Joe Kavey is a 27-year-old mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter.
He climbs into a caged area with a padded floor and – using a panoply of fakes, feints, kicks, punches and sophisticated strangles, arm bars and leg locks – tries to beat the person opposite him. Three rounds, five minutes a round. Winning is measured by knockout, technical knockout (TKO) or submission. Submission is what happens when the loser taps out, ceding the match rather than risking an arm or leg break.
MMA is simple, sometimes brutal, and probably exists largely unchanged from 648 BCE, when pankration first appeared in the Greek Olympic Games.
But this is about Kavey and his 24 fights. And, even more than his 24 fights in cages at casinos, in parking lots and at makeshift venues inside and outside, this is about his 24 losses.
Let that wash over you: 24 losses. Which means zero wins. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
This is where it seems Kavey is a man made of entirely different, if not the right, stuff. Because clearly most of us would have given up well before 24. Just not Kavey.
”First off, I’d like to say that I have never been knocked out,” says Kavey from his new digs in Athens, Georgia. He left Pittsfield, near Springfield, Massachusetts, about six weeks ago on account of it being a “poisoned wasteland.” And in a recent development and bespeaking to a certain restlessness, he’s now returned to Pittsfield and a job, which had eluded him in Athens. The job? Landscaping at a cemetery.
So two years in kung fu, two years of high school wrestling, four months of American kickboxing and then, fired up by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches, a 17-year-old Kavey started training in MMA with a friend named Frank Stone. In parks, floors of houses, wherever. Two years later he had his first match…and his first loss.“Those were technical knockouts,” he admits with a certain measure of Jake LaMotta-esque pride at never having been dispatched that way. So Kavey, turned on to the sport as a 7-year-old by his wrestling champion father – who later abandoned the family – left behind his dream of being a fireman to become a fighter.
Then in short order over the next eight years, Kavey reeled off 23 more losses, at $500 a fight. Twelve were submissions; 12 were (what he calls) TKOs. He gained a reputation as “literally the best worst fighter in the world,” says Kavey.
Guilherme Cruz, a Brazilian writer for Tatame magazine, made Kavey a national story in Brazil, where people marveled at Kavey’s very American refusal to just stop, in the face of prevailing evidence that continuing made no sense. The question for Cruz came down to this: Does Kavey even have a chance? At all?
“He [Kavey] told me he never actually trained properly for his fights,” Cruz says. “But last time I spoke with him, he was planning to stop fighting until he really trained for real.”
“I am,” confirms Kavey. “I am tired of losing. I have promised myself I will never lose again. And when I win again, it won’t be just one win. It’s going to be a winning streak.”
“Look, hard work pays off. I truly believe that. So, I am going to train nonstop for the next year until I am ready to win. I don’t doubt myself. I am going to be the man I dreamed about being,” Kavey says, sounds of the gym ringing in the background around him. “And I will never lose again.”
Why you should care
Because the human spirit in action is a wild and wonderful thing to behold.