LAS VEGAS – Cub Swanson was one of those fighters who, for much of his career, thought that showing up, putting on a good show and going home would vault him to the top of his profession.
Rarely, though, is that the case, as he's discovered.
Swanson is one of the hottest fighters in the UFC, and his featherweight bout with Dennis Siver on Saturday on the main card of UFC 162 at the MGM Grand Garden, figures to be a terrific fight.
Yet, Swanson and Siver are opening the pay-per-view and not in the co-main event. Instead, ex-lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, who is battling a three-fight losing streak, and Charles Oliveira, whom Swanson knocked out in the first round last year, will meet in the co-main.
"It shows me where I need to work, on popularity," Swanson said of his spot on the card. "For a little while, I shunned away from the media and just concentrated on my skill set and performing. I've got that done, and I feel like I'm doing well.
"Now is my time to share my story with you guys and try to get out there a little more because if the fans don't know about me, they won't care and then I won't get a chance to fight for the title. I know that's the missing piece."
Swanson has the kind of story of triumphing over adversity that would make him popular.
Born in Palm Springs, Calif., Swanson was just 3 months old when his father died, sending his mother into depression.
When he was a teenager, he began to associate with gang members and was frequently getting into fights.
He went along on a home robbery and wound up in a place he didn't want to be: jail.
While jail time often has negative affects on a person, the year he was incarcerated has had a lasting impact on Swanson. He was only 16 when he went to jail, but had the wisdom to understand he needed to turn his life around.
He's not proud of his past, but said he wants to try to be a positive role model. And to do that, he understands he needs to share his story.
He's built himself into one of the best fighters in the UFC and has done much charity work. He admits he was negligent in rebuffing attempts to tell his story before.
Few 16-year-olds are as self-aware as Swanson was. When the door slammed behind him and he was locked up, he had plenty of time to contemplate what the rest of his life would be like.
"Sitting in a cell with nothing to do and staring at walls, yeah, [it changes you]," Swanson said. "I was just 16. I told myself that this was not my life, that I'm better than this. I always told myself I could be better than that, because that was the lowest of the low.
"I expected great things of myself and I [knew I] needed to live up to that."
The year behind bars had a profound impact upon Swanson, who's now 29 and a vastly different person.
He remains unable to shake the memories of that year in incarceration and, he says, that's probably a good thing.
"I have nightmares so often about something happened and I went to jail for life," Swanson said. "I wake up and I realize it's not real and I just thank God. I got a little taste of that. The year I spent away was a year wasted and I can't imagine doing life.
"I have family members and friends who are away for a long time and, oh man, that seems so terrible and such a waste that it's a fear of mine [going back to jail]. It's something I want to be the furthest from."
Swanson said he tells children to think about the consequences of what they might do and try to make the right choices.
Once he was released, he was very careful about the choices he made, because his experience in jail so thoroughly soured him on the gangster lifestyle.
Swanson was fresh out of jail, and still in high school, when his commitment to doing the right thing was tested.
He did, and it's not an overstatement to suggest it may have saved his life.
A man insulted Swanson when he was with his girlfriend. Swanson's natural instinct at the time was to beat the man up, but he thought before he acted.
"He walked back to his car and I wanted to fight him so bad, because he tried to fight me when I was with my girlfriend at the time," Swanson said. "But I had an instinct and I was like, 'You know, I've just got to walk away.'
"It was very hard to do, but the guy ended up shooting someone in the face a week later. I had the better judgment that day, and it's situations like that that are hit or miss."
His fight career was hit or miss, as he beat most of the featherweight contenders, but lost to the truly elite. He lost three bouts in a five-bout span from 2009 through 2011, but the losses were to Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas, arguably the three best in the division.
Since then, Swanson has reeled off four impressive wins in a row. A win over Siver will probably land him a title bout within the next year.
He said the loss to Lamas was the start of his turnaround. He finally understood what he was capable of and how to best use his skills.
"I'm a real technical fighter and I have a lot of tools," he said. "It just took me a long time to really understand my style, and really feel confident with it. I feel a guy with less tools will peak earlier, because he has those tools down. I have so many that I use during a fight that it's taken me this long to really put them all together and perfect."
Only time will tell whether he's actually perfected his style. But on this whole life thing?
Yeah, he's got that one down pat.
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