TEDxUChicago: How to be a loser

The last time I publicly discussed failure, I was up on stage at a university in Chicago.

It wasn’t the classical rhapsody about a fighter’s life of overcoming the odds in the big battle of life.

Knowing someone got the better of you in a fight is about the most intensely personal failure one can experience. 

Yet, a professional fighter’s private failure is a public spectacle. In 15 minutes, I shared how I learned to fail, improvise, and prevail in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Judging by the audience’s reactions at the end, my TED Talk about failure was a success.

Failure is still a taboo subject today and even I’ve largely avoided talking about negative experiences since.

Not anymore.

Here are the four failures that have changed my life for the better:

Losing my title

It’s every champion’s worst day when they must relinquish their belt. 

Up till my match against Anderson Silva at UFC 64, I was riding a seven-match win streak along with two consecutive title defenses.

I had successfully defended my middleweight world title against both Nate Quarry and David Loiseau back-to-back in 4 months, the latter match leaving me with a broken hand.

While I never felt invincible, it felt pretty damn good. 

Then, along came a spider. 

Silva put me away in the first round, earning knockout of the night honors in the process.

It was a stinging defeat, especially since it marked my first professional loss in the UFC. 

The perfect record I fought, literally so hard to uphold in three years was broken in minutes.

This failure taught me a lot about myself, and it has kept me humble through the years.

Not that I would ever want to lose a fight, but if I ever had a choice, it’d be against quite possibly the greatest middleweight in UFC history.

Just saying.

Driving off a mountain with my quad rider

My near brush with death happened only because I was foolishly trying to show I could keep up with a bunch of X-Games riders at the Appalachian trails.

It was a charity event, and we were on a casual ride through the woods. 

Despite splitting us up into packs of 10, I wanted to race and catch up with the group ahead. 

Because I know my way around a quad and had decent driving skills, it wasn’t long before we approached recklessly high speeds.

At nearly 50mph, I couldn’t stop in time when our trail took a hard left. I hit a log, the quad flipped and threw me off the side of the hill.

Head over heels, I tumbled and rolled, miraculously dodging every single stump, tree, rock, and boulder on that mountainside.

Yes, I’m still as shocked as you are reading this today.

I was reminded of my mortality and my foolishness. No matter my success or accomplishments, I was not invincible.

Not visiting my dad before he passed

My dad was a pivotal figure in my life and the last time I saw him was January 1.

I had to fly to Vegas on the 2nd for a knee surgery before flying back on the 6th. We had planned to meet the following day on the 7th

I called him that morning and said, “Hey Dad, I’m not feeling like getting together, can we meet tomorrow instead?”. He said, “Yeah sure.”

My dad died at work the next day. 

I felt crushed that I had failed as a son and missed out on an opportunity with him.

I held on to that guilt for such a long time.

This experience forced me to rethink my priorities. It made me realize that life is precious. 

Embrace every moment and live intensively.

It’s always when we think we have more time that we don’t.

Almost dropping out of college as a sophomore

As a math teacher, you’ll be surprised to hear that I didn’t do well in linear algebra in college.

It got to the point that I decided I was going to skip the final and just quit school. I figured to explore a different path in life.

When my instructor learned of my intention, he delivered what felt like a really long motivational speech to dissuade me.

He said “Look, come in and take the exam tomorrow. And if you don’t score what you want, I’ll gladly fill out the drop slip.”

The rest is history. I ended up completing my education and it was an important distinction that gave me a distinct identity when I entered the UFC.

It’s important not to give up at the sign of adversity. Sometimes, there are surprises down the road waiting if you just persevere.

From almost dropping out of college to becoming the UFC Middleweight World Champion. 

That’s hard to compute.