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New season of T.U.F. proves greater link between gridiron, cage

Boxing analyst Larry Merchant once quipped that the reason the number of American heavyweights in boxing has declined was because "they're all playing linebacker." For the big, strong, athletically gifted kids growing up in contemporary America, it's almost guaranteed that, at some point, they'll end up in a pair of shoulder pads. Depending on what they do with them, many could end up on a college football field and, if they're good enough to turn pro, some could tackle their way to excellent living.

The fight game can't offer any of that. There aren't any scholarships to be had, and most colleges don't even offer combat sports at the club level let alone intercollegiate. It can take years of struggling before a fighter is able to reel in the big paychecks, so it's understandable why big men with options typically opt for the gridiron.

But in recent years, more and more current and former football players have gravitated toward the fight game -- for conditioning and offseason training, and even for second careers. Only, it's not boxing they're picking up these days -- it's MMA.

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"When I got done playing football, I moved back to Mississippi and tried to live a normal life," said Wes Shrivers, a former offensive lineman for the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans. "But when somebody grows up with that competitive nature, it just feels like something's missing if you don't have that anymore. With MMA getting so big, I'd always been intrigued by martial arts and had trained some over the years, so I decided to give it a shot.

"To be honest, I wish I would have gotten into MMA back when I was a teenager."

Shivers is one of four former NFL players competing on the 10th season of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter,premiering Sept. 16. With the reality show serving as, perhaps, the promotion's greatest marketing tool, Season 10 promises to be something of an experiment within an experiment. Can a good athlete be made into a good fighter? Or is there more to making a living in the cage than simply being athletically gifted?

One man who's hoping his physical talents will outweigh his lack of experience is former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Marcus Jones. At 36, Jones came to MMA late in life, after an inebriated, impromptu sparring session with a friend inspired him to learn to fight to soothe a bruised ego.

"[W]hen I went back home I called up a guy I knew who did MMA in Tampa and I said, 'Hey, my friend just beat me up and I need to learn something so I can get revenge,'" said Jones, who played seven seasons in the NFL after being a first-round draft pick out of the University of North Carolina. "He told me to come on in and he'd give me the first week for free. I went in and, on my first day, I got choked out with a north-south choke, and I just fell in love with jiu-jitsu."

Five months later, Jones fought in his first MMA bout, having only learned two submissions. Luckily, he only needed one. In the first minute, Jones grabbed onto a kimura arm lock and submitted his opponent to notch his first victory.

"I started [fighting] just because I wanted to see what it was like. But, honestly, once I got in the cage and won my first couple fights, I got addicted," said Jones. "It's one of those things that becomes a lifestyle change. I can't really put into words what it gives me to train every day and have that to look forward to. For me, I never really was all that in love with football once I left college. Once you get out of college, football, the essence of the sport itself, changes. You go from this feeling of honor to represent your school, your state, people you grew up with, and then you go to the pros and it's a job that's all about money. With MMA, it always has that honor to it."

Jones may be the T.U.F. 10 cast-member with the most notable NFL career, but he's also one of the most inexperienced fighters. That doesn't sit well with all his fellow competitors, some of whom have focused solely on MMA for years. One of them is Brendan Schaub, a former fullback at the University of Colorado who was only briefly with the Buffalo Bills and never saw any action in a regular season game. His martial arts pedigree surpasses that of Jones, and Schaub wants to make sure that's known.

"The UFC pushes this whole 'four ex-NFL players' story. I didn't play a down in the NFL," Schaub said. "The difference between me and these other football guys is I'm a born fighter. A lot of these guys sound like their NFL career just didn't work out so now they're trying MMA. That's not me. I really am a fighter."

Schaub grew up surrounded by martial arts. His father holds black belts in karate and taekwondo, and Schaub is a former Golden Gloves heavyweight boxing champ who has trained with UFC standouts Nate Marquardt and ShaneCarwin. What he lacked in football he more than makes up for in fight experience.

According to Schaub, the only reason he didn't find his way into MMA sooner was because he didn't think there was any way to make a decent living at it. Now that the sport is gaining recognition, rivals mainstream sports and can offer enough money -- and possibly more -- to support himself, he's finding MMA suits his personality more than football ever did.

"In football, there are individual one-on-one battles," said Schaub. "But, at the same time, if something happens like, say, the quarterback doesn't make the right read, it screws the other 10 guys over no matter how well they did their job. When you get in the Octagon, it's really one-on-one. That's what I love about it. It's all on me. If I make a mistake, I pay for it."

For NFL players wondering whether they could take on a pro fighter, and for UFC fighters wondering how they might stack up against gridiron standouts, this season of The Ultimate Fighter holds special intrigue. But before every NFL team brings an MMA trainer on staff, they might want to consider some words of warning from Jones, who is actually glad he didn't pick up MMA until after his playing days were over.

"Honestly, I'm thankful that I learned MMA once I got done playing football and not while I was playing," he said. "When you're on a football team, there's a lot that you take in from the other players. There are a lot of super egos on teams that you're always dealing with. I feel like if I would have known then what I know now, I would have gotten in trouble. There might have been a lot more locker room fights, maybe some dudes getting choked out."

Now, Jones saves that for his three rounds in the Octagon.

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