My Corey Hill saga started with a phone call. It was June 2008, and my son Chase was using me as a jungle gym in the living room of our first Vegas apartment. Jason Genet, my beloved manager, was very excited to tell me the UFC offered me a fight with Corey Hill on December 10th. It was a fight night for the troops, and Jason was happy for the opportunity to give back to fellow veterans. As a devout Joe Lauzon fan, I watched Corey fight on The Ultimate Fighter and was immediately impressed. Although not a relationship in a traditional sense, Corey Hill and I shared a unique bond, and these are some of my thoughts on his tragic death.
After accepting the fight, it was time to go to work. Master Saohin Srisuk trained me out of the famed Muay Thai gym, Master Toddy’s. UFC’s website listed Corey’s reach as 82.5 inches, so I set up Bob the dummy with some “Corey Hill edition” PVC pipe arms and boxing gloves. I stood completely still, stunned by the length of his “arms”. I walked over and raised my arms in comparison to PVC Corey, and it was scary. Master Toddy found me some okay sparring partners, but nobody matched Corey’s athleticism.
Corey was light, fast, and chiseled at 6’4” 165 pounds. Most people that tall are 200-plus pounds, but Corey was naturally 165 pounds at the time we fought. Burt Watson weighed us shortly after getting off the plane the Tuesday before our fight, and I was 183 pounds. Corey was 163. As he weighed in I stared at him, thinking in all my years in sports I’ve never seen such an anomaly of an athlete. Looking at the pronouncement of his tendon fibers his strength was obvious, and I’ve never seen somebody so naturally ripped. Oftentimes PED (performance enhancing drug) users have a certain body shape, skin color, trap development, and skin thickness which indicates usage. Fight long enough, and you’ll turn into a walking PED detector. My “detector” never went off with Corey. I sat there amazed watching him weigh in. This man was a specimen.
My weight cut was a twelve hour affair and involved much whining to my friend Scott Trayhorn as he sat in the sauna with me. I was very nervous to fight Corey, and I trained very hard to give him my all. The UFC put us all together at 4:00 pm to ensure everybody made it to the scale for weigh-ins, which meant we had to sit at “weight” for an hour. After a 17-pound cut, I was parched. My least favorite part about fighting was the weight cut. I look back now, and I didn’t dread getting hit in the face. I didn’t fear getting slammed. I dreaded the weight cut. Few people have experienced the suffering involved in cutting 17 pounds of water from your body, and it had built the strongest desire to eat and drink. I kept opening my Pedialyte to sniff the bottle, and I sat with pineapple and oranges in my lap, waiting to devour them. I made eye contact with Corey Hill a couple of times, and I wondered if he was half as thirsty as I was. I knew he wasn’t. Bastard. Corey and I shared a few glances, gauging how the other guy was feeling. Or maybe he was laughing at how awful I looked. As we waited for our turn on the scale we talked in a very friendly manner, and he smiled kindly throughout our talk. As we readied for the UFC to bring us on the stage, Corey reached out his hand at the last second and said to me, “Let’s give them a show”. Normally I don’t like faking the whole “tough guy” thing, so it gets replaced with awkward smiles. Just for Corey, I did my best tough guy impersonation. It looked rather silly because of the laughter being held back.
We stayed in standard-issue military barracks, getting picked up out front by the UFC vans for transport to the arena. My headphones were on as we rode to Fayetteville to do battle. This was the time for relaxation and focus. As we arrived we went to a brief rule meeting and separated to our locker rooms. I laid down and listened to some Enigma with my headphones on. As I tried to relax, my heart would start beating fast and I went to the bathroom about 20 times. When I fought Pat Shaw in a small show, my bladder nearly exploded between the first and second round. It was then I learned to never go to the second round. With my bladder in check, I started warming up: grappling, hitting pads, and stretching. That combined with nerves got a good sweat going. Burt Watson gave his famous calling telling us, “It’s time to roll, baby!”, and it was time. Of course the UFC played the wrong song as I walked out, but my focus was on the fight and visualizing what needed to get done out there.
