Inside Zion Clark's MMA debut and the battle over who gets to fight

Zion Clark was born with no legs and put into a life of hell in the foster care system. He has been battling to survive ever since, and now he has a new challenge: He wants to fight MMA. Bethany Mollenkof for ESPN

ZION CLARK LEANS FORWARD on his couch and extends his hands, palms down, and then he flips them so his palms are up. Then he flips them back-and-forth a few more times, like a poker dealer leaving the table. To him, sitting here in his Beverly Hills apartment, they're just his hands. But if you look real close, you see the grizzled areas, the dings and calloused skin of a man whose hands are his hands, his feet, his heart, everything.

These hands are a god-damn superpower.

Clark was born without legs due to a rare birth disorder that affects fetal development in about 1 in 60,000 live births every year. His mom was in and out of prison in Ohio, and Clark was put into foster care. His best protection, his best way to escape and survive, were those two hands. When he got to high school, he became a very good wrestler, and he later wrestled at a small local college. He's 25 now, and a few months ago, set two Guinness records. First, he did the highest box jump ever done on two hands, at 33 inches. Then he set a world mark by running 20 meters in 4.78 seconds.

On this day, I watch as he shrugs his shoulders and hops down off the couch, landing on his hands. It's time to take his 8-month-old pitbull, Canna, for a walk. Clark smushes the leash into his right hand, making a click-clack as he walks on his hands and pulls Canna. He often uses a skateboard instead of walking on his hands. But this outing includes steps, so his hands support his 2-foot-6, 110-pound body entirely on their own while also leashing Canna.

At this moment, 50 feet from Clark's apartment, Canna jumps over a puddle, then Clark must do the same. It's almost impossible to put into words how he does it. Clark plants his right hand -- still holding the leash -- and then he is suddenly on top of the wall and over the puddle and then the gate is open and Clark is on the ground again beside Canna. It's hard to even unpack the athletic move he just made. The whole thing took about one second.

Right hand down.
Right hand pushes up.
Body soars into the air.
Left hand braces for landing on wall.
Right hand opens gate. Body drops to ground.
Canna and her dad, outside the apartment complex.

He lets Canna mill around in the small patch of grass out front of his building, then he hikes her over to his car. He has a long drive ahead of him, and Canna will be a very annoying back-seat buddy on the way. But she goes everywhere with him these days, and he needs her companionship, especially on this 45-minute drive to his camp. He has begun what might be the toughest challenge of what has been a life of tough challenges: Zion Clark wants to be a cage fighter.

He'll get that chance on Saturday on a card run by California's Gladiator Challenge.

The thornier question is, should he fight?

CLARK IS THE MAIN event of a card that Gladiator Challenge is calling "Season's Beatings." Founder Tedd Williams, who fought once in the UFC himself, says that Gladiator Challenge played an important role in the early days of fighters like Urijah Faber, Chael Sonnen and Quenton Jackson. But on the MMA record-tracking site Tapology, Gladiator Challenge is flagged for "record-padding and a history of mismatches."

"Season's Beatings" will be held on the San Pasqual Reservation in Southern California, which has its own athletic commission and doesn't abide by the stricter guidelines of the California State Athletic Commission. Clark will face Eugene Murray, who's 0-4 in his career, with the fight card being available for $19.99 on the streaming service Millions.co. The only special rule in place is that Clark will be considered a downed opponent, so he can't be kneed or kicked in the head. Everything else is permitted.

Even if he wins, Clark will have an uphill battle getting to big-time MMA. Fighters who are missing limbs have always gotten skeptical looks from commissions. The highest-profile case was in 2007 when former high school wrestler Kyle Maynard booked a fight in Georgia. Maynard, who was born without legs and the lower part of both arms, had been an ESPY winner for the best athlete with a disability in 2004. The Georgia state athletic commission denied his application to fight, saying it didn't think Maynard could properly defend himself. So Maynard fought in Alabama, where MMA events were unsanctioned at the time. He lost a three-round unanimous decision and hasn't fought since.

Nick Newell might be the most successful person missing a limb to ever fight. Newell forged a lengthy MMA career, going 16-4 at the highest ranks of the sport. He was born without a right hand but worked his way up through smaller promotions before landing in the World Series of Fighting, where he lost to future UFC star Justin Gaethje for the WSOF title.

