As the decade comes to a close, the MMA world looks back to everything that happened in the decade.
Outlets release their “of the decade” lists, fighters and even Dana White post their introspective collages and videos - everybody has their story. Everyone has a journey that they took in those 10 years.
At the very beginning of the decade, Jonthan Brookins was just starting his UFC journey. Of course, it was not the beginning of his MMA journey, which at that point had already included a fight at Bellator 1 and a WEC bout against division legend Jose Aldo. But in June of 2010 Brookins UFC journey started when stepped into The Ultimate Fighter house alongside names like Michael Johnson and Alex Caceres. After a dominant performance to get into the house in the first place, Georges St. Pierre made Brookins his #2 pick (#4 overall) only behind the aforementioned Johnson. Two first round submissions and a 30-27 decision later and Brookins had made the finals, where he would face the only fighter GSP had taken before him.
If you’ve followed The Ultimate Fighter or have read about older seasons, you know how this one ends. The back and forth bout ends with Brookins hand in the air with the iconic window pane looking trophy in hand. His stay in the UFC would not be the same as the next few TUF champs that followed him though - no title shots or even main events would follow. Instead, Brookins fell to 2-3 in his next 5 bouts which included tough bouts with both Charles Oliveira and future interim champion Dustin Poirier.
Then Brookins disappeared off the MMA map. With an unsure mindset, boarded a plane for India to practice yoga with the idea of finding a way to make himself believe he was a fighter.
“When I was in the UFC and I said ‘maybe I’ll go to India and find some stuff there’, I thought that maybe I had to become more centered, and then maybe I would become a better fighter,” Brookins said. “You know why I did all that stuff? It’s because I was just scared, and I didn’t really believe that I was a fighter. If I believed that I was, I wouldn’t had to have gone searching for all of that stuff - I would have just known it. Khabib doesn’t have to go soul searching to become a better fighter, or Jon Jones, they know that they are - they do it. For me, I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that and just the act of trying to find it means that I wasn’t.”
*Full interview starts at 2:00.
After nearly a year and a half of trying to find the fighter inside, Brookins returned. Although the UFC was not still there waiting for Brookins upon return, Brookins found high quality bouts with future UFC veterans in organizations all over the world. He fought in Ireland, Finland and the Japan, as well as some domestic bouts. However, that search for his fighting self remained as he took a far different approach to fighting than most.
“After I did that, I fought so many fights after coming back from India without cornermen and without training. I fought these guys never sparring with anybody - just doing yoga classes and stuff and just trying to figure it out. Trying to find that fighter in me,” Brookins explained. “Those fights taught me the most. No coach slapping my back. Nobody to give a hug before I walk into the cage. I would just kind of be there.”
And those fights gave Brookins a newfound presence in the cage - a feeling that he belonged. However, even with this newly discovered gift, the path for Brookins back to where he wanted to be would not be so easy.
Brookins was picking up momentum after beating Decky Dalton in BAMMA. The win over an Irishman in Ireland looked good on his record and he looked to do the same with Russian Abdul-Rakhman Dudaev in Chechnya. In preparation for that bout, the wheels came off of his plan.
“I was in Montreal for a little while, kind of just winding down my fight career. I didn’t necessarily intent to wind it down, but I actually blew out my knee pretty badly. I was going to fight in Russia and I was training with Arnold Allen, who’s a strong 145-pound guy, and I blew it out,” he said. “Then I just kind of stuck around Montreal for a while and overstayed my visa, which wasn’t really a great thing to do - ended up getting caught on that, which then caused me to move to New York.”
While a move to New York City may not have been the worst thing for a fighter’s career, with a blown out knee, Brookins didn’t really have the ability to keep fighting right away. In addition, he left Canada with very little in the way of possessions. As a result, Brookins had to make moves quickly.
“I’d never been here [to New York] before. I came to New York about a year and a half ago, started my life over - had to kind of start from the ground up. I came with nothing, just a backpack and seven dollars. Didn’t know where to stay,” Brookings shared. “I had a short time to figure out how to get off of the ground level of the city. New York moves really fast, it’s a whole other beast. I started first by just trying to figure out what talents do I have? What can I do to make money in this city?”
So Brookins set out on foot daily looking for places that could use the talents of a former Ultimate Fighter champion. Some days his daily treks seemed like they were getting him somewhere, others not so much. What those days did bring him was a lot of different opportunities and perspectives.
“I tried a lot of different things. I’d start way, way uptown up in like Harlem. Then I’d go from there to downtown looking for anything - going into different martial arts gyms or yoga studios. I ended up stumbling into a small muay thai gym and the guy was starting up something - he recognized me from the Ultimate Fighter, so he gave me a shot,” Brookins recalled. “I had to spend a couple weeks sleeping in that gym and trying to get something going, but ultimately that didn’t work out.”
Eventually Brookins did land on his feet when he landed a job at Equinox, a high-end fitness club chain. Since that time, Brookins has been working as a personal trainer - his niche being that he’s the trainer who can hold pads for clients and knows a thing or two about the punches they’re throwing (although he downplays his abilities as a coach). The job has allowed him to find stability in the fast-paced city he now calls home. His days of sleeping on mats are over - he lives in the West End now. Although he likes his work and loves the idea of helping people bring their bodies to their full potential, there’s still something tugging at Brookins.
“I’ve just been rebuilding my life here in New York, and now I feel like I’d like to try my hand at martial arts again. I still feel like there’s a lot that I could still do. A lot of people I competed with are still going strong. Then to look at a guy like Urijah Faber at 40 years old, still going strong,” Brookins points out. “I definitely feel like I’m getting healthier in my mindset - it’s as strong as it’s ever been. I’m definitely on the hunt right now to see if there are any organizations that would have me this year.”
Since returning from India, Brookins has had very little time with both his feet underneath him and his mindset in the right place. However, he knows that he has both of these things now, which is why he feels he’s ready to do what he’s always meant to do - be a fighter.
“Now it’s kind of funny that I do know - I do know that I’m a fighter, but I had to go through all that stuff,” said Brookins.