Ryan Benoit pulled over to the side of the road, his worst nightmare come true. The 1999 Dodge Intrepid he was driving, a car he was given by his aunt when the engine on his own car blew out, finally died.
This drive to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was perhaps the most important trip of Benoit's life, and now, he might not make it on time. A police officer pushed his car to a safe area, and Benoit called his mother for a ride.
Benoit had been trying to make it as a professional MMA fighter since 2009. He'd won more than he lost, and devoted much of his life to the cause, but as he was driving to the airport, he had little to show for his efforts.
He was 7-2, but his training bills were mounting. As the quality of his opponents increased, so, too, did the training requirements.
"People don't understand, it's not cheap to train, especially when you get to a little bit of a higher level," Benoit said.
Despite fighting and holding down three jobs, Benoit estimated his year-to-date earnings as he was driving to the airport that day at no more than $20,000.
It's not much to support one person, let alone a wife, a baby and a fight career.
This ride to the airport would be different, though, Benoit thought. Finally, he'd caught a break. The UFC needed a match to fill out its "The Ultimate Fighter Finale" card on Nov. 30 against Josh Sampo at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Oren Hodak of KO Reps, Benoit's manager, called Benoit and asked him if he felt he could make 125 pounds. He'd mostly been fighting at 135, and hadn't been training much after a bout on Oct. 11 in which he'd hurt his hand.
Benoit wasn't sure he wanted to try to take a 125-pound fight.
"I was not out of shape, but I wasn't in fight shape," he said.
There were only 9 or 10 days left and Benoit had to make a decision. Hodak then added the point that made the decision for him: The bout at 125 would be in the UFC.
"I was like, 'No problem, of course I'll make 125 to fight in the UFC,' " he said. "I pretty much would have done anything they asked me to do to get my foot in the door in the UFC."
That decision changed Benoit's life in more ways than he could imagine.
He'd been struggling to balance his desire to be a full-time fighter with the reality of having to earn money to pay the bills. On a trip to Las Vegas in February for his grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary celebration, he proposed to his girlfriend, Mely.
They went to the courthouse and spent $50 to get married.
A month later, they discovered that Mely was pregnant. In October, Rylyn Benoit was born. In May, Benoit took a fight with MFC in Canada, his first bout outside of Texas. MFC agreed to pay to fly one of his corner men to Canada. But the corner man the ticket was purchased for could not make it, so Benoit wanted to substitute another person. The promoter, though, would not pay for a new ticket and offered someone local as a corner man.
"MFC was like, 'We can get you a corner man here,' and I wanted to have my guy," Benoit said.
He ended up striking a deal, and the promotion paid for part of the new ticket. Benoit paid the rest, and the result was that he wound up losing money on the fight.
He was fighting as a means of making a living, but he came out in the red in his first fight as a married man.
After the fight, he returned to Texas and decided he needed to take charge of his life.
"Having my baby this year made me the most motivated I've ever been to work and make money," Benoit said. "Having that baby, there was someone else who was fully dependent upon me. For myself, it made a man out of me, to be sure.
"I kept my jobs. I was consistent, I was loyal and I did my best to make money as straight as I possibly could."
Benoit signed with the UFC for $8,000 to show and $8,000 to win. With a victory, in one night he had an opportunity to make 80 percent of what he had earned for the entire year previously.
When he arrived in Las Vegas finally, he was starstruck, particularly when he saw UFC president Dana White.
"I didn't make any friends because I was so starstruck, and awestruck," he said. "These are guys I've watched on TV. I saw this guy and I'm thinking, 'Wow, he's way taller than I thought.' And I saw another one and I thought for some reason, 'This guy's head is bigger than I thought.
"I was like a kid when I saw Mickey Mouse in his suit for the first time. It was unbelievable. And when I saw Dana, oh my God. I can't tell you what it was like. But it was cool from the standpoint that these were my co-workers now."
Benoit's bout with Sampo was the first on the card, and played to a relatively empty arena. It was a spirited bout, which Sampo would win with a slick rear naked choke in the second round.
Benoit was disappointed and retreated to his room, too upset to watch the remainder of the card.
He didn't want to go to a club to have fun because his face was marked up and he didn't want to have to explain that he was a fighter who'd lost his UFC debut.
But Hodak called and gave him some stunning news: His bout with Sampo was picked as Fight of the Night. Normally, that would mean a $50,000 bonus, but because Sampo didn't make weight, Benoit got both sides. He earned a $100,000 bonus.
So, after making only $20,000 in nearly 11 full months of work, Benoit had earned $108,000 on this one night alone.
"I can't even tell you what that felt like," he said.
It was a life-changing moment for a guy who had a disappointing loss.
"I'm living proof of what can happen," he said. "I am living the dream. I wanted to be a fighter and there were a lot of hard times along the way. There are times that I wondered, 'Why am I going through all of this?' But it's on nights like [Nov. 30] that you know why."
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