The Most Interesting Man in MMA – Part I: Child of the Pacific Northwest

Most Interesting Man in MMA
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 1: Vaseline is applied to fighter Jeff Monson's face prior to his fight during 'Art of War 3' at the American Airlines Center on September 1, 2007 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Chris Blumenshine/Getty Images)

Son. Anarchist. Wrestler. Husband. Father. Mixed Martial Artist. Libertarian-Communist. Terrorist? Jeff Monson has had many titles in his odyssey of a life. His incomparable MMA career is full of triumphs and defeats. “I want to be remembered as one of the best heavyweight grapplers ever, and someone that always performed hard,” says “The Snowman.” He is the “Most Interesting Man in MMA.”

Monson has competed in 85 professional MMA bouts. He is heavily tattooed and has become an adopted son of Russia. It sounds like the characterization of a villain in an old Jean Claude Van Damme film. But Monson is far from that. When talking with him he comes off as intelligent and mild-mannered, with a dry wit. So how did a good-natured kid from the Pacific northwest, who once dreamed of being an archeologist, become a globe-trotting ass-kicker?

The Most Interesting Man in MMA – Part I: Child of the Pacific Northwest

Growing up an hour outside of Seattle, in Olympia, Washington, Monson was like many boys in this city during the 1970’s. He played sports, went camping, and joined the boy scouts. His father died in a work related accident at the age of two. His mother Sandra would eventually remarry. With this new marriage came a step-father named Mike, and later a younger brother in Derrick.

He’s always had a very close relationship with his mother. Though, that unfortunately was not the case with brother and step-father. “We weren’t that close growing up,” says Monson, when talking about his childhood with Derrick. Yet that relationship was still more positive than the one he had with Mike.

“We had a strained relationship,” Monson says, when he recalls the issues between him and his step-father. Coming from a military background, Mike ran his home in a similar fashion. Respect and diligence were expected, and affection was not a common reward. While not physically abusive, Monson felt a mental tax knowing he, “couldn’t do anything right,” in his step-father’s eyes. “I just felt shamed all the time. It was pretty bad,” he says.

While not physically abusive, Monson felt a mental tax knowing he, “couldn’t do anything right,” in his step-father’s eyes.

So other than summer visits to see his mother’s family in Minnesota (which he viewed as an early highlight in life), Monson’s childhood wasn’t filled with a plethora of good times.

It wasn’t even until recently, when Monson’s mother passed from cancer, that he, Derrick, and Mike formed a better relationship. It was out of respect to Sandra, since that was one of her last hopes before she died.

However, those difficulties at home are what pushed him to go out and turn sports into a serious endeavor. It became his escape. By the time he got to Timberline High School, he had hopes of being on the school teams in all sorts of sports.

While Monson is world-renowned for his grappling acumen now, wrestling wasn’t his first sport of choice. Baseball was his first passion. But when baseball season ended he wanted to keep busy. On the day of basketball tryouts, he forgot to bring the required shoes. Since the wrestling team was willing to give old shoes to students who didn’t have them, Monson tried-out for wrestling. So, if not for a forgotten pair of shoes, could we have gotten Jeff Monson the star point guard? Probably not, but still a fortuitous moment in his history.

Monson has competed in 85 professional MMA bouts.

His desire to succeed in sports was intense. It centered on the fact that he always felt he needed to prove something to his step-father. So while on the wrestling team, he chose to compete at a lower weight-class. Feeling he could do better there. However, the weight-cutting he had to endure for the class, affected his health. So much so, that for over a year keeping food down was impossible. The concern friends and family had for him was mitigated by a surprising source—his chemistry teacher Mr. Bennett.

After class one day, the teacher pulled him aside and mused on how the people around him were saying, “poor this and poor that,” because of his severe weight-loss trying to compete in this lighter division. Mr. Bennet had a different take, “I think you need a good kick in the ass,” he told Monson. And that tough love proved successful. “It resonated something with me. It made a difference,” Monson remembers.

During his high school wrestling run Monson only had moderate success. He did get a scholarship to college. A partial academic scholarship to Oregon State University (OSU). He ended up wrestling for the university as a walk-on. Yet Monson persevered and eventually obtained a full wrestling scholarship by his third year. That same year he was a division champion in the PAC-10 conference. It would be the highest honor he would earn during his college wrestling career.

