“So give me a stage
where this bull here can rage.
And though I can fight,
I’d much rather recite.
So goes one of the best-remembered scenes from Raging Bull, in which Robert De Niro plays a bloated, broken-down Jake LaMotta, former middleweight champion of the world. Backstage with a cigar in one hand, years removed from his awesome prime, he struggles to remember his monologue before he steps onstage to bask in the pity of a small audience of fans and gawkers.
Historically, this is how most fighters wind up when their careers in the ring end and they turn to the entertainment industry to make a buck: flirting with self-parody and living off the sympathy of those who remember how great they once were.
Brendan Schaub ain’t going out like that.
The former UFC heavyweight contender, and now host of one of the biggest podcasts on the Web, is charging forward into the realm of stand-up comedy with his hands up and his chin down. When he invited Onnit to follow him for three days leading up to his first one-man show at LA’s famous Ice House Comedy Club—a performance that could make or break his new career—we jumped at the chance to corner him for what may have been his toughest test yet.
Day I – Training and Steve Austin
We meet Schaub at 9 a.m. at Box ’N Burn, a boxing gym in Santa Monica. He hasn’t thrown a punch at someone’s head in more than two years, but, unlike Jake LaMotta in retirement, he looks like he still could—and land it flush. He shows up here every morning for circuit training and then five to 10 rounds of mitt work.
The workout today includes trap-bar deadlifts, and we watch him work up to 405 pounds for an easy set of five, followed by depth jumps to the floor and then over a hurdle that’s more than four feet high. “Did you hear about the guy who was deadlifting and died?” Schaub asks us between sets. In the self-deprecating style that defines his comedy, he answers his own question. “I wonder if I’d make CNN if I died in here.”
“He’s faster, more athletic, and more powerful” than ever, says Glenn Holmes, Box ’N Burn’s co-owner and head trainer. Because Schaub doesn’t have to train so many qualities—fight skills, strength, conditioning, mobility, etc.—in condensed periods of time leading up to a fight, Holmes says the two can focus on each as needed without deadlines, leading to better recovery and, ultimately, better gains across the board. “He’s more well-rounded now than when he was fighting.”
Watching the 6’4”, nearly 240-pound Schaub hit the mitts, you have to pity Holmes’ hands. “He can still crack,” says Holmes. The impact of Schaub’s combinations sounds like machine-gun fire, and rings out over the sound of the many other gym patrons that are striking bags simultaneously. “I think he could be fight-ready in six months if he wanted to be,” says Holmes, but Schaub shakes his head.
“For me to come back, it would have to be some sort of crazy Brock Lesnar deal,” says Schaub, who retired in 2014 after two consecutive losses. The UFC would have to make it worth his while with an interesting opponent and allow him to come and go as he pleases. “We’ll see. My body… I have no issues. There are days that I get a fire up my ass and think ‘For sure, I could fight again. I’m in the best shape of my life.’ But I’m too happy with what I’m doing. And with podcasting and stand-up, I have to be all in.”
“For me to come back, it would have to be some sort of crazy Brock Lesnar deal.”
Still, Schaub, age 34, says he’ll always miss being an athlete. So he refuses to stop living like one. “It’s a routine,” says Schaub. “I think training like this helps me with everything. Being creative, dealing with the stress of the entertainment business, my podcast, stand-up… Working out is the light for that. Whether I was pursuing a career in the UFC or the NFL [Schaub was briefly a member of the Buffalo Bills practice squad], it didn’t matter. Working out is my lifestyle.”
After the workout, Schaub chugs one of his “Big Brown shakes,” which includes Onnit’s Recovery Protein, coconut MCT oil, Earth-Grown Nutrients, almond milk, and strawberries. Then we part ways and meet up at his studio a few miles south in Playa Vista, where he will record the Big Brown Breakdown this afternoon, the second of his two hit podcasts.
Unlike The Fighter and the Kid, in which he and co-host Bryan Callen banter about their lives and interests, the Breakdown show is his own and is more MMA-focused, covering current events in the sport. It also gives Schaub an opportunity to answer fan questions and make fight predictions. Nevertheless, today he has a special guest he will interview: WWE legend “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Schaub’s studio is merely a rented room in an office building, only slightly larger than a broom closet. But it’s enough to fit him, Callen, a guest, his producer, social media intern, and—today at least—a crew of Onnit staff (albeit uncomfortably). Austin enters, wearing a camo windbreaker and blue jeans, and his charisma alone exceeds the room’s maximum capacity.
