Travis Browne chasing the most unlikely UFC championship ever

Travis 'Hapa' Browne says he is the new breed of MMA.

It was on a basketball court that Travis Browne realized that he was a fighter. Browne had been playing streetball when someone started with him, things quickly escalated and Browne, shall we say, authoritatively ended the argument. That’s the nice way of saying it. A more informal way would be to say he knocked some dude out cold. The incident got him arrested and cost him big, to the point that he no longer wanted to compete in anything. For a while, he would avoid anything that got his adrenaline pumping for fear of a similar outcome.

Fast forward to today and things are very different. Browne is viewed personally as a perfect gentleman and professionally as a breakthrough heavyweight, No. 3 in the latest UFC rankings after knocking out grizzled veteran Josh Barnett in just 60 seconds at UFC 168. With the UFC’s stated intention of matching him up against Fabricio Werdum in the near future, Browne appears to be just one win away from an opportunity to fight for the belt, which also makes his journey a bit of an improbability.

After all, across nearly every one of the UFC’s top 10 across the divisions, the rank and file is comprised of athletes who have deep backgrounds in some martial art, from wrestling to jiu-jitsu to karate and beyond. Browne? His experience is basketball. He’s a black belt of the hardwood.

That’s not supposed to happen these days, in a sport that has more than its share of combat experts across disciplines, yet look at his resume and he boasts wins over Stefan Struve (Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt), Gabriel Gonzaga (Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt), Alistair Overeem (former Strikeforce and K-1 champion), and now, Barnett (former UFC champion and current Warmaster).

I’m that guy who works his ass off, who shows the guys sitting on the couch that he should go do what he loves.

- Travis Browne

In fact, if it wasn’t for Browne tearing his hamstring during a fight against Antonio Silva in Oct. 2012, he might still be undefeated. Imagine how much greater the hype would be for him if that was the case.

Partly because of it, he’s gone a bit under the radar, but in actuality, Browne is essentially walking the same trail that his Jackson-Winkeljohn teammate Jon Jones blazed a few years back, although even Jones can say he had the base of wrestling to carry him through his early days. Jones was a New York state high school champion, a junior college national champion and a sought-after Division I recruit before moving into MMA.

Browne was almost 26 years old when he stepped into a martial art for the first time in his life, beginning with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. From the beginning, there was lot of ground to make up. Really, it should have been an impossible amount.

"I’m that guy who works his ass off, who shows the guys sitting on the couch that he should go do what he loves," the 31-year-old Browne told FOX Sports just prior to his fight with Barnett. "I’m an average person, I just decided to work hard and dedicate myself to something. That’s the only thing that separates people like me from people sitting on the couch. I was on the couch watching Tim Sylvia beat Ricco Rodriguez, Randy Couture beat Tim Sylvia, and Josh Barnett fight in PRIDE. I was one of these guys on the couch who said I could do it without actually doing a f—ing thing about it. My choice was to become great, to become better than average."

Travis Browne elbows Josh Barnett at UFC 168.

It’s not supposed to be as simple as a choice, even though there is a choice for everyone involved, from Barnett to Velasquez and beyond. There is supposed to be a base to build upon. Somehow, for Browne it was not necessary. He was able to acquire the necessary skills in breakneck speed, to close the gap on all of that experience his contemporaries had attained over a lifetime.

Part of that stems from his athleticism. Browne was the 2000 Player of the Year for the Coastal North League while in high school in San Diego. He went on to play at Palomar, a junior college before giving up hoops.  

A glance at the list of UFC champions of the modern era shows no one who’s been able to make up that deficit and ascend all the way to the title. Even a look at the unlikeliest champions shows a base in some fighting art. Brock Lesnar had a lifetime of wrestling under his belt when he defeated Randy Couture for the title. Matt Serra was a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Forrest Griffin had trained for years even before entering the UFC. Evan Tanner, who was self-trained for the early years of his career, had moved on to working with teams and had been a pro for eight years before capturing gold.

So Browne has the chance to do something unprecedented. In the current world where the talent gets better at a younger age, he’s an outlier, someone who started late with no background and can ascend all the way to the top. He’ll still have to buck some odds to get there. Werdum is a BJJ savant, but the matchup could work to Browne’s liking. Werdum is no takedown artist (34 percent) and after knocking out Barnett and Gonzaga while shooting against him, Browne has sent the message that it’s a hazardous proposition. That could put him in a situation where he’s left in a kickboxing match, an advantageous position that emphasizes his imposing reach, unquestioned power and improving footwork.

My choice was to become great, to become better than average.

- Travis Browne

If he survives that, all that’s left is Velasquez, which is to say, maybe the best heavyweight we’ve ever seen. But by the time he competes again, Velasquez will be 32 years old, coming off his second major shoulder surgery and on the heels of what is likely to be a one-year layoff. In other words, his body, which already shows signs of beginning to break down, might be at its most vulnerable. Meanwhile, Browne looks to be at his best.

Make no mistake about the fact that Browne still has a long way to go. These final two wins are the equivalent of going from The Hilary Step to the top of Mount Everest. In other words, it’s the extreme danger zone. But would you really put it past Browne? He’s already exhibited a stunning ability to adapt, improve and excel. He’s still two wins away from making himself part of the fight game’s lore, but his improbable rise is still one of the stories to watch in 2014.