January 24, 2013
Mike Russow (left) defeated Justin McCully in Russow's 2009 UFC debut.
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Mike Russow is savoring every minute he gets to simply drive around in his squad car with his partner, Tony Petrancosta.

For the past hour, the drive has been uneventful and uninterrupted, something rare given the fact that Russow works as a Chicago police officer in the notorious Third District. Home to some 25-30 active gangs, eight of which are currently amidst conflicts mainly over drug turf, the Third District is as foreign to most Chicagoans as thin-crust pizza.

The hot weather on this December night -- it would reach 70 degrees -- has prompted most of the neighborhood to spend the night outside. But that makes it all the more puzzling that Russow's night has been event-free. The warmest nights are usually the busiest.

"We're so used to it but it really is true: every night, especially where I work, there is a chance you're not going home that night to see your family -- it's a real chance," Russow said. "It happens all the time. You always got to be on guard."

Russow is a UFC heavyweight fighter, but he calls his job as a policeman the "real" fight in his life. Russow is not trying to diminish the obvious rigors of also being in the UFC -- the fact is that the streets are less forgiving than the octagon.

Behind the wheel, Russow's eyes are focused on patrolling, but he still feels somewhat relaxed without the stress of a dispatch call. He thinks about his upcoming fight against Shawn Jordan at the United Center in Chicago on Jan. 26.

Enough at ease to show some rare hubris, he dismisses the idea of going on a vegan diet during training camp for the fight, instead bragging about how much he likes to eat. It draws a burst of laughter from Petrancosta, who admits that despite his poor influence, Russow maintains a strict diet.

Minutes later the mood changes when Russow's car gets a call from dispatch.

Dispatch calls come with varying levels of risk. But one call -- above all others -- has the power to awaken Russow from daydreaming about smelling salts after a knockout.

Ending any hope it would be an easy shift, all the dispatcher had to do was utter two words.

'Shots fired.'


Even though he has just completed Day 33 of his three-month training camp some two hours before the dispatch call, Russow's fighting career suddenly feels very distant.

Days mean little to Russow, though. They literally blend into one another. He works the police department's third watch, taking him into the early hours of the night.

Time is always defined by the next chance he gets to go home to see his wife, Alana, and two-year old daughter, Ella. Excluding sleep, Russow's time at home is usually limited to 45-minute blocks on the days he works. Russow uses his days off from the force to spend with his family, foregoing the opportunity to schedule his toughest days of training camp on days it could be his only focus.

The family has adapted to his rigorous schedule and perilous job.

"Worry is just a waste of time so I don't waste my time worrying," Alana said. "It doesn't matter [who you are] -- when God's ready to take you off this earth, you're gone."

Today, training camp starts at 9 a.m. and Russow says he's tired. He doesn't look it.

He is training on less than seven hours of sleep after he and Petrancosta were the first responders to a homicide in the early hours of the morning and had to fill out the requisite paperwork. Russow didn't get home until 2 a.m.

But time is too valuable for him to waste it lying in bed.

After he walks through a labyrinth of dark hallways and over a wood plank that levels an uneven floor, Russow steps into the Celtic Boxing Gym and immediately starts shadow-boxing, a makeshift studio apartment some five blocks away from his home in Chicago's Mt. Greenwood neighborhood.

During his fifth round, boxing coach Tom Hayes arrives. As soon as Russow has finished, the two immediately begin five more rounds of mitts. Hayes works so hard keeping up with Russow that he's dripping with sweat when he instructs his fighter to go to the speed bag and then work abs in a session that last about an hour.

Training is over, but Russow still has to lift weights and run at nearby St. Xavier University. He could probably parlay his fame into training at a gym for free but instead chooses to pay the $30 a month the university charges.

Before leaving the boxing gym, he takes a momentary break to get a drink of water from an adjacent bathroom sink. Unlike most fighters, the idea of having an entourage to pass him water or even having a nickname doesn't sit well with Russow.

"That's just not me," Russow said. "I'm really, I think, a shy person, reserved. That's just not my style. I just guess I'm pretty laid back."

His career arch is even more unconventional than his personality.

Russow won an Illinois state championship as a heavyweight wrestler in high school and competed at Eastern Illinois University. After graduating from college he won one professional mixed martial arts fight before taking more than a 10-year hiatus to focus on his career as a police officer, a job he needs to maintain in order to support his family.

His professional fighting career began in earnest in 2006 at the age of 30.

"I wish after college I would have just went into fighting in the UFC and then got a career just to see where it would have [taken] me," Russow said.

He didn't sign with UFC until 2009 and in his five fights since, he has lost only once. After winning by unanimous decision in his first UFC fight, Russow was matched against Todd Duffee nine months later on May 29, 2010. At the time, Duffee was billed as the Ivan Drago of UFC, having never lost a professional fight heading into that night.

Unlike most fighters, Russow has a gut that makes him look like he just walked off the street. Put simply, he's genetically inferior to the chiseled Duffee and was considered a steppingstone for the highly regarded fighter.

That looked to be the case through the first two rounds of the fight when Duffee turned Russow into a human heavy bag, causing the then-33-year-old to break his arm while deflecting a punch in the first round.

But Russow proved that genetics doesn't win a fight.

Using his adrenaline to battle nearly unbearable pain, Russow landed a right hand to Duffee's chin in the third round -- knocking him out and completing what is widely considered the greatest comeback in UFC history.

"If you hang in there long enough, if you don't give up, you'll eventually get a break and I got one in the third round with two minutes to go," Russow said.

Since then Russow has become increasingly more famous, though he doesn't give any credence to the idea. His loss came in his last fight, on June 23, against Fabricio Werdum in Brazil, where he was knocked out for the first time in his career.

After the Werdum fight, he was asked by Brazilian police officers if he wanted to sign autographs, yet he is dismissive of the idea that he's famous locally, let alone internationally. Upon walking outside accompanied by the heavily armed officers, Russow was shocked, even after a loss, that people swarmed him for his signature.

Stateside, Russow has even been recognized in uniform in the Third District. But by all accounts of those around him, Russow doesn't even realize his popularity.

"I don't think he has any idea and if he does, he's such a down-to-earth and humble guy that it wouldn't affect him in any way," Petrancosta said. "He's such a super, super nice guy."


The sun has nearly gone down, but the little light still left in the day is an ally to Russow and Petrancosta when they arrive at the scene of the alleged shooting. A woman points across the street to two abandoned homes she says are regularly broken into by assailants.

With other officers on scene covering their rear, Russow and Petrancosta begin patrolling the alleys, guns drawn, looking for suspects or evidence that shots were fired. As the two pasted themselves to the left-hand wall of an alley, a bystander pops out of her apartment asking whether what she heard were real gunshots.

Their focus is undeterred.

Russow has been fired upon once in nearly 10 years on the job while working in the equally challenging Seventh District.

Knowing it could easily happen again, he can't afford to take a second to turn his back and answer. Should someone sneak up on them, Russow knows a referee won't step in to stop the fight.

"On the streets there [are] no rules," Russow said. "They don't play by any rules and that's just how it is and you have to be ready at all times.

"Sometimes you get lax because it's so routine but that's when you get hurt."

The duo canvass the rest of the block, searching crevices for bullet casings, but are unable to verify the crime occurred, despite a thorough search.

They walk back to their squad car. Russow gets behind the wheel, buckles, takes a breath and begins to drive away from the scene.

His shift has just started, but Russow is a little bit closer to going home.

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