By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 1:20 PM
Update (5/21): Ryan "Lion" Diaz, challenger to Mike "The Hulk" Easton, was diagnosed with parotitis, an infection that blocks the salivary glands causing swelling and pain, that will prevent him from competing in Saturday night's main event.
When Woodbridge natives Kris McCray and Justin Hickey stood shoulder-to-shoulder slicing meat as butchers at a local Food Lion, they dreamed that one day they'd be able to rip off their hair-nets and trade in their blood-stained plastic gloves for a glamorous path in mixed martial arts.
McCray -- a 185-pound sensation -- has worked his way up through local cards and recently earned his break on The Ultimate Fighter 11 -- a Spike TV reality series that has produced some of the sports' most recent stars. He's shown Hickey, his best friend, a clear path to the sport's biggest stage, that their dream is possible.
"We're like brothers, best friends, roommates. His stuff is still here," said Hickey, 22, as he pointed to the back of his 800-square foot Dumfries apartment. "Wherever he goes, I go."
But McCray, a fan favorite who is nicknamed "Savage," has started to ascend the sport's ladder by keenly playing the gray area between malicious bruiser and charismatic joker.
Long gone are the days when McCray would apartment-hop with Hickey and scrape by on odd jobs while moonlighting as a known bar-brawler.
If Hickey, a 145-pounder, is to keep up with his best friend, he'll need to quickly follow in McCray's footsteps, using his fight against Dustin "The Disciple" Pague (6-4) in Saturday's Ultimate Warrior Challenge 8: "Judgement Day" as his launching point. The 10-card MMA event will be headlined by three-time UWC champion Mike "The Hulk" Easton (9-1) in a bantamweight title fight against Ryan "Lion" Diaz (17-11). The card is UWC's return to Fairfax, which seemed unlikely after Easton's Oct. 2009 victory over Chase Beebe -- a result that many thought the Virginia State Athletic Commission had botched and had promoters swearing they would not return to Patriot Center. With the recent arrival of UFC in Fairfax and Dana White's pledge to make D.C. an MMA fight town, Saturday's card is as important to UWC's survival as it is to Hickey's budding career.
"This is probably the most important fight of his life right now," said McCray, who was 4-0 in UWC fights before getting his break in the TUF house. "This is like his first kind of test in front of his home crowd and everybody is going to be there, so he really wants to do well."
With his compact 5-foot-7 frame nestled into the corner of a couch, Hickey ordered his overweight pit bull Sasha to kneel at his feet as he described his passion for fighting.
"I'm just an animal," said Hickey, a former area wrestling star who transferred from two high schools (Woodbridge, Freedom-Woodbridge) before settling at Gar-Field and posting a 55-5 record as a senior.
Hickey's fighting career started when he was 12, discovered by a middle school wrestling coach on a basketball court in one of Woodbridge's toughest neighborhoods, Woodbridge Run.
"I used to carry boxing gloves in my backpack and just go around challenging people," Hickey said.
He struck up a friendship with McCray in 2004, when he was a freshman on the Woodbridge wrestling team. McCray was an assistant coach.
"He had a real temper in high school," McCray said. "But he had a lot of heart. One time he broke his hand in a match and he kept wrestling and won the match."
McCray and Hickey reconnected three years ago and have spent that time chasing a shared MMA dream, training together at Gold Medal Grappling in Woodbridge, where Hickey got his nickname, "The Butcher."
"Because I would always show up to practice after work with guts on my pants," Hickey said.
A former college wrestler, Hickey decided to leave Old Dominion University after one of his first amateur fights. Without telling his coaches, Hickey left Norfolk one weekend and traveled to rural Abingdon, Va., where he fought inside a warehouse, battering his first opponent before submitting him with a rear-naked.
Some of McCray's early amateur fights also lacked the bright lights and fame the two were searching for.
"We did everything together for a while," said McCray, a 6-foot, 185-pounder who is 5-0. "Back then it was tough. It makes you close because you understand each other's struggle. So if he's having a lazy day where he just wants to stay in bed, I would just make sure he got out and did the things we needed to do to become good fighters."
Both McCray and Hickey are now managed by UWC president Marcello Foran.
"We help each other out, talking to promoters, sponsors, he introduces me to a lot of people," said Hickey, who supports himself through fight purses and small sponsorship deals with an MMA clothing company and MMA Web site.
Most of his winnings are spent on travel, he says. Celebratory trips after his most recent victories have included New Mexico and Florida.
Hickey is now a sports management major at George Mason University with a 3.7 grade-point average. He plans to use that degree, coupled with his fight knowledge to open a gym with McCray and to "have a management firm to manage fighters inside the gym," Hickey said.
"My biggest thing for him was to finish school," said McCray, who is 28 years old. "I'm like a big brother."
In Hickey's first pro fight -- a November 2008 loss to Mackens Semerzier, now a World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) star -- Hickey "got caught," he said, in a submission that derailed his pro career.
He's playing catch-up now to McCray, but his three-fight winning streak has pushed his record to 3-1 entering Saturday's card.
"If you make some noise, the opportunities are endless," said McCray, who often spars with Hickey at Lloyd Irvin's Temple Hills gym.
Hickey trains with Irvin three times a day, three days a week as he prepares for Saturday's card -- a potentially life-changing moment.
"I don't look at it as pressure," Hickey said. "I look at it as opportunity."