“We drove three and a half days to Illinois. And the day I got there I started classes,” says Monson.

However, Mark Johnson—Monson’s head coach at OSU—was leaving to take the same job at Illinois University. Feeling the need to stay close to this influential figure, Monson chose to follow him to Illinois. During this time, he would get married to his girlfriend Jennifer, who was already pregnant with their first child—Joshua. Together the trio would travel to Illinois. “We drove three and a half days to Illinois. And the day I got there I started classes,” says Monson.

It was at this point in his life when he first came in contact with the ideologies of anarchism. During a community psychology class, a guest speaker stopped his lecture to analyze how the country’s economics at the time were not beneficial for society at large. For a young man who devoutly loved his nation, the moment opened his eyes and pushed him to search out more. “I started educating myself and realized that [life] it wasn’t what it seemed, or what I was told in the newspapers,” Monson remembers. He compares it to the infamous red pill/blue pill moment from the film The Matrix. His mind was open, and he wanted to know how far the rabbit hole would go.

“I started educating myself and realized that [life] it wasn’t what it seemed, or what I was told in the newspapers,” Monson remembers.

Anarchist awakening aside, he would eventually graduate from Illinois and move on to the University of Minnesota Duluth. From there he would earn a master’s in psychology. With his degrees in hand, Monson started working in the mental health industry. Being a mental health professional was a job he truly enjoyed. But his competitive fire in wrestling was far from quenched. While his collegiate wrestling days were finished, he still had the hope of representing the US in the Olympics or world championships.

He would compete in the US open for wrestling on six different occasions. Unfortunately, he was never successful in making it to the national team. He talks about those days with disappointment. The responsibilities of a family, and a dearth of suitable training partners, hampered his opportunity. “I had talent and I was doing well. But this time, I had a wife and two children [they recently added their daughter Michaela], full-time job in mental health, then trying to do this on the side [wrestling training],” said Monson. His dream went unfulfilled.

“I had talent and I was doing well. But this time, I had a wife and two children [they recently added their daughter Michaela], full-time job in mental health, then trying to do this on the side [wrestling training],” said Monson. His dream went unfulfilled.

Monson’s grappling days looked to be over, or so he thought. Through a chance meeting with UFC legend Randy Couture, a new opportunity in MMA arose to satisfy his competitive juices. Just an hour away from his home in Washington, he could train with Couture (an eventual UFC heavyweight champion), Dennis Hallman (human kryptonite for UFC Hall-of-Famer Matt Hughes) Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland, at Team Quest’s gym. Also close by was AMC Kickboxing, where he could work with Josh Barnett, Maurice Smith (another pair of future UFC heavyweight champions) and Matt Hume.

It was at these gyms, and in amateur bouts, that Monson developed into an elite grappler and MMA fighter. He would debut in 1997 and start off with a 3-1 record. Yet it was in 1999 when he would earn his greatest acclaim up until that point.

Through a friendship Hume had with the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Monson was a part of a team that took part in the 99’ Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) submission wrestling tournament.

Through a friendship Hume had with the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Monson was a part of a team that took part in the 99’ Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) submission wrestling tournament. Before then he had only participated in six grappling tournaments. But to the surprise of many, he was a dominant force at his first ADCC event. It was here that he earned his MMA moniker of “The Snowman.” Based off of his pasty complexion, the Brazilian grapplers at the tournament said he was like a “rolling snowball, getting bigger and bigger as the tournament went on.”

He would go on to win it all in the 99 kg division. Monson had never earned All-American honors in college. But here he was, a world away, and the best 99 kg grappler on the planet. “I was walking around [in the dessert afterwards], literally in the sand, and I was just thinking, I can’t believe this,” says Monson.

“I was walking around [in the dessert after winning the 99′ ADCC], literally in the sand, and I was just thinking, I can’t believe this,” says Monson.

As he flew home, Monson thought to himself, “if I crash and die, my life could still at least be complete.” It was an achievement he never imagined would come. Though by the time he landed, he already felt pressure from the target it would put on his back. How grapplers and fighters would now use him as a pedestal. “So that’s been the epitome of my fight/grappling career, a lot of none enjoyment,” he says. “I enjoy training, I enjoy the comradery, and I love the travel and meeting new people. But there’s no enjoyment out of winning. It’s a fix. It gives you relief enough until you fight again.”

The saga continues. In Part II of this special series…

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