The Ultimate Fighter
Whether Octagonside on fight night, in the studio recording UFC content, or just relaxing at his home in England, John Gooden is connected to the world of mixed martial arts like few others. That’s no surprise, considering that it’s been a part of his life since he was a child, and he’s been reminded of that love of the sport during the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit so many so hard.
“Martial arts is a very positive way of life,” Gooden said. “It has been for me and it's molded my life on and off since I was seven years of age. So I owe a lot to the martial arts and I continue to train in mixed martial arts, as well in jiu-jitsu, and I miss it terribly.”
Luckily, there are still fights to watch and call for the man who has been doing play-by-play for the UFC since 2014, and while he wasn’t Octagonside for the crowning of a new heavyweight champion last month, he was watching with great interest as Francis Ngannou dethroned Stipe Miocic in the main event of UFC 260. And though having worked with both men makes it a little tougher to see one of them lose, Gooden is aware that this is the nature of any sport, and that one loss won’t define Miocic’s reign.
“I've been a big cheerleader of Stipe's for such a long time,” he said. “I've met him on the road, and when I've been Stateside I've seen him out and about. The first time I ever met Stipe was at (Mirko) Cro Cop's house in Croatia. And he was quite quiet compared to what I thought he might have been. But on the back of spending a little bit of time with him there with Cro Cop, to see him go on - the firefighter, the family man, the way he carries himself - he's a legendary champion. The challenges that he overcame in those fights, it's movie stuff, so I've always very much enjoyed Stipe's journey and everything that he stands for. It's just incredible.”
It’s a fitting tribute to a former champ who will still likely have something to say about business among the big men, but for the moment, the world is talking about the man who brought Cameroon its first UFC title, and in the devastating fashion he’s made his trademark. And if you’re looking for a compelling story, look no further than Mr. Ngannou.
“There are no more bonkers stories than Francis Ngannou's,” said Gooden. “His story will not be repeated. It is just unbelievable. So as much as I loved the success of Stipe, you can't help but be so happy for Francis. This victory represents so much and to so many people now, as well. It’s a whole new audience, if you like. The first champion from Cameroon, your third from Africa, we're seeing within our generation the spread of UFC titles around the world. This is wonderful to see how mixed martial arts is spreading the way it is. But to have someone who was seeking a better life from Cameroon, and that journey, for the time that it took, it was a long journey to even get to Europe, and to then live on the streets. I've been to the soup kitchen that he served at. Then Fernand Lopez, his gym was a few doors down from the soup kitchen, and they took him in. It nearly had me in tears, knowing what he'd been through, the effects that it had on him as a man, being alone for so long, and to now see that he's reached the very top, it's a movie, and it's not finished yet. I'm very happy for him.”
Having been in the business as long as he is, Gooden knows that fighters become stars when fans embrace their story and have an emotional attachment to them. And when the UFC recently signed Liverpool star Paddy Pimblett, Gooden is unapologetic in his belief that “Paddy the Baddy” will make quite the impact on the sport’s biggest stage.
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“There are young kids in Liverpool that go to the barbers and they ask for the 'Paddy the Baddy' haircut,” he laughs. “But this is the impact that he's having. He's outspoken, he's unassuming in appearance, but the guy has a very dynamic submission game, he's got swagger, he's got epic walkouts, and he's got a legion of fans. He's another guy from Liverpool and we've already tasted what that's like with Darren Till. It's the second coming of this wave of kids from Liverpool, and they make them tough over there. He's ambitious, he will talk, and despite his appearance, you will see that when he gets near the cage, he'll start looking at his opponent and he will not take his eyes off his opponent. He is laser focused on them and he's got bad intentions.”
Sounds like someone to watch, and though he’s been on the UFC’s radar for a while now, after his March 20 submission of Davide Martinez, the 26-year-old is ready to tackle the Octagon elite.
“His last fight that he had at Cage Warriors, to me, he cleaned up his boxing a lot, and his hands look really deadly at the moment,” said Gooden. “Typically, he's been known for his submission finishes, like flying triangles and stuff like that. It was a young man that was offered a UFC contract twice before, and he's been through a lot of stuff for his young years in the sport with injuries and setbacks, so he's been through all of that and I don't think there's a better time for him to now make his run at those UFC rankings.”
The excitement in Gooden’s voice is evident when the topic is fighting, and he can’t wait until everything returns to some semblance of normal around the globe. Thankfully, there have been fights, but many places are still hurting under lockdowns, with British MMA gyms getting hit particularly hard. So not surprisingly, Gooden is taking matters into his own hands with the “Keeping The Lights On” fundraiser that will raise money to help struggling gyms stay afloat.
