Elton Hobson: The Reason I’m Here Right Now
April 19, 2008
We’re standing in the back of an impossibly long line stretching around the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec when I first hear it. It begins as murmurs, excited whispers, moving through the crowd like brushfire. The same three words on everybody’s lips: G. S. P. I strain to peer beyond the crowd when I finally see it. Across the street, getting out of a black SUV with his entourage, is the man himself.
And of course, the crowd goes wild. And strangely (or not) I’m caught up in it as well, cheering for the Great Canadian Hope alongside all the other diehards who’ve lined up for hours just to see him stand on a scale. That’s because today is the weigh-in for UFC 83, the first ever UFC event on Canadian soil. It takes a diehard MMA fan to line up for a simple weigh-in. Montreal apparently has thousands of them.
I realize now, looking back, that I was flanked in the moment by two of my heroes. The one across the street was larger than life, my hero only because every so often I watched him beat legitimate tough guys to a pulp on Pay-Per-View (this was back in 2008 when that still happened). Then there was the one standing next to me.
Over a year previous, my best friend Mark Trost had been diagnosed with a rare form on cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma, and had been in a battle for his life ever since. He had lost most of his hair, along with a shocking amount of weight; his skin had turned pale and sickly. Yet he never lost that inner energy, the vitality of spirit and vivaciousness of soul that had made him one of the most popular guys at my school. Mark was the star athlete, the gym rat and the ladies’ man, yet lacked any sort of outrageous braggadocio. He was polite, laid back, and the most quietly confident person I’ve ever met.
Our circle of friends were already big UFC fans (05-07 was a great time to get back into the sport), so when we heard the promotion was headed for Canada we decided to do something special for Mark. We all pitched in and bought him a ticket, but then my wonderful girlfriend (now fiancé) Michelle took it a step further. Somehow, she got in touch with an executive at the UFC, told them Mark’s story, and arranged for a special backstage tour/meet and greet for our friend.
That’s what brought us to that line up around the Bell Centre that warm April day.
Eventually, we met up with said UFC exec (name withheld) and it was then we got the bad news: there were only two backstage passes, meaning either me or Michelle would not be able to come backstage. In another incredible act of generosity, my wife to be (to be) offered to stay behind so I could go with my friend. To this day, I am in her debt for that (and so many other things).
So there we were, two teenagers behind the scenes at a UFC event. We chit-chatted with the crew assembling the famous “Octagon”, got the tour of the whole facility, and even met UFC President Dana White. White is one of the most controversial figures in all of sports (and with good reason) but whenever I think of him, the first thing I think of is how he took almost an hour of his day on the busiest day of his professional life (UFC 83 was, at the time, the biggest UFC event ever in terms of live gate) to talk to a quiet kid with cancer and his star-struck buddy. I’ll never forget it.
But undoubtedly, the highlight of the whole trip was meeting GSP.
It was right after he weighed in, to the enthusiastic response of the packed house (even more enthusiastic when you remember that all he was doing was standing on a scale in his underwear). He was backstage chugging a Gatorade and eating a banana when his manager ushered us his way with a casual “fellas…this is Georges.”
And my first reaction was…”Huh, he’s really not that tall.”
I know, that’s what every kid says when he meets his hero, but after watching him hand big tough dudes their butts for the last two years, I almost expected him to be 7 feet tall and 300 pounds. Instead, he stands just a hair shorter than me, and roughly the same frame and body shape as me as well – plus about 30 pounds of pure muscle, that is. He’s a quiet, polite Quebecois fellow who speaks very good English and laughs nervously a lot. I’m impressed that he seems to know Mark’s story and even name without prompting – the dude has a lot on his mind, what with the “cage fight in my hometown in front of 15,000 people tomorrow” thing he’s got going on.
As I watch them talk, I realize for a moment the small miracle taking place in front of me. My friend, who carried the stress of cancer with him every moment of every day, was for the first time in months actually relaxing. He was smiling, making jokes, and enjoying himself – not just pretending to enjoy himself for the benefit of those around him. And the man to whom he spoke, a famous fighter in an organization derided for its inhumanity, taking time out of his day to be with my friend, in the truest sense. It was a wonderful moment.
A moment I almost ruined when he asked me if I wanted an autograph, and I replied with “Well yeah, but I don’t want to be an a**hole and just ask for one.” Something about the clean-cut, polite and professional image the champ puts forth made me think for a moment that he was going to pummel me right then and there for swearing in his presence.
Instead, he simply laughed and signed his autograph anyways. I’ll always treasure that special “For Trenton. GSP” autograph I received that day – yes, the name reads “Trenton”, which is inconvenient only because that’s not really my name. He must have misheard me, and after the a**hole incident, I didn’t have the stones to tell the (soon to be) UFC Welterweight champion that he’d made a typo.
By the next night, Georges the quiet, polite 20-something had transformed into GSP, the conquering hero, the invincible giant. In front of a sell-out crowd at Montreal’s Bell Centre, he won his title back in impressive fashion in what is still the most intense crowd atmosphere I have ever been a part of, anywhere, ever. That night was the last time I really “marked out” (wrestling-speak for really buying into) for a UFC fight – after that, I became a more educated fan, watched all the MMA I could get my (digital) paws on, and started writing about the sport and getting involved on the local level. But if I’m being honest, that enthusiasm was less because of GSP, and more because of my friend.
Mark Trost passed away on February 28, 2009, finally losing his battle with cancer after more than two years of brutal, agonizing struggle. I owe my friend so much – my confidence, my turning to a healthy lifestyle, whatever meagre amounts of lovin’ with the ladies I managed to scrounge in high school – but I also owe him the words you’re reading right now. Mark Trost is the reason I write about MMA; the experience we had that day opening a curiosity that has never since abated.
That’s what the sport of MMA means to me. And to anyone who might dismiss the power of combat sports to move us emotionally, I tell them this story. I tell them of how a sport so derided for its violence and inhumanity provided one of the most meaningful and poignant moments of my life, and opened the door to my future.
And finally, I thank my friend. Wherever you are. Thank you for everything.