But his whole career was a slog. Newell had nonstop headaches about athletic commissions declining to sanction his fights, as well as opponents backing out when they realized Newell had one hand. "They'd say if they lost, then they had to say they lost to a guy with one hand," Newell says. "If they won, people would blow it off as a win against a guy with one hand."

Murray, 38, doesn't have any such concerns. When Gladiator Challenge reps called the California warehouse worker a few weeks ago and started to explain the potential fight, how the proposed opponent had been born without legs and was named Zion Clark, Murray got giddy. "Wait, are we talking about the same Zion Clark?" he interrupted.

"Zion has really inspired me a lot with the life he has lived," Murray says now. "The accomplishments, the determination, all of it. He's an amazing man."

So will Murray really get in the cage and try to choke out a guy he seems to adore? "Oh yeah, I need a W," Murray says. "Do I really want to smash him? Not really. It'll hurt a little to beat him. But beating him will be huge for my life."

When contacted for this story, the CSAC declined to comment on a non-CSAC event, passing along the commission's handbook that explicitly says that missing a limb will be a factor in whether a fighter is deemed fit to fight. But Newell, for one, is of the mind that any adult who can defend himself or herself should get a chance. "He's going to be fine," Newell says. "He knows what he's doing. If you're criticizing him getting to fight, then..."

He sighs and lets those words hang. Like so many with a disability, Newell sometimes wants help and sometimes doesn't. He never gets angry when somebody tries to carry a bag for him. But he wants to make that choice himself. When an athletic commission or a Twitter critic comes out against that, Newell sees it as the ultimate condescension: Deciding what a high-level athletic human body must look like in order to compete.

"Just because you can't imagine it doesn't mean it's impossible," Newell says. "You'll notice that almost none of the criticism ever comes from fighters themselves. They know what it takes, and if you're the level of athlete that Zion Clark is, you belong."

But set aside the conversation about sanctioning for a moment. Let's say a state athletic commission did sign off on a Zion Clark fight. There'd still be an ethical conversation to be had about whether he should be in there, and that drifts into a conversation about disability and agency that we still struggle with as a society. It's one I know quite well.

In college, I contracted a deadly disease called bacterial meningitis. I spent a week in a coma and woke up with limbs that were destroyed. Eventually, my hands recovered, but my feet did not. I had multiple amputation procedures to cut off parts of my feet, and I spent about six months of my life in a wheelchair. With the last surgery, I lost the ends of both feet, so I had to relearn how to walk and balance all over again. I was 25 years old, with the same size feet as a toddler. And that's exactly how people sometimes treated me, like a toddler.

Some days I definitely needed that. Some days I definitely did not. What I noticed was that almost everybody I met was kind and thoughtful. But empathy is only one town over from sympathy, and most people don't consider the difference. Empathy means understanding and having compassion for someone else. Sympathy tends to include pity, which tends to include judgment. In my case, that meant many people could see me only through the lens of what I lost, and they treated me with kid gloves. I can't tell you how many well-meaning people would see me approaching in my wheelchair and ask if I wanted help with opening a door. I'd say no... and they'd barrel in and try to open the door for me anyway. They saw my disability, not me, and they couldn't hold off the urge to infantilize me.

I get it. There's no ill will in that. Hell, in my two days with Clark I found myself doing it, too, trying to overhelp. Sometimes he took me up on it, like right after Canna and he soared over that puddle. We'd just gotten into his car to go to his MMA camp and Clark realized he'd forgotten his phone back at his apartment. He just sat there for a few seconds. So did I. Finally I asked, "Do you want me to go up and get it?"

"That'd be great," he said, and I went to get the phone.

But other times, I'd overstep my bounds. At one point, he put his giant gym bag up over and shoulder and tried to scoop up the leash for Canna. His bag fell down to the floor and he needed to pick it up again.

"Want me to take Canna?" I asked.

Clark didn't respond. He just started wrestling with the bag and the leash for a second time, and I asked again. "I usually ignore people who ask me if I want help," he says. "If I need help, I will ask for it."

On the 45-minute car ride to camp, we had a wide-ranging conversation about the meaning of disability. It's a word I use that Clark does not. I certainly understand why. Watch Clark for an afternoon, and there isn't much he can't do. "I don't like the term disability," he says. "I consider myself physically challenged."

