Not without scars, UFC's Bobby Green emerges from life of pain
JUL 22, 2014 9:00a ET
REDLANDS, Calif. — Bobby Green thought he could keep the emotions bottled up. He knew he could. Nothing was going to make him cry.
There isn't much Green hasn't seen. He was a foster kid from age 5 in the rough neighborhoods of Southern California's Inland Empire. Green estimates he lived in 50 different houses until he was in his early 20s. There were guns, drugs, gangs, rape — you name it, Green has been a witness.
This, though? This was different. This was blood. Family.
Green was walking through a Las Vegas hotel two weeks ago with one of his close friends. He was there to sign autographs and take photos with fans during the UFC's annual International Fight Week. But at that moment he was just someone looking for some lunch. That took him to the second floor of The Cosmopolitan. He passed by Marquee Nightclub and laid eyes on Holstein's, a burger joint.
"We see it," Green said, "and I break down."
A year earlier, Green had sat across from his younger brother, Mitchell Davis Jr., at that same restaurant. Davis took one look at the menu and slid it away.
"He was so mad that everything was so expensive in Vegas," said Green, a 27-year-old lightweight contender fighting on Saturday's UFC on FOX 12 card (8 p.m. ET). "The burger was $20! He didn’t want to buy anything. I was like, 'Bro, share a meal with me.'"
Green would have taken his brother to Vegas again this year, but never got the chance. Davis, 23, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting May 31 near his home in San Bernardino, Calif. Three other men — two of Green's uncles and a cousin — also were shot. They lived. Green's father was in the group, but avoided the spray of bullets.
Davis, Green said, got mixed up with gangs when he was younger, but was out of the life. Green doesn't know why his brother was targeted. He suspects he'll never find out. Green isn't too confident that police are doing their due diligence, because of the news reports painting Davis as a criminal.
"Just another gangbanger killing another gangbanger?" Green said. "They don't give a s***."
Last month, Green says, he got more terrible news. He heard through the grapevine that, in the aftermath of his brother's death, there was a hit put out on him, too.
Meanwhile, Green is rehabbing the ankle he badly broke in training in April and taking care of his 2-month-old baby girl, Isabella. Green gets barely two hours of sleep every night and he's shuttling back and forth between home with his wife Tabitha Swann and his coach's couch, in fear of the death threats.
Still, two weeks ago, Green accepted an offer to fill in for the injured Michael Johnson and fight Josh Thomson at UFC Fight Night: Lawler vs. Brown on Saturday in San Jose. Green had been preparing to face Abel Trujillo on Aug. 2 before that fight was moved to Aug. 16. Green had just nine days of training to get ready for Thomson, the No. 3-ranked lightweight in the organization.
"The chips are not stacked in our favor," said Green's coach Jake Benhey. "But I will tell you one thing: If anyone can do it, it's Bobby."
When you discover all Green has been through in his life, it's clear he has overcome much worse odds.
“Just another gangbanger killing another gangbanger? They don't give a s***.”
Bobby Green was born in San Bernardino to a mother who struggled with drug addiction and a father who was in and out of jail. When he was 5, his mother gave him and his immediate siblings up to the state, because as Green describes it, "she couldn't keep us and keep her habit."
Few names tell someone's story the way Green's can. His father is Mitchell Davis and his mother is Connie Scott. Green said his mother named him after a police officer, Ray Green, who once saved her life. He never has met the man and doesn't even know if he exists. "Bobby" comes from his father's brother, he says. His mother was angry with his father at the time, so rather than calling their son Mitchell Jr., she named him after his uncle out of spite.
Green says he's looking into changing his name, because he feels no association to it whatsoever.
"I'm just like this little lost puppy," Green said. "I've always felt like I don't fit in. I don't fit in anywhere. Where do I belong?"
That's a common question in Green's story. When his mother renounced her rights as a parent, Green's grandmother (on his father's side) saved him and his brother, Mitchell, giving them a home. She died when he was 14 and he and Mitchell went back into the system. The siblings were forced to separate. Mitchell ended up in nearby Rialto with an aunt. Bobby was taken in by a white family, the parents of his wrestling teammate. He was trying to carve out his own path.
Like all of Green's homes, it was only temporary. Green, stuck at Fontana Miller High School, committed himself to wrestling and had a part-time job bagging groceries at the nearby Stater Bros. store. But he butted heads with his foster brother and a miscommunication with the family led to him being asked to leave. They thought Green had stolen a car, but he says he had just been joyriding with his friend's vehicle.
"They regret it now," Green said. "But at that time, I had a lot of resentment toward them. Because I felt like, can't you just ask me to figure out what's going on? Give me a little more time to explain."
By that point, Green didn’t have many options. He befriended a male teacher at school and was awed by him. Here was an intelligent, respected, African-American man. He was the opposite of the gangbangers and pimps Green encountered everyday on the street. This was someone Green, nearing his high school graduation, could strive to be like.
"I was looking for a father figure," Green said. "I never had a dad. Here is this guy who's a college graduate. Educated. Very well off. He just flooded information into my brain. We had very intellectual talks."
The teacher took him in and Green was grateful. It didn't take long for the man's ulterior motive to surface, Green says.
"Then he starts touching me," Green said. "I was so scared. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know who to go to. He's a teacher. Who do you tell?"
One day, when the teacher left early for school, Green says he packed up what little he owned and left. It was his only option. He went to Rialto and reunited with his brother at their aunt's home. But there was little room for him there and even less food. He went to another aunt's home. There, 11 people were attempting to live in a three-bedroom home.
