It’s not all that funny, but Darren Elkins and I are laughing about the scar tissue on his face.
At this point it is what it is, and the damage will stop soon enough, but for now that’s how he handles the topic. It’s the same way Elkins handles his business in the UFC, one of the most respected fighters in the MMA’s biggest promotion, by doing it like this: Walking into the fray, laughing when he can, taking punishment and giving it out.
That’s who he’s been since he was a boy in the Region, working so hard to become an Indiana state wrestling champion that his high school coach at Portage, now the wrestling coach at Carmel, would look him in the eye and lovingly ask:
What’s wrong with you?
That’s what we’re discussing right now, Darren Elkins and me: what’s wrong with him. We start with the scar tissue, me asking a question that generates laughter from him, a short but infectious bark – more like a yip, like something from a small, feisty dog – that has me giggling too.
But now Darren’s thinking about it.
“Well,” he says, “I’ve had 26 fights in the UFC, and maybe five never really had a stitch. This was one of them.”
By this, he’s referring to his most recent fight, a three-round decision win April 30 over Tristan Connelly in Las Vegas. That fight ended with Elkins wrapped around Connelly like a strait jacket, punching his face from behind while Connelly uses his one free hand to throw punches over his shoulder, into Elkins’ face. When the bell rings, everyone’s bleeding.
And that’s one of the five UFC fights when Elkins didn’t need stitches?
“Glue doesn’t count,” he says.
So now we’re back to the stitches. He’s doing the math aloud in his head:
“Maybe 20 or 21 UFC fights, I had to have stitches,” he says. “A few fights, I’ve had 30 or 40 stitches. I don’t know, maybe 2,000? It’s a lot of stitches. training, too. Let’s go 3,000.”
Works for me. His nickname is “The Damage,” and that’s not a reference to what he does to opponents. It’s a statement of what they do to him. It’s the most humble nickname in combat sports – seriously, a nickname that highlights what happens to his face? – and it fits not just his fighting style, but his personality. He’s humble, not one to brag or talk tough, and not one to exaggerate either. A few minutes after we hang up, my phone dings. It’s a text message from Elkins.
“Did the math more,” he writes, “and I’m closer to 1,000 stitches.”
Elkins turns 38 Monday. He wants to fight until he’s 40, then say goodbye to combat sports forever.
“I’ll fight anybody,” he says. “I’m not afraid. Let’s have fun.”
More scar tissue is coming, more damage.
“Thank God,” Elkins says without a stitch of irony, “my wife is a nurse.”
‘We used Darren as our code red’
Ed Pendoski has stories about Darren Elkins.
Pendoski, Carmel’s wrestling coach since 2012, coached Portage from 1994-2005. More than 100 of his wrestlers have qualified for the Indiana high school state tournament, and roughly half of those placed at state. He has coached eight state champions, including Elkins at 140 pounds in 2004. Pendoski has devoted his life to a sport known for hard workers, where ears turn to cauliflower and wrestlers suck on Clorox wipes to stop the bleeding, but he’s never seen one like Elkins.
“I could tell stories all day,” he’s saying. “Just hang up on me if I run too long.”
Go, I say. Please.
“Darren won a cross country meet in eighth grade,” Pendoski says. “The coach wanted him to run, but Darren goes, ‘I don’t want to run. I want to wrestle.’ I said: Think about it. A break from wrestling could be good, and think about how good your cardio will be in the season.
“He looked at me like he was offended. He goes, ‘I ran 10 miles yesterday. I run every day at 3 because it’s the hottest part of the day, unless there are thunderstorms. And then I run in the thunderstorm, because nobody runs in a thunderstorm.’ That was the first time I said: ‘Something’s wrong with you.’”
Pendoski’s laughing. He loves Elkins. Another one:
“We practiced every morning, but during ISTEP week I told the team we were giving them mornings off,” Pendoski says. “Everybody on the team was like, ‘Great, no morning practice.’ But Darren looked at me and said: ‘I’m going to fail ISTEP because of you. I wake up every morning and work out. I need that workout. You’re going to mess up my ISTEP.’ I said: OK, I’ll see you in the morning.”
“We used Darren as our code red,” Pendoski says. “You could look at our JV kids on the bus, acting up, and say: ‘If you mess up one more time, you’re going to tell Darren he can’t practice.’ Because if you told Darren he can’t practice, he would lose his mind.”
“November and December, we go hard,” Pendoski says. “We stop pushing so hard physically in January and back off mentally too in February. With Darren, we had to change all that. In February we’d practice 45 minutes. Couldn’t do that with Darren. He’d lose his mind. We had to have to JV wrestlers come in to go with him. The rest of the (varsity’s) done in 45 minutes, but you’d have to put Elkins thru hell just so he would be happy.”
Pendoski tells another four or five stories, but let’s have him sum it up like this:
“Wrestling is hard work, the toughest guys, like a (US) Marine mentality, and Elkins was by far the hardest worker I’ve seen,” he says. “I don’t know the UFC that well, but I feel comfortable saying he’s probably the same way there. If there’s another guy that does what he does, I need to meet him.”
That’s Elkins, the athlete. Here’s Pendoski on Elkins, the man.
“It doesn’t make sense how nice he is,” Pendoski says. “I’ve never heard anybody say anything different. Every teacher loved him. Our conversations now are about how his son’s doing, or his daughter in school.”
