Mike Nickels was closing up shop when he saw a crack deal going down right outside the door.
"I can't have drug deals going on out there," says Nickels, owner of the Twisted Sol tattoo shop at 1405 Ogden Street. "I've got soccer moms bringing their sixteen-year-old daughters down here for belly-button rings."
As the dealer headed north on Ogden, Nickels grabbed him by both shoulders and told him to take his bullshit elsewhere. He knew the dealer could have had a knife, could have had a gun.
But no way did the dealer know that Nickels is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert, that he wrestles, kickboxes and has won grappling competitions that are all part of the sports phenomenon known as mixed martial arts. Nickels can take care of himself. He takes care of his neighborhood, too.
Tattoos cover nearly all of Nickels's 6'4" body, and today the 200-plus-pounder is not only an impressive sight on Capitol Hill, but on Spike TV every Thursday night. The day after he ran that dealer off of Odgen, Nickels made his debut as one of sixteen tough guys on The Ultimate Fighter, the third season of a reality show that follows fighters as they try to knock each other out of the competition for a six-digit contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- the major league of mixed martial arts in the United States (see story, page 24).
Of about a thousand would-be contenders who sent videos to Spike and the UFC, Nickels was one of the few who had what it takes to be both a winning fighter and a TV star. "He's got a great personality, and he's a good fighter," says UFC president Dana White. "That's what we were looking for."
This round of The Ultimate Fighter premiered on Thursday, April 6. On that show, Nickels was the first tough guy to walk through the door of the Las Vegas house where the sixteen men lived together for six weeks in January and February. Those six weeks were turned into a twelve-episode series that will culminate on Saturday, June 24, when the final four face off.
While they were living in the house, the participants were cut off from the outside world, unable to talk to the folks at home. At first Nickels thought the isolation would be good for his focus. But it turned out to be a distraction, too, as he imagined the worst happening with his family and business. "What if something happens while I'm gone and I'm not there to protect my family for this stupid fucking show?" he remembers thinking. "Is it worth it?"
On that first episode, the second night in the house, a lanky scrapper from Hawaii named Kendall decided it was time for the boys to do some drinking. "Nobody wanted to take shots right off the bat, man. Everybody was like, 'Oh, I don't want to take a shot,' you know," Nickels told the camera in an interview that introduced the 2.5 million-viewer audience to Denver's contender, a light heavyweight who's no lightweight. "I was ready to stop four shots into it," he added, "but Kendall decided to keep going."
Kendall got belligerent, spitting and talking shit -- then passed out cold. "He's so passed out that we could shave off his eyebrows and he wouldn't know," Nickels told a fellow fighter who'd flown in from Great Britain to be on the show.
"You're right," the Brit responded.
"Hey, I've got clippers in my bag," Nickels said, with a smile full of drunken mischief.
"Well, let's do it."
After some bleeped curse words, Nickels ordered, "I'll get the right one, you get the left one."
"Quite happily," the Brit replied.
In the following scene, Kendall woke up with his own blood all over him.
"I'm sorry, man, you got to have a sense of humor," viewers heard Nickels tell him. "He was upset mostly because I think I cut his eyelid with the clippers, 'cause I was pretty drunk, too. But he's all right."
"Vengeance is sweet," Kendall vowed.
Nickels started out fighting, delivered prematurely via C-section when doctors determined that his heartbeat was fading.
That was almost 35 years ago, but the death-defying bouts didn't stop. When he was a toddler, he tried to turn off a fan by pulling the cable out of the wall with his teeth. The electricity singed one-third of his mouth together, and his lips remained locked on the left side until he turned fourteen, when his face had matured enough for surgery. He was still a little kid when he flirted with disaster again. He was standing on a high dive, fourteen feet in the air, when an older boy shoved him off. He landed not in the pool, but on the concrete, his head split open. He'd suffered a severe concussion, and the doctors kept him in the hospital a few days after stitching his scalp back together.
Nickels's mother, Suzie, split from Mike's father early on. By 1977, she'd remarried, and she and her new husband moved five-year-old Mike and his older brother, Tim, from Florida to Buffalo, Wyoming, where they bought a small business.
