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The first time I saw Cub Swanson was a time he’d probably rather not remember. It was his fight against Jens Pulver at WEC 31, and I distinctly remember thinking Swanson was cocky and dislikable. In fairness, he was a 24-year-old on an 11-fight winning streak in the biggest fight of his life, so it was understandable and earned. However, he accused Pulver of ducking him, so it was hard not to feel a little malignant pleasure when he got choked out in 35 seconds. That night wasn’t about Swanson, though. It was a feel-good moment for “Little Evil,” an impressive rebound over an up-and-comer that, at the time, felt like the start of a career resurgence for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first lightweight king.
The next time I saw Swanson is also a time he’d probably rather not remember and possibly doesn’t actually remember but can’t forget because it’s been replayed so many times. It was at WEC 41 against Jose Aldo. Swanson picked up two consecutive wins after his loss to Pulver and seemed to be back on track to a title shot, but instead, he encountered a surging future all-time great. One strike and eight seconds later, Aldo became the talk of the sport. It was a coming-out moment for Aldo. It remains one of his most stunning highlights, and his in-cage victory dance is almost as memorable as his flying knee.
Those two instances are the earliest and most definitive examples of what has seemed to be the story of Swanson’s career: being on the wrong end of special moments. That’s not to say he hasn’t had big wins or impressive performances, just that he has always seemed poised to break out but has never been able to fully make that step when the opportunity presented itself.
His six-fight streak from 2012-14 was emphatically railroaded by back-to-back blowout losses to Frankie Edgar and Max Holloway, both of which relegated him to a distinctly lesser tier. Another four wins later, including a “Fight of the Year” candidate against Doo Ho Choi, and his title dreams were dashed again -- then again and again and again. He lugged four consecutive losses with him into his fight against Kron Gracie at UFC Fight Night 161 on Saturday, the longest losing streak of his 15-year career. It was no surprise then that Swanson was as emotional as he was after securing his first win in two and a half years.
“This sport is tough, and it teaches you a lot of lessons,” he said through tears. “I just needed this win, simple.”
It’s impossible to know what’s going on in the mind of another person -- especially when that person is a professional fighter who has overcome tremendous adversity out of the cage -- but it’s not much of a stretch to say that Swanson probably had a lot of doubts leading up to the fight. For most of his career, he has always been one step behind the division’s elite while one step ahead of everyone else, losing only to champions or title contenders. His chances of getting a title shot were growing increasingly improbable, a thought no doubt tucked somewhere in the corners of his psyche. To make matters worse, he’ll be 36 in a few weeks, a death knell in a division as young and talented as featherweight.
Then he lost to Renato Carneiro and Shane Burgos, both of whom are very dangerous opponents but still a way’s away from title contention and by no means part of the division’s upper-echelon yet. Swanson went from someone who only lost to the best to someone who also lost to the next best.
It’s hard for anyone to cope with that kind of career tailspin. Professional fighters are reliably the toughest people alive, but insecurity is flexible and formless, creeping into the smallest openings and frost-shattering the sturdiest confidences to rubble. This is especially true in an individual sport, where failure falls solely on the person in the cage. Public losses mixed with the realization of your own decline makes for a potent vulnerability, like being awake during surgery.
Against Gracie, he was once again put in the position to be someone else’s moment. Gracie was undefeated with respectable names on his short record -- five fights, five submissions. Seven of Swanson’s 11 losses have been by submission. Gracie is a Gracie; his success is promotion on a platter. Yet Swanson soundly defeated Gracie, controlling the terms of their exchanges and landing more and bigger shots. It was a vintage performance and validation that he still belongs where he is.
This wasn’t Swanson’s biggest win or his best performance, and it’s still looking pretty likely he will never get a shot at a UFC title, but his win over Gracie was still one of the best moments of his career. It was his, and it breathed new possibility into his future.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.