In 2003, Virgil Zwicker was running from the law.
Short on cash, the fugitive made a choice that would aide in turning his life around, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.
“I had no place to stay, no money,” Zwicker told MMADieHards.com. “My brother actually just called me up like, ‘Hey, you’re already causing yourself a bunch of trouble fighting, you might as well try to make some money doing it.’ It was just one match, actually my first match ever. I went in there, fought the guy, took off and got caught down the road.”
It was not the first fight of Zwicker’s life, but it was the first of a professional career that would change that life for the better.
Growing up on the Chumash Indian Reservation in Southern California, Zwicker and his family had very little in the way of material possessions, but they had one another. It’s a time that Zwicker looks back on fondly, even if it was also a time in which he began to head down the wrong path.
“I loved the environment that I grew up,” Zwicker said. “We had a lot of love with my family, a big family. Very tight-knit community, all my cousins lived within a 20-mile radius.
“I was definitely blessed to be able to grow up there. It instilled some of the traditions that my family and my mother taught me.”
Zwicker’s troubles with authority began during those formative years. At the age of 11, he got into a physical confrontation with the vice principal at his school. This would lead to stints in juvenile detention centers, and eventually adult correctional facilities. He even literally fought the law, landing in jail after getting into a bare-knuckle brawl with a sheriff while at his aunt’s house.
“I ended up telling him it was my land and he has no right to tell us what to do,” Zwicker explained. “We ended up getting in a fist fight where they charged me with assaulting an officer.”
It was just a matter of time after being released from custody before Zwicker would find himself in trouble once again. This cycle eventually brought him to the Cobra Fighting Federation show in 2003, where he competed with only the goal of earning some cash to fund his escape from the authorities.
Having often taken part in street fights against Mexican gang members when he and his friends traveled from the Indian reservation to the nearby town to get groceries, Zwicker was no stranger to brawling. However, his fight with Denis Hall found the young man skipping altogether the amateur ranks and diving head-first into professional competition without a single day of mixed martial arts training.
“It was pretty easy for me,” Zwicker confessed. “My mentality at that time was ‘let’s get it.’ I didn’t care about what the other person had to offer, I was going to go out and punch him in the face. That’s all I really knew to do. I didn’t know anything about no takedowns, I didn’t know anything about anything.”
It turned out that none of that mattered. Just 58 seconds after the opening bell, Zwicker had his hand raised after stopping Hall via strikes.
“I didn’t look at him as a pro, I looked at him as a man to beat up,” he said.
Zwicker could not evade the police forever though, and did end up serving time for his crime. While in prison, the Native American saw two options, and made the smart choice.
“I’m actually glad that I went to prison,” Zwicker said. “I was actually very happy of the outcome, the steps I chose to take in prison. There’s a lot of ugliness in there and you can hang out with people in there and learn something, or you can hang out with the wrong people and become involved in some other wrong stuff.
“I chose to make a stand and change myself.”
When he finished his prison sentence, Zwicker began committing himself more fully to the sport of mixed martial arts. Fighting was easy for him, but training was another story.
“I love fighting so much and I was so good at using my fists,” he explained. “I was more of a brawler in the beginning and what was real hard for me was the everyday getting up and going to the gym. That was more hard for me than learning the technique.”
His first child, Duke, inspired him to get past that hurdle.
“It was basically a wake-up call,” Zwicker admitted. “I wanted to show him what it takes to be a professional as far as fighting. It just helped me grow as a human being.”
He started viewing training as part of his job, and began working on his wrestling, jiu-jitsu and boxing on a daily basis.
After training full time at a smaller gym in Escondido, Calif., Zwicker moved to Team Quest Temecula approximately three years ago. As he worked up to training with the likes of Dan Henderson, Krzysztof Soszynski, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Jason “Mayhem” Miller, the camp has been a great home for the heavyweight and has allowed him to progress as a fighter.
“I was beating up on everybody (at the gym in Escondido),” he said. “I wasn’t learning what I needed to learn. … I needed to go to a place and figure out how I’m going to get beat up on and learn how I’m going to handle that.
“I’ve just been very happy with the transition of local gyms to come into a big gym like that and have somebody like Dan Henderson as our team leader, just leading us at the head of the pack and now he’s the Strikeforce champion. It’s been a blessing because there’s a lot of good guys, a lot of up-and-coming fighters that are very tough there. It’s been an honor to represent them.”
Zwicker continued to polish his skills while reeling off victories, building to an 8-0 record that includes a stoppage of the now-surging Ovince St. Preux, before he suffered the first loss of his career. He bounced back just four months later with another win to go 9-1. It was then, in October 2010, that “Rezdog” would get the call from a big show.
