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DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- Danny Ruiz is a fighter.
He is a staff sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, a husband, father and coach. But above all, he's a fighter.
Ruiz is a week away from his 19th professional mixed martial arts fight. But this one means more. This fight, the Strike Fight event Dec. 8 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will be in front of a hometown crowd of his military brethren. It will also be a return to the location where he made the decision to become an MMA fighter.
His combative journey to the octagon and the main event began in New York. Ruiz's father, an Army veteran, taught him to box and showed him some martial arts techniques when he was only eight years old. At age 13, Ruiz discovered knowing how to throw jabs wasn't the only way to win a fight. The realization came to him like a slap in the face -- literally. Instead of punching, a technique Ruiz could defend, a school-yard opponent tackled him and beat him up.
"That's when I started training in wrestling and judo with my uncle," laughed Ruiz, a cargo loader with the 919th Logistics Readiness Squadron.
He moved to Orlando soon after, but continued the training. He met his current trainer Daniel Silva there and the two became fast friends. Silva taught him to incorporate Brazilian jiu jitsu to his repertoire.
"I went into this new gym thinking I knew a few things and could handle myself," said the energetic, 170-pound Ruiz. "We started grappling and I tried a wrist lock and he choked me out. The next time he arm-barred me. I said, 'Oh I like this, where do I sign up? I like this Brazilian jiu jitsu stuff.'"
Ruiz was hooked on the new techniques and in 1998 started training for his first fight. In September of that year, he fought and won a three-round decision.
"The nerves and anxiety were overwhelming at first," said Ruiz, who holds a 12-6 record. "I think I was more scared of my trainer than my opponent."
Ruiz said the win had him on fire for the sport for a while, but he got lazy and didn't want to battle the weight management it took to continue fighting.
In 2003, he entered the active-duty Air Force and was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., as a weapons loader. Ruiz said his next life-changing moment came in January 2005 while watching the first season of "Ultimate Fighter," a reality show about MMA fighters competing for a shot in the sport's premier league, Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"Phil Nichols was bragging about his two-and-a-half years of jiu jitsu training and that fired me up," recalled Ruiz. "I'd been training five times as long as this guy on TV and here I am laying on the couch watching it happen."
That's when he devoted himself to training for and competing in MMA again. Initially, his dream met with some push-back from supervisors and co-workers, but with the help of his leadership, he got the approvals needed to train and fight while on active duty.
"Since 2005, the Air Force has come a long way toward accepting MMA. The culture of fitness has changed and MMA is much more widely accepted today," said Ruiz, who now helps train other Airmen in MMA at a local gym. "Over the years, I've seen the Air Force adopt many of the MMA-style workouts I used when I began the training. Several of my students have continued to train even in a deployed environment."
He began making monthly eight-hour road trips back to Orlando to train in the gyms where he started years earlier. Ruiz said this was a "bruising" period for him as his trainers wore him out physically. He would not be broken, though. Ruiz continued and returned to fighting status in 2006.
His return was a success. While fighting at 185 pounds, he racked up four straight wins within a year. For his fifth fight, he dropped down to 170 pounds. The weight loss proved too significant; and though Ruiz broke his opponent's nose and orbital bone, he lost by technical knock-out in the second round.
"I was gassed, man, I just gave up," he said of the first loss of his career. "From then on I began to concentrate harder on the cardio and diet because I wanted to remain at that weight."
After a bounce-back knockout victory in 2008, Ruiz struggled with four straight losses by knockout or submission. This career low-point had a dramatic impact on Ruiz's MMA career. He faced tough choices in rebuilding his game to start over. The first step was to repair his mental game and the crippling anxiety he suffered with big matches.
"Pushing past the physical is tough; a program called 'Wintensity' helped me understand what happens to the mind before a fight and how to deal with the anxiety," said Ruiz.
Following the program's exercises and taking a few psychology classes helped Ruiz gain focus and clarity of mind. The techniques allowed him to manage the nerves and anxiety that held him back in the fight.
Silva saw immediate progress once Ruiz finally took hold of his mental game.
"His greatest improvement came after those four tough losses," said Silva. "He was completely humbled after that. It is incredibly difficult for a fighter to have humility, admit their mistakes and understand those errors can be learned from. He had to go deep down and find out who he was and who he wanted to be and do it."
Ruiz decided he wanted to be a fighter again.
During this dark time, he separated from active duty and joined the Air Force Reserve. He served for a year as a weapons loader with the 908th Airlift Wing at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., before cross-training to join the 919th Special Operations Wing here in 2010.
After an eight-month recovery both mentally and physically, Ruiz returned to the octagon with a new intensity. He won five fights in less than a year en route to six straight victories including the Atlas Fights Welter Weight Championship in April 2011.
"He found his heart," said Silva. "His mind was clear and he went in there and executed. He became an all-around fighter; so whatever mission was in front of him, he got in there and got it done."
Currently, Ruiz is coming off a tough five-round decision loss in February. It was his first loss from a decision. He believes he should've won. He put that out of his mind, however, to focus on his Strike Fight opponent: Michael Kuhn, a fighter from Atlanta, nicknamed "The Slim Reaper."
Prior to a fight, Ruiz goes into a six-to-eight week training camp that includes rigorous daily physical training sessions five days a week. During the week, they spar at 40 percent fight capability. On Saturdays, during "The Gauntlet," the sparring intensifies to 80 percent of a fighter's capability.
"Basically the entire gym comes out and beats you up," joked Ruiz. "The relentless schedule and the demand put on your body, during the camps, are the most difficult aspects of being an MMA fighter and it's supposed to be difficult. If you're giving your all and it's kicking your butt, that's good, because it's working and it will make the actual fight that much easier."
Ruiz, a father of two, said he couldn't get through it all without his wife, Linda, who keeps him on his diet and ensures he makes his weight.
"She usually doesn't come see me fight, because of the kids, but she may come to this one since it's local," said Ruiz.
After fight number 19, Ruiz said he'd like to fight at least once more for a belt, but at 34, he considers himself in the twilight of his MMA career.
"I want to stop at age 35," said Ruiz. "It may be the latter side of 35, but I'm not going to push myself to continue. I do not want to be fighting at 40. I'm fine with taking off my fighter's hat and putting on the coach's hat and focusing on getting my guys into good fights and hopefully the UFC."
But before changing those hats, he's got a few more fights to finish.
At Strike Fight, scheduled for Dec. 8, as he enters the octagon to the tune of Run DMC's "Down with the King," Ruiz will return home to where it all began. And when the cage door locks, Ruiz plans to show everyone what it means to be a fighter.