On Sunday, February 17, 2013, Court McGee reached 2,500 days of sobriety.
“Pretty crazy, huh?” he asked me with a laugh, breaking the silence over the phone when he told me how many days it had been since his last sip of alcohol when we spoke a couple of weeks earlier.
While most pre-fight interviews focus on the previous result and the opponent on deck, speaking with the articulate 28-year-old who embodies the word “fighter” in many ways is always a chance to talk about so much more. There are very few topics that are off limits with McGee, who has never hesitated to discuss his past struggles, present situation inside and outside the cage, or future goals with nothing but complete openness and raw honesty.
Fighting may be his profession, but the cage isn’t just his place of business. As much as he loves the competition, fighting on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts also affords McGee a platform, a way to reach out to those who are struggling and going down the same dangerous paths he managed to survive.
Win or lose, the man who was once clinically dead sees every fight as a chance to show others that you can make it out. It’s a message he carried throughout his winning turn on Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, and the same one he will bring to the cage with him when he makes his welterweight debut Saturday night inside the Honda Center in Anaheim, California at UFC 157.
“(Fighting isn’t) the end-all, be-all,” said McGee, who faces veteran Josh Neer this weekend. “Don’t get me wrong: it can feel like that. There are some days when you wake up and think it’s the end of the world, and there are other days where it’s the greatest feeling, but maintaining that sober lifestyle, and knowing that a loss isn’t the end of the world…”
One thing you get used to in talking with McGee is how quickly and frequently he shifts direction when he speaks, leaving sentences dangling without a conclusion as he pivots to a tangential thought.
“You can lose jobs, gain jobs, make a lot of money, lose a lot of money,” he said, re-starting his paused point from a slightly different angle. “But it’s kind of `Are you happy with where you’re at?’ and `Are you happy with what you’re doing?’ and `Do I think I’m doing what my higher power thinks I should do?’ and I am. I’m able to carry the message to people all over the world.”
As we spoke on a Monday afternoon earlier this month, McGee told me he lost a friend the day before. He said it with the flat tone and unwavering voice of a man who has spent a lot of time talking about friends who left this world too early, and one who knows all too well what it’s like to be in the same place.
“He was a great guy. He was funny, a little off – he wasn’t a real popular guy – but there was something about him that was real personable; not a lot of people didn’t get along with him, you know? He was a great guy, and for whatever reason, he overdosed on some sleeping medication. That was Saturday night or Sunday morning.
“I just think that I fight to carry the message to people like that – who haven’t gone over the edge – and think if I can make it out, you can make it out, and that gives me inspiration to show up. That’s one of the things, man – you’ve just got to suit up and show up – and I’ve done that.”
He’ll suit up and show up again on Saturday, looking to halt a two-fight losing streak when he steps into the cage as a welterweight for the first time.
Relocating to the 170-pound ranks was something McGee discussed with his coaches prior to his pairing with Costa Philippou last March. After dropping a unanimous decision to the surging Serra-Longo Fight Team member in Sydney, Australia, he returned to the cage four months later to take on Nick Ring at UFC 149 in Calgary, Alberta, putting his plan to change weight classes on hold once again.
“About a week before I had agreed to fight Costa, I had been talking and thinking about going down to 170, but then I got offered the fight, so it was kind of like, `OK – we’ll take it, and then we’ll go down after.’ Then it was like, `OK, I’ll fight Nick again; I’ve got a good game plan going in. I’ll stick with it, and just worry about cutting down after.’
“Immediately after, I called (UFC matchmaker) Joe (Silva) and said, `My next fight is going to be at welterweight.’ It was part of the game plan for a while, but I thought the matchups were good. It ended up working out the way it did, but everything worked out the way it was supposed to, you know what I mean? I just have to be okay with the way things work, accept the way things are, and try to make the best of my decision, the decision of the judges, and try to kick some ass on the next one, you know?”
McGee felt he did enough to earn the victory against the former in Australia, and just about everyone who saw the fight with the latter believed he should have been declared the winner in Calgary.
Some fighters who find themselves on the wrong side of a questionable decision never miss a chance to remind you that the judges robbed them. As much as he still disagrees with the final scorecards, McGee’s reasons for focusing on the positive elements of each contest are fairly standard when it comes to the world of fighting, and a sharp dose of reality when examined in terms of the life the fighter used to live.
“I used them as an experience to try and grow from,” explained McGee, whose record now sits at 3-2 in the UFC and 13-3 overall following his consecutive setbacks. “It’s `what can I learn from it?’ and `what can I take positive from it?’ instead of making everything negative, and blaming everybody else. That would stop me from being the best I could be, and that would stop me from being able to carry the message.
“If I dwelled and `I should have had this’ and `I should have had that’ – if I had everything I wanted, I’d be f***ing dead right now or in prison, you know what I mean? I kind of make the best of it because things are a lot better than I could have ever imagined them to be.
“Don’t get me wrong: losing is really difficult to deal with as a professional athlete,” laughed McGee as he resumed. “It hurts your pride, hurts your ego, you start second-guessing, and you go through a lot of emotions that a lot of people wouldn’t understand unless they’ve been through it, but that’s part of it; that’s part of the journey.”
As a competitor, McGee is focused on avoiding the anguish of a third straight defeat on Saturday night. Just as he has since his first fight, he’s ready to suit up, show up, and put his skills to the test in the cage.
As always, it’s about much more than just the outcome of the fight.
“It’s not just fighting any more – it’s a business, it’s a job, it’s a career. I have a family that I have to support, and the responsibility of being a dad. And then the most important responsibility is staying sober, because I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if I didn’t maintain my sobriety.
“A loss, a win – what matters to me is that I show up every day, just like I showed up to practice today. I felt good today, but there are Mondays where I don’t want to be there, and I don’t want to practice; I feel terrible, but the point is that I show up. It’s the same thing that I show up for my children. I tell my wife I love her, and I clean the living room even though I don’t want to. It’s the last thing I want to do, but it’s my living room too.
“By me showing up every day, I can show someone else in the world that if I can show up and do this every day, doing the best I can do – whether I win or lose, I’m still me, I’ve shown up, and I’ve done the best I can do – maybe they’ll take a little bit of inspiration from that, and they’ll show up for whatever they need to show up for, whether that’s bagging groceries at WalMart or helping their wife clean the living room.”
Suit up and show up, every day, no matter what you’re doing. You never know who your efforts will inspire.
Court McGee has done it every day for the last 2,500 days, and the outcome of Saturday’s fight won’t stop him for continuing to do the same come Sunday morning.
Court McGee: All That Matters is That You Show Up
"A loss, a win – what matters to me is that I show up every day, just like I showed up to practice today." - Court McGee