Strikeforce brought Zwicker in to face Lavar Johnson in a featured matchup on the Challengers 11 card. It was only Johnson’s second fight since returning from a near-fatal shooting the year before, but the knockout artist proved he was still the better man that night by adding Zwicker to his list of KO victims.
The loss was a setback for Zwicker, but, as is often the adage in sports, one learns more in defeat than in victory. New to the bright lights of a promotion such as Strikeforce, he considered the fight a blessing and came into the battle with a strategy. However, the setting and the crowd overwhelmed Zwicker, and Johnson was able to take him out of his game plan and surprise the promotional newcomer with his reach. It was a revelation that might lead to a shift in weight classes for Zwicker down the road.
“I learned to stop fighting the big boys and keep down on weight and lower my weight class to 205,” Zwicker confessed. “My weight has been way down. I’m in great shape. I plan on just being quick and fast, and keeping my hands up and move forward at all times.”
Zwicker’s next opportunity to shine under the Strikeforce banner comes on the preliminary card of Saturday’s “Diaz vs. Daley” event. While he’s contemplating a shift to light heavyweight, this contest will take place in the heavyweight division as Zwicker will step into the cage with Brett Albee, a fighter whose 3-0 record can be misleading.
“He’s been training in a gym for 15, 16 years – he’s been training fighters,” Zwicker stated. “I know he’s not really got experience inside the cage as far as a MMA record, but he’s got plenty of experience outside the cage, training fighters, being in the gym – he’s been a gym rat, as far as I know.”
Zwicker cites his experience in professional bouts as an area where he holds an advantage, but also points to some intangibles that he feels give him the edge.
“I don’t think he’s got the mentality that I have,” he said. “Where I’ve dealt with these trials and tribulations that I grew up living and experienced in my life, I don’t think he’s experienced. That’s where I’m definitely bringing the fight to him.
“I’m going to come like a warrior ready to kill. I reckon he’s going to have a rude awakening.”
Despite Albee’s Muay Thai background, Zwicker shows a lot of conviction in his own striking skills with his prediction for the bout’s outcome.
“I’m going to murder him,” Zwicker proclaimed. “He’s going to get hurt bad. I’m going to come out there, I’m going to put a lot of pressure. I’m not going to say what round, I’m just going to come out and I’m going to hit him hard. I expect a TKO out of this one.”
It’s all a part of his warrior spirit. Zwicker is proud of his Native American heritage and his ability to represent his people inside the cage. He cites Dan Hornbuckle as one of his favorite fighters and lists veteran Waachiim Spiritwolf as a good friend.
“We’re warriors,” Zwicker said, summing up the trio’s background. “Native Americans are just natural killers, natural warriors. We’re always leading everything with our hearts.
“Personally, I wear my heritage on my sleeves. Everything I do, I do for my people.”
Zwicker doesn’t just chalk up his accomplishments inside the cage as a day’s work when it comes to representing his people, however. He gives back to the reservation communities in other significant ways. In addition to motivational speaking, he mentors teenagers as a basketball coach in the Intertribal Sports league. He’s even led his team to a number of championships.
“Being able to coach and offer any kind of help towards the youth has been my goal in giving back from what I’ve been through,” explained Zwicker. “This last year we just won our fourth championship in a row. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Some of his players are aware of his career in the cage. But whether it be as a coach or a fighter, Zwicker has transformed himself from an outlaw into a role model for these kids.
“Growing up on the reservation, it’s a lot of pressure,” said Zwicker. “A lot of kids don’t have parents and people in their lives where they can look up to and come to or talk to about their problems.
“They come to me and they ask me all these questions. It’s been good to be able to look at them looking at me from something different than a regular ‘rez dog’ on the streets.”
Who knows where Zwicker might have ended up had he not competed on that show back in 2003 and discovered MMA. He didn’t have a anyone to mentor him, but he did discover mixed martial arts.
“(I started) realizing what MMA was able to accomplish for me as a person, that discipline and everything that it gives…was able to get me out of that mindset of where I was headed.”
While a win over Albee on Saturday night will be huge for Zwicker, he has already scored the biggest victory of his life outside of the cage by escaping his own personal demons and seeking to provide a more positive example for the next generation of Native Americans.
Zwicker would like to thank his sponsors – Elevation Mask, The Rod Brothers Construction Company, Jalapeno Bar & Grill in Escondido, Pala Band of Mission Indians, Baad Medicine Baseball Team – as well as his family and friends, Team Quest, coach Billy Schibe, his new strength and conditioning coach Kevin Duenas from Dynamic Fitness, his manager Nima Safapour of Alchemist management, and the media for helping make MMA as popular as it is.