A Crucible Unlike Any Other

by Brian Knapp

Former Eastside High School wrestler Cody Durden pushed all his chips to the center of the table and bet on himself in the cutthroat world of mixed martial arts.

When Cody Durden arrived at his crossroads, he paused, looked both ways and chose the path of most resistance—his steps through depressing lows and exhilarating highs numbered by blood, sweat and tears. The 28-year-old married father of two now finds himself on the precipice of realizing a dream only a select few thought possible. 

Durden owns a 9-2 record in mixed martial arts, a physically and mentally demanding sport that melds together various disciplines of hand-to-hand combat, from traditional wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo to karate, taekwondo and muay Thai. Though it was once saddled by the “human cockfighting” stigma, MMA has undergone various changes to its structure and rules across the last 25 years in an attempt to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences. Those efforts have largely succeeded. 

The Ultimate Fighting Championship in March 2019 struck a five-year broadcasting rights deal with ESPN worth a reported $750 million. Home to more than 500 prizefighters, the UFC now stages 40-plus events annually all across the globe in a bid to stay ahead of competitors like Bellator MMA, the Professional Fighters League and Singapore-based One Championship. Durden, who competes at 135 pounds, wants a piece of the action.

“I hope to one day make it into the UFC or a bigger-paying promotion to do this full-time to support my family and help out people the best I can,” he said. “I want to give back one day. Fighting is just a vehicle to get me where I’m going. One day, I’ll open up a gym and teach my skills to young kids to ensure they aren’t bullied and help them live a healthier lifestyle.”

Durden holds down a day job as a construction worker and trains as many as six days a week at an American Top Team affiliate in Lawrenceville. There, he hones his skills alongside accomplished fighters like current Bellator welterweight champion Douglas Lima and UFC veteran Dhiego Lima. 

I’m a very smart guy. If I wanted to go to college and be a lawyer, I could have. Would I enjoy it? Probably not. The money would be great,
but money isn’t everything.”

Cody Durden

“I had a buddy I worked with tell me about the Lima brothers,” Durden said, “and he suggested if I wanted to be something in the sport I should go and check them out.” 

His pursuits require extraordinary discipline and determination, creating a grind for which the weak-minded and faint-hearted need not apply. Durden has suffered a variety of injuries, including two torn ACLs, fractured ribs and numerous lacerations requiring stitches. He has broken both of his hands twice. Nevertheless, he rises daily at 4:30 a.m., works a typical 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift and then heads to the gym for an intense two- to three-hour training session. Durden’s commitment has not gone unnoticed. His manager has already been contacted by Bellator matchmakers and spoken to the UFC about Durden appearing on Dana White’s Contender Series—an annual eight- to 10-week competition during which prospective fighters face one another for a chance to secure a UFC contract. Currently on a five-fight winning streak, Durden captured the Valor Fighting Challenge bantamweight championship with a second-round technical knockout of Dre Miley on Nov. 1 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“My coaches and I are weighing the good and the bad,” he said. “Then we will make a decision on what’s next.”

Eastside High School served as Durden’s springboard to MMA. A 2009 graduate, he wrestled under former coach Michael Smith-Foot and helped lead the Eagles to two state championships. As an individual, he compiled a remarkable 121-31 record, won four area championships, two sectional titles and advanced to the state final as a senior. Despite the fact that he had to close the book on his wrestling career—he was offered a scholarship to the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York—due to the arrival of his son, he had unknowingly put the foundation in place for a career in combat sports. A chance invite from longtime friend and mixed martial artist Travis Knight changed everything.

“He invited me to his gym in Conyers,” Durden said. “They had wrestling mats there. I showed up and got my tail kicked every day but fell in love with the sport, so I started fighting in 2014 after two years of training.”

Durden won his first four fights, then suffered back-to-back defeats to Jared Scoggins and Ryan Hollis on July 22, 2017 and March 24, 2018. The lessons he learned in those setbacks remain with him to this day, as evidenced by the fact that he has not lost since.

“I learned to be patient, tactical, and learned to control my emotions,” Durden said. “Fighting isn’t about being angry and hurting the guy. It’s about being smart and getting the win.”

Though his passion for MMA burns as brightly today as it did when he first set foot in a gym, Durden concedes there are moments of doubt and quiet self-examination during which he questions the choices he has made. “The thought crosses my mind more than you could imagine, especially after a fight when I don’t have a fight lined up on the horizon,” he said. “I’m a very smart guy. If I wanted to go to college and be a lawyer, I could have. Would I enjoy it? Probably not. The money would be great, but money isn’t everything.” Durden speaks from experience. He left a possible six-figure opportunity on the table when he decided to pursue MMA.

“I knew all along what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to be the best fighter on the planet, so I quit my job, found a job that was more lenient and started training more. Was it all worth it? Hell, yes.”

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