This is number ninety-nine in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re very pleased to feature two key people involved with the non-profit Live to Fight (LTF), Ottavia Bourdain and Kristen Brown. LTF, founded by The UG’s own Kristen Brown, “seeks to raise money for people in the martial arts, MMA, and combat sports community who are fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.” Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: You are a celebrity who is becoming almost as well-known for your love of BJJ and MMA as your other pursuits. How did you get involved in martial arts, what is your current training regimen, and do you have any competitions coming up?
Ottavia Bourdain: I'm really not a celebrity. My husband is. Let's be honest. People didn't start paying attention to me because of my talent or achievements in the sport. People started paying attention to me because of who I'm married to.
At the beginning, it was quite embarrassing. I was a white belt and I was constantly asked for interviews about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I was mortified because there were many far better practitioners out there who deserved the attention. But then something changed. More and more people started coming up to me to tell me how they got interested in BJJ when they heard me talking about it or how they took a trial class because they enjoyed reading about my training on social media. So I decided to embrace the spotlight. If I can get more people, especially women, interested in the sport, it can only be a good thing.
I started practicing Muay Thai in 2007 just to get back in shape after the birth of my daughter. I loved it, but it wasn't an obsession. Things changed when I enrolled at Renzo Gracie’s academy in 2011, and I quickly developed an addiction to Jiu-Jitsu. After a few weeks, I was training every day, doing multiple sessions each day, and I haven't stopped since.
I don't have any competitions coming up at the moment and I'm planning to fatten up during the Holidays. The next big tournament is probably going to be the IBJJF European Open at the end of January.
JB: Like UFC Middleweight Champion, Chris Weidman, you are one of Live To Fight's board members. How did you first hear about the non-profit organization and what does your role on the board involve?
OB: I met Kristen while I was organizing a fundraising seminar for the late Frank Edge. Like her, I am a member of The Underground so we connected easily. It was love at first sight. You know when you meet somebody for the first time and it feels like you've known each other forever? That's exactly what happened when we met. When she asked me to be on the board of LTF, I immediately said yes. Kristen is just wonderful. She has a contagious enthusiasm and a wicked sense of humor. When we aren't planning something for LTF, we enjoy having lengthy conversations about narcotics, boobs, and Carlos Condit.
It is a huge honor and a big responsibility to be on the Board of LTF. We all bring to the table our own accomplishments and strengths. I am Kristen's personal sounding board for her to bounce ideas off of as well as her shrink. I do have decent connections, and I can help reach people in the BJJ and MMA world who can be an asset to the organization. I will be helping procure sponsors and organizing upcoming events and fundraisers. All LTF board members are responsible for voting on and selecting the beneficiaries who we will be helping.
JB: In your experience, what are the things that are most vital to those individuals and their families who are dealing with life-threatening illnesses, and how do you think Live To Fight can help them?
OB: First and foremost, of course, is good medical care. They need the certainty that everything that can be done is being done as competently and comprehensively as possible. Next, they need support systems and safe and secure places and the time to be with loved ones to the greatest degree possible. And finally, they need access to the right information to allow people to make their own informed decisions. LTF seeks to address all of these issues.
We are here to help people in need in the martial arts community - from the fighters we cheer for, to our instructors, to our training partners and their families. Beyond financial assistance, LTF wants to connect those who fight for a living with those who are fighting to live and to offer them a sense of empowerment and inspiration.
Jack Brown: You certainly seem to have many connections in the mixed martial arts world. How did you first get involved with martial arts and how did you eventually connect with the larger MMA community?
Kristen Brown: I’m a TUF noob. I became a casual fan of MMA about seven years ago, and I regret not being around from the inception of the sport that I have come to love so much. At UFC 107, when I saw BJ Penn licking Diego Sanchez’s blood off his gloves, I knew I was hooked! I got as many old Pride, WEC, Strikeforce, Pancrase, and Vale Tudo fight videos that I could get my hands on.
I actually ascribe my initial love of BJJ to Joe Rogan because I became so interested in the ground game after listening to him talk. I read as many instructional BJJ books and watched as many videos as I could find, but I didn’t start training until about four years ago. I am still a white belt because of a plethora of breaks due to various health issues. To tell you the truth though, I don't really care about belts. I just love to learn. Still, a buddy I train with told me that I rolled like a blue belt and that was one of the best compliments he could have given me! There is nothing better than watching two skilled practitioners rolling. It’s like a violent yet graceful dance.
