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As Justin Wilcox gets set for a main event Friday night on cable TV, he vividly recalls a moment that epitomized his plight as a struggling fighter.
Wilcox and wife Leslie were broke, as he was trying to establish himself as a pro fighter. They took their baby daughter, Natalie, to a bookstore because they couldn't afford to take her anywhere else to entertain her. Natalie created a scene and started crying hysterically after finding something she wanted.
"We weren't going to get it for her because she was crying, but at that moment, the idea I couldn't get it for her made me say, 'That's it, I need to get a 9-to-5 job,' " Wilcox said.
His wife, who was a mixed martial arts fan before he even knew of the sport, talked him out of it.
"I'm not going to let you do that," Leslie Wilcox told him after the bookstore incident. "I don't want you to be 40 years old and see someone who made it in this sport and always think, 'That could have been me.' "
Wilcox stuck with his career. Now he has a chance to become the winner of the main bout of the first Strikeforce show under the Zuffa regime, a "Challengers" event on Showtime from The Arena in Stockton, Calif.
Wilcox (10-3), a former Division I wrestler and competition bodybuilder, faces Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Rodrigo Damm (9-4) in a lightweight bout.
At 32, Wilcox knows that now is the time to do something in his career. He got a somewhat late and slow start in the sport. With a win, which would be his sixth in a row, he hopes to get on bigger shows and earn himself a lightweight title match.
And a place to live.
Since moving to California from Pennsylvania to get serious about his career, Wilcox and his family lived for a time at the homes of Bob Cook, his manager, and Javier Mendes, his trainer. Now they live in the Fresno, Calif. home of Josh Koscheck, one of his training partners – a home that is about a three-hour drive from the gym in San Jose.
Monday through Friday, Wilcox lives in a small room upstairs at the gym – a room big enough for a bed, a television, a refrigerator and a place to cook his food. Every Friday afternoon, he drives to Fresno to see his family for the weekend, and every Sunday night he drives back to San Jose.
The immediate goal, if he can beat Damm, is to get his family a place of their own closer to San Jose. The next is to get himself a title shot.
Damm is no pushover. He was one of the top stars of the Bodog Fight promotion in 2006-2007 and fought against top fighters in Japan for Sengoku in recent years, even facing current Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez in a losing effort in 2009.
"As soon as Strikeforce thinks I'm ready, I'll be more than ready to take it," Wilcox said. "I got into the sport to become a world champ, and I feel like I'm well-rounded enough now. I've got two years behind me at AKA training with a bunch of world-class fighters, so I think my skills are refined enough to the point that I can become champ."
Though he was an accomplished wrestler in high school and college, Wilcox had neither seen nor heard of the UFC growing up. One day, while flipping the television channels, he saw a familiar face.
"That's Kos," he noted to his wife while seeing Koscheck, a college friend and training partner of his from years back. Koscheck was the star of the Edinboro College wrestling team when Wilcox showed up there as a freshman in 1998, and he gravitated toward the NCAA champ. Wilcox was watching an early episode of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series and saw what Koscheck was now doing. Koscheck had little going for him but his wrestling skill; Wilcox thought it could be something for him as well.
At the time, Wilcox was competing in a natural bodybuilding federation and doing well, winning a number of contests while running a gym in Pennsylvania. The first thing Wilcox did was get rid of some of his gym equipment and open up space to start training in the sport he saw on TV. His training consisted of himself and a partner or two, mostly doing the wrestling that he knew while trying to self teach themselves the sport.
And while you wouldn't think striking poses in short shorts is the best precursor to fighting MMA, Wilcox said the three years he competed in that sport helped him, in particular, with the knowledge of how to best diet both for health purposes and to manipulate weight. He noted that weight cutting, which he did all wrong and found a complete drag in his days as a wrestler, is now a lot easier.
"People in amateur wrestling, the wrestlers and the coaches, don't really know anything about dieting," he said. "When I was wrestling, you'd wrestle, then cheat [on the diet] all weekend and then starve all week – for months at a time."
"I was one of those guys who had tunnel vision: When I was in wrestling, I learned everything I could about wrestling. When I was in bodybuilding, I learned everything I could about bodybuilding."
Wilcox qualified for the NCAA tournament as a true freshman. He competed well after redshirting his sophomore year, winning several tournaments, but was injured taking an inadvertent headbutt in a match. The hard contact may have caused a concussion. Then, while getting ready for a match in a Las Vegas tournament, Wilcox slipped and knocked himself out on the floor. That concussion was serious enough that it ended his season, not to mention his wrestling career.
Feeling he needed a sport, one that wouldn't involve contact, Wilcox turned to bodybuilding.
"I always had the abs," he said. "I was just always an active kid, and people have been accusing me of doing steroids since I was 12 years old."
The lingering effects of the concussions were gone by the time he saw Koscheck on his television set. Times weren't easy. The local economy had taken a turn for the worse and the gym business wasn't doing well.
Wilcox fought as a welterweight, where – even with his strength – he was struggling at 5-foot-6 with no striking experience. He contacted Koscheck, who told him if he was serious about the sport, he had to come to AKA. On his first day, Wilcox learned how far he was from being a top star. With his limited, self-taught striking, he went in there with the likes of Jon Fitch and Josh Thomson.
His fortunes turned around at the same time, particularly after a comeback win in a wild 2009 fight against David "Tarzan" Douglas on the undercard of the Cris "Cyborg" Santos vs. Gina Carano card in San Jose. Wilcox followed with a win over a Japanese name fighter, Daisuke Nakamura, and current Ultimate Fighter participant Shamar Bailey in Strikeforce events, all of which led to his first televised main event on Nov. 19 against Ribeiro.