A great many fight fans the were first introduced to light heavyweight competitor Tait Fletcher during the third season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2006, during which he got nose to nose with coach Ken Shamrock in an argument about training.
The truth is Fletcher had been around the fight game long before The Ultimate Fighter as one of the founding members of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn's fight team in New Mexico.
As a transplant from Michigan who originally relocated to Santa Fe for college, Fletcher soon discovered martial arts and made the trip to Albuquerque to begin working with the up and coming team at Jackson's.
This was long before champions like Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre sought out Jackson's advice and coaching ahead of fights. These were the days when fighters were just training and competing because martial arts was something they were passionate about, and it was ingrained in them to go out and fight.
"Guys like me and Keith (Jardine) and Diego (Sanchez) and Carlos Condit that started. During that time it was just love of the game stuff," Fletcher told MMA's Great Debate Radio recently. "(It wasn't) like 'oh here's a way I'm going to make a living!'. You were proud just to be able to go and express your art form in a cage in front of people and really just confront your ego and your demons and all that stuff. That was a beautiful time and I was glad to be a part of that time."
The atmosphere changed dramatically in 2005 when The Ultimate Fighter debuted on Spike TV and Fletcher's teammate and friend Diego Sanchez not only made the cast, but won the entire show in the middleweight division, defeating Kenny Florian in the finale.
Anonymity at Jackson's—and a lot of other MMA gyms—became a thing of the past.
More and more fighters from the team started making a move to The Ultimate Fighter and competing in the UFC, and the sport was exploding on a global scale.
"Then boom—Diego wins The Ultimate Fighter, and Keith's on the second season with Rashad (Evans) and I'm on the third season and then it just starts rolling," Fletcher said.
Fletcher didn't find the same kind of success in the UFC that his teammates did, however, and he soon found himself on the outside looking in with the biggest promotions in the sport.
He was always a grappling savant, picking up jiu-jitsu like it was second nature while training under famed teachers like Eddie Bravo, and the gym was a place he that felt like home, but the cage started to become a foreign place to him as the years moved forward.
His last fight was in 2008. He competed in a King of the Cage show where he was defeated by knockout in the first round. It wasn't the loss or how he was defeated that made Fletcher question his future in MMA.
It was something internal where Fletcher didn't want to become another that fighter who sticks around the game too long. It was then that he had to start asking some hard questions about what he wanted out of MMA.
The kinds of questions that can lead to retirement or a new life all together.
"It's a big thing for fighters. You're known for that and people see you on TV and you're revered and you're a warrior in the Coliseum. Then who are you without that?" Fletcher said. "That's a haunting question for a lot of guys. They don't know. So who am I without that. When you've had the opportunity in life to ask yourself that as a man again and again, a lot of guys run from it and won't ask the question."
There are dozens of fighters still competing today with their glory years long behind them. It's no different than the wide receiver who gets cut from an NFL team in his late 30's only to pop up playing Canadian football or maybe ends up on an Arena League team. It's not always about money or fame—sometimes it's just not being able to give up who they believe they need to be.
Football player, basketball player, racecar driver, MMA fighter—it's just who they are.
"You've got to be really sound in those choices. So am I going to continue down this road out of a distorted sense of my ego or what do I want to be? If I believe I could do anything in the world, what would I be doing if I really believed it was possible?" Fletcher said. "I see a lot of guys that never ask the question that live happy lives, but they're muted lives. They're not lives that are fully expressed I want to think. Looking at that, I think how many years can you fight? And you're going to start getting diminishing returns, maybe get knocked out again, how much money are you not going to make, all of that is dark, ugly days.
"That's where you've really got to go am I a fighter or am I a man who fights?"
It wasn't an easy question to ask and the answers came even harder for a man who had only known mixed martial arts and fighting for most of his adult life. Fletcher made the decision then and there to move on from active competition, and begin focusing on the next phase of his life.
He never completely stepped away from the sport, however, because instead of fighting full time he turned his attention to instructing instead. The New Mexico based fighter had been taught by some of the greatest minds in MMA, so why not relay that information to the next generation of martial artists?
