Matt Brown becomes elite MMA fighter after surviving near-fatal overdose

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Matt Brown lets out a big sigh. He's been through this before and, frankly, he'd rather be talking about pretty much anything else. Yet dutifully – and clinically – Brown recounts the story of a period of his life he'd much rather forget.

He's in the UFC now, one of the best fighters in the world. He faces Mike Swick on Saturday in a welterweight match on the main card of UFC on Fox 5 at the Key Arena in Seattle, a bout the cognoscenti awaits with great interest.

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Swick and Brown are each aggressive stand-up fighters and it's no coincidence their bout will open the Fox portion of the broadcast. UFC president Dana White wants to set the tone for what will come and there's little better way than relying on two guys who almost always deliver.

After delivering a series of entertaining performances, this might be the time Brown finally wins one of the UFC's fight-night bonuses. After each card, White chooses a Fight of the Night, a Knockout of the Night and a Submission of the Night.

Brown, despite his many edge-of-the-seat battles, hasn't won a fight-night bonus yet.

"Never have," he says. "Can you believe that?"

More hard to believe, though, is that Brown is around to talk about it. Before he turned professional as a fighter in 2005, Matt Brown was nearly dead.

Things always seemed to come easy to Matt Brown. He grew up in Ohio and went to Greeneview High School in Jamestown, where he did well in his classes despite not trying that hard.

His father owned a machine shop and Matt worked in it as a machinist.

"I'd worked there since I was a little kid," he said. "By the time I was 15, I was doing things that people with four years of college education weren't able to do."

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No matter whether it was work, school or play, Brown seemed to have a knack for doing well despite minimal effort.

But rather than pushing him to succeed at the highest levels, his ability had a strange affect on him. He was bored and unfulfilled by life.

Nothing was much of a challenge for him, and he responded by seeking out something that would be exciting.

"I just kind of took things for granted and I had this feeling that I was invincible," Brown said. "I never took a book home once from school and never did homework and I [still got good grades]. It just came easy to me. It wasn't hard and it took no effort.

"Basically, it all kind of correlated into that. I didn't understand what I was doing. I was very naive. I didn't respect those around me and, on top of that, I had this feeling that no matter what, I would be all right. … I kind of had the [attitude] that I'm smart enough to do anything and deal with anything."

Brown began to sell acid, and a friend soon convinced him to use some of the proceeds to try heroin.

He was afraid of needles, he said, but decided to give it a try after some prodding. His friend injected him.

Brown said he "didn't feel like I normally felt," and went home, where a female friend who was sober became concerned about him. She took his blood pressure, but her fears eased when she saw the reading.

Little did she know, though, how fearful she should have been. Her friend, the future UFC star, was about to begin a fight for his life.

"She took out the blood pressure monitor and I remember her checking my blood pressure," Brown said. "She said, 'Ah, you're fine,' and that's one of the last things I remember."

He'd overdosed and was rushed to a hospital. He said details of what happened remain vague, but he recalls waking up in the hospital and not knowing where he was or why he was there.

That he awakened was something of a miracle. He was clinically dead for a minute, though doctors were able to revive him.

Sadly, though, surviving the ordeal wasn't enough to turn his life around. It would take more.

"Definitely, that was not a climactic point," he said.

After being released from the hospital following his heroin overdose, Brown was drug free for a few days.

He was, he said, extraordinarily naive. He didn't understand how close he'd truly come to dying. He was bored, had little to do that motivated him and he quickly fell back into the trap by taking OxyContin pills.

It took more than Brown's own near-death to set him on the right path. It took the deaths of three members of a family also named Brown within a three-month span to finally make him realize he needed to straighten his life out.

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Otherwise, he'd be the fourth Brown living in Ohio to die of a drug overdose. They weren't related to him, but they had a strikingly similar problem and it finally helped Matt Brown turn his life around for good.

"This good friend of my mine, his name was Bear Brown, there were four members in his family and three of them died from heroin and OxyContin overdoses within about a three-month span," Matt Brown said. "Bear, my friend, he died first, then his brother and then his Mom. It all happened within this three-month period. I think that more than anything was the climactic moment for me.

"Their deaths, along with what had happened to me, finally allowed me to see what it could do to me. I saw how close to the edge I was. I realized, 'Holy shit, this is real. I'm going to these funerals and stuff and that very well could be me.' "

He began to wean himself off drugs, though he admits it was a slow progression. He'd been fighting in the streets for quite a while, but wasn't familiar with mixed martial arts.

He saw an MMA fight on television, though, and became intrigued. He went to the gym to train with some MMA fighters, fully expecting he'd hand out some serious butt-whippings.

"I was that guy you hear about who sees a fight on TV and thinks it's so easy that he could do it better than the guys he's watching," Brown said. "I was definitely that guy. Now, we'll be working out and some guy will walk in and say, 'Hey, where do I sign up to fight UFC?' We just roll our eyes and say to each other, 'What the hell is wrong with him?' But that was me once."

Fortunately for Brown, MMA was one of the few things in his life that didn't come easily. Pretty much everything he'd tried before, he found simple and unchallenging.

He expected the same thing from MMA, but he took a beating on his first day in the gym. He took a beating on the next day and then the next day after that.

Brown realized that this was something he wasn't good at. He needed to do a lot of work. Suddenly, he had a goal to work toward.

He made it to the UFC within two years of turning pro and has compiled an 8-5 UFC mark.

Brown no longer takes drugs, though he says he still drinks a couple of times a year. He's confident he'll never go back to those dark days in his life when he was, he says, "a naive fool."

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"I don't think there's a fear I'll go back to that life," he says. "I still drink sometimes, maybe once or twice a year, but I can control it. I can do it for a night and then be done for it. I'm not going back.

"Having gone through what I have, if that's not enough motivation for me to stay away from drugs, then I don't know what is."

Brown's is a story of redemption, though it's not one he is eager to share.

He said whatever fame or popularity he has, he wants to be as a result of his abilities as a fighter, not for what he's overcome.

"To be honest with you, I've never wanted that to be what I'm known for," Brown said. "It's come out because in interviews, people ask me questions and I answer them. When I went to 'The Ultimate Fighter," it wasn't like I went to them and said, 'Hey, you'll have a great story with me.' I was like, 'I'm a fighter and I can fight.' That's how I want to be known.

"If people are inspired by my story, fine, but I don't go looking for that. I'm not looking to be called a hero because of what happened. What happened to me happened and it's in the past. I want it to be about my fighting career, not about my past or what I do in my daily life."

But the success of Brown's fighting career can't be truly appreciated without understanding where he's come from. A guy who was seconds away from tragedy, who was on the verge of becoming just another statistic, is now one of the most exciting fighters in the world.

He's a remarkable athlete who has a remarkable story of perseverance, survival and dedication to tell.

There's nothing wrong with being known for that.

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