The first time I met Tim Sylvia (Pictures) he was minutes removed from taking the heavyweight belt off a dazed and confused Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures).
For Sylvia it marked the best day of his life to that point. What many people, myself included, didn’t know was that his darkest days were the fuel that fed the fire, spurring him on when everyone else thought he would quit.
He’d grown up with an abusive alcoholic mother who never passed up an opportunity to belittle her son. The champ has come a long way from his days as an overweight kid, fearful of his mother’s scorn. But the scars of his tumultuous upbringing lurk just below the surface.
The longing for validation rings through in nearly every interview Sylvia does. And who can blame him?
“The rough life growing up plays a lot into what I do today,” declared the 30-year-old Sylvia.
“She is still in the back of my mind,” he said of his mother. “I still got that spot [inside me] where I’m that fat piece of shit that’s never going to amount to anything; that she told me everyday.”
Before the constant mental abuse, the heavyweight champ bore the brunt of his mother’s physical attacks as well, that is until he finally realized he was big enough to defend himself.
“She was very physical, abusive, you know, until I was about 12,” Sylvia remembered. “And then I just grabbed her one day and said: ‘Enough’s enough. You’re not hitting anymore.’ When she realized she couldn’t hit me anymore she decided to mentally abuse me.
“I almost think I would rather get hit than be talked to the way she talked to me.”
Fighting to overcome the hurdle of being told you will never amount to anything is a fight not every person can win. The world is littered with people who want to tell you stories of how their parents are to blame for the sorry situations they are in now.
Tim took another route, one that led him to Iowa.
Sylvia’s manager Monte Cox likes to tell a story about Tim’s first few months at Pat Miletich (Pictures)’s gym in Bettendorf. Cox says he never believed anyone when they told him Sylvia was six-foot-eight because the future UFC champ was constantly bent over a trashcan while trying to keep up with the strenuous pace.
Work ethic is something to be cherished anywhere in the world, but no more so than the Miletich camp. It is a “check your ego at the door” gym, where you don’t have to be the best but you definitely have to give it your all. It is an environment that breeds success and Sylvia has flourished there.
“Let’s be honest: I’m where I am because of hard work,” said the adopted Iowan. “I’m not in the position I am right now because I’m a hell of an athlete or because I’m inherently gifted or something like that. It’s because all the hard work I put in the room, all the blood, sweat and tears. You know that’s not just a cliché. I mean, I’ve bled and I’ve sweat and I’ve cried in this gym many times — and I’ll tell that to anybody.”
Nevertheless, Sylvia still does not seem to receive the same recognition heaped upon other UFC champions. “That’s why I work so hard,” he said. “It’s because I just love going out there and proving people wrong.”
Part of the problem for the champ is that he never hesitates to say what’s on his mind, which often rubs people the wrong way. By taking jabs at the fighters from the UFC’s hit reality series The Ultimate Fighter, Sylvia has drawn the ire of some of the UFC brass.
Undeterred, Big Tim openly charges that TUF fighters have been handed everything that he and every UFC fighter before the advent of the series had to earn.
“I do feel the TUF guys have got a free ride,” rattled Sylvia.
“I had 15 fights before I got in the UFC,” he said. “They’re getting sponsorships; they’re getting all kinds of things I had to become a world champ to get.”
What sounds like sour grapes to some may be other’s merlot. There are plenty of fighters who agree with Sylvia’s assessment, but for fear of retribution from Zuffa, which promotes the UFC, they do not publicly espouse their opinions.
Most fighters also understand the role TUF has played in the extraordinary success mixed martial arts, particularly the UFC, has enjoyed recently. Count the “Maine-iac” among them.
While he may not like the road they have taken, Sylvia did point out that a number of excellent fighters have come from the ranks of reality show participants, most notably Forrest Griffin (Pictures) and Diego Sanchez (Pictures).
Though he recognizes on some level that TUF has been a catalyst for the sport’s explosion, Sylvia still struggles with the notion that fighters have an opportunity to make it in the UFC without having traveled the same long, hard path he was forced to take.
“I bust my ass in the gym,” he said. “Nothing’s been given to me; I’ve earned everything and I’ve earned it all because of hard work.”
Everyone in the world, at one point or another, seeks validation for what they do in life, be it a “good job” from a boss or a high-five from a teammate or even a loving affirmation from a parent. We all need to feel like what we do and who we are matters.
Perhaps that is the driving force for a champion who stokes his fire with shovels full of childhood memories he would never want to relive but refuses to forget.
If you pound negative thoughts into someone long enough they are either going to believe you or they are going to prove you wrong. Tim Sylvia (Pictures) may not fully believe it yet but he has, at the very least, proven his mother wrong.
It may be a little early but he is already thinking about a legacy in mixed martial arts, and knows the only to assure himself a place among the sport’s elite is to continue winning.
“When they hear my name I want them to think UFC heavyweight division,” remarked Sylvia. “The up-and-comers, after I retire, I want them to say, ‘I wanna be like Tim Sylvia (Pictures).’ Like I, myself, say, ‘I wanna be like Randy Couture (Pictures).’ I wanna leave behind that mark that Randy Couture (Pictures)’s left behind.”
And, in a moment most people rarely see, the big man from Maine let’s down his ever-present guard to offer a glimpse at his softer side.
“I want people to think like Tim is one hell of a guy. He’s a down to earth country boy who came from nothing and made himself who he is — he’s a self-made man.
That Sylvia is, in every aspect of the word, self-made. And whether you love him or hate him, you should respect the UFC heavyweight champion for that.