One brief remark, whether delivered with positive or malicious intent, can change a man’s life. UFC veteran Kendall Grove is proof of that.
It was the power of suggestion that guided the once-insecure Hawaiian on an unlikely path that will culminate at UFC 130 with Grove’s 13th appearance inside the Octagon. Unbeknownst to many, the catalyst for Grove’s conversion to the sport is a provocative figure known more for his mercurial temper and four-letter words than his mentoring skills.
“F---, you should fight. You got potential.”
The man doing the talking: Phil “The New York Badass” Baroni.
Baroni’s high praise toward Grove came circa 2002-2003 in Las Vegas, a time when Baroni sported a 5-1 record, and had earned a reputation as one of the UFC’s most ferocious knockout artists. The swaggering bundle of fistic fury was widely feared, even by his sparring partners.
“For me, a kid from Maui … I was ashamed and too embarrassed to fight in front of everyone,” Grove recalled of his mindset back then. “But this guy who fights in the UFC – who just destroyed Dave Menne – he’s a (freakin’) animal and I’m sparring with him and he’s kicking my ass but I’m coming back every day - told me I should fight. If anybody else had said that to me I probably wouldn’t be fighting.
“I thought to myself, ‘If this guy (Baroni) sees something in me then maybe I’ve got a shot.’ I ran with it and put all of my chips on the table.”
Baroni’s compliment sparked the dawn of a new day. Grove, who had simply been content training Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai, and competing in grappling tournaments, turned MMA pro in July 2003, prevailing by first round triangle choke. Three years later, in the highlight of his career, Grove toppled Ed Herman to win season three of The Ultimate Fighter and earn a six-figure UFC contract.
Now 14-8 with 1 NC headed into next week’s showdown with Tim “The Barbarian” Boetsch (12-4), Grove has weathered the highs and lows of the fight game. The highs: wins over former UFC champ Evan Tanner, Alan Belcher, Jake Rosholt and Goran Reljic. The lows: back-to-back TKO losses to Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera at UFC 74 and 80, respectively.
“Those two losses weren’t my downfall,” the 28-year-old Grove said. “I see those losses as world-class athletes showing me holes in my game. My losing was because of me getting caught up in the spotlight and thinking ‘you’re the s---.’ That was my downfall. Thank God Jorge and Cote put me in my place and knocked me back down to reality.”
With that lesson learned, portraying humility seems to be at the forefront of Grove as he talks about himself and his life. Whenever he says something positive about himself or his fight game – as virtually all fighters naturally do during media interviews – Grove almost apologetically prefaces his comments with “Not to sound cocky but …”
Yet as much as Grove would like to lay low and just “be one of the guys,” his towering 6’6” frame ensures that he will usually stand out in a crowd and command attention from others. His height is even more remarkable when you consider that Grove, at birth, was born two months premature and weighed just 2 and ½ pounds at birth.
“My mom almost died giving birth to me in Maui,” he said. “I was MedEVAC’d to a medical center in Oahu and my father flew with me. The first night that I was born my father was sleeping by my side. He said I had an incubator and all of these tubes running into my nose and mouth. He said that my heart rate flatlined a few times and that he would panic and rub my heart real soft and lightly to get my heart rate going again. And then boom it would start again. He said he did that three or four times, and then after that I was good.”
By his sophomore year of high school, Grove was 5 feet 10 inches tall. By senior year he had added six more inches. The unexpected bump in elevation invited the obvious encouragement from others. “You should play basketball” was a common refrain to teenage Grove’s ears.
One thing shied Grove away from hoops – he was dysfunctional with a basketball, incredibly uncoordinated off the dribble. Despite his ideal frame and extraordinarily long arms – making him at the very least a capable shot blocker – the game did not come natural to him. He was a wrestler. A 6’4”, 157-pound wrestler. He lost a little more than he won, but loved the sport still.
A special person in his life changed his mind. It was Uncle Derrick. He was dying from cancer and young Kendall occasionally cared for him.
“You should play basketball,” his uncle said.
For anyone else, the answer would have been ‘no.’ But soon enough, Kendall Grove was auditioning for his varsity basketball team in Maui. By his own recollection, he shined at the free throw line.
“I could make 95 percent of my free throws,” he said.
Unfortunately, free throw skill marked the beginning and the end of Grove’s skills on the hardwood.
“I was one of the first cut,” he said. “I suck at playing basketball. I just couldn’t get the coordination down with the dribbling and passing. I would panic. Basketball wasn’t for me.”
Reunited with wrestling, he would go on to finish 6th in Hawaii’s state wrestling tournament. Yet Grove was, by his own account, far from a spectacular athlete. In fact, the hands-down best athlete in his family was his brother, Chad Kauhaahaa, a defensive lineman who starred on the University of Utah football team in the early 1990s.
Kauhaahaa, now the defensive line coach at his alma mater, has attended several of his younger brother’s fights and is expected to be in the audience cheering Kendall on at UFC 130. The matchup between Grove and Boetsch is intriguing for several reasons. First, it marks Boetsch’s debut at 185 pounds. Second, it pits brute power (Boetsch) versus scrappiness and finesse (Grove).
“He’s a big, strong fighter with powerful strikes,” Grove said. “He goes for it – but that’s at 205. He might be the same at 185, but we’ll see what the weight cut does to him. But I like that he comes to fight and won’t just come in, try to take me down and hold me down.”
Though Boetsch has finished 11 of his 12 foes (six TKOs, five submissions), Grove notes that his style and freakishly long limbs have posed big problems for a lot of opponents.
“I’m a hard person to prepare for; I’m one of a kind. I have my own style and a long reach, so it’s hard to mimic,” Grove said. “I saw it in my last fight. Damian Maia couldn’t submit me for s---. I should have done more. I gave him too much respect. Even when he had my back and had me mounted I didn’t feel threatened. I always felt comfortable.
“I’m beatable. I’m still growing in the sport. I’m a medium-sized fish now but I’m trying to swim with the sharks. I ain’t the best fighter but I can beat some of the best. Any given Sunday, right?”
Kendall Grove - Any Given Sunday
“I’m a hard person to prepare for; I’m one of a kind. I have my own style and a long reach, so it’s hard to mimic.” - Kendall Grove