He's heard some of the chatter about whether he should be fighting MMA or not, usually on social media. And that pushback will probably ramp up closer to the fight as word spreads that a man with no legs is going to be in a cage fight. He doesn't get angry about it, but he does connect it to what he has seen his entire life, which is that people have a hard time not babying him with concern. They have to help, whether the help is wanted or not.

I push him a bit about the MMA side of things, though. It's one thing to coddle him about opening a door or trying to wrestle or chase another Guinness World Record. It's another when he's doing MMA, where the goal is to punch and choke the consciousness out of the other guy. Anybody, with any kind of body, would have good-hearted people who sincerely wonder about the uppercuts and elbow strikes of an MMA life.

"I understand the concern," he says as he pulls onto the streets of Los Angeles. "But I'm good at it. I'm f---ing good at it. You'll see."

CLARK HAS A 45-MINUTE drive from his Beverly Hills apartment out to Team Bodyshop, where he trains with some of the best MMA fighters in the business. Canna is a disaster for the entire ride. She's bounding around the back seat like it's a 5-foot-wide dog park. Clark keeps saying, "Canna, sit down." Canna doesn't sit down. At one point, he hits the brakes and Canna lands in the front seat.

He is working the pedals like a musical instrument. He bought a contraption online that looks a little bit like two walking canes. One stretches down to the gas pedal. One hits the brakes. He must operate a small lever at the top with his right hand while steering with his left. He weaves in and out of Los Angeles street traffic, then onto a freeway, all while trying to control his rambunctious dog. Those hands, man.

As he gets into the car, Clark is starting to discuss his upbringing. Upbringing isn't really the right word. From the moment he breathed air, Clark was alone in this world. Sometimes the abuse came from the adults. Sometimes it was other kids. But it didn't stop until he was in high school.

Clark is pulling onto a freeway when he goes silent. "I don't talk too much about my life before," he finally says. "It makes me uncomfortable."

Long pause.

"It's not that I don't still deal with problems from it. I just want to get past it. I have a lot of stuff cooking in my life now and I'd rather talk about that."

When Clark arrives at the gym, he grabs her leash, his gloves and a water bottle and heads inside with Team Bodyshop. Clark doesn't use the phrase "support dog" ever when talking about her, but his relationship with Canna is beyond a pet. She is his friend. "Canna comes everywhere with me," he says.

The gym is the size of an old department store. It has a sea of weights and benches all around the perimeter, with a cage in the middle. At the far corner of the gym is a matted section that is stacked with fighters stretching and talking as Clark arrives.

Today is a grappling day, and there are stars everywhere. Cris Cyborg is in one corner. Former Bellator champ A.J. McKee is rolling in the middle. Raja Jackson, son of Rampage Jackson, is working out, too. Kimbo Slice's son, Kevin "Baby Slice" Ferguson, might be coming by later. Coach Antonio McKee, A.J.'s dad and MMA veteran, is leading the workout.

Sessions are broken into five-minute rounds, with a bell ringing at the end. Clark has been coming here for years, constantly asking McKee when he can fight. For five years, McKee told him no. He thought Clark was too reliant on his elite wrestling and didn't think his jiu-jitsu and striking were good enough yet. "I'll tell you when you're ready," McKee kept saying.

A few months ago, he told Clark he was ready.

On this day, Clark gets to fall back on his bread-and-butter, wrestling. He's a real chore on the ground. He first goes with a guy who is 3 feet taller than him and outweighs him by 50 pounds or so. But Clark moves so fast on his hands, and once he gets to a leg, he has a vise grip and power that dwarfs what any other 125-pounder is used to. "I have a lot of different submissions: arms, legs, ankles, forearms, chokes," Clark says. "I'm a pretty well-rounded martial artist."

The scouting report for Clark is pretty simple, though: His opponents are going to have a massive height advantage on him, which means they'll be able to punch down on him. He'll need to get to the legs, get on top and ground and pound. Maybe a submission opportunity arises. Once Clark is able to get his hands on people, he is a problem.

