‘He stole my soul’: Don Frye reflects on a storied career, and one of MMA’s most memorable fights

Photo By Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images: Don Frye was involved in one of the most memorable fights in MMA history, but his journey to get there wasn’t always easy.

By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News

CATALINA – Don Frye eased into his tan leather chair, loosened his back brace, and rested a leg on the matching ottoman with a sigh.

Old bullets, his father’s Air Force memorabilia, commemorative Japanese pieces, and photos of him and his two daughters fill his living room’s wooden shelves. Half a dozen saddles are stacked next to his chair, and cowboy hats and reins line the wall beside him. A rug, bright serape on the chair, and flagstone flooring tie the scene together.

“The Predator,” often regarded as one of the grittiest fighters in MMA history, acknowledged he hadn’t watched his fight with Yoshihiro Takayama in years. Before the UFC got its legs, Japan’s PRIDE was the top mixed martial arts promotion in the world, and on June 23, 2002, Frye and Takayama delivered for PRIDE 21.

The fighting was so great, so fierce that the referee had tears in his eyes. Both fighters exchanged something more than just blows to the face.

“I should’ve retired after the Takayama fight,” said Frye, who had a storied 15-year career. “He stole my soul. I was never the same after that fight. Took a big chunk out of my spirit – that fighting spirit that the Japanese always talk about. I was never the same after that. How do you top that?”

Looking back

Frye, 56, clicked “play” on his TV. A slight smirk appeared through his thick, burly mustache as his former self and Takayama – the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Japanese wrestler – moved to the corner of the ring and exchanged right hands akin to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. The match more closely resembled a hockey fight than a professional MMA contest.

“Overall, it’s a blur, but when you watch it, you think, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that,’” Frye said in his distinctive, raspy voice. “He punched me and knocked my feet out from underneath me so I had to grab him by the scruff of his neck to keep from falling. Then we just started punching.”

The fight only lasted six minutes and 10 seconds of the first round, but what had transpired was more than anyone could have asked for.

“I’m damn proud of that fight,” Frye said. “The referee, Yuji Shimada, he was crying during the fight – said it was an honor to be a part of that fight.”

Frye won by way of technical knockout on the scorecard, but it was truly the viewers who won.

“Who won?” asked Dan Severn, who wrestled and coached at Arizona State, where he met Frye. “Well, the audience because they witnessed something that they will probably never, ever witness again. Both men paid a price for that.”

Screenshot Courtesy of PRIDE FC: The fight between Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama in 2002 was so intense that the referee had tears in his eyes.

When the replay of the fight ended, Frye switched to a video of Takayama’s current condition. Takayama severed his spinal cord while performing a sunset flip for wrestling for Dramatic Dream Team Pro-Wrestling in 2017, which left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Frye sat in silence as he watched, rewinding and rewatching the move that cost Takayama his movement and career.

“Takayama, God bless him, man,” he said. “It’s not fair. He didn’t deserve that. Nobody else on the planet but him would’ve made that fight what it was.”

A tough road

Frye now enjoys a quiet life in Catalina, a rural community 30 miles north of Tucson. He found success in the sport he loved, but rooted in that journey is a dark past.

His “Head down, tail up and charge” mindset produced explosive fights, but what really powered his rage was his experiences in his youth, and they still fuel him today.

Frye was molested three times as a child, he said. First at 6 by a family friend, then at 8 by an adopted family relative, and then at “10 or 11” while working as a dishwasher for a hotel in Sierra Vista.

Although Frye and his family fought to press charges, nothing materialized and the experience led him to start drinking alcohol in fifth grade as therapy, he said. Then MMA came around.

“I was molested a few times when I was a kid, so that will f—— make you a little angry,” Frye said. “Hell yeah. Hell yeah. It will either make you or break you, and I got lucky – it made me. It gave me something to stay angry about and motivate me.”

Frye figured the early childhood experience was “just life,” but it left him scarred.

“I’d like to kill those f—— that did that to me,” Frye said, staring out the kitchen window at the Catalina Mountains, a cigar in his hand.

