- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

TEMPE, Ariz. — No one has been voted the most unpopular Washington Redskins player of recent times. Had such a poll been taken, the likely winner - or loser - can be seen nightly at a suburban strip mall, inside a gym called Arizona Combat Sports, sweating and grunting and occasionally taking one on the chin.

Some unforgiving fans might believe Michael Westbrook deserves such treatment for how he presumably let everyone down, symbolized the futility of the post-Joe Gibbs Redskins and left a trail of ill will in his wake.

But he is not here to pay for his sins, real or imagined. The former Redskins wide receiver, who for seven years battled injuries, coaches, teammates, the media and himself, is training for yet another fight.

In the featured match of a card put on by an organization known as “King of the Cage ” Payback,” Westbrook is scheduled to climb into a 25-square-foot octagon enclosed by 6-foot high walls and take on another ex-NFL player, Jarrod Bunch. It is being billed as a “no holds barred cage fight” in Cleveland on Feb. 25 and available for pay-per-view on March 6 at $29.95 a pop.

The fight’s status, however, has become uncertain. After learning this week Westbrook suffered a broken neck in a game in 1998 and had a small plate inserted to fuse the vertebrae, Bernie Profato, executive director of the Ohio Athletic Commission, said he must know for sure Westbrook is fit to compete.

“I’m gonna have to get some doctor to tell me there’s no way the metal plate can endanger [Westbrook’s] welfare,” Profato said yesterday. “We have to get some release or confirmation that no serious injury can happen.”

Two weeks ago, a participant in a “Toughman” competition in Dayton died from a blood clot on the brain. “We’ve got to be on the gun-shy side of things,” Profato said.

Westbrook said he is fine, noting he had his best season in 1999 following the surgery. He said he will see a doctor for clearance and continue to train. Hard.

Despite the trash-sport connotation, this is real. The intensity of Westbrook’s regimen and the amount of punishment he dishes out and absorbs gives no indication of fakery. The sport entails elements of boxing, kick-boxing and martial arts.

Westbrook has been pushing himself for months, running and lifting during the day, spending upward of three hours a night in the gym.

That the fight’s status has taken an unforeseen turn should come as no surprise. With the Redskins, Westbrook and controversy were life partners, a relationship fostered by the infamous training camp episode with teammate Stephen Davis.

Westbrook might be seventh in receptions in team history and eighth in receiving yards, but he is etched in Redskins lore as the guy who decked and pummeled Davis, then a reserve running back, during a practice in 1997. The fight, such as it was, was taped and photographed for mass consumption and shows Westbrook whaling away on a prostrate Davis, whose face was bloodied.

Westbrook said razzing from teammates over the Lamborghini he drove and his big contract in general led up to it.

“I was telling those guys they were jealous of me,” he said last week. “I said, ‘You come into my house and you go, ‘Wow.’ You see my car and you go, ‘Wow.’ Then every time I come into the locker room, you want to get quiet. I know everything you say about me.’ ”

Westbrook said Davis then came over, described what he was saying as nonsense preceded by a homosexual slur, “and then I punched him.” And kept punching him.

Westbrook was fined and suspended. After two disappointing seasons, now this. A legacy had been created.

Big, strong and fast, Westbrook was drafted fourth overall in 1995 out of Colorado, where his defining moment was a Hail Mary catch that beat Michigan.

He had a couple of good years and some big moments with the Redskins, but he never could stay healthy. A knee here, a broken wrist there, the neck. Playing in Detroit before friends and family, Westbrook suffered a torn knee ligament in the second game of the 2000 season and was lost for the year. Twice before that, also in Detroit, he suffered knee injuries.

Westbrook’s career never met expectations, his nor anyone else’s. Besides that, he clashed with his coaches, Norv Turner and Marty Schottenheimer, argued and fought with teammates and acted petulantly much of the time, boycotting the media for 18 months after the Davis incident.

For all of that, but mainly for the unfulfilled potential, he said the fans never forgave him, tossing verbal abuse his way, plus bottles and eggs at his house and lawn.

From the moment of the fight, “Everything I do is awful, and I can do no right ever,” Westbrook said. “It was my image for quite some time. And my family would catch flak for it. Because of me. People in Detroit were, like, ‘What did you do to the people in Washington?’ I go to Washington, and I’m the bad guy. Crazy. Temper tantrums. I get a good laugh out of it now, but it was pretty bad.”

Westbrook, however, admits he brought a lot of problems upon himself. Among his assorted injuries, he also suffered from a pulled attitude muscle.