My first live event was an amateur fight in New Jersey, and after that I saw two possible roads to follow for my newfound addiction. Since I couldn’t walk in heels, a ring girl was out. Instead, I saw myself as the lovechild of Ariel Helwani and Mike Straka with some Tina Fey thrown in. The Underground's very own Garv gave me my first writing assignment. I spent a glamorous couple of hours at a vitamin shop in the mall with two best friends who also happened to cause serious damage inside the cage for a living. The fighters were Chris Weidman and Gian Villante. I was working in a laboratory at the time, and I left my career in science to try and pursue my passion. I did fighter profiles, some play-by-play, and post-fight write-ups for a few different websites and local papers. I loved interviewing fighters, and it was always my goal to give the audience a glimpse of who they were outside of the cage. Over the years, I have met some great people and I have remained friends with many of them.
JB: You are a proud cancer survivor who has fought and won several battles with the illness over your lifetime. How did that background merge with your love of martial arts and lead to you founding Live To Fight?
KB: Anyone who has fought and beaten cancer should be proud! My battle started when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, a type of lymphoma, as a teenager. I went through a rigorous treatment course of chemotherapy and radiation. Over the years, I remained cancer-free. However, due to the intensity of my treatment, I developed many long-term side effects and some of them have been almost as life-threatening as the cancer itself.
I think that everything in my life, including my love of martial arts, has led me to founding the non-profit organization, Live To Fight (LTF). A few years ago, I covered a fundraiser for the UFC's Dan Miller and his young son, DJ, who was very ill and in need of a kidney transplant. Dan Miller and his family, including UFC lightweight, Jim Miller, were so grateful for the outpouring of support from the MMA community. I remember thinking that someone should start a charity where we can come together to support our own in times of need.
Fast forward a few years, and in the winter of 2013, I underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer. I feel blessed that I am again cancer-free and I am on the road to recovery. I got so much support from my friends in the MMA community, especially on The UG. At the same time, one of my best friends, UGer Reggie "Wreckker" Cardiel was suffering from stage 4 cancer. Exactly one month after my surgery, my BJJ teacher, Mark Staniszewski's, one year old baby boy, Jake, was diagnosed with a rare pediatric cancer, also stage 4. Hospitals and sickness were commonplace to me, but I could not bear to see the people I loved suffering. I felt so lucky to be alive and to be cancer-free, and yet I also felt so helpless because I could not fight these battles for them. That cliché saying that, "Everything happens for a reason," rang so true and it all clicked. Everything that I had gone through in my life, all of the sickness and pain, made sense to me. I knew I had to start a charity for people like Reggie and Jake and the other people in our community who are suffering.
LTF seeks to raise money for people in the martial arts, MMA, and combat sports community who are fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Reggie was a pro fighter and tough as nails, but he could not beat his disease. He passed away in May of 2013. I swore to myself that I would do whatever was in my power to not let that same fate happen to my teacher's son, Jake. What started because of Reggie and Jake has become so much bigger than I ever imagined. There are so many people in this community who are sick or have family members that are fighting for their lives. My slogan is, "Some live to fight and others fight to live." For some people that fight is a matter of life and death.
Sadly, the MMA community recently experienced this when UFC Heavyweight Shane Del Rosario went into cardiac arrest. It’s hard to wrap your head around someone so strong and powerful now fighting for his life. It’s heartbreaking. That’s the thing about illness, it doesn’t discriminate. This is exactly why I started my organization. We will be donating all of the proceeds of shirt sales and any donations we receive through the first week in December to the Del Rosario family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Shane and we are all hoping for a miracle. I, for one, believe in miracles. I have to. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here myself.
JB: What has the process of establishing Live To Fight involved and who has been especially supportive?
KB: I have been involved with volunteering and charity work for as long as I can remember. To be able to combine my two favorite things, helping people and fighting, is a dream come true for me. But to be perfectly honest, it is quite an arduous and tedious process. We are a legitimate, New York State, not-for-profit organization, and we are legally allowed to raise and distribute funds. We are working on our 501c3 status and donations will soon be retroactively tax deductible to the fullest extent that the law will allow. So if there are any super wealthy philanthropic individuals out there who wish to make some huge donations, feel free. Anything worthwhile is hard work. I will not stop until LTF is a household name amongst MMA fans and until we have the resources to ensure that everyone that needs our help gets it. I don't know if that is passion or insanity or a little bit of both!
