Thursday, April 16, 2009 | midnight
Master kickboxer Nick Blumgren of One Kick's Gym on East Flamingo needed to add a makeshift bedroom to his gym. So he cleared out his 10-foot-by-10-foot storage closet, threw in a futon and television set and called it good.
Welcome home, Steve.
UFC fighter Steve Cantwell (7-1-0) is 22 and lives on his own now, but for three years, Cantwell called the storage closet at One Kick's his permanent residence. Born in Long Beach, Calif., Cantwell moved to Pahrump when he was 10 years old. By the time he was 16, he had gotten kicked out of middle school and high school for fighting. Faced with either taking up kickboxing or finding a job, Cantwell chose to see where fighting would take him besides the principal's office.
"After he got kicked out of high school, his dad told him he either had to work or do something with fighting," Blumgren said. "So he started coming to my gym, but they lived all the way out in Pahrump. Instead of traveling back and forth, Steve just stayed at the gym. We had the understanding before he came that there would be plenty of fighting in the gym but not outside the gym. If I saw improvements in him, I'd let him stay longer."
It took time, but Cantwell eventually proved himself to Blumgren and his jiu-jitsu trainer Sergio Pehna, winning several amateur grappling and kickboxing tournaments before making his WEC MMA debut in 2007. Now in the UFC, Cantwell faces arguably the biggest fight of his career this Saturday, when he takes on Luis Cane (10-1-1) on the televised portion of UFC 97 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada. Cane's lone UFC defeat came in the form of a disqualification for an illegal kick to the head of James Irvin in 2007.
"I wanted to fight some of the new guys at first, but Cane isn't a new guy by any means," said Cantwell, who won his UFC debut last December by technical knockout over Razak Al-Hassan. "His only loss was a disqualification, so he's pretty much unbeaten. It's a huge fight for me, it would place me with the top fighters and give me the respect I feel I deserve, especially if I can go out and smash him."
Cantwell has come a long way from the expelled high school kid who first walked into Blumgren's gym. Although he never backed away from a fight, Cantwell's technique was so stiff when he started, his trainers nicknamed him "the Robot." The name stuck and has followed Cantwell into the UFC.
But while his fighting style has matured, Cantwell's personality has mostly remained the same. A personality classified, Blumgren said, as "a pain in the ass."
"Everything I tell him not to do, he does anyway," Blumgren said. "When he got here I told him to stay away from my secretary and he turned her into his girlfriend. It's just like any time you spend that much time with someone, we've got a father-son thing going where I'll tell him, 'Don't touch the oven, it's hot,' and he touches it."
Cantwell has continued that tradition by immediately spending all the money he receives from his fights, ignoring his trainer's advice to hang on to a portion of it. Following his first paycheck from a WEC event, Cantwell proceeded to blow it on a $2,000 rottweiler. The next one went toward a 7 Series BMW.
"I tell him to save some money but he always wants to buy something with it right away," Blumgren said. "He bought a car he should never be driving. I think a part of him just wants to stay broke. He owns a nice car but the gas tank is always on 'E' because he can't afford the gas. He parks it in front of the gym and gets rides from the rest of us."
Saturday's event should once again fill Cantwell's pockets, if only for a short time. If "the Robot" continues to dismantle opponents as effectively as he did in his first UFC fight, which resulted in him breaking Al-Hassan's arm at the elbow in the first round, there might be a long road of paychecks ahead. Cantwell claims that, as one of the younger faces of his sport, he's comfortable taking a long road to the top, knocking off as many fighters as he can before hopefully competing for a UFC title belt in the future.
"This is my moment and I'm trying to live in it as much as I can," Cantwell said. "I don't want to wake up tomorrow and have it be over, I want to take my time and do it right. By no means am I in a hurry. I want to smash everybody until there's no one left. [The light heavyweight] is such a stacked division, anybody in the top 10 could wear that belt well, I want to smash as many of them as I can."