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Don Frye watches a tape of his most iconic bout, with Yoshihiro Takayama in 2002. “Overall, it’s a blur, but when you watch it, you think, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that,’” he says.

That rage followed him throughout his career and has led to a “major role” in an upcoming movie with actor Michael Paré about tracking down and killing pedophiles, he said. He took the role based solely on the plot, he added, with no monetary motivations.

Frye is circumspect about his career as a fighter.

“I didn’t pick it, it picked me,” he said. “The UFC came around at that time and I was like 28, 29, and then I got into it. I don’t think I fought in the UFC until I was 30.”

When the UFC was started in 1993 – and even up until the early 2000s, it was the wild, wild West. There were no weight classes, and many of the moves used then are now illegal. However, Frye was a pioneer in the sport, one of the first true mixed martial artists with backgrounds in wrestling, judo, and boxing. His technique later became the basics of modern MMA.

“The Predator” had a professional MMA record of 20-9-1 with one no contest over his storied career. Although he fought for 11 promotions, the UFC, PRIDE FC, and New Japan Pro-Wrestling were among the biggest.

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Don Frye won his final belt in the UFC during Ultimate Ultimate 2 in 1996 before moving on to wrestling and MMA in Japan. He finished his UFC career with a 10-1 record and changed the sport forever. 

However, if it weren’t for Severn, Frye may have never graced the MMA world at all. Severn, who is also a UFC Hall of Famer, is one of only four cage fighters with over 100-career wins, and of those four, only three have over 100 victories. Severn has victories over the other two.

“Dan changed my life,” Frye said. “He got me into the UFC when I asked him to. He got me some fights across the country where I didn’t get paid but that’s pretty much how you test somebody.”

Accomplished career

Because Severn coached Frye at ASU, he knew Frye would do well.

“I already knew he had a bone-headed attitude,” Severn said. “He doesn’t know how to go backward, he just goes straight forward like a bull in a China closet.”

Frye stormed into the fighting scene early, appearing as one of the “most well-rounded fighters” in the UFC at the time, Severn said. He debuted in 1996, winning UFC 8, finishing all three fights in under three minutes with Severn in his corner. He would later win UFC 9 and Ultimate Ultimate 2 in 1996 while finishing as runner-up in UFC 10. At that time, the UFC was set up in a tournament bracket.

Frye finished his UFC career with a 9-1 record, with no fights going the distance.

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty ImagesMany fans remember Frye and love to interact with him, like at this UFC International Fight Week Legends Panel in Las Vegas.

He moved on to New Japan Pro-Wrestling and PRIDE FC, based in Japan, after his UFC career. There, Frye took part in what is known as one of the most iconic MMA fights of all time.

It was Frye’s career and charisma that turned him into an icon overseas. Although his close friends knew him as J.R. Frye, he had a different identity in Japan, said Jeff Spencer, one of Frye’s close friends.

“Somewhere halfway between Japan and L.A., he’d turn into Don “The Predator” Frye – rock star,” Spencer said. “His voice would get deeper, just everything. But, you’d get off the plane and it was just crazy, the people would mob him. Don being Don, he would take a lot of time with them and I’m sure that’s what made him big over there.”

His popularity also led to his featured role in “Godzilla: Final Wars.”

Before fighting, Frye worked odd jobs ranging from horseshoeing, firefighting, and bartending. But fighting is just one of the many chapters that altered Frye’s life. The life of fighting – or lack thereof – led to a pair of divorces that ended his belief in the possibility of a successful marriage and left him broke.

“I didn’t have the money (when I didn’t fight),” Frye said. “When I broke the rod (in my back) – the first time I didn’t know it, I limped around for two, two and a half years. The ex-wife, she’d be loving and caring in front of everybody, but when we were alone, ‘You just aren’t the man you used to be, not as tough as you used to be, you don’t have the pain tolerance you used to have. You’re not a man anymore.’

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Don Frye’s career took a toll on his body, but he still makes sure to care for his horses and property. Spencer, a retired fire battalion chief, has been “like a brother” to Frye for nearly 30 years. They met while Frye worked as a reserve firefighter before making it to the UFC.

