It’s midday, and we’re walking toward the Food Court on the upper-level of the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center. My 18-month-old son Jack feels like a humungous, animated baked potato strapped to my back. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Kendall Grove—who is walking with us—is trying to appear smaller. He’s unconscious of his efforts, but they are telltale to me.
Thankfully, each step he takes is not at full stride. I’m already taking three quick steps to match one of his. His heavily tattooed arms and legs are incredibly long—limbs like a Daddy Long Leg—hence his nickname, “Da Spyder.” At six-feet, six inches and weighing just 185 pounds, “gangly” is the first word that comes to mind. His whole frame bows down a bit as he walks—seemingly in deference to my short stature and rather than bad posture.
“Sorry about my boy,” I say. I’m concerned that he’ll mistake my son’s presence as a lack of professionalism. Yes, Grove is a Maui boy, but over the past year he’s become a professional athlete whose fame is coupled with reality show (Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter 3) stardom.
Grove’s been interviewed countless times and mixed martial arts (MMA) is huge. MMA’s been reported on in publications from Sports Illustrated to Time Magazine. The Internet is swarming with fighter interviews, fan pages, forums and info sites.
“Oh no!” Grove says, his large face lighting up, before I can explain the circumstances that led to my son’s presence. “I totally love kids!”
I watch him as he tells me about each of his eight nephews. He becomes animated–his walk more like a lope, with big hand motions. Now he reminds me of a gargantuan puppy, oblivious to the havoc he can cause with a misstep.
“All boys,” he says. He pauses, then laughs. “Chances are I’ll have the girl,” he says. “I’m fucked.”
I watched Grove fight a few years ago on Maui, and his development as a fighter over the past year has been nothing short of phenomenal. When he went up against Ed “Short Fuse” Herman in June 2006, he was a beast. Herman at first seemed to dominate the first round, but wasn’t able to get a lock on Grove, who used his long limbs to counter and escape.
During the second and third round, the men kept switching places on the mat for some serious ground and pound action. At one point, Grove landed a big knee to Herman’s body and had him in a tight rear-naked choke at the end of the third round. But Herman refused to submit, sending the fight to decision. Grove ended up winning by unanimous decision, but it was a close thing. The fight was named the third best of the UFC in 2006.
At the Ka‘ahumanu Center, Grove and I sit at an outdoor table near Edo. Currently training for an Aug. 25 fight against Canadian Patrick Cote at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas for UFC 74, Grove is on a strict diet of good-for-you stuff like protein shakes and fish.
He’s been living in Vegas with his father consistently for three years and currently trains with fellow fighters Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture, Forrest Griffin, Mike Pyle, Jay Heron, Tyson Griffin, John Alessio, Greg Meaner, Alex Schoenauer and Troy Mandaloniz. For past fights, he’s trained up with former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz and Team Punishment in Big Bear, California.
“I like to keep my body guessing,” he says of his current, six-day-a-week training regimen. “I get bored easy,” says Grove. “I went six five-minute rounds sparring and felt good about it. I questioned my cardio before, but I feel good about it now. I really think of my body as a temple while I’m training. I try to eat organic stuff. Have you tried the banana chips from that place in Paia [Mana Foods]? I promise you, they are so good.”
Jack and I leave him at the table to hit McDonald’s for some real sustenance–French fries, apple juice and chocolate chip cookies. While I’m struggling back to our table, loaded up with the baby, snacks, notebook, purse and highchair, Grove spots me and immediately jumps up and runs across the food court to help. It’s the first time that I see him at full form—standing tall and moving quickly. He’s a big, big boy.
It’s easy for me to see why women watching from home fell for Grove during TUF 3. His features aren’t delicate, but a mix of Hawaiian, Samoan, Caucasian and Native American blood leaves him with deep dark eyes, a strong nose and dimples. He’s got boatloads of charisma and is engaging when he speaks. I’ll describe him as almost pretty, but I wouldn’t recommend repeating that if you’re a dude.
Maui’s small, and I know without asking that he has a cute local girlfriend of about three years named Alana Souza. I’ve seen her, and she’s adorable. But part of me wonders how in the world a young guy in a testosterone filled sport swarming with groupies, pin-ups and octagon girls stays faithful.
“I love my girl with all my heart,” Grove says. “She understands me. She knows that we both need to sacrifice some time to get where we want to get. Those other girls, the groupies and stuff are just there to ruin your life. I’ve seen guys from the show who started off with wives and girlfriends lose them because they gave in to it.
“She’s been going to school and now she’s looking to move to Vegas, but we’re not going to live together,” he continues. “She’s doing her thing, I’m doing mine. She supports me and doesn’t think about right now, but the future. I love her and I hope to marry her some day.”
I ask him about his numerous tattoos. He starts to count them off for me—arms, bottom lip… I find myself focusing on the huge tattoo of King Kamehameha on his back, inked under the word “Kekoa”–the warrior. He also has a large dream catcher on his arm in celebration of his Native American ancestry.
“I have a lot of native blood,” he says. “I got it on both sides of my family.” Grove comes from a large family of six kids. He’s the youngest of three boys.
How does your mom feel having her baby-boy fighting? I ask, thinking about my own son.
“Aw, she doesn’t like it,” he says. “You know? A mother’s love. She can’t stand seeing us in pain. Football in high school, I could be running track and she would have a hard time watching, but she supports me. She was in the hospital, and I wanted to stay. But she tells me, ‘No, Kendall, go back to the Mainland and train.’ She knows that fighting brings me joy. She tells me, ‘Educate and bring hope back to the people [of Maui].’”
