how well he's done in fighting competition, however, is how training and competing in fight sports changed Alex White.
Alex in his third pro fight, back in 2012 - Video via Cage Championships
"He came out of his shell," Worden says.
"He's a completely different kid, now. He used to not want to talk to people but now he's signing autographs for kids at shows telling them, 'If I can do this, anybody can do this.' "Before, he had never been out of his small town of three hundred people. I coach on the U.S. national team, too, and now we've traveled everywhere. Alex has fought in Italy, Ireland, Azerbaijan, Nicaragua."
Alex White himself doesn't try to talk up his transformation as much as those close to him do. The humble MMA prospect can't deny what training and competing has done for his confidence and life, however.
"Yeah, I was kind of shy and all that," Alex says.
"At that time [before I started training] I didn't really talk to people I didn't know. Training and competing did build confidence, made me more outgoing and more outspoken because before I just kept to myself and my friends and didn’t really talk to nobody I didn’t know. Basically, I was drinking all the time with friends. Fighting has changed me from that. Whenever I do drink these days, it's once in a blue moon. Fighting has helped me change my life for the better. If it wasn't for training and fighting, I'd be doing the same things and working at the same dead-end job."
Alex still works a day job outside of fighting. His success isn't (at least not yet) one of a rags to riches, world-famous fighter. He has learned and earned the profound dignity of doing professional work to support himself and his passion, because of fighting, however.
White's coach Worden is impressed by his student's work ethic, in and out of the gym. Worden helped connect White with a new employer, for whom Alex now delivers oxygen tanks, full-time.
"The crazy thing of it is that he still works full-time," Worden gushes.
"He gets to the gym and trains at 5am, then works from eight to five, then comes back to the gym and trains again until 8pm. Then, he goes home, gets sleep and does it all over again the next day."
It would appear that White's motivation as he enters the UFC is the same it was when he first walked into Worden's gym - to see how far he could push himself. The glory of competition is nice but White never thought about it when he first started training.
"I’ve always been into fighting," he says.
"I never watched UFC or any of that before but I liked Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and stuff like that is what got me really interested in fighting. I was down visiting my mom and they were telling me about it so I thought I would try it. I didn't think about fighting at first, it was just to train with the other people. I wanted to see how far I could push my limits."
Alex has pushed and pushed and now gets his chance to fight in the big leagues. Worden says that the UFC put their team on notice months back that Alex could get a call to take a fight, so the possibility has been on their minds for some time.
As they often do, White's first UFC opportunity came on short notice, just a couple weeks ago. Former world champ Mike Brown pulled out of a fight with Estevan Payan and White was tabbed to replace Brown on April 19th's UFC on Fox 11 card in Orlando.
"They first offered me the fight April 2, the day after April Fools Day," Alex recalls with a chuckle.
"My coach called and said, 'you'd better be cutting weight because you got the offer.' I said, 'what are you talking about? April Fools is over!' He said, 'no, for real,' and I thought, 'that’s crazy.' We accepted, of course. If the UFC offers you a fight, you don’t not accept."
Doctors said that it was a miracle Alex White survived the accidental poisoning at age four. Just a few years ago, perhaps many people who knew him in passing would have thought it would take a miracle for the painfully shy, homeless White to do anything else with his life.
However, Alex had a strength deep in him that fight training help bring out and here he is, doing interviews and getting set to fight on national television this weekend. The moment is not lost on the fighter.
"Who would have thought," Alex says.
"It's just a great deal right there. You've got kids that look up to you, even grown ups that look up to you...I’d have never guessed but you look back and here you are. You work hard enough and you can make it happen. Just fighting in the UFC, that’s a big goal. Back when I started fighting, I would look and see that's where all the best guys competed and thought, 'wow, that would be awesome.'"
Alex "The Spartan" White's awesome journey continues Saturday.