Sean Clements’ mom left when he was three. His cousin sexually abused him when he was four. His dad was an alcoholic who would disappear for days at a time. After high school, Clements discovered drinking for himself. To make ends meet, he stripped in gay nightclubs. One night, he got into a bar brawl, and when a cop tried to stop it, Clements punched him out and wound up in jail.
So… how was your day?
Clements, from Austin, TX, may have been well on his way to becoming another obituary on the 10 o’clock news, but he fought back to build a successful career, a healthy romantic relationship, and a clean life. That was comeback number one. Now, at age 35, he’s returning to professional MMA competition after a two-year layoff to fulfill the athletic potential he knew he always had, and nearly wasted.
Here’s how Clements went from “Wildman” (as he’s known in MMA) to a changed man.
An Unhappy Home
“My mom felt she couldn’t take care of my brother and me,” says Clements. Her departure left the boys at the mercy of their father who, though he worked hard to support the children, was “a hard ass” with an axe to grind. Feeling he had never lived up to his own potential as an athlete, Clements’ dad tried to live through his sons’ success on the baseball and football fields. “In his eyes, if we didn’t win, we didn’t do good enough,” says Clements. “And if we did win, he had a list of things we could have done better. He was always critiquing.”
The boys were brought up in a roach-infested apartment while their dad worked a series of odd jobs. When he wasn’t watching their games like a hawk from the bleachers, he tended to not be around at all. “One time, he left us with a friend of his and was gone for a week,” says Clements. “He never told us where he went, and we didn’t ask.”
Other family members chipped in. Clements’ grandparents were responsible guardians, but an older cousin he was left with was not. “I found out later that she had been abused,” says Clements, “so I figure she did those things to me because she didn’t know any better.”
Clements turned increasingly inward, and talking about it now makes him tear up. “There’s a family photo of us all taken around that time, and you can see that I’m not happy,” he says. “I’m the only one that’s not smiling, because I didn’t have anything to be happy about. I was learning to get harder. To not let people into my life easily.”
When he was in the fourth grade, Clements’ father got together with Terry, a woman who became Sean’s stepmom. She cheered him at all his games, never missing a performance. By high school, Clements had become a standout wrestler. He made it to regionals, but lost to a kid who had been the state champion the year before.
“My dad was pissed at me,” says Clements. “But Terry was proud.” In his sophomore year, Terry passed away from cancer, but the love she had shown Clements had taken root.
“I don’t want to lose what I have,” he says. “So I try very hard to keep friendships and stay loyal to the people around me. I don’t want people I care about to ever think that I won’t be there when they need me.” He adds that even when people disappoint or hurt him, he isn’t angry about it long.
“Growing up the way I did, I learned to forgive quickly.”
Fighting For Life
Clements went to Howard Payne University for college, earning a spot on the football team, but when he discovered how much he would owe in student loans if he completed his degree there, he decided it wasn’t worth it, and left campus in the middle of the night. His dad told him not to come home. As far as he was concerned, if Sean wasn’t going to play college ball, he wasn’t going to do anything.
Clements got by. He bounced around Texas, trying to find another way to play football. He tried out for the Laredo Rattlers, an Arena Football team, and impressed the coaches enough that they offered to help him go back to college. “My grandfather had just broken his hip,” says Clements, “so I wanted to stay close to him.” He got into Texas Lutheran University in nearby Seguin, and majored in exercise science.
Though he had been a straight-edged high schooler, Clements found alcohol in college. He had the same taste for it that his father had, often downing 15–20 drinks on a typical night out with friends. He brawled at house parties, and sometimes took his clothes off for a thrill, earning the nickname “Wildman” from his buddies.
One night he was partying in a bar in downtown Austin. He saw an argument get out of hand, and a man trying to hit a woman. Clements jumped in to slug it out with the guy when he felt himself grabbed from behind. “I turned around and hit the guy who was holding me,” he says. “Then I found out it was a cop.” Clements spent three days in jail.
Though estranged from his mother, Clements had nowhere else to turn. “My lawyers wanted five grand just to take my case, and another five if it went to trial,” he says. “My mom coughed up the whole 10 grand right away. I think that was her way of making amends for leaving when I was a kid.” Clements got away with four years’ probation.