Grove takes his position as a role model–especially to kids–seriously. At first glance, the concept may seem strange–a person paid to put a hardcore whooping on another man as someone for our kids to look up to?
“Fighters are modern day gladiators,” he says. “I love to fight. It’s in me. If I was born hundreds of years ago, I would be on the front lines fighting with my chief protecting my land and my family. As humanity progresses and evolves, there’s still going to be men who inside are meant to be warriors. I’ll always be a warrior, you know? Today, it’s kinda illegal to just go out and kill people. As a man, this [fighting] is the closest thing to what is inside us to do. As Hawaiians, men are raised to protect. I think about how strong our race is. It makes me fight harder. I want everybody to remember what a strong and proud race we are.”
As he speaks, I can feel all eyes on us. Grove, who won a six-figure UFC contract as a middleweight with his win against fellow contender Ed Herman last year on TUF 3, is easily recognizable by millions of people.
According to the MMA Ring Report, 2.4 million people watched the season premiere. “Ratings for the show are constantly beating out the NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, and any baseball game that happens to be on for their Thursday night time slot in the hard to reach 21 to 35 year old male demographic,” reports SportsColumn.com.
A few people come up and ask him to pose for pictures. He loves it and goes along. I ask him what it’s like–suddenly being famous, especially coming from such a small place like Maui.
“It’s crazy. It’s cool, though,” he says. “After my win against Ed [Herman], there was a sea of people waiting. It was like from here, where we are now”—he stands up and points across the mall—“to Macy’s, full of people. It took me so long to get from one end to the other. I stopped and signed every autograph that people asked for. Tito [Ortiz] made it clear that you have to take care of the fans. If people don’t love it, I wouldn’t get to do it.”
Of course, fame can also open the door to confrontation and criticism. There’s been Internet chatter between angry fans about the hype leading to the notorious abortive boxing exhibition between Tito Ortiz and UFC President Dana White this past April.
Iask Grove how much of it is staged for publicity and how much of it is real. “I can’t honestly answer that,” he says. “[Regarding other matchups] Sometimes rivalry makes it a better show. Sometimes fighters really hate each other.”
People talk story about Grove’s alleged bar altercations here on the islands–guys claiming they went “blow for blow” with him.
Grove doesn’t deny that he sometimes finds himself in a fight outside the octagon, but claims he doesn’t go out looking for trouble. “There’s a lot of pride,” he says. “Especially in Hawai‘i. I feel like people are like, ‘If I knock out Kendall, that’s something big to tell everybody.’ But I never start a fight. If I go out and someone’s on me, I’ll try to diffuse it. But if not… I’ll have it. I’m a fighter.”
Grove’s also been criticized in UFC fan web forums for things that he’s said and done—most notably, his reported use of marijuana.
“There’s a time and a place for it,” he says. “It’s a touchy subject. I mean, you never hear of anyone dying from smoking too much weed, but you go ahead and try take 10 Tylenol and that’ll be the last headache you ever have.”
How are you going to explain the situation to a mom who calls you on it? I ask.
“That’s a really hard question,” he says after a several false starts. “I mean, I would never want some kid to do something that could get him into trouble or whatever because of me. In fact, I hide smoking weed from the kids. I never smoke around kids or when I teach, and I never smoke when I train. I don’t know. I’m a Rasta, you know? I grew up like this. But that’s a tough one.”
Grove wants to come home to Maui in the next four years and open a MMA school. He also has his heart set on starting up an after school program for kids.
“Kind of like a Boy’s and Girl’s club,” he says. “Whatever they want, whatever they need, I’m gonna provide it for them. If they need tutors, I’ll bring in tutors. Ice is big here on Maui, and I want to keep the kids busy and away from it.”
Grove has dyslexia, and reading is a big challenge for him. “Jack-Jack,” he says, referring to my son, “can probably read better than me. No, seriously. It’s challenging. I don’t want kids to have to deal with it. I want to help them. On Maui, we gotta stick together and help each other. If I can do something to make one kid’s life better, I can die a happy man.”
When I ask him what it’s like now that he’s living it up under a “six-figure contract,” he laughs. “I’m not getting paid that much,” he says. “I don’t get paid until I fight. And then I go months without a paycheck. Right now I got four guys living with me who don’t pay rent. They’re my boys from Hawai‘i and they wanted to come up and train, so I said come up. You can live with me. They have their first fights in September. I always tell my boys, ‘When I’m on top, you’re on top.’ I’m simple. Just because I got famous doesn’t mean I’m going to be some Hollywood motherfucker.”
During his first year under contract, he’ll earn $12,000 to fight and other $12,000 to win. By his third year he’ll bump up to $24,000 to fight and $24,000 to win.
“I don’t give a fuck about the money,” he says. “I’ve been poor my whole life. Mama raised me right. I spend money on important stuff. I drive a ’94 Dodge Intrepid with no tints, no sounds and no a/c. One headlight’s out and it makes this tick that sounds like there’s a bomb that’s going to explode in it. I covered it in stickers. I don’t expect the car thing to change soon. It’ll be my fourth summer in Vegas with no air. Everyone loves my car. Except, the hot part.”
In days, Grove will find himself in the Octagon again. He’s been on a winning streak for the past four fights and has a professional record of 10-3-0. While the UFC is famous for entertaining grudge matches that add hype and boost the show’s appeal, there has been no trash talk from Grove on his opponent, Patrick Cote.
“I talked shit about one guy and he gave me a reality check,” Grove says with a chuckle. “He knocked me the fuck out. Just know that when I get in there, I’m not fighting for just me, I’m fighting for our whole island. I put that on myself. I’ve worked hard, trained hard. I’m representing all of us. It takes sacrifice and heart.” MTW