Thursday, December 6, 2012
Russ Halsey: Never Forgotten
While we are mourning the loss of our friend, others are rejoicing to meet him behind the veil. ~John Taylor
I woke up the morning of November 30th and went about my normal routine of checking Facebook before heading to the gym. However, on this morning checking Facebook was different. I saw many somber status updates from people in the Ohio MMA community. The posts were very telling in their simplicity. People asking why or how? People saying "I will miss you" and then those three telling letters, R.I.P.. I did what I presumed many did and I began a search to find out who had passed. Eventually I learned it was Russ Halsey. It was sad to learn of his passing, that his two young children- daughter Cameron and son Cayden- would no longer have their father. In talking of his children, Sean Serfass says "he would want to be remembered as an amazing father over everything". Russ was just coming off of his first pro MMA win over Matt Trukovich at Big Guns 11 two weeks prior, and Evolve's John Cook said that Russ had a new desire to start competing in grappling tournaments. These are both exciting and positive things for someone in the MMA community, which made it more shocking when it started to come out that Russ had taken his own life. Several days later, many are still struggle to accept it. Jessica Zomcik says "it still doesn't seem real", a sentiment share by Mario Micale who says even after his funeral "it still doesn't seem real" and Sean Serfass when he says "even after everything that has passed, with the calling hours and the funeral and seeing him in the casket, I still can't believe it".
Many people have opinions on suicide, but that is not what I am here for. What I am here to do is to let people know the man that was Russ Halsey. The man who is a big loss in the Ohio MMA community. He is such a big loss that we are seeing rival promoters and promotions working together to honor him. Something that is not always and would not always be done. I want to focus on the "Russ" that everybody loved, not the "Russ" who as his last opponent Matt Trukovich said "was not of sound mind, sound minded people don't do that".
Russ Halsey officially made his amateur MMA debut on November 18th, 2006. He lost by submission to Jared Combs. He followed that with another loss less than three months later to Nate Kahl. Two losses to start a fighters career can be mentally damaging and make them wonder if they want to continue, if they have it in them to be a fighter. However, in a display of the fighting spirit Russ carried, he continued to strive. In November of 2007, one day short of a year since his debut, at NAAFS Midwest Combat Challenge 3, Russ won his fight with Jason Matheron via first round TKO, the first of four straight wins. Over the next couple years Russ traded wins and loses, ending in 2010 with a decision loss to George Comer. More than a year later Russ would return and make his professional debut, losing at RFO Big Guns 8 to Trent McGown. By all accounts, Russ had no plans to fight anymore. So why did he take the fight with Matt Trukovich? Trukovich himself explains it by saying "he took the fight as a favor to me, he was who I needed". Trukovich also relates a story of how the day before weigh-ins, he and Russ were texting each other talking about how much "cutting weight sucks". John Cook told of how Russ called him and said, "I want you to coach me, you and (Ryan) Madigan. I just want to be a fighter and you be the coach". Russ, a very good coach himself, wanted to be the student. Cook says that Russ "wanted to be in that environment again". About that last fight Cook says "he made a mark at that gym (Evolve). It was important for him to win for the family he had developed at Evolve". Russ's best friend, John Murphy, in talking about the fight said Russ, Matt and himself all helped each other out and had respect for each other, mentioning how they even used Matt's cage for XFS events. Murphy says "he wanted to prove that after his knee injury and everything he had been through, that he still had it in him. He wanted to go out on a win". He did go out on a win, winning by submission in the closing seconds of round one.
It was perhaps as a coach where Russ made his biggest mark. Several well-known Ohio fighters came from Russ's gym, Pain Headquarters. One of the prevailing themes from everyone I talked with was that Russ loved to help people, or as Ronda Gale says, "He did sacrifice his own career to help others with their careers". Being a coach allowed him to do that, to help others, not just as fighters, but as people. Bhrandon Poindexter calls him a "mentor and a big brother", brother being a word used by several people who knew him. Mario Micale says if it wasn't for Russ and Jason Davis, he would never have gotten into MMA. In talking of Russ and his time at Pain Headquarters Mario says "it was just a small group of us, but over time (Russ) created a legit team to be reckoned with in the MMA scene", adding he is proud to say Russ was his first coach and mentor. Sean Serfass said that Russ is the "reason I fight". Sean says that when he lost his license for two years, Russ gave him a job there so he could have driving privileges to go the the gym each day. Even after leaving Pain Headquarters, you can see traces of Russ in several of his fighters today, fighters who he worked with. NAAFS Matchmaker Nichole Long Castillo says "what he lacked in technique, he made up for with heart, he was tough as hell". Ryan Heckert in a similar statement says "he wasn't the most technical fighter, but he was a hard worker and it made up for a lack of other things". Today, some of those fighters who started with Russ are showing that same heart, toughness and hard work, signs that even after moving on, Russ did rub off on them. He even used the sense of humor he was known for in his coaching. Ronda Gale relates a funny story, "he gave me my nickname. Leading to my first fight he told me that he had a name for me, but he wouldn't tell it to me. I didn't know till I walked to the cage that I was Rowdy Ronda Gale". Dan Gale also uses the word brother in telling how they "came up together from scratch". Dan says Russ always knew what to say "if you were getting ready for a fight or for anything else". Russ wanted so badly to see people succeed that he didn't get mad when they left for other gyms to try and move to the next level. Ryan Heckert shared a conversation with me about how after a couple fighters left Pain Headquarters for another gym, he asked Russ ho he felt about it and he said Russ told him "where they are going will get them in a better place and benefit them". As Ryan puts it, "he put others first, before his pride". His wanting to help people is a major reason for the end of Pain Headquarters. If people couldn't afford to pay, he let them come and train anyway. As John Murphy said, "he loved the sport and wanted people to succeed", even if it wasn't best for him business-wise. Mario Micale concurs saying Russ "wasn't a stickler for gym dues..... his goal wasn't so much to make a lot of money, but to have a place where all our friends and teammates had a place to go and train".
