Mixed martial arts champion Mike Brown
found his path at Norwich © Dec. 5, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications
It’s called mixed martial arts, although people unfamiliar with one of the world’s fastest-growing sports might view it as mayhem. It’s a fast, intense combat sport, and many call it brutal.
Mike Brown, a 2000 graduate of Norwich University, is one if its stars, winning the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight title in November 2008 in a first-round knockout over defending champion Urijah Faber.
That Brown even steps into a fighting cage is remarkable, due to a neck injury he suffered the summer after his first year at Norwich, the country’s first private military college in Northfield, Vt. He temporarily lost about 70 percent of his left-arm strength and needed surgery to repair a bulging spinal disc that pinched the limb’s motor nerves.
“Before the surgery, the doctor said everything should be OK afterward,” said Brown, 33. “After the surgery, he said I should give up wrestling.”
Giving up wrestling, jiu-jitsu or any combat sport wasn’t for Brown, however. Although numbness persisted for a few years, he still wanted to compete with the wrestling squad.
“I’d try to wrestle, hit my head, my arm would go numb, and I would lose that strength again for six weeks because the nerve would be inflamed,” he said.
Frustrating as it was, Brown continued to work on conditioning and technique, and he encouraged his teammates.
“[Mike] was always one who liked to go over the finer points of a move or technique, and always seems to give his best effort,” said Norwich wrestling Coach Rich Hasenfus. “He was one of the smartest athletes we had, and pound for pound was one of the strongest wrestlers we’ve ever had.”
Fighting for American Top Team, a mixed martial arts academy in Coconut Creek, Fla., Brown has compiled a record of 20-4. Gunnar Olsen, ’01, Brown’s roommate for three years, said the champion’s success is tied to “extreme focus.”
“He has the ability to focus without being distracted at all,” said Olsen, a civil engineer and surveyor. “That’s why he is so successful as a fighter.”
Brown admits he lacked that focus in high school, from which he “barely graduated.” After working various jobs for a few years, he entered Norwich with a heightened interest in combat sports and a new ambition for academic success. In earning a degree in biology with a minor in physical education, the once-indifferent student graduated near the top of his class.
“Norwich keeps you focused,” said Brown. “I think it’s very competitive, so many of its students are trying to excel ... If you want to be focused and are serious about athletics or academics, it’s the place to be.”
It was Olsen, a fellow wrestler and member of Norwich’s jiu-jitsu club, who introduced Brown to mixed martial arts. The two even fought a few professional matches as a team. Eventually, Olsen realized he lacked the focus so crucial to Brown’s success.
“Fighting literally transformed Mike’s life,” said Olsen. “He applied the focus, work ethic and discipline that made him a great fighter to academics. He got a few Bs, and when he did, which was rare, he was usually upset about it.”
Despite the physical dangers inherent in mixed martial arts, the neck injury that limited Brown’s collegiate wrestling career has not reoccurred. He has hardly gone unscathed: There have been four knee surgeries, a torn bicep, and even torn rib cartilage from the championship bout against Faber. Nevertheless, Brown asserts that mixed martial arts is safer than boxing, in large part because head trauma is less common. [A 2006 study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine supports this position.]
Olsen and Hasenfus talked on the phone before and after Brown’s championship bout. The interval between calls was brief, as Brown knocked out Faber in about two minutes. Faber threw a wild and vicious elbow that looked like it could have taken off Brown’s head. That instant of recklessness may have cost Faber the fight. Brown ducked the elbow and used a sliver of an opening to land a sharp jab on Faber’s chin, dropping the champion like a deer in hunting season.
“That punch showed not only how strong Mike is but also how hard he trains,” said Olsen. “When he ducked and threw that punch he probably was barely aware that he did it. It was instinctual, and that’s the result of a lot of training.”
Because of injured rib cartilage, Brown probably won’t fight until March, but continues to train as hard as ever. As he did at Norwich, Brown offers advice and support to his teammates at American Top Team. Barring a serious injury, Brown hopes to fight for three or four more years. After that, he intends to coach and manage mixed martial arts fighters.
“I love fighting and I’m going to stay involved with [mixed martial arts] because I want the sport to continue to grow,” said Brown. “I love this sport.”