John Gooden Sits Down With Jack Shore
John Gooden Sits Down With Jack Shore
“Obviously belonging to a team for a long time, I've been with the same coach (David Lee) since 2009, so I'm having firsthand accounts of the struggles he's encountering,” said Gooden. “If you're unable to open your doors and you shut the mats off, you can't really expect people to pay their subscriptions. And he's only got a limited number of elite athletes and full-time pros, but even those guys aren't fighting three times a year. The guys are still trying to train, but they've got no outlets because events aren't on. The coaches have no income because the mats are empty, so it's a God-awful situation for everyone because gyms are always the last things to open.”
Enter “Keeping The Lights On,” which will take donations, auction off memorabilia and sell t-shirts in order to generate money that will be given to a gym nominated by visitors to the website https://www.keepingthelightson.net/ . Nominations will be accepted until April 30, a shortlist of nominees will be announced on May 1, and following a month of voting, the winner or winners will be selected on June 1.
“Businesses haven't been able to have a proper income for about a year,” he said. “As a result of that, not only are the businesses hurting in the short-term, I personally feel like there's gonna be a gap - maybe next year, maybe the year after - with talent because you've got a bunch of amateurs that haven't been able to do anything for a year. It's gonna really test someone's motivation to be training in their backyard by themselves, downloading tutorials if they can get hold of them to try to stay interested, stay fit and healthy and stay motivated to want to crack on and be competitive in mixed martial arts. And then you've got the guys who are pros, who are young and on the come-up; how are they able to just stay still for a year? So some of these athletes are having to just walk away and I don't know whether they'll come back.”
This fundraiser will help, and the MMA community has responded, with the UFC providing items for auction, and standouts like Leon Edwards, Darren Till, Mike Grundy, Tom Aspinall and Paul Felder already lending a hand with autographed memorabilia.
“I feel like we have to look to one another as a community to help each other out,” said Gooden. “So I hope these businesses can stay afloat so that these people can return and start feeling those benefits once again and keep the dreams alive for those who want to continue a professional fighting occupation.”
It’s typical of Gooden to reach out to do more for those around him. We documented his 90 mile walk to raise mental health awareness in 2019, and now he’s hoping to keep UK MMA gyms alive. But he’s not the only one in the family contributing to the world outside their home, as his wife Vicky recently released her first children’s book, My Wonder Line.
🚨KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON - UKMMA FUNDRAISER🚨 Pls help me spread the word so we can get some cash to a struggling UKMMA gym. Details here: https://t.co/RqSeMPGlX7 @UFCEurope @btsportufc @bisping @darrentill2 @arielhelwani @MMAjunkieJohn @SandhuMMA @marcgoddard_uk @danhardymma pic.twitter.com/zHTAjFFCIn— John Gooden (@JohnGoodenUK) March 29, 2021
Telling the story of children with surgical scars, the topic hits home to the Goodens because they went through a parent’s worst nightmare when their daughter Elodie endured open heart surgery to repair a hole in her heart. She was only 14 months old.
“Is there anything worse than that?” said Gooden. “It's horrendous. It was a real tough one. There's nothing I can really compare it to.”
Thankfully, the 2019 surgery was a success, and Miss Elodie is about to turn three and she’s ready to take on the world.
“You'd never know,” dad said of his little girl. “She's so bright, such a positive little spirit as well, very loving.”
It’s some great news in a world that can always use some, and when life had returned to normal, Vicky was intent on telling a story that so many children and their parents could relate to.
“It's been a good learning experience for both of us, obviously more for Vicky,” said John of the publishing process. “But she doesn't do things by halves. She self-published this and this is something she's been passionate about for a while. She's got a wonderful way with words, and she's very much about the aesthetic. She's ordering samples of the paper and what size it will be. These are things I had not thought of, but with a children's book, it's a different thing. When you're reading it, how it feels, how it's gonna look on the page, and she thought long and hard about the illustrator. Anything that's gonna help conversations around things that are a bit uncomfortable but necessary to make kids more kind to one another, and also giving an outlet for parents or those that read to children the opportunity to have a vehicle to discuss things like scars from surgery and why people might look different from another.”
As a grandfather who has My Wonder Line on the bookshelf, I say without reservation that Vicky has hit a home run, and that appears to be the consensus.
“It's been received really, really well,” said John. “It's obviously a subject matter close to us and I think it's a wonderful thing that she's been able to lend her talents to.”
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the doctors who took care of Miss Elodie, Professor Victor Tsang and Dr. Alessandro Giardini.
“We're in the game of celebrating athletes and I love our sport, I love combat sports and they are special human beings, but you will never know the name of Professor Tsang until I said that to you, and that guy saves babies' lives on a daily basis,” said Gooden. “And he is the coolest customer you will ever meet, as well. It was just an unbelievable team. I can't speak highly enough of these people.”
See, fighters come from all walks of life. From Cameroon to Liverpool, in Octagons and operating rooms, down to folks like John and Vicky Gooden, and especially their daughter Elodie.
For more information on Keeping The Lights On, visit https://www.keepingthelightson.net/
For more information on My Wonder Line, visit https://www.mywonderline.com/