Later on in the workout, Clark pairs with a new opponent: His coach, Antonio McKee, who was 30-6-2 as a fighter and is now 52 years old. He has been rolling with Clark for the past five years, and it wasn't until the past few months that he came to believe Clark was ready for an actual fight. "He had to grow into the sport," McKee says. "He was 80 percent of the way there. He had to learn about 20 percent, and he did. Once he started learning, a light bulb went on."

Clark gets right in on his legs at the bell, and McKee flops to his back. It's hard to hear exactly what McKee is saying from underneath Clark's body, but it's some meld of trash talk blended with encouragement. Later, when Clark seems to be gassing out a bit, McKee relentlessly yells "Uh-oh, Zion's tired" every five seconds or so. He yells it so much that other fighters look over, and the gentle taunt seems to reinvigorate Clark. McKee knows Clark's buttons, and how to push them.

At the end of the training session, Clark heads for his gym bag but has to stop and wrestle a Vitamin Water bottle out of Canna's mouth. "Put that down," Clark says. Canna listens, and Clark strips off his shirt and checks his phone for a few minutes. Both McKees leave the mat area, and A.J. shakes his head about Clark. "Zion is strrrrrong," he says. "He's ready to fight."

A.J. keeps walking, and Antonio pauses to talk about Clark. "Strong as hell," he says. "He's 110 pounds but he's strong like a 200-pound man."

He stops for a second and points over to Clark, who's out of earshot, changing his shirt. From the back, Clark's shoulders spread out, showing a "No excuses" tattoo. McKee drops his chin a little bit and leans in like he's got a secret to pass on.

"Have you been hit by him?" he says.

Uh, no. Hoping to avoid it, in all honesty.

Then McKee throws his fists forward and lets out a very loud noise, like two punches in a row. "Pow-pow!" he yells. "He hits like..." McKee pauses for a second, looking for the perfect name. "He hits like Francis Ngannou," McKee says, settling on the biggest puncher in MMA. "If Zion had the base, he would hit like Ngannou. God gave him the gift of power, didn't he, Zion?"

He says that last part loud enough to perk up Clark's ears. Clark walks over on his hands, leaving Canna by his bag.

"What's that?" Clark says.

"I was just saying that you have the power of a guy like Francis Ngannou," McKee says.

Clark doesn't say anything back. His smile says plenty, though. He hasn't had a lot of father figures in his life, and McKee partially fills that void. It's only been a few weeks since McKee told Clark he was ready to fight, and now he's comparing him to the baddest man on the planet.

That makes him happy.

Clark goes back over and grabs his bag. Time to pack it in for the day. His smile is even bigger now than it was a minute ago.

"Francis Ngannou," he says to himself as Canna trails behind, oozing Vitamin Water all the way.

TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT FIGHT for Zion Clark, you have to understand all the ones that came before. And he doesn't really want to go there. "That's from my past," he says. "I'd rather focus on the fight in front of me."

For the first 15 years of his life, Clark bounced from foster home to foster home. His adopted mom, Kimberlli Clark-Hawkins, doesn't go into detail either, but she has his case files and knows what her son went through before she adopted him as a teenager. "What was done to Zion is between him, the people who did it, and God," she says.

In 2014, she'd begun fostering when she started hearing other foster parents buzz about a kid named Zion Shaver. Tremendous athlete. A musical wizard who could play six different instruments. And he'd been born without legs, into a life of trauma and struggle that took its toll on him -- and the foster parents who'd tried to take him in. Somebody mentioned to her that he was a kid who'd gone through hell, so, yeah, sometimes attitudes and behaviors came out a little sideways. "He can be a pain," she was told. "But somebody like you might have an impact on him."

A few days later, the foster mom everybody called Ms. Kim went to a winter concert at Massillon High School to watch her daughter perform. A half-hour into the show, her eyes got big when a kid with no legs walked across the stage on his hands, carrying a trumpet and wearing the top half of a tuxedo. She felt something seep into her that even now makes her pause. "I don't want to get all religious on you, but..." She never finishes the sentence.

Shaver had been notified that he had no home and was preparing to try to live out of a car or with a friend when he got the news that Ms. Kim was going to be able to provide temporary housing for him.

It was a life-changing pairing. Her early days with Shaver in the house were bumpy at times. The stability and the immediate safety of Ms. Kim, though, provided Shaver something he'd never had before, and his entire life vaulted in a positive direction.

