By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
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With the grappling and striking portion of his workout complete, Rogers moves on to plyometrics, leaving his fight gloves on a table, drenched in sweat and smelling ripe. A trainer guides Rogers through a hellacious sequence of platform push-ups, medicine-ball tosses, box jumps, dead lifts, and one-arm chest presses, capped by a round of shadow boxing.
"GO! GO! GO!" the trainer says. "Three. Four. Switch. Switch. Punch his face. Punch his face. Very good. Very good. Beautiful. Beautiful. Okay. Switch. One more round."
The pace is brutal, but Rogers continues to push. He ignores the pain, keeping his eyes focused straight ahead. Thirty seconds left. He speeds up his punches. His arms quiver. Ten seconds left. He combos with uppercuts, jabs, left hooks. "C'mon, Brett! C'mon! Two...one."
It's over. Brett takes deep breaths, drinks a gulp of water. But before his night ends, there's one more interview. He lifts the Blackberry to his ear.
"Do you think you stand a chance against Fedor?"
DOWN A RESIDENTIAL street lined with maple trees sits a five-car garage. Reilly punches in a security code and a door slides up on its tracks.
"Behold, the humble origins of Team Bison," he says.
Inside is a stack of wrestling mats, a raised wooden platform, and an odd assortment of gloves and shin guards. The walls had to be rebuilt with plywood, as his fighters busted through the original drywall.
Close to five years ago, Reilly watched a hulking black dude walk up his driveway, asking if he could learn mixed martial arts.
"Brett was one of these guys that says they're here to become 'Ultimate Fighters,'" recalls Reilly. "Usually, those guys don't last."
At the time, Rogers was busy working two jobs. He'd wake up early in the morning to deliver the Pioneer Press. Then he'd commute over to Sam's Club and work a full shift changing tires. By the time he reached Reilly's garage, he was ready to take out his frustrations.
Rogers grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, possibly the toughest 12 blocks in America. Now razed, the failed urban experiment became synonymous with violence— a cluster of low-income apartments where snipers fired at cops, teens slept in bathtubs, and thugs raped and poisoned a nine-year-old girl, leaving her in a stairwell.
If not for his grandmother, Rogers might be dead. She moved him to St. Paul when he was in fourth grade.
"My grandmother...she's everything, man. I mean, everything," says Rogers. "And, you know, she was hesitant about me doing this. As that's what she took me up here to avoid. But she's coming around. I just had to tell her I could be professional with this."
Unlike Fedor, Rogers didn't participate in combat sports at an early age. He played basketball at St. Paul's Harding High School, and later at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minnesota. But after seeing MMA on TV, he decided to try his hand at it.
Rogers proved to be a quick study. With seven months of practice under his belt, he had his first fight against a Native American brawler with the appropriate name of Stan Strong. The battle took place at an outdoor cage in Wisconsin. Eleven seconds into the second round, Rogers connected with a one-two combination to Strong's chin, turning his body to butter.
"I think we got a total of like $60 for that fight," recalls Rogers's wife, Tiuana. "It was enough to pay for a dinner and that's it."
Rogers kept at it. Despite the low pay and long hours, some part of him knew he could be good at this sport, possibly one of the best.
His next three fights brought nothing but validation: KO. TKO. KO. All in the first round.
With the collection of knockouts, he dubbed himself "The Grim." Like the mythical reaper, whatever he touched dropped dead.
"My name is the Grim," Rogers says. "I be the soul snatcher."
His victories caught the eye of EliteXC, a nascent UFC rival partnered with cable channel Showtime. EliteXC gave Rogers a test fight with Ralph Kelly. Rogers massacred him in the first round. The company promptly signed Rogers to a three-fight contract. Rogers dispatched his next two opponents, James Thompson and Jon Murphy, in the first rounds.
Meanwhile, EliteXC was heavily pushing Kimbo Slice, a street brawler who rose to fame through YouTube videos of bare-knuckle brawls in backyards. He was the company's superstar in the making.
But Slice proved far less fearsome in the cage than he had on YouTube. Where Rogers had knocked out Thompson, Slice struggled, and at one point appeared to tap out to a guillotine choke.
During a post-fight press conference, Rogers called out Slice.
"A man is a man," Rogers said. "You did tap out. You did tap out, I was right there."
Slice jumped up from his seat. "That sounds like a challenge, big dog."
Security stepped in to separate the two fighters. This was bad blood, and it was real. EliteXC promised that the two would settle it in the cage.
But before they could meet, Slice had one more obligation. He was scheduled to fight UFC legend Ken Shamrock, an aging gatekeeper. But in the hours leading up to the fight, Shamrock cut himself while practicing with his teammates. Scrambling to save the show, EliteXC substituted Seth Petruzelli, a pink-haired also-ran from The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show.