He was off the hook legally, but the criminal charge made Clements, only 26 at the time, radioactive to potential employers. “Any job I applied for, they saw my record,” he says. It read: “Assault with intent to do harm.” Clements took what work he could get, as a bouncer and then a go-go cage dancer in gay bars ($200 just to show up, plus tips), and his drinking worsened.
At the same time, Clements reconnected with a friend he’d made from his days as a high school wrestler. Roger Huerta, another Austin native, was a fast-rising fighter in the UFC. Through Huerta and other friends, he met Aubrey Marcus, the soon-to-be founder of Onnit. The group trained MMA out of Aubrey’s garage, and it was there that Clements felt he’d found his calling.
“I believed I had the athletic ability to fight professionally,” he says. “I just needed to learn the striking game, which [his drunken scraps aside] I had no background in.” Clements began competing in amateur MMA shows, scoring a knockout in his first bout, and winning in five of seven contests.
And Then There Was Ashley
By 2012, Marcus had started Onnit. He gave Clements a job in the warehouse, handling inventory to help him pay his bills while he moonlighted as an MMA fighter.
Two years later, Ashley Ortega, an Austin-based event coordinator and nutrition counselor, was working a promotional event for Onnit products. Since Clements was fighting that night nearby, some Onnit staffers convinced her to come along to the arena afterward.
“He won the fight, and I was surrounded by people who were calling his name and asking to take pictures with him,” says Ortega. “He seemed to be all about it. Like, ‘Yeah, I’m the Wildman!’ I’m not interested in anybody who has a huge ego, so I was outta there right after.”
A few months later Clements and Ortega reconnected—via the Tinder dating app. He recognized her from the night of his fight, and she saw from his profile that they had mutual friends. “His profile said something about the value of connecting with people, and that attracted me,” says Ortega. “He seemed down to earth and sensitive.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a first date where I drank so much,” she says. Clements kept ordering more booze, and while Ortega had a good time, she saw it as a red flag. “Drinking that much was super unusual for me, so I didn’t know if it could go anywhere with him.” She was so wary that she kept physical distance for a bit, communicating only by phone calls for several weeks.
“I got to know him as a person, and I started to really like him,” says Ortega. “But then I started getting phone calls at three in the morning. He was saying he was in such and such place and could I come and pick him up. I had to take care of him a lot because he was drunk and lost or stuck somewhere.”
“Sometimes she would actually come out and find me and stay overnight with me in my car,” says Clements, with visible emotion. “I started thinking about all the other girls I’ve dated and how many of them never actually put the effort in to be with me. Other girls didn’t take the time to stay with me or try to see the better side of me. They just moved on to the next person. But she didn’t do that.”
Ortega couldn’t deny her attraction to Clements’ sensitivity, which included an almost extreme reverence for life—even of the insect variety. When wasps and cockroaches wandered into his home, Clements spared them. “He’d just catch them and put them outside,” says Ortetga. “He really believes in karma, and he had this nice calm about him when he was sober. He was thoughtful and considerate. I thought that aspect was the biggest part of him, and that the drinking was just a bad habit.”
It was, in fact, a habit that completely changed Clements’ personality. When he got drunk, he’d become angry. He cursed at people, including Ortega, especially if they suggested he’d had enough to drink. He drove drunk, flipping his car over three times one night (although, miraculously, escaped with only minor injuries). When one of Clements’ best friends was stabbed to death at a house party turned melee, Clements mourned by drinking himself crazy and driving recklessly. Police pulled him over and arrested him.
“I had to rescue him again and I thought, ‘This is the last time I’m going to do this,’” says Ortega. “But when he talked to me about Hugo he cried, saying how he felt he could have done so much more to help him and prevent his death. Sean’s drinking was to deal with the pain that he had pushed down inside himself. It was a coping mechanism.”
The last straw came at Ortega’s sister’s wedding. She warned Clements not to get carried away, but he kept ordering drinks. When she confronted him about it, he lost his temper and punched through her car window. Ortega told him she’d had enough.
“She was going to leave me,” says Clements. “I had to make a decision about what was more important—someone who was going to be there for me, even when I screwed up, or continuing to drink and probably never finding a good path in life.”