“Then the kicker was when she says, ‘I don’t think you can provide for the family anymore.’ Ah, OK, there’s the truth.”

The UFC changed Frye’s life once again when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.

“I was in the toilet mentally,” he said. “My horse had died. I had a beautiful stallion. He had died, then the divorce.”

The induction also got him through major back surgery, one that left him in the hospital for almost three months, with most of it being in a medically induced coma from brain hemorrhaging.

An enduring friendship

Since he retired in 2011, he has been in and out of hospitals. Over the course of his career, Frye said he has had “45 or 50” surgeries, and his career started to spiral in the wrong direction when he became reliant on pain medication from his various injuries. The one regret Frye had over his career was not listening to his body. Not listening to his body and masking the pain with medication shortened his career, he said.

“I’ve had like 27 just on my back or related to my back alone. A couple on my hand, a couple on this (left) elbow, this (right) elbow, about five or seven on this (left shoulder), about five on this (right shoulder). Like I said, the back is a mess.”

“A lot of people that were around Don always wanted something from him,” Spencer said. “When he started getting a little bit famous, everybody had their hands out. Don bought everybody’s lunch, he’s a real goodhearted guy and took care of people. I never did that.

“When he was doing pro wrestling in Japan, he was flying, so I went up there and did all the framing on the garage and put their trusses up and got it all framed in for him. Then, he was asking me how much he owes me, and I’m like, ‘Don, you don’t owe me anything. We’re friends.’ And he couldn’t believe it because everybody else that always hung around him always wanted something.

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Now that Don Frye is out of the hospital, he can see his two horses, Puzzle and Funk, which are his pride and joy. His daughters help care for them and the property when he can’t.

“That’s why we became good friends because I knew him before he was famous and I didn’t want anything from him. And it just all worked out. And I get pretty pissed off when people try to take advantage of him.”

Spencer, speaking about himself, acknowledged he doesn’t have many friends, and he doesn’t like a lot of people, but Frye has always been there, even during the toughest of times.

“My wife died in 1999,” Spencer said. “And Don was still busy doing appearances, doing acting stuff, and he came down and stayed with me for like a month and a half after my wife died.”

Whenever Frye leaves the hospital, he stays with Spencer in Sierra Vista. And it was Spencer who got Frye’s pit bull, Quinn.

“The most special thing to him is his dog,” he said.

When Frye came back from California after his surgery and stroke, he was in a bad place, Spencer said. “He wasn’t doing real good, he was in the middle of the divorce at that time, and somebody had this bulldog that they didn’t want anymore and so he called me and he’s like, ‘Can I bring it home?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah.’ Swear to God, as soon as that dog got here, Don started getting better.”

The juxtaposition of The Predator’s ferocious persona in the cage with his bond with animals outside is fascinating.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Spencer said, recounting a story about Frye. “We were out at one of my friend’s house and there was this horse – we were on this 10-acre thing, and it was on the other side – Don calls over to the horse and the horse comes over and lets Don pet him.

“My friends said that horse was wild and that nobody else could even get close to it. He’s like an animal whisperer or something, he has something special with animals.”

Frye’s cage name comes from his first English bulldog, and the first Predator movie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His long career has sculpted Frye’s perceptions of divorces, injuries, and making a living; he acknowledges he’s “a lot darker now.”

“You get ripped off for a few million dollars, betrayed and lied to and all that, it will change your opinions on a few things,” Frye said.

But at the end of the day, he doesn’t wish he had it any other way. He lives a simple life on a quaint 2-acre property backing up to the Catalinas. His pride and joy come from a cigar, his pit bull Quinn, and two horses, Puzzle and Funk. His two daughters, who he admires for staying with him through the divorces, and for helping with the care of the animals and property.

“Don Frye is a guy who enjoys his life,” Frye said. “Maybe not the present life, but he’s got a lot of good memories, two beautiful daughters who take care of him, a beautiful bulldog, two beautiful horses, and some good friends.”

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