Russ was also known for his sense of humor. Jessica Zomcik refers to him as a "big teddy bear that was nice to everyone and always making people laugh and smile with his odd sense of humor". Sean Serfass he was "one of the most inappropriate and hands down funniest people I will ever meet", adding that it "boggled" his mind how he even came up with some of the things he said. Bhrandon Poindexter mentions how he would do things like call you, crack a joke and then hang up. When asked for a favorite memory of Russ, Nichole Long Castillo talked about how after one event, she was running later to get to the after-party. She finally arrived and walked in to see Russ standing there in one of the ring card girls bootie shorts and a crown. Ryan Heckert says Russ was "a joker" adding that Russ, "did that to make others comfortable around him." The humor was not always an attempt to get a laugh, but sometimes just to lighten the mood, something John Cook said he would do often at the gym if guys were down or didn't want to train. Dan Gale tells a story that while probably not funny at the time, can be looked back at now and get a few laughs. "Two years ago he was in Cancun and called me at 3 A.M.. He had gotten some locals mad and they were chasing him down. I stayed on the phone with him the whole time telling him to duck in places and hide. I was cornering him all the way in Cancun".
Perhaps the person who can best attest to the humor, the caring for others and the other traits Russ possessed was his best friend, John Murphy. Russ was looking for a Jiu-Jitsu coach for Pain Headquarters and as John says, "Russ put his money on me". With Pain Headquarters, the XFS and being business partners, they also formed a very close friendship. John was in Russ's corner for every fight except the last one. John says "we accomplished a lot together. The things we accomplished, we weren't the best, but we showed hard work, we cared about each other and we were always there for each other," finishing by saying, "I am forever grateful". John's vow to still be there for Russ's children shows the bond he and Russ had.
But John is not alone. A great number of people were friends with Russ.
Each person I talked with used different words, but all described Russ the same. Nichole Long Castillo said, "great corner, great coach, great friend" also adding "a great father, he loved his kids", a sentiment that was echoed by Matt Trukovich who also said, "he loved his kids." Sean Serfass talks of how Russ meant a great deal to him and that he "always felt like he had a special connection with Russ" adding that "that's how a lot of people felt because that's how he made you feel, like you were special to him". Ryan Heckert talked about meeting Russ the first time. It was after Russ won a fight, Ryan was there as a fan. He walked up to Russ to congratulate him on the fight, and while some fighters may give a "thanks" and keep walking, Russ did give the thanks but then also kept the conversation going asking how Ryan heard about the card and inviting him to Pain Headquarters. Even someone who only knew Russ a very short time, Evolve fighter Jordan Baldwin said, "Russ was a nice and funny guy" as it clearly did not take long to learn these were traits Russ possessed. Those are sentiments you have read throughout this and sentiments that came up over and over in talking to those who knew Russ. Ryan Heckert mentions his integrity, John Cook mentions his wit and Ronda Gale mentions how he treated everyone with respect and Jessica Zomcik points out that he "always looked out for his brothers".
Now we know a little about Russ's life. In asking people their initial reaction to his passing, it goes without saying that everyone used the word "shocked". It seems that most found out either by text messages or reading it on Facebook. Some said that they didn't want to believe it. John Murphy was among those who even when they knew it was true "still almost didn't want to believe it". Some shared recent interactions with Russ. Ryan Heckert said that a few days before he had exchanged texts with Russ and "he seemed in a good place." John Cook said that days before he had received a text from Russ talking about competing in grappling tournaments. Some expressed regret saying that had they talked to him, maybe they could have heard in his voice that he was troubled. I feel that the Russ I have gotten to know through the memories of his friends would have hidden those trouble, not for himself, but because Russ cared so much for others and he wouldn't have wanted others to worry about him.
I have never considered myself a writer and did not know if I could adequately pay tribute to Russ. However, when I learned of the people willing to come together in a situation like this, I knew I was given an honor. At first thought you may think someone who was close to Russ would be better suited to write this. For me, Russ was one of those guys I would see at the fights and we would nod our heads and give each other a "hey, whats up?" I myself at first thought someone who knew Russ better should write this. However, in talking with people for this story, I realized that those who were close to Russ loved and cared for him so much that writing something like this would be an emotionally complicated task. I only hope to those of you who loved Russ Halsey that I properly expressed your love and paid a proper tribute.
Russ Halsey's passing is a big loss, first and foremost for his family and friends as well as Ohio MMA. Focus on the life he lived, the lives he made better for others. Russ was a great coach and even though he is no longer with us, his life can still teach us so many things.
"We were the best of friends, we were the worst of friends. But the underlying common factor is we were friends. You touched so many lives and fought so many fights. This was your biggest loss and everyone's loss who you coached through their many wins and losses in life. You will be missed fam!"- Nichole Long Castillo
"I would just like to thank Russ for all that he has done for me and my life. I don't think he truly understood how many people loved and respected him. for how young of a man Russ was, he has accomplished so may things in his short life. Too many to be specific. I would be writing all day. Russ was on of the funniest friends I had. If I was ever having a crappy day, all I would have to do was call or text Russ and he would have me literally crying from laughing so hard. He truly and undoubtedly was an amazing person that I will miss with all my heart for the rest of my life. He has been an incredible inspiration and role model in my life. I will continue to fight in and out of the cage in this game we call life. I hope to strive to become as great of a man as my brother Russ, and everything I accomplish in my future will be in memory of him. I'll always love you bro..... Until we meet again.... RIP Russ Halsey"-- Mario Micale