Clements made Ortega watch as he poured out all the bottles of booze he had saved in his house. “When I tell somebody I’m going to do something, I stick to it,” he says. He hasn’t had a drink in two years.
In May of this year, the couple married.
Clements became a trainer at Onnit Gym when it opened in 2014. Today, he works with a range of clientele, including women, day traders, and weekend warriors. Included in that last category is Brad Marcus, a sales director for Experian Partner Solutions. As Marcus neared his 49th birthday this past summer, he decided to mark the event by competing in a strict barbell curl contest in Venice, CA.
“I invited him to come along,” says Marcus, “but I didn’t take it that seriously.” Clements did. Not only did he design a program that helped Marcus peak his biceps power in only four weeks, he accompanied his client to Venice and cornered him throughout the contest. “He brought a bar and bands out there for me to warm up with,” says Marcus. “He acted like he was coaching me for an MMA fight. He went above and beyond.” Marcus curled 150 pounds, finishing second to a competitive strongman who outweighed him by 60 pounds. “Now we have to figure out what I’m going to do to celebrate age 50,” he says with a laugh.
Clements turned pro as a fighter in 2016, debuting with a win in the Bellator promotion and running up a 3–1 record in the lightweight division over the next year. He trained with UFC veterans, including Urijah Faber, Danny Castillo, and Justin Buchholz. But a 2017 car accident herniated discs in his neck and lower back, leaving his fight career uncertain. He trained clients for the next two years and rehabbed his injuries, but planned to ease back into competitive athletics with a sprint triathlon, and, if that went OK, return to the cage in 2020. But this fall, a representative from Bellator called Onnit Gym’s front desk, offering Clements a fight on its November 8 card in Thackerville, OK. He accepted.
Clements will face Aaron McKenzie, a strong grappler fighting out of Rafael Lovato Jr.’s academy in Oklahoma City. Clements, who walks around at 185 and 8.5% body fat, will cut to 155 for the bout. “He’s a good matchup for me,” says Clements, “because he’s a grappler and I’m a wrestler. I’ve been out for a while, and he’s the hometown boy, so I’m definitely the underdog, but I don’t mind that at all. I feel better than ever. I’m recovering from workouts better than ever. And this will be my first fight where drinking is not a part of my life at all.”
At 35, Clements doesn’t have ambitions of being a world champion. He just wants to test his skills in another fight or two, and see where it leads him. “This may be his last fight, unless he gets offered a contract,” says Ortega. “I completely support him fighting, but I would like a family one day. He’s in tune with his body and what he can do, so I trust him to do what’s right for him and make the right decision when it’s time.”
Clements says his main priority is still training clients at Onnit. “Fighting is just a bucket-list thing for me,” he says. “If I have kids, I want them to know what I’ve been through, and I want to be able to say that I realized my potential before it was too late.”
If you’re thinking that Clements seems too nice to be dangerous, you may have a point. “Once the cage closes and the ref asks if you’re ready to go, the first thing that goes through my mind is that I don’t want to hurt this guy, because he’s never done anything to me. But then I shift into a mindset that says this is what I’ve trained for. This guy’s trying to hurt me, so if I don’t hurt him… But I don’t try to hate my opponent. I get amped up by thinking about my childhood. Things I did to myself, and things that were done to me.”
Because the traumas of his youth are never far from his mind, Clements is particularly motivated to help Austin’s underprivileged kids get more advantages than he and his late friend Hugo had. Every summer, he hosts what he calls “character-building” workshops at Onnit, where he takes middle- and high school kids through basic workouts and talks to them about getting an outlet through sports.
“I want to be someone these young men and women can talk to outside of school and their parents,” says Clements. “So they have a safe place.”
To discourage bullying, Clements reminds them that a kid they’re picking on now could one day become the CEO of a company they want to work for. “If you’re applying for a job, whether you get it or not may depend on how you’re treating that person now,” says Clements. “Because no matter how good you are at something, or how much knowledge you have, who you are as a person is more important.”
“The fact that I’ve survived everything I’ve been through makes me think I’m here for a purpose,” says Clements. “Maybe fighting is a way to get my message across. Maybe somebody will see me fight, or training somebody in the gym, and be inspired to do something positive.”