“I thought when somebody did something to you, you had to do something back to them,” he said. “I was raised in Detroit. I took my Detroit world into that world, and it didn’t work. When things got tough for me, I got mean.”

Westbrook said he apologized to Davis and they even became friends. Asked whether he held any regrets, Westbrook said, “No. I acted and I learned. I don’t know if I would have reacted any differently. I just can’t handle a man, two inches from my face, calling me names. I probably have more restraint today. I probably wouldn’t get caught up in that situation.

“It was a mistake, but it’s something I can’t take back. It’s awful what I did, but I’ve made major changes in my life.”

Whatever the reasons, Westbrook apparently has left his mark. Leading up to the Super Bowl, Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook was referred to countless times in print and on the air as “Michael.”

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Some have made light of linking the Davis incident to Westbrook’s current endeavor: There he is, fighting again.

Even his workout provides some black humor when Westbrook jumps atop a blue, life-sized dummy lying on a mat and tries to beat the stuffing out of it. No doubt about it, the scene recalls the pictures of Westbrook pounding Davis.

“One-two, one-two, faster, faster!” yells Jon Smith, who works at the gym and helps Westbrook train, as Westbrook assaults the dummy with elbows and forearms.

“This isn’t easy,” gasps Westbrook, breathing hard, as he sprints back to resume his boxing training on one of the heavy bags located in a corner of the room next to the full-size ring. Smith holds the bag and continues to push Westbrook.

“C’mon, Mike, don’t drag your right hand,” Smith implores as Westbrook lays into the bag with heavy blows.

Later, Westbrook attacks another bag with high and low kicks, mixing in some punches. He bobs and weaves, jabs and kicks, then sprints over and punishes the defenseless dummy some more.

Later, Westbrook jumps into his SUV to pick up his daughter, Ky (pronounced “Kai”), at gymnastics class, then returns for some jiu-jitsu work with his instructor, Gustavo Dantas, a two-time world champion.

Westbrook has been doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu for several years, winning a blue belt (lower level) championship. The sport resembles wrestling, the legitimate kind, and the idea is to get your opponent on the ground and pin him with a submission hold.

This is Westbrook’s edge over Bunch, a former running back for the New York Giants who weighs about 260 pounds and is mainly a boxer. Standing 6-foot-3, Westbrook weighs 220 pounds, slightly less than when he played.

Westbrook, who grew up in Detroit a few blocks from the famed Kronk gymnasium, knows how to box, too. He is said to have a mean right hand and a nasty jab ” he said he wore out three sparring partners the other night ” and plans to spend part of next week at Kronk under the tutelage of Emmanuel Steward, the noted trainer.

The fight, if it comes off, is scheduled for three five-minute rounds. Westbrook figures to be much quicker than his opponent. At 32, he looks as fit and chiseled as ever. “I could play right now,” he said.

But forget that; football is finished. Westbrook said he slept through the Super Bowl and has not watched a game since he quit in 2002 after a miserable season in Cincinnati.

He has embraced his new sport with a chokehold. According to those helping him train, Westbrook is talented, a hard worker and a willing student.

“He’s everything you want in an athlete,” said Smith, who has been involved in martial arts for 22 years. “He puts 115 percent into everything he does.”

Said Dantas: “He’s a very, very athletic guy. So I think any sport he tries to do he’s probably gonna be successful in. He’s pretty amazing. He’s 6-3, 220, and I don’t see too many guys who are that athletic. He’s picked up the jiu-jitsu really fast. The kick-boxing he’s been picking up really well. Now we have to see how he does in the ring. He’s been a professional athlete for a long time, but it’s a different sport.”

As if on cue, while Dantas studies his pupil grappling in the ring, an opponent rises up and accidentally catches Westbrook flush on the chin with his head. Westbrook keeps going, but he later says he felt his jaw move. That night, he has trouble putting his teeth together. No problem, though; such are the hazards.

“I’m still the fastest thing on two feet,” he said, laughing. “I take that from Muhammad Ali.”

Like Ali, Westbrook has a keen sense of promotion, which is understandable because he also has a piece of the pay-per-view action. The larger the audience, the bigger the cut. Westbrook won’t say, but according to others, he stands to make as much as $1 million.

A few years ago in Detroit, Westbrook hooked up with a cage fighter named James Lee. He attended some of his fights and met some people connected with the sport. Because of his name and martial-arts experience, Westbrook was badgered to fight professionally but always resisted. He finally caved in because of the money.

