It doesn’t ever go away. Once the memory is ingrained, it stays there. Try pulling away or pushing it aside on occasion. It doesn’t work. It never really goes away. It’s what happens when you see a loved one die, especially when they pass in your arms. It’s what Brian Foster lives with every day.
He was there. He saw it. The blood was on his hands as he kneeled there helplessly.
They were inseparable. If you saw one, there was a good chance the other would be right there with him. Foster and his younger brother Brandon grew to depend on each other, raised in a home with little stability, other than themselves, to be fiercely independent, to try and get out of the blight they were born into.
Foster is going to make his Professional Fighters League debut Friday night against legendary Jon Fitch (29-7-1) at the Daytona International Speedway, in Daytona Beach, Florida, and he owes his course to a tragedy and a mistake.
What fans will see in the main event is someone who refuses to be defined or denied. It’s why Brian Foster (27-9) fights the way he does, with such relentless tenacity -- because he’s fighting for two, himself and Brandon.
Foster knows the opportunity he’s getting Friday night may have never happened. It’s why he relishes the chance to show he’s still relevant; that he matters. That what he fights for goes a little deeper than the next guy.
It’s why Jon Fitch should be concerned.
“Jon Fitch is the best in the world at what he does,” Foster said. “Jon has more on the line than just Brian Foster staring back at him. I have great respect for Jon Fitch. He’s had an amazing career. What he’s accomplished many haven’t done. Fitch takes people into deep waters and grinds them out. On the other side, I’m looking to close the door any way I can.
“Give me your arm and I’m going to try and break it off. If you make one mistake in the first two minutes, it’s over. I’m a finisher. I stand a chance of finishing him and he has a chance of finishing me. People ask how I see Jon Fitch finishing me when Jon Fitch doesn’t finish anyone. Well, that’s easy. Exhaust the amount of energy that I do in a fight and you get tired. It’s pretty easy to snag something up. But I’m more dangerous than he is. I just have to maintain energy.”
That shouldn’t be a problem.
Foster has a deep reservoir that stems from one date -- April 30. It’s the date Brandon was taken away from him, and it’s also the date, five years later, where his career as a mixed martial artist looked like it too would be taken away.
He lost his brother and almost his career over unexplainable circumstances.
“I’m at a good place in my life right now, because time heals everything,” said Foster, 33. “Don’t get me wrong, the fury is still there. That will never go away. But my kids are happy and I have a good long life ahead of me. I was the victim of a mistake, but it doesn’t matter now. The only way to explain what happened to me is everything happens for a reason.”
* * *
Brian Foster is the oldest of eight born to Sherry Person. He lived a transient childhood that was far from idyllic. A shaky foundation featured bouncing around between his mother and his maternal grandparents in Muldrow, Oklahoma. He hardly knew his father, Al, who was murdered in a drug deal gone awry when Brian was 13 and Brandon was 12. Brian often slept on the floor, crammed in among six in a trailer home bedroom.
He dabbled in sports, wrestling as a child and boxing in his teens, though nothing seriously engaging.
Brian changed schools frequently. He worked odd jobs. He cleaned, cooked, fixed what was broken around the house. Whatever needed to be done Brian would do it. Brian and Brandon had the same father, but their other six siblings came from different relationships their mother had.
“I had no structure,” Brian recalled. “I became the man of the family at a young age and maintained that role my whole life. I had the law down a few times with the man my mom brought home. I even fought them, and that happened on more than one occasion. I was rambunctious; I wouldn’t be afraid to poke you. It was just me, with my dad running around, so I was the man of the house. I was the law, and I was looking out for my brothers and sisters.”
Brian became a father his senior year at Muldrow High School and upon graduation took up a job as a laborer at Comfort Coils, a bed manufacturer, loading mattresses into trucks and building box springs. He worked alongside Brandon. They worked weekends, holidays. If there was any overtime, he took it.
“It never crossed my mind to go to college or to do any kind of fighting,” Brian said. “I wanted those things, but it wasn’t possible. There was too much going on between taking care of my brothers and sisters and my family. I still boxed, but I was working 45, 50 hours a week.”
Brian was basically going nowhere.
Until Sunday, April 30, 2006.
Brian recalls the day starting great. He, Brandon and some pals were hiking Wild Horse Mountain in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. It had rained a few days earlier, making some of the terrain slippery, but this alcove was like a friend. They went there frequently. It had a swimming hole and Brian was going to rig a zip wire.
That’s when it happened.
The rocks loosened where Brandon was standing and he fell over 230 feet on the jagged rocks below.
“I saw it; I was there,” Brian remembered. “I peeked off the bluffs and there he went. I was the only person that could make down to the bottom, because I had been there before. It took me five minutes to make it to him. When I got there, he was still alive, but he was messed up, so I tried to do what I could. Really, I was a young kid, and I didn’t know what the f--- to do. I just turned 22.”