He'd been wrestling since he was a first grader but had lost, by his count, something like 200 straight matches. He kept going back every day, despite the endless losses, because as brutal as wrestling could be, he'd developed a small core of coaches and teammates who respected and cared for him. It was the only life raft he'd had before Ms. Kim. "From the moment I stepped into a wrestling room, it was the first time I didn't get weird looks," Clark says. "I felt at peace in the wrestling room."

Within a few weeks of arriving at Ms. Kim's house, they'd developed the kind of relationship that was less foster parent-foster kid and more parent-kid. And after she spoke with her own children and they gave her a thumbs up, she went to her foster son with a question. "Zion, I love you. How would you feel if I got to be your mom? If you say no, that's OK. No hard feelings."

He stared at her for a while and didn't say a word. He just nodded and left the room. Ms. Kim began to worry that maybe she had pushed him too much, too soon. Maybe he wasn't ready. Maybe he never would be. She decided to give him some space.

A week later, he came home from school and suddenly said, "Remember that question you asked me? I do want you to be my mom."

A few months later, they went into court one day, answered some questions from a judge, and got the legal signoff on the adoption. They went into the courthouse as Ms. Kim and Zion Shaver. They would leave as Mom and Zion Clark.

"When I first adopted him, everybody was asking me why I would do that," she says. "And I said, 'Because he's the most amazing kid and he can make a difference in the world someday.'"

THE DAY AFTER GRAPPLING practice, Clark does the 45-minute drive back out to Team Bodyshop, this time for striking practice. He goes for two hard hours again, including several 15-minute stretches in the cage with the best fighter there, A.J. McKee.

By the time Clark sits down on his couch later that afternoon, he has begun to realize he hurt his right hand. Pretty bad, actually. He hit a spinning back fist against McKee, which rocked them both a little bit. The outside corner of his hand is swelled up, and it hurts to walk on as he maneuvers around his apartment. "I don't think it's broken, but it might be," he says. "I don't care, though. I'm still fighting."

He grabs some ice and sinks down into his couch. Canna is on the floor absolutely mauling an antler he got for her at the pet store. It's a relentless grinding and grunting noise, a nonstop dog attack on the poor antler. Detectives could play this sound for five minutes and get a confession from just about anybody for just about anything.

Clark is sitting beside a guitar, one of the six instruments he can play (bass guitar, drums, piano, trumpet, ukulele). He scrolls through the profiles of two potential opponents that Gladiator Challenge is considering at the time. Bookmaker Teddy Williams says they had multiple opponents agree to fight Clark, then Google his name, then mysteriously stop returning calls.

Clark doesn't seem too concerned about who he'll fight. Clark's inner circle is very supportive and positive he will win... but in moments of candor, they admit they're hoping Clark scratches this itch, then moves on from MMA. "I would like this to be a bucket list kind of thing," says Craig Levinson, who is Clark's agent/manager/roommate/friend. "Do it once and be done. But it's up to him. He's a fighter. This is who he is. He has been fighting since he came out of the womb. I get why this is so important to him."

Clark blows off the one-and-done idea. "Man, I've been training for five years," he says. "I'm not sure I'll be cool with just doing one fight."

At the end of the interview, Clark hops down and cuts out around Canna to open the front door and say goodbye.

"Are you scared at all about MMA?" I ask on the way out.

"What's there to be scared of?" he says. He seems genuinely perplexed.

"I don't know," I say. "Getting hurt?"

He doesn't even respond, and in the silence, I realize I am doing it myself: unwanted coddling of a grown-ass man. Maybe MMA will hurt. But Zion Clark knows the way past hurt.

He reaches up and grabs the door handle, then reaches out for a final handshake. It's the one he just had ice on, the one that might be broken, the one that his whole life revolves around.

"Isn't that your injured hand?" I say. "Are you sure you want to shake?"

He nods his head yes, and pulls back his hand for a second. He punches his right hand into his left, one time and then two and then three times, making nasty crackle noises of one hand smacking into another. It's loud enough that Canna stops rag-dolling her antler for a second -- but only a second -- and Clark makes eye contact with her. "Look at her," he says.

"She's a monster. She won't give up."

Then Clark extends his hand again for one last shake.

"My hands will be fine," he says, with a smile. "They have to be."