The ranch boys played rough. After Tim got picked on at school, their mother showed him some kicks and punches she'd seen on television. Mike paid attention, too, and together with Tim jumped the bullies at the bus the next day.
"We beat the snot out of them," Nickels remembers. "It was great."
In 1984 the family moved to Park City, Utah. A few years later they were off again, this time to Parker. By now, Nickels was getting used to being the new kid on the block, and was willing to fight for his own bit of turf. He was quick to defy authority, too. "I just didn't like being told what to do in school," he remembers. "I couldn't sit still. I was always in trouble. I just didn't feel free in that environment. I liked to do what I liked to do. I was walking to the beat of a different drum."
Just when Nickels was ready to enter high school, his mother and stepfather split up. He moved to Denver with his mom and started out at East High School, where he joined the football team. "It was a whole 'nother world," he says. "I had gone to suburban schools where kids are different than at an inner-city school."
Nickels fell in with a crew of kids who robbed parked cars. Then a black friend on the football team recruited him to sell cocaine -- because both white and black people would rather buy coke from a white dude than a black guy, his friend said. Although Nickels never got caught, he says he was a not-great drug dealer who never got higher than the bottom of the totem pole.
At seventeen, he moved out of the house. For a while he tried to stay in school while working at a now-defunct club, but he soon dropped out. And minimum wage wasn't paying the bills, either, so he kept up the petty crime, "one disaster to the next," he says. He was busted after he rushed out of a department store with a stack of VCRs and was sentenced to probation.
Nickels had met his girlfriend, Samantha, at East. She was a year older, and took him to get his first tattoo. Samantha went first; she came out with a little dragon and Nickels's name fixed to her skin. Then Nickels got the same dragon with Samantha's name.
After Samantha got pregnant, the couple tried living in Florida. They didn't last there for long: Nickels's family members who still lived in the area didn't like it that Samantha was half-black.
Nickels was barely eighteen when his daughter, Rayven, was born. They were all living in a basement apartment in Denver, and Nickels supported his young family by delivering pizzas in Samantha's car, which he'd crashed on two previous occasions. He didn't have a valid driver's license.
"As long as I was with him, I was happy," Samantha remembers.
Then Nickels's mother called with the news that she and her new husband had bought a diner in Florida and wanted him to be the manager. Leaving Samantha and his daughter with Samantha's parents in Colorado, Nickels returned to Florida -- but it turned out the job was more dishwasher than manager.
And that wasn't the only setback. Nickels was crossing the street when he got hit by a car and tossed to the pavement, unconscious. When he got out of the hospital, he started work at another restaurant. There he met a man who'd been traveling with a Renaissance festival for several years. The man talked Nickels into visiting the fair on its local stop. Nickels had a great time, and he soon sold everything and joined the tour.
Elephants became his specialty. He trained them, cleaned up after them and bonded with the intelligent, emotional creatures. Not all of them, though: Once, a pubescent elephant got angry and started stomping on Nickels. He barely escaped, scurrying away on all fours. By now, Nickels had grown to accept danger as a part of life -- but that close encounter with death was different from being zapped by electricity, shoved off a high-dive or hit by a car, he says: It taught him what it meant to be hunted.
Nickels stayed with the fair, working two-day shifts and then getting five days off to explore whatever city it had landed in. He enjoyed the life, enjoyed conversing with all of the creative, modern-day gypsies who traveled alongside him.
During the three months each year that the Colorado Renaissance Festival crew camped in Larkspur, Nickels got to see his daughter. But just as the two would start getting close again, it would be time to take the show on the road. On one Colorado stop, Nickels met a woman who taught him how to pierce. The next time the tour came to Colorado, she convinced Nickels to take up tattooing.
Back in Florida, Nickels scraped together enough money to buy a tattoo machine and started practicing. Too nervous to affix a permanent design to human skin, he tattooed pieces of chicken and cantaloupes.
In 1994, Nickels traveled with the Renaissance fair back to Colorado. And this time, when the tour moved on, he stayed behind to work. Although Nickels had settled down during his years with the fair, in Denver his inner wild child let loose once again. Nickels started rolling with a rowdy group of tattoo artists who soon decorated his arms with sleeves. The artists would trade tattoos with each other and then trade with customers for bikes, snowboards, guns, drugs or whatever they had. They also liked to fight, and if you fought one, you were soon fighting them all.