Westbrook earned about $20 million from football and has managed his finances wisely. He is not one of those pitiful studies in irresponsibility and excess. Westbrook is set. His children ” Ky, who turns 9 the day of the fight, and 9-month-old son, Khaymin ” and their mother, Kym, are provided for well into the future. Still, it was hard to turn down a big payday for doing something he did for free.

“I love doing this,” he said. “I’d been doing it for years, not for money. But somebody said, ‘We’re gonna pay you a whole lot of money to get in the ring and fight.’ Why not go ahead and do it? It only makes sense.

“I love the training. I can’t get enough of it. It’s very, very physical, and it’s such a chess game. Your mental game has to be on 100 percent of the time, especially if the other guy knows what he’s doing.”

The only downside, as Westbrook sees it, is the attention.

“I’d been saying, ‘No, no, no, why put myself back in the spotlight?’ ” he said. “I hate the spotlight. I’d rather be home reading or watching a movie. I’m not into the crowds, the lights. I have a family. I don’t want my daughter to deal with the negativity of my past.”

To quote another fighter, ex-heavyweight champ Joe Louis, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

After the match, Westbrook will devote his full attention to Ky and Khaymin and his business endeavors. This, he said, is his last fight.

“This isn’t a career for me,” he said. “Eventually, you lose. Nobody has an unblemished record in this sport, and everyone gets hurt at one time or another. I’m not about to keep coming back for more punishment.”

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The temperature is in the 70s, the sun beating down on Westbrook’s backyard on a typical February afternoon in the desert Southwest. He owns a sprawling home in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb whose population has swelled mainly because of days like this.

Westbrook said he always wanted to live here, and when he began training nearby, it was the perfect opportunity. He also has a home in Detroit.

Kym is at work and Ky at school, and Khaymin is sleeping inside the house. Westbrook, who enjoys stay-at-home fatherhood, carries a baby monitor with him. He will return to the gym later on, but right now, all is serene.

In the backyard are tall palm trees, a Jacuzzi, a swimming pool complete with waterfall, a trampoline, swing set and playhouse. To get here you pass through a room filled with video arcade games and hundreds of DVDs stacked on shelves. No wonder neighborhood kids love coming over. Westbrook is a movie buff. He claims to have most of the martial-arts films ever made.

Westbrook owns a record label and two state-of-the-art recording studios in the Motor City. He likes being an entrepreneur, not so much for himself but for what he might eventually do for his city.

“We’re trying to build Detroit up because Detroit is awful,” he said. “So bad, so in debt. I have family there and I have friends there, and I just want to help.”

An avid reader, Westbrook has started writing not one but two books. One is a guide to fitness titled, “My Body, My Temple.” The other is harder to explain. It’s a novel involving, among other things, a vampire, slavery and the great pyramids of Egypt. “It gets way out there,” he said.

Adjustment to life after football probably came easier to Westbrook than to many others. One reason is that he left the game on bitter terms. It was easy to walk away. As rocky as his stay was in Washington, Cincinnati was worse.

Westbrook signed with the Bengals as a free agent before the 2002 season, and things went south in a hurry when, still out of shape from knee surgery, he broke his wrist during training camp. Westbrook also said he sensed some of the coaches did not want him there in the first place. Perhaps his reputation had preceded him. “It was a big joke,” he said. He orchestrated his release during the season and never looked back.

Westbrook also has received advice and guidance from several people, including the famous activist Dick Gregory. The two were introduced a few years ago, “after the fight,” Westbrook said, returning to the familiar reference point. “He’s one of my mentors.”

Westbrook’s mother, Mercy, his sister and lots of aunts, uncles and cousins still live in Detroit. He grew up, he said, with 22 people in his house. His father, Bobby Sledge, was not really among them.

“After I was born,” Westbrook said, “he joined the ‘70s.” Drugs, he explained. Heroin, crack cocaine, you name it.

Westbrook and Sledge were estranged for a long time, but they eventually reconciled. A few months later, Sledge, who stopped using drugs in 1986, according to Westbrook, was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2001 at the age of 56, and Westbrook is convinced his drug use had something to do with it.

“Dad got cleaned up, but it hit him pretty hard,” he said.

Westbrook himself said he has never taken an illegal drug, not even a sip of alcohol. He said he was too busy with sports, but more than anything, it was his mother’s influence.

“She was always in my ear,” he said. ” ‘Don’t do drugs. Do this. You shouldn’t do that.’ She was in my face, a constant voice in my head, a constant reminder of all the bad things that could happen to me.

“I think I turned out OK.”

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