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I Went From Fighting in a Cage to Living in a Hut
Image: Willie Petersen

Growing up, I faced pretty severe bullying. Maybe it’s because I was chubbier and had pimples on my face. Maybe I was too nice and let other kids walk over me. At 13, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I battled suicidal thoughts.

Luckily, I had a loving home and my parents did everything they could to help me improve my self-esteem. They encouraged me to get involved in athletics. And that’s what started me on the trajectory to professional cage fighting.

I’ve loved the sport of wrestling since the moment I stepped onto the mat. It took my focus off my struggles. I didn’t start off as a great wrestler. In fact, I was terrible. But a coach saw something in me and he never gave up. Eventually I became one of the best and won multiple state and national championships.

After graduation, I moved to the Olympic Training Center to pursue my dream of wrestling in the Olympics. In a match with a world champion, I ended up in a bad position. Rather than give him the point, I let him gut-wrench me against the mat, twisting my arm the wrong way. In a freak accident, my arm snapped like a twig.

I was in terrible pain from my neck down to my hand. My elbow was broken and dislocated. I’d torn the ulnar collateral ligament. There was nerve damage. And my insurance company didn’t want to pay for my surgery.

In the meantime, I took painkillers, and I was hooked immediately. The drugs dulled not only my physical pain, but also the emotional pain and depression that had tormented me since elementary school. I would go through a month’s supply of Oxycontin in a week. Eventually, I had three doctors, in three different states, prescribing me narcotics in rotation; none of them knew about the others.

Skyrocketing Addictions

My wrestling career was in limbo, but the drive to fight remained. When a friend of mine was injured, I took his spot in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight. Wrestlers often perform well in MMA, and I was no exception. After my first win, I caught the fighting bug.

As my popularity in the MMA community grew, I got sucked into the fighting lifestyle, which can be dangerous. Fans wanted me to sign autographs and take pictures. And everyone wanted to party. As my career skyrocketed, so did my addictions. Before long, I’d added cocaine and alcohol to my already out-of-control narcotics addiction.

After my record reached 9–1, I appeared on Spike’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter. While I didn’t win, it catapulted my career, and before long I landed an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) contract. I was the youngest heavyweight at the highest level. I split my time between fighting, training, and doing drugs. To this day, I am missing memories of entire weeks due to drug binges.

My life hit rock bottom when I was kicked off one of the world’s best fight teams for drug use. My childhood dream had turned into a living nightmare. But when everyone else had written me off as beyond redemption, one friend, Jeff, refused to walk away. He called me several times a day, inviting me to a Christian men’s retreat. He promised to train with me in the mornings, as long as I would attend the sessions in the afternoons. I was expecting a bunch of “kumbaya moments” around a campfire, but the men were raw and real about their struggles. They weren’t wimpy men like I thought, but they had a peace I envied. After a few days at the retreat, I knew I needed what they had, and I prayed:

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