After a year in Denver, Nickels had a falling-out with the woman he was working for, and he sent portfolios off to five tattoo shops across the country. Tigers in Dallas was the first to respond, and Nickels moved there in 1995. He worked non-stop at the shop from noon until 2:30 a.m. or later, and made a lot of money -- enough to return to Denver and open Twisted Sol with a partner, Alicia Cardenas, in 1997.
Mike Nickels soon made his mark in Capitol Hill -- and not just at the tattoo shop. He and other Twisted Sol artists became neighborhood vigilantes, chasing the crackheads off their corner and settling drunken bar disputes. While Nickels admits he's done his weight in drugs, he says that his experience was more of an exploration of boundaries -- and that crack and meth rob people of their souls.
Nickels made his mark in court, too. Most of the records from his rowdy days have been destroyed -- like the case he caught in 1997 for threats to person/property and disturbing the peace, which was eventually dismissed. He caught another disturbing the peace/assault charge about a month later, pleaded no contest and received ninety days' suspended jail time. And just a few weeks later, Nickels was again arrested for disturbing the peace and trespassing; he pleaded guilty to the latter, and the first charge was dismissed.
In 1998, Nickels was charged with third-degree assault and violation of a restraining order, but those charges were also dismissed by the court. "I was always getting in fights with people who were pickin' on smaller people or pushing a girl around, always some John Wayne shit," Nickels says. "Even now, with crackheads, it's righteous."
Less righteous was his 2001 arrest by Glendale police for larceny, a bogus dine-and-dash case that was dropped, according to Nickels. Later that year he was arrested in Denver for destruction of private property and disturbing the peace after a cop found him near a fresh graffiti tag, holding a felt-tip marker. Nickels pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace, the destruction charge was dismissed, and he was fined $100.
That fall, a girl named DeVoyn walked into Twisted Sol. She wanted a tattoo of her ex-boyfriend's name covered up, and Nickels was happy to oblige -- then asked her out. At nineteen, DeVoyn was ten years younger than Nickels, and he limited their first date to a friendly movie. But for their second date, he picked her up in Highlands Ranch and took her to Boulder's Pearl Street Mall. After they caught the sunset, it was back to LoDo and Vesta Dipping Grill, where the staff all knew Nickels from Twisted Sol. "Big Mike," as he's often called, got the "Tony Soprano treatment," DeVoyn remembers.
The two fell in love. Their son, Esiah Sol Nickels, was born July 23, 2003.
A couple of months later, Nickels told DeVoyn that he wanted to start fighting jiu-jitsu competitively, just to get that experience under his belt while he was still young. A half-dozen years before, he'd done some training in kung fu, but he'd lost interest in that fighting style while going for his brown belt.
Once he'd started jiu-jitsu training, though, it held his interest. And in March 2004, Nickels won a competition in submission grappling -- a type of ground fighting in which you try to put your opponent in a submissive position by bending joints against themselves or choking off his blood or oxygen supply. Within a few months, Nickels was taking submission grappling so seriously that he decided to expand into mixed martial arts and began training at the Colorado Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy with a former UFC fighter.
Although he still had few stand-up skills aside from his talents at street fighting and bar brawling, on September 14, 2004, Nickels emerged victorious in the Ring of Fire, a Colorado promotion that gives amateur fighters a shot at pro bouts and prize money. Two months later, Nickels again won the Ring of Fire.
"Of all the hobbies to get into, I picked the one where the downside is getting your ass kicked in a cage by a trained animal," Nickels sighs. "I could've picked golf. I could've picked tennis. It's like jumping out of a plane. It's a thrill, it's a rush, but once you get past that thrill and the rush, it's technique, it's being able to stay calm and control all those emotions and that anxiety and perform to where you're dictating the direction the fight goes with your technique -- your submission grappling, your takedowns, your boxing, your kicks.
"In boxing, you're just standing here," he continues. "In mixed martial arts, you've got takedowns, joint locks, chokes, knees, elbows, standing up and on the ground. It's such a 360 martial-art experience, it's just something else. There's mathematics in each martial art, and I thrive on those mathematics. I'm constantly trying to get better and faster and more fluid, to be able to put all those together at one time and put them together when it counts."
