In cages and on pages, UFC’s Josh Samman left a lasting mark on MMA
In reality, I only met Josh Samman in person one time. It was July 12, 2015. Both of us were exhilarated in the wake of unrelated highs: I had been getting drunk with friends in the audience of the UFC “Ultimate Fighter Finale 21,” he had just won a fight at said show. He had choked out his opponent in the first round, received a cash bonus and was partying with friends when he caught sight of me, waiting outside the bathroom in the never-ending florescent corridor that separates Las Vegas’ MGM casino from the arena. When I heard my name called, I looked up and I saw a man leap over the glass barrier separating the hotel from the arena. Josh ran to me.
Did I hug him hello? Did he hug me? I wish I could remember. I had cheered Josh to victory that night till my throat was inflamed, but I remember feeling awkward, as if I couldn’t quite equate the person I had begun to message incessantly with the man standing before me. I remember that I was embarrassed that my blue dress was too low-cut, that I was sweaty and my makeup was smeared, and that I looked a fool standing outside of a bathroom in Vegas in my thirties, too-tall shoes in hand.
That’s the only time I met him. But somehow our correspondence survived the awkward encounter and we continued to write dozens of messages and emails, becoming closer with each reply. That was until Sept. 29, 2016, when Josh was found unresponsive on the floor next to the dead body of another man, Troy Kirkinburg. The cause of Kirkinburg’s death was a drug overdose. It was suspected that the cause of Josh’s death—which came after a five-day coma—was the same.
Here’s a fantastic exercise in recognizing your own narcissism: try to pay tribute to a life that intersected with yours briefly and keep yourself out of it. As it turns out, it’s not something I am capable of. From Sept. 30 through the date Josh was declared dead on Oct. 5, I found myself sending dozens of messages to him saying please wake up, please wake up, as if the space of our correspondence gave me the power to not only understand him as a man, but the power to bring him back to life.
It seems important for me to say that Josh and I were never romantically or sexually involved. But we did share a different closeness—an intimacy created by sharing private, absolute thoughts and words, which is the best and the strongest kind of intimacy for me.
Josh had written a book and he allowed me to be one of the first to read it before it was published. It was a memoir of his battles with drug addiction and the horrific loss of his girlfriend, who died in a fatal car crash while they were texting each other. It was about how he wrestled with his pain to piece himself back together as a fighter, a writer and a promoter. How in the three years after her death, he found hope again. He sent the manuscript to me in Feb. 2016, telling me I was the second person to receive it in its entirety.
Over the course of an afternoon I read it and I cried myself raw. Josh drew me in with his graphic, honest descriptions of his feelings—how he felt responsible for the death of his girlfriend, Hailey; his cycles of escapism and pills; the attempts at suicide; the little moments when he was able to catch his breath and start believing that he could move on. In one passage, he depicted the time he visited Hailey’s grave and was bitten by fire ants; he continued to let them bite him because “wondered if they had been down there with her.” The intense intimacy I felt with this man because he shared a digital file with me was one of the most jarring moments of recognition I’ve ever had with another person, though we had already met. This was a man, like myself, who seemed hopelessly addicted to exploring himself through his own vulnerability.
I hope I hugged him that July in 2015.
When you choose a life of fighting you are also accepting that you will constantly be physically torn down, whittled away. In truth, fighters can get addicted to the shaving down of the self. It’s an exercise in exposure; something we love and pretend to hate. We strip ourselves down to the barest physical level, straddling human performance and physical mastery to the point of injury. We publicly journal our diets and dehydration. We pull our clothes off and participate in ritual of posturing, asking people for money to adorn our bodies with labels. Along the way, we whine about it and complain, but rarely pass over the chance to scrutinize a mirror or a take selfie, a public flexing. Currency is directly associated with the body and that body is pushed to be the level of pristine advertisement billboard, tanned and vascular. Sexy. Pure muscle and determination propels you to victory. “I won because I believed more.”
As an MMA fight analyst, I have been trained to see what situations and responses “should” or “shouldn’t” be made in the melee of unarmed combat. As a former fighter, I have been beaten to a pulp for making mistakes, known the shame that having a rough day at work can bring when that work is in front of thousands of onlookers. Josh Samman won more fights than he lost, but he sometimes threw kicks and punches from the wrong distance and attempted ill-timed throws. He lost fights. He made mistakes.
In writing, Josh was so brave. He allowed himself to share those moments—those fire ant moments—that slowed down the action of an entire scene, just to let you feel the sting. He let himself try the spinning s***—the kicks that missed more than they hit—because he wasn’t afraid to take a chance. The knife that whittles you down as a fighter has a far sharper blade when you are a writer, because the wielder is indiscriminate and often doesn’t even notice you. You don’t get to punch the critic, because you are so desperate for his or her notice.
When I read Josh’s memoir and I watched him fight—particularly when I watched his losses—I knew he understood the weight of this divide. In writing, Josh put himself out there. I admired his ability to put himself on the chopping block. I felt like I knew who he was and thought that we recognized one another. I let myself be genuine when I wrote to him. I allowed myself to love him.
On Sept. 29, 2016, I learned though social media that Josh was in a coma, apparently the result of an overdose. That the likelihood of his recovery was slim. That this gentle-eyed, fierce fighter whose messages I couldn’t wait to receive had succumbed to his addiction to exposing himself to something else.
I refused to believe it. I messaged him compulsively. I indulged every obsessive impulse I had, I was sure that my magical thinking worked and I countered the rising acid in my throat when I saw or heard his name. I needed an outlet and I needed that outlet to be words with Josh Samman. But the age of modernity means you get to find out your friend is dead on a Wednesday morning through a tweet from TMZ.
Josh Samman’s death isn’t about me. But I have treated it—hell, I’m still treating it—like it is. I can’t imagine how else to understand it. And I don’t think I’m alone. At the end of his memoir, Josh quotes Walt Whitman’s final line of Oh Me! Oh Life! in the paraphrase coined by Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poet’s Society: “What will your verse be?”
The original closing to Whitman’s poem reads as follows:
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
If you go to Josh’s Facebook page, you can see comments posted daily from Josh’s friends and family of fighter friends and journalists, checking in; wanting to tell him how they miss him or that they are thinking of him. The UFC went so far as to dedicate an entire event in Josh’s honor—UFC 204—despite the fighter never having won a major title, nor headlined a show under their banner. Because his verse stands. Somewhere between the moments of vulnerability and strength and obsessions and words; somewhere in the whittling away of perception, in the flashes of recognition we share in cages and on pages—somewhere there is a moment when the life of Josh Samman touches everyone in the sport. That his existence and his role as a fighter, as a man, has indeed moved our play forward.
I hope I hugged him that July in 2015.