The two discuss pro wrestling and MMA. Austin reveals that babyfaces (good guys) and heels (bad guys) are often decided in the locker room based on the kind of reaction a performer gets from fellow wrestlers, and Schaub explains that, before the UFC was sold to WME, it was shopped to WWE, only to have Chairman Vince McMahon pass—on the basis that he couldn’t control who the stars are.
The two ultimately hit on a topic that perfectly captures where Austin was and Schaub is standing now. “No one teaches you how to live life after sports,” says Austin. If you have other skills, and you’re lucky, you can make a living in another business. If you don’t, you may sit around waiting for Robert De Niro to play you in a movie.
Day II – The Fighter And The Kid
#Repost @seanhyson @brendanschaub preps for his first performance at the @icehousecc in Pasadena tonight. If I had known that being a comedian gets you free cookies, Red Vines, and bowls of cheese, I would have learned to be funny. #icehousecomedyclub #comedy #FATK #fighterandthekid #getonnit #mma #losangeles #california
We meet up with Schaub at the legendary Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard at 11 a.m. He’s performed short sets here before (15 minutes or so), as well as at The Comedy Store down the street, but nothing like what he’ll have to do at the Ice House tomorrow night. The Laugh Factory is closed now but he knows people so we can get in and interview him—on the stage—surrounded by memorabilia of comedy icons who have played there in years past, including everyone from George Burns to Bill Burr. It’s a good atmosphere for the video we’re shooting.
Schaub wants to make one thing very clear: he didn’t get into comedy out of desperation. He doesn’t make fun of himself on his podcast or on stage because he has to in order to pay the bills. He’s wanted to for years, and says that only recently has he had the balls to try.
“I really believe that now I’m doing what I was supposed to do,” says Schaub. “Comedy has always been one of my aspirations. My hero as a kid was Jim Carrey, who’s been on this stage. I was blessed with the athletic ability to compete in football and fighting, but my heart, and my heroes, were always in comedy.”
To understand how Schaub got here—to having carte blanche at one of the country’s most-esteemed comedy venues—you have to take a trip back to 2012, when he was a coach on a season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s hit FX reality show. To entertain the contestants, the UFC brought in Bryan Callen—a fight-loving comedian, actor, and friend of longtime UFC commentator Joe Rogan.
“He starts telling this high school wrestling story,” says Schaub. “He’s dead serious, talking about how he had the will to grind through this bullshit high school wrestling match. In the middle of it I said, ‘I’m gonna stop you.’” The two had never met before.
Schaub then took a poll. “I said to the room, “How many guys here wrestled in high school?” Everyone raised their hands. “How many were all-American in college?” Half raised hands. “How many were national champions?” A few more hands. “I said to Bryan, ‘Do you want to continue with your average high school story?’”
Far from taking offense, Callen started laughing, and the two became immediate friends. Callen even gave Schaub his number, telling him to reach out whenever he was in LA. The timing was perfect for Schaub, who was planning to move from Denver to the west coast anyway to further his fight career.
Callen invited Schaub onto his podcast, The Bryan Callen Show, which, according to Schaub, “had, like, seven listeners.” The chemistry between the two was explosive, and Callen suggested Schaub be a weekly guest. “I said, ‘That sounds like a terrible idea.’ He said, ‘No, I’m telling ya. We should call it the Fighter and the Kid.’ I said, ‘Well who’s the kid?’ Because Bryan was 44 at the time. He just calls himself the kid to be hilarious.”
Schaub agreed to do the show, on the condition that he could talk about more than just fighting—such as life, comedy, movies, and anything else that caught his eye. The Fighter and the Kid (FATK) was born, fans loved the goofy interaction between the two, and it’s now one of the most popular podcasts on the Web, hitting nine million downloads in the past month. Callen even convinced Schaub to take the show on a live road tour, which allowed Big Brown (Schaub’s nickname because, according to Callen, “he’s big and he’s brown”) to cut his teeth performing comedy monologues to paying crowds.
Even as Schaub’s new venture was thriving, he was still focused on fighting. Early in his career, Schaub had big wins over MMA royalty like Crop Cop, and top contenders such as Gabriel Gonzaga, but in 2014 suffered back-to-back losses to Andrei Arlovski and Travis Browne. Rogan and Callen famously confronted Schaub on an episode of FATK, urging him to retire and explore the entertainment space more. And while Schaub denies that anyone frightened him out of the UFC, their encouragement helped him believe more in his ability to be an entertainer, and his potential to realize that dream of performing that had long gone dormant.
According to Schaub, he’d checked out of the fight game mentally before he even finished his last fight camp. En route to face Travis Browne, a fan approached Schaub at the airport. “This lady came up to me and she said, ‘You’re one of my favorites.’ I said thanks and asked if she was coming to the fight. She said ‘The what?’ She knew me as Big Brown from the FATK podcast, the comedy guy.” For the first time since he’d started, he didn’t care about fighting anymore. And fighting, like comedy, is a job you can’t fake your way through.