So Fletcher opened up a gym in New Mexico while also teaching classes at another school in town as well. Still as much as he loved martial arts, he soon found another province that called his name just like MMA had done a few years earlier.
With a growing film industry setting up shop in New Mexico, using the dry desert areas as the backdrop for any number of locations shoots, Fletcher decided that stunt work and eventually acting were things that definitely drew in his interest.
Now a veteran of an excess of 15 films and television series with more on the way, Fletcher has no regrets with his decision to give up MMA and pursue a full-time career in acting. As it turns out even when MMA came calling recently to try and coax him back into fighting, Fletcher knew that his career was over and he had moved on from that world.
Saying no to a fight also resulted in him landing one of the best parts of his young acting career.
"For me I couldn't look back," Fletcher said. "I've been offered fights, in the last year there was what looked like a good opportunity, but I would have lost out on another three opportunities including Breaking Bad as it turns out if I had done that. Now what would I have gained for that one opportunity? I can't live in the rear view mirror. I can't live backwards of who I was and trying to grab onto that. I've just got to live fully and strongly driving forward."
Fletcher has appeared in multiple episodes of the Emmy award winning drama Breaking Bad from AMC this season. He plays a character named Lester, who is part of an Aryan gang who interacts with lead character Walter White played by Bryan Cranston as well as supporting cast members such as Aaron Paul.
Playing a role on Breaking Bad, which films in New Mexico, has been a dream come true for Fletcher. Everyday for weeks he was able to learn from actors like Cranston and Paul and it was just like he was back in the training room working under legendary coaches like Jackson and Winkeljohn.
"Bryan (Cranston) and Aaron a tremendous amount for sure. Real grateful for all the interactions I had with them," Fletcher said. "To me the whole medium of acting or performing, just strive towards excellence and just because you can never reach perfection, there's no f—king reason not to strive for it. The best part of life is learning, and the best part of life is putting myself in a position where I know f—k-all about the subject and then digging into it and trying to find out stuff. Maybe not become a master in it, but become fluid in it. That's really the art of acting has been that for me lately."
He's not landing starring roles yet, but Fletcher knows he's starting out in a good place.
He just finished filming a new project alongside Oscar winner Denzel Washington in a movie titled The Equalizer as well as an appearance on the Fox show The Mindy Project where he will guest star alongside another notable MMA name—his good friend and teammate Keith Jardine.
This is just the start for Fletcher, who was taught a great lesson while on the set of Breaking Bad in a story about one of the show's stars, who almost walked away from his career before making it as one of the most sought after thespians in Hollywood.
"One of the stories that's out of that is Aaron Paul and his career and who he is as an actor," Fletcher explained. "Like a couple of weeks ago you see me grab him from out under the car, and to see that dude set up a scene beforehand and to see where he goes physically and emotionally is such a learning experience for me as a performer. It's really inspiring.
"To talk to guys that have been on the show from the beginning, and when (Aaron) began the pilot apparently he was telling a couple of the dudes 'yeah man, I was about to move back to Indiana or wherever he came from, because I wasn't really (making it), the acting thing, and living in L.A., I can't afford it, and I'm sick of doing it', his whole story about it. He's in a spot kind of where he's f—ked and now he's on the show and as everybody's saying their goodbyes or whatever and he's onto his next project at Dreamworks, a Steven Spielberg project that was made for him. It's like that's amazing. That's amazing that that kind of stuff can happen."
From Aaron Paul's inspiration to his own work ethic, Fletcher is tackling acting just like he did fighting—with everything he can muster. He will certainly sit back and enjoy the Breaking Bad final episode this Sunday like millions will do all over the world, but this isn't the end of the story for Fletcher.
It's only the beginning because if there's one concept that doesn't register with him it's giving up.
"Most people quit. That's the truth of it, we get tired, we get beaten down and we quit," Fletcher said. "One of the best things I've learned in life is that I'm f—king tough and I'm not going to quit."
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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