Green tried to make do. He just couldn’t do it. He was 18 by then, so he enrolled in the Army. The program he went into incorporated boot camp and training into 21 weeks. Green made it to week 20 as one of the best privates in his class until he was thrown out for fighting. Another miscommunication, he said.
Green has no regrets. He knows he would have been deployed to Iraq and isn't sure if he would have lived or died if he had gone.
"I thank God for everything they put me through," he said. "It made me who I was, who I am now."
“I'm just like this little lost puppy. I've always felt like I don't fit in. I don't fit in anywhere. Where do I belong?”
Green enlisted with his old friend from Stater Bros., the one whose car he used to drive years earlier. Once he was expelled from the military, the friend urged him to go live with his family and Green did, for a time.
He left there to live with the family of a younger boy he had mentored during his high school wrestling days. The boy's mother was the victim of domestic abuse, Green said, and he would not stand for it. Green kicked the man out of the house and hunkered down.
"I came in, took over the home, got a job and started providing," Green said.
It was at that time that Green had his first child, Jeremiah, who is now 6 years old, with a girl he had been seeing for only a few months. Things didn't work out between the two of them, but Green said he still supports Jeremiah financially and sees him often.
Green also picked up wrestling again in his early 20s, meeting up with friends from high school and going to freestyle meets. Green, who placed in the state tournament twice in high school, was talented and flashy. He once pulled off a WWE-style hurracanrana during one of these amateur events.
Green was discovered as a potential MMA fighter at those events and started training at Team Tapout with Shad Smith. He bounced around a little bit, also spending time at Riverside Submission.
Training, though, was a loose term. Green didn’t do much of it. He didn’t like it. Most of the time he just spent hanging out, smoking marijuana and taking fights in Mexico on the weekends — as much as he could, actually. Green fought 15 times in 2008 and 2009. He knew how to wrestle, but that was basically it. Green had little striking knowledge and even less jiu-jitsu polish.
That wasn't the life he wanted, but it took a 90-day stint in jail to make him realize it. Green said he was busted for driving a car that didn't technically belong to him when he was 21. He said he paid for it, but didn’t have the correct paperwork. The court didn’t buy it.
Green wasn't a model prisoner. He admitted to passing gas in a sergeant's face while he was being searched, which landed him in solitary confinement for 10 days. It was a life-altering experience.
"You don't see anything," Green said. "You don’t know what time it is. That's the craziest f***ing thing."
He never went back to Riverside Submission. Some friends recommended Pinnacle Mixed Martial Arts in Redlands and he showed up there. Jake Benhey, the head trainer, was different from any coach Green ever had before.
Green still didn't like training. He fell back into his old habits of coming in maybe once a week and hanging out the rest of the time. Benhey wouldn’t stand for that. He would drive all over the Inland Empire, to the worst of neighborhoods, knocking on doors, looking for Green. And Green, a nomad if ever there was one, had plenty of options.
"I would show up to a house where there's eight or nine big dudes hanging out in front, probably in some type of gang," Benhey said. "And here I am, this fairly well-dressed white guy in a decent car and I'm looking for Bobby Green. All of them step up and say, 'What the f*** you need to talk to him for?'"
More times than not, Benhey found Green, but eventually Green quit hiding. Green hasn't left Pinnacle since, despite offers from many of the powerhouse MMA gyms. He credits Benhey for making him who he is today, the 12th-ranked lightweight in the UFC.
"I didn't do it because of his potential," Benhey said. "I did it because he has a good heart. This is a kid that should not become a statistic. The chips have been stacked against him for so long."
Benhey sees a different Green than the one who is 21-5 as a pro fighter with seven straight wins, the one who would be nearing a title shot with a win over Thomson. He sees a different Green than the one who grew up under the worst of circumstances.
Instead, Benhey sees the Green who goes to visit kids at the local Ronald McDonald House regularly. He sees the guy who gets a package from his sponsors and lets everyone else in the gym have at the box before he takes a single thing for himself. Benhey said Pinnacle's equipment manager is increasingly frustrated by Green, because he keeps giving his boxing gloves away to kids in the youth classes.
"I've watched him take the shirt off his back and give it to somebody else," Benhey said without exaggeration.
When asked about his brother's death, Green bristles, then falls into a long-winded story about a fellow fighter he once respected. He met the fighter last year and his first impression was awful. Green is afraid that if he outwardly expresses his pain, people might be put off. He doesn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about him. His brother's death was not going to stop him from signing autographs and meeting fans earlier this month at the UFC Fan Expo.
"I do realize that just because I'm hurt, my feelings, I don’t want to mess anybody else up," Green said.
If Green wins a bonus Saturday night against Thomson, he plans to give the money to his brother's children, setting up an education fund for them. His brother always said that if anything happened to him, Green needed to watch out for his kids.
"That's why he's taking this fight with Josh Thomson," Benhey said. "He's doing it basically to fulfill his brother's last wish."
Green hates the negative perception being given to his brother by local media. His brother was his best friend, someone he could call on any time and he would be there.
"He was the happiest kid on the planet," Green said. "He would change everyone's expression when he walked into a room."
Green can be a catalyst, too. All he wants to do is make a difference, even if it's at the ground level.
There's a troll on Twitter who sends racist messages to black UFC fighters like Green, Benson Henderson and Demetrious Johnson. Most have blocked him. Not Green. He's determined to engage in a dialogue with the bigot.
"I want to try to change the world," Green said. "Some people, you can't change their mind. But I'm going to try at least. We have to try. We have to try."
Green is willing to give everyone a chance. The one he never got growing up.