COLUMBIA — Neighborhood disputes were settled with 16-ounce boxing gloves in a garage.
That garage happened to be at the home of Alex White's cousin. Before the Columbia native became a mixed martial arts fighter, White was a shy high school student when, one day, an ex-convict from the neighborhood stopped by. The man saw a group fighting in the garage and wanted in on the action. Nobody was willing to fight him — except for White.
"What do you want to be known by?" White’s cousin asked, acting as the announcer.
"I don't know," White said.
"How about 'The Spartan?'" his cousin asked.
"Well, I guess so," White said.
White had always been interested in martial arts, but the closest he had come to fighting was watching Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies and sparring with his friends in parking lots.
White won his first match handily despite not feeling much like 'The Spartan.' He didn’t have any sense of identity at all — until he became a fighter.
White kept to himself. When he was a little boy, he accidentally drank gasoline. The accident caused a speech impediment, and the speech impediment made him a target for bullies. As White got older, he said, he became an alcoholic. He lacked direction, and drinking was just something to do.
Despite those struggles, his father, Bob White, knew one thing: He could take a punch.
That trait would come in handy over the years. And never more so than on April 19, when White fought in his first Ultimate Fighting Championship bout.
Becoming a fighter
Destruction MMA, located in Farmington, looks like a storage unit from the outside. The only reason White knew it was a gym is because his mother had told him.
She was in poor health. With no job in the dead of summer 2008, White had come down to visit her.
Shortly after arriving in Farmington, White got a job at the McDonald's across from Destruction MMA. He was curious about the gym. After a shift, White walked over to the gym and asked if he could begin training.
White, then a teenager, was the most inexperienced fighter Joe Worden had seen. That made things easier on Worden. White didn’t have any bad habits like other fighters did.
"Whatever I told him to do the first time, in his eyes, was correct," Worden said.
Worden described his relationship with White as, "You work for me, I work for you." Worden picked up on the adversity in White's life and wanted to provide him a safe haven. He didn’t make White pay for training. Instead, White did extra work, such as cleaning the gym at the end of the night.
And Worden helped White with more than just fighting. He gave him direction.
Now, White, 25, rises at 5 a.m. for cross-fit training. He then heads to his job at Lincare, a company that delivers medical equipment to patients at home, where he works until 5 p.m. Right after work, he's back in the gym with Worden, sparring and practicing ju-jitsu, wrestling, boxing or Muay Thai.
"(Worden) has been a big role in my life since I’ve started (training)," White said. "He's helped me in the gym and out of the gym."
White is one of six professional fighters under Worden’s watch. White is 15-0 in amateur mixed martial arts, or MMA, bouts and 9-0 in professional MMA events. He also sports an undefeated boxing record.
White continues to excel under Worden. On April 19, White entered his first Ultimate Fighting Championship bout against Estevan Payan, 32, in Orlando and won with a knockout one minute and 28 seconds into the first round.
White's first UFC victory is the culmination of his and Worden's work over the past six years. But it's only the beginning.
"Hopefully, someday, we fight for a world title," Worden said.
A passion persists
Bob White talked to Alex White just before his son's first UFC fight.
"Kick his butt," he said to his son over the phone. "Don't get hurt."
Money and timing prevented the elder White from attending the bout, and his stomach was in knots as he watched "The Spartan" on television.
Some of Alex White's former high school classmates saw the fight, too. In the week that followed, he received congratulatory messages from them on Facebook.
White said his high school classmates were surprised by who he had become. They wouldn't have expected his Facebook name to be "Alex 'The Spartan' White."
"It feels good getting praised by those people I went to high school with," White said.
Curiosity coaxed White to walk into Destruction MMA for the first time. But passion and determination keeps him coming back.
"It has really opened up a whole new Alex," Worden said.
Supervising editor is Wade Livingston.