How to Be an Ultimate Fighter

Livery driver learns—and teaches—the value of life

(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

“This tube you see coming out of me is directly connected with my heart and pumps liquid into it, faking my heart into thinking it’s O.K.”

The driver was talking to Brian and me. He had picked us up from the golf club where we had been playing with Hall of Famer Dan Marino. We had to leave before the dinner, so we took a car service to get back to the city.

I saw the tube sticking out of the driver’s side and asked if he was O.K.

The answer was “no.”

“I need a heart transplant,” said Dave, the driver. And then he explained the tube. “My heart is three times bigger than the average heart,” he said. “It can’t get enough oxygen, and it’s hard for it to pump blood out to the rest of the body. I can barely move.”

“Jesus,” I said. “How did this happen?”

We were driving up the turnpike. Brian and I were in the back. The tube that was connected to Dave’s heart came out through a hole in his shirt and was attached to a bag in the passenger seat next to him where, I guess, fluids were going back and forth.

Dave said, “I wanted to be in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, so I took ephedrine to get my weight down from 215 to 175.”

“What is that?” I asked. “Like a steroid?”

“No,” Brian said. “It’s just what they sell in GNC.”

“Did you take too much of it?”

“I just took what the bottle said I should take,” Dave said.

“Then I started getting this consistent flu, so I went to the doctor. I was in great shape. The doctor said I was in impeccable health. That’s the word he used: impeccable,” Dave said laughing as he recalled the memory.

“I had to look it up,” he said. “It means perfect. I was muscle on top of muscle. I was ready to fight. Then the doctor said, ‘But I don’t quite know how to tell you this. I don’t think you’re going to live.’”

“I have type 2 diabetes now. I have high cholesterol. I have high blood pressure. I have a pacemaker on the left side of my heart and this Primacor tube on the right side. I can’t deal with my diabetes, because I can’t bring my weight down enough without damaging my heart.”

“What happens if you take that tube out?” I said.

“Within an hour, I’ll feel as if I have a really bad flu,” he said. “And within a month or two, I’ll be dead.”

“What if you kept the tube in?” I asked. “How long can you live?”

“I have to take the tube out anyway in three months,” Dave said. “Because the body gets too used to it, and it doesn’t do any good anymore. So after those three months, I have one month to live.”

“I have to go to the doctors Friday,” he continued. “But they refuse to see me now. Because a heart transplant costs over $2 million, and my house is being foreclosed on. I have no money, and even if I got a transplant, I can’t afford the anti-rejection pills that you have to take for the rest of your life to make sure the body accepts the new heart.”

We were making our way over the GW Bridge. The traffic, heat, sun, police blocks and all the confusing corners and intersections right around that crazy juncture between New Jersey and New York were slowing us down.

“This is depressing,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Were you good at fighting?” I asked. “When was the last fight you were in?”

“Ever since I was 7, I just loved putting my fist in someone’s face. If someone hurt me, it was a guarantee I was going to hurt them harder. But I’m not like that anymore. Now I’m just grateful every second I’m alive.”

He continued, “A few weeks ago, I was at a bar with my friend. I had the tube tucked away in what I was wearing. Some guys started bothering my friend, who was talking to a cute girl. So I asked them to stop. They started to get closer to me, and I was moving back. They were huge and juiced up, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. To be honest, I should’ve left them alone, because if they ripped this tube out, I would have been in serious trouble. This tube is connected right into my heart.

“But I poked the main guy in the eye really hard. I just jabbed right in the center of the eye.” He looked at me through the rearview mirror. “What would you do if someone jabbed you in the eye?” he said.

“I guess I would probably cry,” I said.

“No,” he said. “You’d put your hands to your eyes, and you’d bend forward. That’s what everyone does.”

“Then, while the guy was bent forward, I hit at his Adam’s apple on his throat. I just did it lightly. If I had done it stronger, I would’ve broken his windpipe. He was down on the ground, and the bouncer threw him out. The whole thing took five seconds.”

“How’d you learn to do that?”

“I’ve just been doing it all my life. When I was younger, I studied boxing and all the martial arts. That’s why I wanted to do ultimate fighting. But now, I can’t. Now, I can’t even go grocery shopping. I have to pay some kids to help me out.”

“I’ve been dead twice,” he said. “And both times, I was on an escalator that would slow down and reverse, and then I would wake up with doctors and nurses all around me and no memory of how I got there.”

I’m just so happy, he said. I’m so happy to be alive.

“I’ve got a 16-year-old kid,” Dave said. “I hope he’s a success in life. That’s all I want. I didn’t really know my dad. He was murdered when I was 5.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “He wasn’t living with us no more. My mom and I went over to his house, and all I remember is that there was blood everywhere. I remember that he had dark hair. Sometimes, I look up at the sky, and I hope he can hear me talking to him.

“And now, all I want is to see my son graduate,” he said. “He graduates in 12 months. I hope everyone is wrong about my four or five months left to live. But right now, this second, I am so grateful and happy to be here, to be alive, to be talking to you guys.”

“What keeps you so optimistic?” I asked.

“All of us here are going to die. There’s no exception. We are all going to die. So you have two choices: You can die crying, or you can die smiling. I’m going to die smiling.”

We were getting closer to where I was going to meet Claudia in the city. Finally, we reached my destination.

“Well,” he said, as I was getting out of the car. “I’m going to beat this thing, James. I’m going to come back when nobody said I could, and I’m going to beat this thing and get my health back.”

“I know you are, Dave. I really think you are.”

Now, six months later, I don’t think so anymore.