Brian dragged him a few feet out of the water and balled his t-shirt under Brandon’s head to comfort him. Brandon’s eyes couldn’t focus.
“I tried to calm him,” Brian said. “My cousin showed up, and just then my brother went into convulsions and I administered CPR. He went into shock and he was probably bleeding internally; he took his last breath when I was doing that.
“We were in a spot where it took them 40 minutes to get to us. We all thought it was part of our county that we were in, but we gave the emergency dispatch the wrong county, because we didn’t know where the f--- we were. They didn’t tell me no one ever should have moved him, which was a tough one to swallow. They didn’t have to tell me anything at the hospital. I knew he was dead.
“I shut down. I never drank alcohol, I never did anything before. I went on a two-month wild ride of nonstop crying, getting involved with the wrong people and not willing to let go.
“For a while I did blame myself. He was my brother. I was always there for him. I always protected and looked out for him. He was my best friend. I wish there was something I could have done. For a long time, I felt that there were a lot of things that I could have done. The hardest thing to swallow was when they told (me) I shouldn’t have moved him. I didn’t know. I couldn’t stand seeing him there like that. I went out and moved him, and I didn’t know you’re not supposed to move someone after a fall like that.
“I didn’t know. Then comes the questions. What should I have done? What could I have done? Over time, I saw what everything meant. There is purpose in everything. My family has always been on the less-fortunate side of things in my upbringing. There wasn’t much that was going to get us out of it, either. My brother and I were pretty much the only chance of getting any recognition and getting out from under; giving us a chance to change all of our lives. Brandon left and it was all up to me.”
Brian’s angry slide seemed to be careening into disaster, when it veered in another direction. He began running. He was late to be somewhere and didn’t have a ride, so he ran.
“I don’t remember too many of the specifics, but it was late and I remember having to run,” Brian said. “Mind you, I was still f----- up. I was an emotional wreck. I couldn’t stabilize reality to save my life. I wasn’t drunk that night I started running, but I ran so long and so hard that it hurt badly. I remember that cancelled a lot out. I didn’t have to do the stuff I was doing to escape. I could do this. As long as I’m hurting this way, I won’t hurt the other way. It was better. I started running. I began playing basketball. I started running and climbing, all of this stupid s---. It’s when my friends came to me about trying the MMA stuff.
“That’s when everything took a turn. The best way to explain it is I always had fear of what motherf------ thought, critics and their opinions; all of the insecurities that come with being in the spotlight. I could never face the fear, I guess, of being out there. I could never really pull myself to do it. My brother died and there was nothing more than a big f--- you in my face, in my heart and in my mind. There was this confusion, and anger and everything else, and it was going to get bad. It’s when I found MMA. I could always fight. My brother knew I could do it, and I would always talk about it, ‘I’ll do it, I’ll do it,’ but I never did. Brandon always wanted me to.”
Brian began small, with some guys he used to wrestle with as a kid. He was under the impression that any moment they would all be arrested for holding an underground fighting ring. Eventually, everyone peeled off except Brian. That’s when he made a life-changing move. Suddenly the little Oklahoma boy who had never been anywhere or did anything decided to hop a plane and take a chance. He went to Matt Hughes’ HIT Squad in Granite City, Illinois. He knew he was at a great disadvantage, tangling with guys that had years of experience.
Brian, however, was willing to learn.
Three months later, he made his pro debut.
* * *
Three years after making his pro debut, Brian Foster, the oldest of eight raised in rural rust and still coping with his brother’s death, made his entrance on the grand stage in his UFC debut at UFC 103 against Rick Story, on Sept. 19, 2009. Brian lost on an arm-triangle choke submission in the second round. But he looked good enough to be inviting back by the UFC, appearing on UFC 106, on Nov. 21, 2009, where he notched his first UFC victory, beating Brock Larson by TKO in the second round --after absorbing an illegal kicks and knees to the head in the first round.
Foster came in as a late replacement for UFC 110, losing to Chris Lytle on a first-round kneebar submission, but bounced back to defeat Forrest Petz on UFC Fight Night 22, on Sept. 15, 2010. Foster followed that up with a second-round guillotine choke submission of Matt Brown, performing again as a replacement, this time for the injured Rory MacDonald at UFC 123.
That set up a fight against Sean Pierson on April 30, 2011 at UFC 129, at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Canada. Foster was just finishing up a sparring session when his coach, Marc Fiore, received a call.
“I was with Brian that day, and I remember me and Ramon Barber were sparring with Brian,” said Cortez Coleman, a friend of Foster’s. “It was just nuts, because getting into the UFC is all Brian wanted. He worked hard for that, and this call comes. He was making a name for himself. He got two fight bonuses in his first two fights.
