Don Frye has been a fighter his whole life. Long before he was making a living bashing skulls in the cage, Frye was still fighting, whether it be fighting fires or fighting morons on the street. Sometimes, in those amazingly rare moments, the two became one and the same.
Frye was a firefighter and EMT in New Mexico and later in Arizona. Of all the late night calls and all the roaring flames, one night stands out in his memory, as vivid as if it were yesterday.
“We got the call, around midnight. We roll in there and put the fire out, find a couple of hotspots here and there. Then we find a suicide note,” Frye said. “That pisses you off because they are endangering your life and the lives of all the other fire fighters.”
This was worse than people calling for an ambulance at two in the morning with mild discomfort, which is how EMT’s spend 95 percent of their time. This was dangerous and irresponsible, and a furious Frye began searching the house for the perpetrator.
“I walked into the bedroom and found the son of a bitch on the bed,” Frye remembered. “I grabbed him by the ankles and yanked his ass right on the floor. Boom! He screamed and I drug him down the hallway. I hit him against every wall on the way out the door. Boy, it’ll be the last time he tries to commit suicide by fire. I picked him up and threw him out on the lawn. You lose your compassion real quick when people do stupid shit like that.”
Frye, as that story clearly illustrates, may not have had a long career as an EMT. Too many stupid people, not enough patience. A former college wrestler, Frye felt a calling as a fighter. He had already tried and failed as a boxer. He knew he wouldn’t make it at the top level of the sport. Was there a moment that made that crystal clear?
“When you’re down there on the fucking canvas looking up at the referee,” Frye said. “And he’s counting ‘7, 8, 9.’ Fuck.”
Frye was a good wrestler, but not a great one. He was a good boxer, but not a great one. Combine the two, in an era when most fighters were single discipline athletes, and he was suddenly a great mixed martial arts fighter. Add a secret weapon, the Japanese sport of Judo, into the mix and you were looking at one of the very first complete fighters in MMA history.
“I’m the most undisciplined athlete you’ll meet in your life. If I could drink all night and sleep all day I would. Shit, if I could have a chamber pot brought to me in my bed, I’d piss in that,” Frye said. “Judo’s a very regimented and disciplined sport. It teaches you the respect you need to learn. When you spend half your life doing wrestling like I did. judo can really help. To oversimplify it, wrestling is pushing, while judo is pulling. I’m sure that will piss a bunch of people off and they will say ‘No, that’s not it. He’s an idiot.’ But that’s the way I see it. Adding judo, you’re working both aspects of the game.”
What followed was unprecedented success for an undersized heavyweight in what was fast becoming a big man’s sport. Frye won two of the UFC’s tournaments and established himself as a crowd favorite. But as the UFC became more and more controversial, the money got smaller and options to make a living in the sport were non-existent. For Frye, this was a big problem. He had quite his job as a firefighter in favor of fighting. With no real money left in the sport, Frye was off to Japan, sacrificing his prime years to make his living as a pro wrestler.
At 43, he’s making up for lost time. He was scheduled to fight top prospect “King” Mo Lawal last month for M-1 global, but dropped out at the last minute when the show changed venues and seemed disorganized. He’s trading one young prospect for another, taking on the 6-5, 240 pound Dave “Pee Wee” Herman Saturday for Shark Fights in Amarillo, Texas.
“Hell yeah, he’s a big ole boy,” Frye said. “But he’s small for the people I fight. I’m used to fighting guys like James Thompson at 280 pounds. Chad Rowan at 475 pounds. This guy’s a runt compared to what I fight.”
Herman is a wrestler, but he’s made his mark in MMA with knockout power punching. Preparing for the fight, he’s been mesmerized by Frye’s fight with pro wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama at PRIDE 21. In that fight the two men exchanged more than 100 punches to the head. Herman said he would love to replicate the fight, to have the experience for himself.
“He was probably still sitting on the toilet when he told you that,” Frye said. “Because that is shit. He don’t want no part of that, let me tell you partner. Everyone wants to be a cage fighter until they find out they’re going to get punched.”
In tribute to Frye, Herman intends to grow a Don Frye-esque mustache, but the man himself is skeptical.
“Shit, he should have started last year,” Frye said. “It ain’t going to compare to my mustache. I shave mine every morning. About a half hour later it’s already fully developed.”
Shark Fight 6: Stars & Stripes,” which takes place Sept. 12 at Amarillo Civic Center Coliseum in Amarillo, Texas, will air live on ESPN 1440AM.
The broadcast of the event, including the evening’s featured bout between MMA legend Don Frye and prospect Dave “Pee Wee” Herman, can be heard on 1440AM in the Amarillo area ñ as well as Eastern New Mexico, Southeastern Colorado, Southwestern Kansas, and Northern Oklahoma ñ or on the station’s online audio stream.