Nickels had told DeVoyn that he'd fight until he lost -- and then fight until he won again, so that he could go out on a high note. He lost in the Ring of Fire on February 12, 2005, but that April, Nickels won the Pan American Jiu-Jitsu competition in Los Angeles. And he didn't stop there. He won another Ring of Fire bout in September 2005, then took the gold medal at Grapplers Quest in Nevada in November.
After that, there was no stopping him.
"It's never easy to watch anyone you love get punched in the face," DeVoyn says. "But I love him enough to support whatever he's doing, and I hope he'd love me enough to support whatever I'm doing."
Sven Bean, the promoter behind Ring of Fire, thought that Nickels was not just a talented fighter, but marketable. He sent some of Nickels's martial-arts fight footage to Spike TV, whose first season of The Ultimate Fighter had met with unexpected success. "It was brought to us with the reality-show component, and that's when we were like, 'Yeah, we're going to jump on this,'" remembers David Schwarz, Spike's senior director of communications. "The great thing with a reality show is that our audience gets to know the guys. Almost from day one, it has been a hit on our network. For all three seasons, it has been one of the highest-rated shows on cable for men aged 18 to 34."
But Spike passed on Nickels for the second season, partly because he was submitted as a heavyweight opponent but was on the light side of the 205-pound minimum.
Nickels was perfect for the light-heavyweight division featured in season three, though. "It seems like everything in life has a residual effect on who you are, what you think is important and what's not important," Nickels says. "Life is a kaleidoscope of experiences for me -- from the elephant training to the ultimate fighting to the travel, it's all in relation to who I am to the world."
And more of the world is about to find out just who Mike Nickels is.
Once again, Nickels finds himself fighting for his life -- the life he's built in Denver.
He got his first taste of real fame last month, when the UFC flew him to California for a promotional appearance at a pay-per-view bout. After just a few weeks on Spike, Nickels was swarmed by fans. Many were drunken rowdies asking him to pose for a picture with their wives, but there were also little kids who looked up at him, wide-eyed.
While he was living in the Vegas house, though, Nickels was right to worry about what was happening back home. Over the last few years, he'd bought about a dozen buildings -- but Nickels recently had to sign them over to their original owner because he hasn't made enough money to cover the interest on his loans. He may have to give up Twisted Sol's home, too, but he hopes the shop will be able to stay in the same location.
Few people know about Nickels's business problems. At his regular gym in Denver, fellow fighters gather around with questions about the other characters on the show who look so tough. It's weird living and training with people he could end up fighting, Nickels tells them. The contenders get to know each other -- their senses of humor, their strengths and weaknesses -- and realize that any one of them could stand in the way of a six-digit contract. There's a fight every episode, and so far, six fighters have been sent home. Nickels's first bout has yet to air -- and he's not saying what happened.
He will say that filming the show was a "tornado of feelings and emotions." Day after day, the contestants would eat, train, eat, train, eat, sleep, eat, train. They'd roll around on the mats, kicking, punching, kneeing, elbowing and strangling. While one guy lay on his back, eight fresh men would rotate in to work him for two minutes. And afterward, the guy would thank them for beating the shit out of him.
When the episode featuring his fight airs, Nickels promises, it will show him relaxed in the ring, thinking how best to massage his opponent into gentle submission. "I don't fight with any animosity or anger," says the avowed ground fighter. "Once I'm in a ring or a cage, it's all about technique. But if you can't get the guy to the ground, you're in for a long fight."
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While he waits for the fight to air, more and more people -- including the man who delivers mail to Twisted Sol -- recognize him from the series' early episodes.
"I saw you on my TV this weekend," the mailman tells Nickels one day. "That's the first time I ever watched any of that ultimate fighting. I sort of like it. It's like a real fight. Those guys look pretty nice, but they're nasty. You have to be ready to rip someone's eyeballs out and stomp on them."
Then he asks the $5 million question, a question that could cost Nickels just that amount if he answers: "Do you win?"
"I can't tell you," Nickels replies. "I'm under contract. But I can tell you it's the bloodiest fight of the season."