Dennis Hallman pulled into his driveway in the early hours of Thanksgiving morning to see his childhood home engulfed in flames.
Hallman, a nine-time UFC veteran who last fought for the promotion at UFC 140 in December, had been out with friends at a bar partaking in some pre-holiday revelry. Hallman hadn't wanted to go out that night, but he'd previously volunteered to be the designated driver, and he didn't want to go back on his word. If not for this commitment, he's convinced he would have been home asleep, most likely with his four-year-old daughter in the house with him, when the fire broke out.
"I was lucky my daughter went with her mother that night," said the 36-year-old Hallman (51-14-2, 1 NC). "I would have definitely stayed home that night and we would have perished."
Hallman's sons -- ages 11, 13, and 15 -- had been next door at their grandparent's house playing video games. Shortly after midnight, Hallman's middle son walked next door to check on the wood stove they regularly kept burning. He opened the front door and went to flip on the lights, but the switch melted in his hand. Hallman's parents called the fire department and summoned Dennis home.
It took firemen over six hours to put out the blaze, which Hallman suspects started from an electrical failure. The now gutted house, located on his parent's four-building property in Evergreen Valley, Wash., was a gift from Hallman's father 10 years ago. All of its contents -- furniture, appliances and clothing -- are gone.
"Imagine everything in your house and somebody comes in, lights everything on fire and all you're left with is the clothing on your back," said Hallman.
Scattered among the ashes are items that Hallman said he'd never be able to replace. There were photo albums brimming with pictures of his kids, videos of their first steps and an old VHS tape of Hallman's 1994 state wrestling championship win. There were also the programs from Hallman's early fights in the UFC, including his first bout at UFC 29 in Japan against Matt Hughes and his lightweight championship bid against Jens Pulver at UFC 33 in 2001.
"That's the stuff that makes you want to cry when you think about it," said Hallman.
But as the Hallman family sat down to Thanksgiving dinner that night, next door at his parents' house, Dennis realized he had a lot to be grateful for as he glanced out the window now and then to stare at the smoldering remains.
"At first, I was angry about it, but sitting there with my sons around me, I thought, I can't take any of that stuff with me to the grave," said Hallman. "It's much more important to have your family and friends."
And friends are stepping up for Hallman now. On Thanksgiving Day, Jason Miller and his wife, Vanessa, the former owners of Evolution Fightwear and one of Hallman's early sponsors, deposited a sizable donation into the fighter's bank account so he could go out and buy his kids some new clothes.
Benji Radach, a one-time UFC welterweight contender and Hallman's close friend since 2000, quickly organized a donation page that has already raised nearly $10,000 from 110 contributors. UFC veteran Bryan Caraway and former Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate have also stepped in to assist with fundraising efforts. Caraway and Tate, who are dating, spent a few months in a cabin on the property while they trained at Hallman's Victory Athletics gym (also on the property), as have over a dozen other fighters over the years.
Hallman, a 15-year veteran of the sport and a coach to upcoming fighters, said he's been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support.
"I think it's fabulous," he said. "It shows the MMA community really supports its own, and that there are people out there who really care about other people. It's a Godsend."
The fighter said he will use the funds to buy beds, clothing, dressers, food and other essentials that won't be covered by the house's structure-only insurance. Hallman hopes to be set up with temporary housing as early as this week, while his home is rebuilt.
Hallman hopes the fire is the last stroke of bad luck in what has been a traumatic year. In October, he came in overweight for a bout against Thiago Tavares at UFC on FX 5 in Minneapolis. Hallman later withdrew from the fight, stating he wasn't in the right frame of mind to compete. Hallman privately explained to UFC president Dana White that he was amidst a custody battle with his estranged wife over his young daughter, which had played out that same week. White generously paid Hallman his fight purse anyway.
"Dana saved me from a nervous breakdown," said Hallman.
On Saturday, a sober Hallman said he was focusing on trying to resume a normal life, especially for his children. He sent his oldest son to wrestling practice on Friday and Hallman promoted an already-scheduled amateur fight show on Saturday. Hallman will also return to the UFC on Dec. 8 to corner one of his students, John Albert, in a UFC on Fox 5 undercard bout.
"My sons have been very positive, but I understand that they'll reflect how I act," said Hallman, "so I have to keep my chin up and keep moving forward."