‘I would have zombie-moded him’
One more story, this from one of Elkins’ coaches at Team Alpha Male, the UFC training facility in Sacramento known for having the roughest, toughest fighters in the smaller weight classes, just an army of past, present and future champions. And even there, in that building, Elkins draws this praise from coach Justin Buchholz:
“He’s nonstop,” Buchholz once told USA Today. “Elkins is one of those guys where if we told him, ‘We want you to run through that cinder block wall,’ he’d say, ‘Well, all right – it looks like a big wall, but I’ll go through it.’ And we’d find him with a head wound later, laying there. That (guy) will go through anything.”
Elkins has an MMA record of 27-10, including 17-9 in the UFC. He holds records in the UFC’s 145-pound featherweight division for fights (24), wins by unanimous decision (nine), takedowns (54) and submission attempts (22). He has beaten the likes of Michael Johnson, Dennis Bermudez and Mirsad Bektic.
The upset of Bektic in 2017 was the most Darren Elkins fight ever, a TKO win in the third round after Bektic had beaten him bloody for two rounds. Bektic landed 106 strikes in the first round – Elkins landed six – and it got worse in Round 2, when a Bektic elbow cut Elkins so badly above the eye, the mat was slippery from blood. On social media, horrified fans were calling for referee Chris Tognoni to stop the fight. Elkins came out for Round 3, wobbled forward, caught Bektic with several punches and finished him with a kick to the head.
Before the UFC he was 10-1 on the regional MMA scene, training at Duneland Vale Tudo in Hobart and fighting in smoke-filled bars on the south side of Chicago. His loss came at the county fairgrounds in Crown Point, a humid night after an afternoon rain. The canvas was moist in spots, and after a punch knocked him down, the referee called it off. TKO loss for Elkins.
“He hit me flush with a right hand. Not going to take that away from him,” Elkins says of Sept. 12, 2009 opponent Ted Worthington. “I was a little rocked, but I popped right back up and had my hands up when he called the fight. It was a bad stoppage.”
If you were rocked, I’m telling Elkins, master of the blood-soaked comeback, you had Ted Worthington right where you wanted him.
“I would have zombie-moded him for sure,” Elkins says.
Son in mohawk, daughter on Soviet rig
It’s getting harder for the family to watch.
This is a story of blood, and not just the kind that drips from Darren Elkins’ face. He followed his father, his father’s father, his brother and several cousins and uncles into the pipefitting business. He’s a proud member of Local 597 out of Chicago, the blue-collar career he chose after dropping out of Wisconsin Parkside as a sophomore wrestler when his wife was pregnant with Emma, now 15.
Darren and Connie Elkins have been together since they were sophomores at Portage. She’s a medical-surgical nurse, a flexible career that allowed the family to leave the Region for Sacramento after Elkins lost for the third time in five fights. That was 2014. He’s 9-5 since joining Team Alpha Male. Connie convinced Darren to move, that his career needed it. He hadn’t wanted to uproot the family, but he’d already put in 10 years at Local 597, getting vested for retirement and family insurance benefits, so they went.
Elkins was out West eight months before learning he hadn’t technically put in his 10 years. His year as a pipefitter apprentice in 2006 hadn’t counted toward those 10 years. Elkins wanted those benefits for his family, and after beating Brazil’s Godofredo Pepey on July 23, 2015 and taking two weeks off, he returned to the Region. Needing 900 hours before the end of the year, Elkins worked 92 of the next 96 days.
“I was sprinting,” he says. “I tried to work as many days as I could. Some jobs got rained out, and it was: ‘OK, who wants to go home?’ I’m not going home, I’m staying. It was close. I didn’t make 900 hours without a little bit of stress. But it guarantees my retirement and insurance for my family. I can’t lose it. Now it’s safe.”
This is who he is. When his son DJ got a mohawk haircut at age 6 and came home mortified and crying in 2016, Elkins shaved a mohawk into his own head to make DJ feel better. Emma is an adrenaline junkie like her father, and they’ll jump off rocks into rivers. For her birthday he took the family to Turks and Caicos, where they visited a shipwrecked Soviet freighter. Next thing Darren knows, Emma’s jumping off the old rig into the Atlantic Ocean.
The older his kids get, the more scar tissue their dad gets, his family finds it harder to attend. They still watch on TV, and Darren calls home afterward to assure everyone he’s OK. First, though, comes the post-fight interview with the winner – he has won three of his last four fights – which usually means Darren speaking on national TV. He doesn’t exactly slur his words, but listen closely. There’s something there.
This is why he’d been counting his stitches for me. That’s why I’d asked about the damage incurred by The Damage in 27 bloody UFC fights, to get to that delicate question about his speech.
“You know how people are, internet trolls, all that,” Elkins is saying, and if only he could see me on the other end of this call, nodding my head. “They call me ‘The Brain Damage,’ but it’s not that. I have a speech impediment. I was in speech for six or seven years. It was really bad when I was a kid.
“My memory is better than it’s ever been, truthfully. I read books to keep my mind sharp. I haven’t seen any side effects (from fighting), but I’ve been wrestling since I was 5. That’s combat sports for almost 33 years now. It’ll be nice to be able to say I’m done with it.”
Two more years, maybe four more fights. That’s the plan. Then he figures he’ll return to pipefitting. Could be back in the Region, surrounded by family and friends. Could be in California, where his wife has a good job and the kids are loving the weather.
“It remains to be seen where,” he says, but I think The Damage knows. It’s in his answer when I ask for the determining factor in that decision.
“My family,” he says.
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