I am so grateful to be surrounded by some extremely talented and passionate people who are helping me turn this vision into a reality. I carefully handpicked each of my Board of Directors, including Chris Weidman, Ottavia Bourdain, Jeff Nader, Sambo Steve Koepfer, Mark Gray, Tom Tona, and Norman Cerullo. UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman was actually the first person I reached out to and he has been amazing. He put our LTF logo on his banner for UFC 162, and most recently he taught at our first event, a no-gi seminar at Renzo Gracie's in New York City. Ottavia, whom I lovingly refer to as my "sister from another mister," has been invaluable. She wholeheartedly believes in LTF and she keeps me laughing as we work together on making LTF a huge success. I don't want to ruin Jeff Nader's reputation on the OG, but he has the hugest heart and is so passionate about our cause. Sambo Steve Koepfer is the voice of reason amongst the madness. My brother in law, Mark Gray, is actually the person who created the MMA monster in me. Family get-togethers consist of brainstorming about LTF, and it's also much easier to bail out of a family function on fight night when you have a partner in crime. Tom Tona is my newest board member and, simply put, he gets things done. My Creative Director, Jason Perez, designed our website and took my vision of a heart and a fist and designed our kickass logo. Lastly, I would be lost without my Vice President and General Counsel, Norman Cerullo, who works tirelessly to ensure that we are doing everything in accordance with the law and the IRS. I consider UFC fighters Jim and Dan Miller my “honorary LTF board members.” They agreed to help with LTF without a moment's hesitation. Unfortunately, the Miller family has a lot of firsthand experience dealing with serious illness. They both believe in our mission and are willing to put so much time and energy into LTF. Plus, Jim makes a damn good homemade beer which is always a welcome bonus!
I also have to thank Cindy O, Crooklyn, Renzo Gracie, Lou Neglia, Ariel Helwani, Eric Jackman, Brian Levick, and Mike DeLuise, as well as Defense Soap, East Coast MMA, Roar Beverages, Titan Body Wash and Digitsu for their support. Thanks to Dechert LLP for their time-consuming legal work, Jon Bier for believing in me and LTF, Renato Laranja for taking time away from his women and tournaments to support us. And special thanks to Dave Martin and Randel Aleman for everything.
I am also very grateful for the support of Shannon Knapp of Invicta. Look for our LTF logo on the floor of the cage on December 7th at Invicta FC 7. I am so excited about that! Also, Bobby Razak has been nothing short of a blessing. He has listened to all of my grandiose ideas from the beginning and reminds me on a daily basis that this is my journey. Of course my family has been so very supportive of me, and I really have to thank Kirik and MMA.TV. The UG gave me so much support during my ordeal, and I believe that this place was a catalyst for forming LTF (Heart you Rickstorm, Geek, Leghound, Pescy, Disicple Dojo, TJMitch, Vixen)!
JB: You had a special event at the end of October. What should people know about that and other ways that they can be involved with Live To Fight?
KB: We had our first event a month ago, a no-gi seminar featuring Chris Weidman, Jim Miller, John Danaher, and Renato Laranja. It was very successful and everyone had an amazing time. We are working out the logistics of distributing the funds raised to our first beneficiary. Digitsu was on hand to film the event and it will be made available for sale as an online instructional video with proceeds going to LTF. Bobby Razak was there and I am really thrilled because he filmed a series of LTF short films with Chris, the Miller Brothers, and me.
Everyone working with my organization is donating their time, energy, and services free of charge. My legal team and I are committed to ensure that the money raised by LTF goes directly to the people who need it. The primary goal of LTF is to help pay for medical treatment. However, that is just one aspect of our organization. In the big picture, LTF is looking for financial backing and corporate donors. LTF would like to partner with companies and fight promotions to offer MMA wish granting. We want to send people to fights, to meet their favorite fighters, and give people the opportunity to get away from the world of sickness.
We are also looking for instructors and hosts for future martial arts seminars, fighters to represent our brand, and companies to partner with that can take us to the next level. Those things are on the grand scale. However, even the smallest thing can help. We are selling t-shirts, looking for donations, and trying to raise awareness and grow our brand through various social media platforms. The more people who know about LTF, the more people we can potentially help.
You don't have to start a charity to make a difference but I do believe that all people have a responsibility to give back to others in their time of need. If you have not been personally touched by cancer or a life-threatening illness, chances are you will be. Whether you are a forever white belt like me, a professional fighter like Reggie, or the son of a BJJ and Judo World Champion like Jake, sickness is the ultimate equalizer. If and when illness strikes down someone in the martial arts, combat sports, and MMA community, we want to be there to help. I believe that LTF can make a difference and help so many people win their fights.
Thank you, Jack, for this opportunity to talk about Live To Fight.
For more information, to donate, or to purchase, a shirt please visit our website: livetofight.org
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram
Contact me at Kristen@livetofight.org
Thank you so much for reading and please follow Ottavia Bourdain and Jack Brown on Twitter.
Previous interviews include: Dan Hardy, Rose Namajunas, Joe Lauzon, War Machine, Tom Lawlor, Bas Rutten, Chris Leben, Phil Baroni, Julie Kedzie, Michael Bisping, Duane Ludwig, Sara McMann, Matt Lindland, Duke Roufus, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Dan Severn, Nate Quarry, Ken Shamrock, Matt Serra, Jeremy Horn, Ray Longo, Kevin Randleman, Dennis Hallman, Daniel Cormier, Shonie Carter, Renzo Gracie, and dozens more.
Visit JackJohnBrownMMA on Facebook for links to all of Jack’s past interviews.
Thank you to @KirikJenness for @theUG.