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LAS VEGAS – Imagine you're a professional fighter. You've had some success, but the big-time has eluded your grasp.
Finally, you're offered an opportunity to fight on the biggest stage in the world. But to make it, you have to share a house for a month and a half with 15 other men. Alcohol is freely available. There is no television, no video games, no Internet access, no magazines, no newspapers. Contact with the outside world is prohibited.
And to make it, you have to fight a pressure-packed bout roughly every 10 days in a six-week span. Something as simple as a badly timed slip can kill your dream.
It's plenty of pressure, to be sure, and handling it well is one of the predictors of future success used by Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White.
It's hard to argue with White, given that three alumni of "The Ultimate Fighter" have gone on to win UFC championships, while several others have developed into top-flight contenders.
But few men who have appeared on TUF have ever had as hard a road to the finale as Court McGee or Kris McCray. They'll meet on Saturday at the Palms Casino Resort for the TUF 11 championship – and a storybook entrance into the UFC.
McGee is the former heroin addict who nearly lost his life after an overdose in Utah. That he has managed to overcome his addiction to live a normal life is remarkable. It's nearly impossible to fathom that McGee would voluntarily put himself into such a pressure-packed environment where he could so easily lose his sobriety.
McGee broke his sternum in his qualifying-round victory over Seth Baczynski – the fight that earned him a spot in the house. If that wasn't enough to overcome, he was presented with another huge obstacle when he lost a highly questionable decision to Nick Ring, one of the event's favorites, in an opening-round fight.
Ring clearly won the first round, but McGee had seemed to do enough to win the second. Before the semifinals, fights on TUF only go to a third round in the event of a draw. Everyone – McGee, Ring and coaches Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz – were preparing for a third round when they learned that the judges gave Ring the victory.
Despite the early setbacks, McGee never wavered.
"It's such a gratifying feeling being here, knowing that I've worked for it," McGee said. "I feel I earned my spot. The difference between winning and losing is so small, 1 percent, maybe. I was frustrated with the loss to Nick Ring. I thought it should have gone to a third round, but the attitude I took after that loss was that I was going to keep focusing and keep working hard. We knew there was a wild card, and we knew there could always be injuries. You just didn't know what was going to happen."
White had been impressed with McGee's performance against Ring, and when Rich Attonito broke his hand in a win over Kyacey Uscola, White chose McGee to replace him.
"Every week, he just kept getting better and better," White said. "You could see it. He was a guy with a lot of talent, but he worked so hard and it paid off for him."
He not only had to battle an injury and then a questionable call, but he also had to face his addictions. The UFC knowingly permits alcohol in the house, taking it as a type of test to judge how badly a fighter wants to make it. Those who do, White said, can either avoid the alcohol or use it in moderation. Those who aren't as motivated tend to overindulge.
McGee never was concerned, despite his history – he'd cleared his mind and was determined to make a better life for himself and his family.
"I just went in with an open-minded attitude," McGee said. "I didn't have any bad thoughts coming in. I just made sure I came in for the right reasons. That was to show up and carry the message for somebody else who's out there struggling that there is a way out as long as you always work hard. If you don't give up on your dreams, good things can happen to good people.
"The other reason I was there was to train to fight and to fight to win. So it was easy. I just kept reminding myself what was important to me, and I didn't have a problem."
Few of the fighters, surprisingly, did. Alcohol-related incidents were big on the previous 10 seasons on TUF, particularly with guys like Junie Browning and Jesse Taylor.
But there was a noticeable lack of it in TUF 11, which McCray said was not coincidental.
"With all the competition in the house, nobody wanted to give another person an edge," McCray said. "Everyone was so close, in terms of skill-wise and determination, and so no one wanted to drink and get too wild."
McCray never had the chance. He turned pro in the Ultimate Warrior Challenge and went 5-0, winning all five by first-round stoppage. He never went longer than 4:51 in any of his UWC fights, and he never had fewer than two months between bouts.
When he got on TUF, though, it changed. He fought a show-record five times, all coming in the last five weeks of filming. Three of those five fights went the full three rounds.
McCray said he and McGee each saw the determination in the other. Early in the show, they spoke and felt they may see each other down the line.
"On paper, our stats didn't really match up to some of the other guys," McCray said. "But we had good chins, heart, and a lot of determination. We both had a great will to win and that's what pushed us through to beat some of those guys (who had) the accolades we didn't have.
"We didn't have the pedigree a lot of those guys had. I was able to push through that and so was Court. We talked to each other before the show started and we said, 'Hey, we're the dark horses here.' Now we're at the end of it, so it's cool."