Transitioning to full-time funnyman hasn’t been as easy for Schaub as it may seem. His podcast is a hit, but he knows that to be taken seriously in comedy and grow his own brand, he needs to perform alone, in front of a live audience, with no safety net. In Schaub’s mind, he’s still just the “funny guy at the barbecue.” He’s had to apply the same work ethic he learned from sports to writing original material and performing it at a level that helps expand his audience beyond the MMA fanatics who laugh at his dick jokes.
The process has gone about as smoothly as his last few fights. “Comedy is serious,” he says. “It’s not all rainbows and molly.” He recalls one night he performed live to an audience that was clearly “not there to laugh.” They heckled him—even cursed at him. (No, he kept his composure and wasn’t tempted to crack any heads.) “There’s nights when I’ll leave and think, ‘What the heck am I doing?’ You swing and you miss a lot, but when you hit that home run, that’s what does it.”
We make the trek back to Playa and Schaub’s studio so he and Callen can interview comedian Will Sasso for FATK. Sasso, who stars in Super Troopers 2, out later this year, has them rolling with impressions of Dracula, Hulk Hogan, and Schwarzenegger.
Afterward, we ask Sasso about Schaub’s comedy chops. “Brendan is a guy who can cave your head in but also make you laugh. I wish he could have incorporated his humor when he was fighting. I think some of his fights would have gone a whole lot differently if he had gotten them giggling. He would have revolutionized the fight game [laughs].”
Day III – Showtime
It’s that unique perspective—a combat athlete turned 180 degrees to comic—that Schaub thinks gives him an edge and a special place in a city teeming with aspiring entertainers. “My comedy is about dealing with brain trauma, being a big dude who’s way too into fashion, my crazy family—this is stuff you won’t hear anywhere else.”
He sits backstage at the Ice House in Pasadena, a small (180 seats) but historic venue that represents his first big test. Callen won’t be up there with him. He won’t be interviewing anyone, either. There’s no opening act. He’ll be on stage, alone, for more than an hour, performing 25 minutes of his own stand-up, breaking down upcoming UFC fights and commenting on the latest MMA gossip, and then taking questions from the crowd. It’s a unique, MMA-themed variety show that Schaub hopes will eventually lead to a 30-minute or one-hour TV special.
He sits drinking Diet Coke and going over a notebook of bullet points about the show. He says he “over-prepares” for his performances just as he did for his fights, having rehearsed this night hundreds of times already. Still, the show sold out in three days, and he says his nervousness is a 10 out of 10. “If you can headline the Ice House, you can headline anywhere. I want it to go well and for people to have a good experience. Traffic was a beast.”
How does walking onstage compare to heading into the Octagon? “I’m scared of both, but with the Octagon, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Once I get to the stage, I want to be up there forever.”
Eight o’clock comes and Schaub greets the cheering crowd. “How did I get here?” he begins, pontificating on how a college football player turned UFC heavyweight ends up headlining a comedy club. A screen lowers behind him, and an image of him face down, mounted and eating shots from Travis Browne, is projected onto it. “Oh, that’s how I got here,” he says. The crowd roars.
“I’m scared of both, but with the Octagon, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Once I get to the stage, I want to be up there forever.”
He makes more self-effacing jokes, pointing out that when you lose your keys you think nothing of it, but when he does, it’s pugilistic dementia. He transitions into his preview of the next UFC card and predicts that WME’s control of the organization will last only three years before they sell it to another entity.
He leaves the stage to an eruption of cheers and takes nearly a half hour to make it back to the green room after signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.
“I was worried tonight it would go one of two ways,” he says. “Either, ‘Why the fuck is this kid doing stand-up? He should just break down fights.’ Or, ‘It’s the Ice House, so make us laugh. We don’t give a shit about the fights.’ But I felt like the crowd liked the mix of it. The next one will be better. I just got confirmed for more sets next week.”
We tell him, quite honestly, that the best part of the show was his stand-up set. Lots of guys can make commentary on fights, but Schaub being Schaub is what the audience really paid for, and what he’ll need to focus on if he wants to grow his audience to mainstream, HBO-worthy proportions. He looks reassured, relieved, and agrees we may be right. “Pretty soon, I think the only time you’ll hear me talk about fights will be during the fan questions.”
He knows his act has room for improvement, and he’s eager to improve. He has plenty of motivation, because it beats his old gig, hands down. “I don’t have to get punched in the face anymore,” he says with a laugh. “I’d stay out there another four hours if I had to.”