Mixed martial artist Damien Brown’s toughest mission
Sometimes his left ear gives him away. It’s hard to miss – it erupts like a mushroom cloud. It’s what doctors call cauliflowered, and it’s the result of continual blunt trauma. For some prisoners, it’s a tell. “Some ask me if I’m a fighter,” Damien Brown says. Brown’s a prison guard. He’s also an army veteran, a professional fighter and recently the founder of a fight and fitness gym that he hopes can offer constructive sanctuary to emergency personnel suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I always say no. The minute you admit it, it becomes a challenge.”
Brown volunteers that some career choices have been extreme and personally damaging – but he has no regrets. Brown wasn’t built for an office. The transition to corrections, he says, wasn’t as difficult as the broader transition from the military. “They prepare you for war,” he says, “but they don’t prepare you for civilian life.”
There’s a briefing at the start of each shift. You unlock prisoners, then corral them back. There’s some danger, but a prevailing routine. “People watch movies and think every prison’s the same,” he says. “It’s not. There are some dangers. People are stabbed. But movies are made up to be entertaining. It’s never like the movies.
“Prisoners for the most part won’t engage in conversation with you. It’s the old green and blue [the respective colours of prisoners and guards]. You treat them all equally. I don’t know what they’ve done. Don’t care what they’ve done. I go to work to manage prisoners. My job isn’t to punish them or judge them.”
Brown was at work when he received the call. It was March 2016. He’d been working as a prison guard for a few years, but since leaving the army had also revived his childhood love for martial arts. He was training and fighting around work. As a shift worker, he juggled his roster with supportive colleagues and his manager granted him leave without pay in the weeks before a fight. He was grateful.
It was gruelling but that didn’t matter. Brown says training balanced him. Nine years earlier, he deployed to Afghanistan as an infantryman. Uruzgan province. To the south and the east, the Taliban had primacy. When Brown arrived in September 2007, two things immediately impressed themselves. The first was the death of Trooper David Pearce, killed when his vehicle struck an improvised mine. Brown watched the scorched chassis dragged to the base. “Okay,” he thought to himself. “This shit’s real now.”
The second was his first patrol. “I was No. 1 scout leading the platoon,” he says. “All it was was feet on the ground. A two-hour walk. That’s it. But for me, it was an eye-opener … I remember legit fear that something was going to happen. There could be a mine at any moment, or someone could open fire on you. Every single step could be your last one … Most soldiers don’t sleep properly. That flows on to things. I don’t think you can send any human to war and expect them to come home the same.”
In war, hyper-vigilance is a necessity. At home, it’s ruinous. Out of the army, Brown became paranoid, depressed, irritable. He was always on guard, scouting for dangers. His wife told him he was looking strangely at guys. Then she told him to get psychological help. He did, and he says it was beneficial. He was diagnosed with complex PTSD. “But I want you to know this,” Brown says, emphatically. “I don’t want sympathy. I don’t regret my life or my choices. I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. My deployment was an easy one compared to others.”
Brown found balance in his sport, but he was also chasing his dream of competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – the pinnacle event for mixed martial artists. To get there, he was fighting in local leagues. He paid his way to fight in Dublin, Manchester, Liverpool – only to lose on points. He accumulated a record of 15-8: not bad, but the most recent fights were losses and Brown knew it wasn’t a win-loss ratio to attract UFC recruiters.
But then a call at work: a message from his wife to call a UFC promoter. Brown knew that in six days the latest UFC event was to be held in Brisbane, and he assumed he’d be overlooked. What he didn’t know was that a fighter had pulled out in the welterweight division. He called the number. “Can you fight, and can you make weight next week?” the promoter asked.
Brown answered: “Of course I can.”
He had realised his dream. Except that to qualify for the weight division, he had to lose 12.8 kilograms in six days.
There’s only so much fat you can lose in a day. The average human body comprises 60 per cent water, so to dramatically shed kilos you must acutely dehydrate yourself. “When I got that call, I went from celebrating to focusing pretty quickly,” Brown says. “Reduce sodium, fibre, carbs. I had 80- to 100-gram servings of food, six times a day. I trained twice a day, with a plastic sweat suit on. I went to the sauna. In one session I lost about 2.6 [kilograms].”
Fighters call it weight cutting, and it’s common. It’s also been fatal. What often follows acute dehydration is nausea, confusion, depression. You’ll probably experience severe cramping. Your heart will weaken and your blood will thicken, forcing your kidneys to work overtime and increasing their risk of infection or failure. Your pores will start closing to retain sweat, and you’ll have to trick them into reopening. Acute dehydration can blunt short-term memory, which means forgetting your coach’s instructions before stepping inside the ring.
Brown alternated sauna, hot baths and training in sweat suits. In his last 24 hours, he still had 5.6 kilograms to lose. His pulse was weak; his eyes were dry and failing. In one last session in the sauna, someone gave him a plastic cup filled with ice – the bottom was punctured, so there was no water to drink. The idea was that he could satisfy his thirst by inhaling cold air. “I felt like I was dying,” Brown says. “I was in pain, had blurred vision. Probably borderline kidney failure. Look, I wouldn’t recommend it. But I accepted the fight at a certain weight. So you do it, or end up in hospital. Maybe that’s not a great way to think about it. Maybe that’s my soldier’s training. But I gave them my word. I’d never missed weight before. Ever. And this was my dream. I’m not 15-0. I’m 15-8. I might not be asked again.”
Brisbane’s UFC fighters were put up in a hotel. On the morning before the fight, Brown boarded a shuttle bus to the weigh-in at the stadium. It was a ceremonial affair, held before fans and media. On the bus, he drifted in and out of consciousness. Behind the stage curtain, Brown was so unsteady staff offered him a seat.
But he made weight.
Damien Brown lost that fight on points. He fought another five times in the UFC, with a 2-4 record – he lost two consecutive fights on a split decision. The UFC is a ruthless game, and they reserve the right to cut any fighter after any loss. Last year, they cut Brown. “It is what it is,” he says. “I thought the decisions were questionable. It doesn’t always go your way.”
He now fights professionally in Japan, still works at the prison, and three months ago opened Base Training Centre in Brendale, Queensland. He offers discounts to veterans, police, paramedics, firefighters and corrections officers and says he has a mix of professionals, amateurs and children. “I don’t want any elitism,” he says. “I think we’re all one. I can credit that back to my military days. I want people to feel comfortable. Here, you won’t be judged.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Man on a mission". Subscribe here.