After walking through the screaming crowd I stood by the cage entrance, and Stitch Duran put some grease on my face. As I walked to the steps of the Octagon, it all hit me. Except for my children, nothing was more important to me, and I wondered if I’d done enough to prepare. I wanted to beat Corey for my boys so badly. Thinking of my children gave me the strength to step forward that day. After settling into my corner and getting some encouraging words from my dearest friend and corner Scott “Schoolteacher” Trayhorn, I locked eyes with Corey. He smiled and raised his glove to me, signaling that he wanted to touch gloves. My nerves were tingling all over, and looking back his nerves were going crazy too. You really never know what anybody else is thinking, but one strange thing about fighting is the connection you share. I know the people I’ve fought so well. We shared something so strong, and that goes for Corey more than any other. The ref came out, and we were underway. Corey gave me a big glove touch and we were off.
I like to feel my opponents out by putting my hands down just enough to get them to swing. Every opponent before Corey had never hit me doing this, but sure enough he hit me square in the face. It didn’t hurt, but it sure was embarrassing. Almost immediately, my legs felt exhausted and I wasn’t moving right. Corey was an excellent wrestler. I studied his takedowns nearly every night before the fight, but he landed a nice one on me. Corey’s fingers clamped around my arm so tightly, and his strength amazes me to this day. Training at Cobra Kai with Marc Laimon, Simpson Go, and many other killers really helped my ground game. When Corey and I hit the ground it felt comfortable thanks to those beatings. I sat down on the stool after the first round. Marcus started talking, but I told him not to bother because I had my legs back and was going to kick butt.
Seconds passed in the Octagon until Corey and I touched gloves to start the second round. Shortly into that round my shin landed flush on his thigh. His hips then turned away from me, letting me know that he was winding up for a kick. I eagerly anticipated his kick, looking for our shins to have clean and hard contact. In Muay Thai, hard shin checks will give pause to an aggressive opponent. Our shin-to-shin contact was so severe it tore the PCL in my knee. Although unknown to me at the time, both his leg bones had broken completely. After the break, I retaliated with my own leg kick. In training, Soahin drilled me for hours on matching leg kick for leg kick. I always took such pride in executing that game plan, and not one single person ever mentioned it to me. Within milliseconds of my retaliatory kick, Corey went to put his weight on his broken leg and it collapsed, sending him to the ground. I followed him to side mount and awkwardly held my position as he screamed in agony, but the referee didn’t stop the fight for a good five seconds. My brain couldn’t decide whether to hit him or not, and it was very conflicting. The ref came up behind me and put his hands on me, sending a great relief through my body. Standing up, the sole of Corey’s foot was facing me 180 degrees from where it should have been. My face contorted in all kinds of ways as I returned to my corner. My thoughts went immediately to his family and the suffering he would have to endure to recover from that. As Corey was prepared to be carried out of the octagon, the strength in his eyes impressed me. Just the strength he needed to get carried out of that ring amazed me.
I felt no guilt in breaking Corey’s leg. Maybe it’s cruel, but if he’d done that to me, while awful in every way, I wouldn’t have blamed him. Mixed Martial Arts is dangerous, and we risk our lives every time we go in that cage. That’s why it makes me sick every time young guys don’t train hard enough and enter the cage out-of-shape and unprepared. What happened to us that night is one strong example of why you need to respect the cage. Outside the cage, one thing I would change is telling Corey how much I admired his strength and devotion to his family. We talked on the phone twice and emailed a few times. He told me at length of his wife’s strength: how amazing she was when taking care of him and how hard it was for him to be in a bed. I raise my glass to Corey Hill’s wife and three children. I raise my glass to a hope that his strength carries on in his family, and maybe touches and inspires the rest of us to a bit of greatness.