No Pain, No Gain

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.

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Luke Turf