“A call comes and Marc picked the phone up. The conversation didn’t last long. Marc says to Brian, ‘Brian, I have to talk to you,’ and I knew then by the tone of Marc’s voice that something was wrong. The next thing I heard was Brian yelling, ‘What the f---! How can this happen!’ He screamed and threw some s--- around and walked out. He was upset. He was wondering how all of this happened to him.”
Foster was forced out of the Pierson bout after a pre-fight MRI scan showed that he had a brain hemorrhage, and was replaced by Jake Ellenberger. What baffled Foster were the previous battery of pre-fight medicals, routine MRIs every two years, the blood work and EKG never showed anything.
“I would have torn Pierson apart,” Foster says now. “I felt great. I was finishing my last workout. I was happy as hell. I got the medicals. I saw coach on the phone and I saw this distress on his face. Marc was totally baffled. He had the craziest look and he started to tear up a little when told me, ‘It’s over, they found a brain bleed.’ That was it. I was like ‘what the f---, there’s no way!’ Marc told me I was off the card and I had to take more tests. I hung around there for another two, three weeks to figure things out. I had another test and it came back clean, as if there was never anything there.”
This is the kicker -- the worst part of it -- every test Foster has taken since has been completely clean.
“I lost my UFC career over an f------ mistake,” he says. “I knew I was fine. Had the doctors told me no, I would have been OK. No one ever gave me any factual evidence. It’s called medical practice for a reason, because it’s educated guessing. It was very aggravating to me, because I lost a lot. My family lost a lot. These motherf------ don’t seem to care. UFC f------ bailed on me.
“Dana White basically said, ‘You’re done kid, good luck with your f------ dreams.’ That was the extent of it. You have a millionaire who doesn’t give a f--- about the little guy. You know how that’s going to go. I told him I’m the motherf----- with heart who would step up right now on a minute’s notice and fight Robbie Lawler. You can call that motherf---- up right now and he’ll admit to it. They know. They know what kind of heart I have and why I’m in this s---. I’m not in it to say I’m a fighter. I’m not in it to say I’m a badass. I’m not it for the f------ money. I’m in it to prove that I’m worth something. It means something to my children to change something that my father never laid out for me, which was nothing. My sons have a name. Their daddy did something. He never gave up.
“UFC said I was too much of a risk. It was a rough time for medical issues to arise in the UFC, when you have this kid who has one of the circumstantial injuries that test their policies. The way I look at it is that my sacrifice helped the guys, so it’s why I never made a big stink out of it. My attitude was I’ll do whatever I have to do to come back. Doctor after doctor told me I didn’t have to take any more tests.”
But he was down again.
“Brian was a born fighter and they ripped out his heart,” Coleman said. “He went through so much stuff with that, but it never stopped him. I remember him offering to sign a waiver saying that if he died, he died. It’s what he wanted. All he wants to do is fight. What the UFC did to him would be enough to make any fighter lose a little drive. I told him not to give up.”
He fought in England. He fought in Mexico, winning a 16-man tournament called the RDC MMA Reto de Campeones 2, in Mexico City.
Eventually, Foster fought his way back. The Nevada State Athletic Commission put him through more tests to allow him to fight on World Series of Fighting 17 in Las Vegas in the main event against Jake Shields.
Again, the tests bore out what Foster had always contended -- he was safe to fight.
“I was out of shape for that fight, but it was a turning point for me. WOS brought me in and they gave me an offer against Jake Shields. I knew if I got cleared that there wouldn’t be any road blocks. I had some people battling for me in Nevada and they did that. The doctors allowed me to compete. Unfortunately, I lost, but it allowed me to continue. It’s why I am where I am right now.
“I showed people that I still mattered. What the UFC and people like that don’t understand is that we fighters give up our lives, and our bodies, and our time with our families to fight. We make huge sacrifices and they just don’t f------ care. It’s nothing to them to shut someone off. They forget about the dreams and everything these fighters put into it. If you have nothing to offer to them, they don’t give a f---. I don’t have to say it, it’s f------ obvious. This guy broke his ass and busted his body for us, well, f--- him. Unless you’re a name, they don’t care. I was on my way; I was ready to f--- Sean Pierson up.
“Dana did call me. I’ve had motherf------ tell me I can’t my whole career. I didn’t want to hear there’s always something else. I went off on Dana. I let him know, ‘You, the guy sitting behind the desk telling me that my dream is over, I’ll never give up.’ You can’t tell a gladiator that his career is over. I have good friends around me, and my sons and my mom have stayed with me through this whole thing. My mom is the toughest, craziest woman I’ve ever known. Marc was there for a long time. After the medical stuff happened to me, I thought the HIT Squad all took a little from it. We were family and they felt the waves of it. HIT Squad sold out to Jesse Finney. We all grew in other directions. I’m at Factory X (in Englewood, Colorado).
“I’ve been doubted more than any fighter. I’ve been the underdog. But the words ‘can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ don’t apply to me. It’s no one’s responsibility to believe in you. That’s something that you have to do on your own. Everything happens for a reason.”
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.