Josh Gross
Saturday February 6th, 2010

Win, lose or draw Saturday night in Las Vegas, it'll take an act of God to keep Mark Coleman from making it home by Monday afternoon.

He's got a lunch date.

Two months have passed since the Columbus, Ohio-based 45-year-old former UFC champion last spent time with daughters, Mackenzie, 12, and Morgan, 10. Outside of finding a way to defeat Randy Couture in the main event of UFC 109, reconnecting with his kids seems to be about the only thing on the divorced dad's mind.

"I know that if I ever wanted to get into Mark, either to strike a fire underneath him or calm him down, all I had to do was talk about his daughters," said Shawn Tompkins, who helped Coleman prepare for Couture in the Nevada desert. "Whatever he says about his daughters, he means every word of it. He loves his daughters and it's his passion to make them proud."

It's taken more than a decade for Coleman to reach the point where, without being consumed by overwhelming feelings of guilt and dread over who would protect his girls if he was away, the first heavyweight champion in UFC history feels like he can focus on competing at his best.

"I wouldn't be able to live with myself if something happened to my kids when I was gone," Coleman said. "I decided I'd do the best I could training at home, but certainly I left a lot on the table by not leaving, by not focusing on fighting."

Dotted with soaring highs, numerous setbacks and multiple career reincarnations, Coleman's mixed martial arts venture stands out among of the most unique in the sport's modern-day history, a byproduct he says of being "less than half a man" for many of his fights.

When he was whole, such as reincarnation No. 1 during the Pride Grand Prix in 2000 when he marched towards what to that point was the most important tournament in MMA history, Coleman was nearly unbeatable. Yet, because of an inability to find a suitable balance between fatherhood and fighting, his struggles in the cage stand out as particularly painful, memorialized best perhaps by Pete Williams slamming a high kick into Coleman's face at UFC 17, an event in which he was originally set to fight Couture.

"In hindsight I did put my career on hold," said Coleman, whose career transitioned from the UFC to Pride before returning to the U.S. for good in 2009. "I was getting in there and fighting for a paycheck, which is not the smartest thing to do. It's not stupid -- you gotta make money -- but I have regrets. I consider myself an underachiever. But, at the same time, I'll never regret getting to see both my daughters grow up. They'll be there forever for me. The love I have for them. The love they have for me. There's nothing that can match that. I won't give that back."

If Coleman didn't enjoy a traditional training camp, he did have his band of brothers, a collection of strong collegiate wrestlers under the "Hammer House" name who seemed to love pounding the hell out of one another.

Training in the wrestling room at Ohio State, where he won a national championship in 1998, was spartan. Technique, largely an afterthought. For guys like Coleman or former UFC champion Kevin Randleman, training simply boiled down to working hard, sparring hard and cheering hard for the man next to you. Though the crew won their fair share of fights, Coleman believes in the end their preparation was limiting because little attention was paid to improving as fighters.

"With our personalities," said the 1992 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestler (he finished 7th), "it would have been really hard to keep us all in the same room at the same time, but Hammer House will always be here."

Coleman would not have seriously considered leaving Columbus, missing Christmas and spending 60 days in a casino hotel were it not for the support of the girls, whose blessing for their father to concentrate on defeating Couture "meant everything in the world," he said.

Is it fair to look back and wonder how good Coleman (16-9) could have been had circumstances been different, had he decided to augment an incredible talent for physically abusing grown men with the skills and attributes, such as proper cardio, required for success at the highest level?

Coleman, who recalls being five years old when the idea of winning a championship engrained itself on his mind, says yes.

By high school the mat called to him and pushed aside were dreams of playing in the NFL. Coleman was pure power in 1996 when he transitioned into MMA as a 6-foot-1, 230-pounder with aggression, physicality, competitiveness and wrestling. A violent cocktail. "The Hammer" thrashed opponents before rule changes in the UFC, arrogance in the face of fellow competitors, and the birth of his daughters changed his effectiveness, outlook and motives. By 1999, it more about money than anything else, led him to Pride, which flourished in the late '90s and early 2000s as the sport grew popular in Japan.

"When I left the UFC, I didn't leave because I wanted to," he said. "I left because I had no choice. Pride was great. Pride treated me really well. But my goal all along was to get back in the UFC, it just took a lot longer than I anticipated."

In part that was because Pride paid purses significantly larger than the UFC's at a time when Stateside MMA was being decried by politicians as barbaric and cable pay-per-view operators responded by dumping the sport based on some moral high ground that apparently didn't include the selling of pornography. Like many of the best fighters at the time, Coleman made regular treks to Japan, where he earned the support of hundreds of thousands of Japanese fans.

After the tide shifted, after MMA rose in the U.S. and fell in Japan, after Pride was swallowed by Zuffa, which owns the UFC, Coleman waited for Joe Silva and Dana White to come calling.

Though other promoters contacted him to fight -- mostly at heavyweight despite Coleman's wishes to move to 205 for the past five years -- he chose to sit tight for nearly 24 months before the call finally arrived. Part of him thinks it was punishment for signing a three-fight extension with Pride just before its fall, a deal that failed to deliver and left him in a difficult spot financially.

"I didn't want to make the same mistake again," he said. "I wanted back in the UFC. Luckily, I made enough money in my last fight against Fedor [Emelianenko] where I could hold out long enough and wait for them to finally make me an offer."

A benefit of the two-year layoff was Coleman's ability to be with his daughters. As he prepared in Las Vegas to meet Couture -- a man he considers a good friend -- he remained in constant communication with Mackenzie and Morgan over Facebook and Webcam conversations.

Unlike a 2006 fight against Emelianenko in Las Vegas, the final Pride card Coleman competed on, the girls won't be in attendance.

Coleman will need to wait until Monday, around noon sometime, before seeing them in person.

"My favorite thing to do is taking lunch to school and just hang out with my kids and their friends," Coleman said. "It's one of the most peaceful times of my life. They still get a kick out of me coming, and I get a kick out of their friends. It's as good for me as it is for them."

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