Wiping blood from his face, Ian Freeman received advice that would change his life forever.
In the car park of a pub where he was working the door, Ian had just used his huge fists to knock a man unconscious.
It was then another bouncer politely suggested there may have been an easier way of dealing with the situation.
“A colleague came in as I was cleaning the blood off and said you should have broke his arm – the only way I knew how to do that was to put them against a curb and stand on it,” Ian recalled.
“But he then told me about Jiu Jitsu.”
Fast forward just a couple of years, Ian was standing in the UFC octagon opposite Frank Mir, a future heavyweight champion and, as such, the de-facto ‘baddest man of the planet’.
That night was both the best and worst of his life. As a riotous Royal Albert Hall watched on, the Sunderland fighter broke Mir’s spirit and then his body.
After less then five minutes, the fight was waved off with the bloodied, bruised and breathless American barely able to stand.
The first Brit in the UFC had just won the biggest fight of his life, dedicating it to his cancer-riddled father who, a week before the had been rushed to hospital as he clung to life.
Then the phone call came.
“I’d wanted to win that fight for him, and I honestly think that nobody alive could have beat me that day. I was so focused,” Ian added.
“But I called home after the fight and my mam told me that my dad had died a day earlier. Nobody had told me as they knew I’d not be able to go through with the fight, but within half an hour of having my hand raised, I was in complete shock.”
The fighter nicknamed ‘The Machine’ would ultimately prove to be human as grief swallowed him up.
His next fight, against the fearsome Belarusian striker Andrei Arlovski, was a title eliminator.
It could have catapulted Ian to superstardom within the sport had he won.
“(UFC president) Dana White had promised me a title shot if I won, but I was still grieving for my dad,” admitted Ian.
“Instead of taking time off and grieving properly, I felt that I had to do it. I was frightened that if I didn’t I wouldn’t get the chance again.
“But I remember getting in (the Octagon) that night, looking over at him, and just thinking ‘I don’t want to be here’.
“It could have been anyone that night, and I don’t think I’d have won – it was a non-starter.
“I remember being in training, and my training partner was on top of me just hammering me with these punches and he went ‘f***** hell, if this is what I’m doing to you, what do you think Arlovski will do? I just remember staring at him, and again thinking I didn’t want to be here.
“My mind wasn’t on it – and I was still grieving – but like an idiot I took the fight.”
The fight lasted 85 seconds, with the much taller, younger, Arlovski winning on his quick ascent towards capturing the heavyweight crown.
However, a number one contender’s fight was an incredible position for ‘The Machine’ to find himself just three years into his career which, ultimately, was launched after that fight in a pub car park.
Rewind to that night, and Ian recalls “a big mush” fuelled by cocaine and rage storming down the pub and demanding a straightener.
“This guy was barred and was told to leave, but he came back with this monster of a bloke,” recalls Ian.
“He was at the bottom of these stairs screaming ‘Freeman, come down here, I will f***** kill ya’.”
A long story cut short, the pair ended up in the car park settling their differences.
At one point, the powerfully built 15st cage fighter dropped his rival with a devastating punch which should have ended it there and then.
“He was that off his face that he just got up like I’d never even hit him,” he laughs.
However, the advice which followed persuaded him to learn to grapple rather than just punch.
While he also engaged in bare-knuckle fights, the grappling allowed him to become a well-rounded MMA star.
It would take him away from the North East, for fights in the US, Austria, Russia, Japan and Holland.
“Before I fought in the UFC, I’d never even left Britain before,” admits Ian.
“The furthest I’d ever been was to Wales in a car.”
But when the email came in from UFC officials offering him the fight on the Wednesday, his bags were packed and he was on a flight to Las Vegas the following day.
Once he landed, he was fighting that night on the preliminary card of UFC 24
This was back in 2000.
While MMA had evolved by this point from those primitive, no-holds-barred early cards of the 90s, it was still a million miles from the multi-billion dollar organisation it has since become.
The event wasn’t held at the MGM Grand, but the spit-and-sawdust Sudduth Coliseum, usually the venue for local gun shows. It was anything but glamorous.
“I remember walking around the day of the fight, and I got speaking with these lads who had actually come over from Britain for the fights,” he said.
“I didn’t have any team, so after a few minutes of chatting I just said to them ‘do you fancy being my cornermen?’.
“They couldn’t believe it. To be fair they knew a bit about martial arts, but that was how different it was back then.”
It wasn’t just the lack of a support team which was different.
While he spent £6,000 before the Mir fight with a corner which included legend Josh Barnett, at the start training, in Ian’s words, often consisted of “lifting weights as heavy as you could and a bit of grappling”.
And while today’s top MMA stars have in-house nutritionists monitoring every single bite, in Ian’s day, it couldn’t have been more different.
“I fought a fella named Tedd Williams (at UFC 27), who was this big 300lb American judo grappler,” he recalls.
“But two days before hand, I was in McDonald’s. People would say to me my nutrition and diet was on point, but I was just eating for the sake of eating.”
Back then a fight represented a quick payday, and with fewer cards, organisations and fans to fight for, it often involved snapping up any offer you could get.
In some cases that meant fighting when you weren’t 100%.
Before one fight, a huge RV drove straight into Ian’s side, leaving him in agony. Yet he still put the gloves on.
“If I didn’t fight, I was skint,” he admits.
Yet despite fighting for what has gone on to become the world’s biggest fighting organisation, his success didn’t translate into fame.
“I remember after my first fight, landing back at Newcastle Airport. I thought that there would be at least two or three press there waiting for me – there was nothing,” he laughs.
“You are standing in this airport, and people look at you, yet they have no idea what you have just done.”
It wasn’t until after his last UFC fight, a 2003 draw against Vernon White, that the sport exploded.
Stars like Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones all played a huge role in establishing the UFC as a major global brand before Conor McGregor ultimately elevated it to the next level.
The UFC, bought while the organisation was on the cusp of bankruptcy in 2001 for $2m, was sold recently for $4bn.
It was comfortably the most expensive ever sale of a sports organisation.
Back in its infancy, Ian never made life-changing money fighting under the UFC banner.
However, he won world titles with the UK-based Cage Rage promotion in a career which has allowed him to transition into announcing and coaching, for fighters who want to learn from a true pioneer in the sport.
Those include his own daughter, kickboxing ace Kennedy.
Undefeated in MMA, she has since signed for UFC rival Bellator.
“When she was younger, she would get disqualified for punching too hard,” he says with pride reserved only for those who have laced up a pair of four ounce gloves themselves.
But while he feels he could have been Britain’s first UFC champion had things worked out differently – with training and timing – he’s more than happy with his legacy being as Britain’s first true MMA pioneer.
Now aged 54, he’s also content with his new role – as an NHS ambulance medic.
“My mate said I used to put people in hospital – now I just take them there,” laughed Ian.
“It’s amazing how life changes for the better and how much I love my new job.”