The impossibly true story of how Joe Pyfer suffered years of abuse and turned that trauma into MMA skills. His fight mentality might well prove to be utterly unbeatable
Warning: this story contains discussions of physical abuse, verbal abuse, and suicide.
“Throwaway kids matter, baby!”
Standing in the Octagon inside the UFC APEX moments after knocking out Ozzy Diaz in his second appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series, Joe Pyfer shouted the above line to no one and everyone at all.
The victory over Diaz, which would earn Pyfer a UFC contract and heaps of praise from the series’ titular figure in the wake of his performance, was the culmination of two long years of getting back to a second audition in front of the company’s power brokers, and just another chapter in a tale that is so harrowing and difficult to discuss that it honestly doesn’t feel like it could all be real. But it is.
Born into a family where his mother and father weren’t ready or equipped to be parents, the physical and verbal abuse was ever-present, beginning when Pyfer was a year old.
Homeschooled and taught Brazilian jiu jitsu on mats that were thrown down in the family living room, his youth was spent constantly trying to impress his father and then avoiding his wrath. Training sessions were more physical than they ever should be, and mistakes or a dampened spirit were addressed with physical violence or cutting words that hurt even more.
Siblings were pitted against one another, and each parent blamed the other; no one took any responsibility for their actions or steps to recognize and address the toxic environment in the home. Everything his parents didn’t know how to deal with was funneled into anger and resentment towards their kids.
“My parents had a lot of marital issues. One parent blamed the other, both not taking accountability for whoever did it,” says Pyfer, reflecting on his childhood as we spoke in late December. “I would lean more towards believing my mom than my dad, just by his violent nature throughout the years.”
We’re not talking about getting spanked for being bad or doing something he shouldn’t, just so we’re clear.
Pyfer was physically assaulted, routinely, by the man he idolized and wanted to impress the most. Busted lips and bloody noses were routine. A couple of teeth got cracked somewhere along the way. Turning up to school with bruises and black eyes was a regular occurrence, passed off as knocks garnered at wrestling practice or while training at home.
The attacks on his self-esteem were even more damaging.
Constantly called a “loser” or “quitter,” his emotions and feelings were not just dismissed and ignored but outright deemed inconsequential.
The people who were supposed to nurture and protect him spent their days tearing him down, battering him physically, verbally, and emotionally. They turned someone who looked like a happy, engaging kid into a depressed bundle of nerves with little self-worth and a pool of anger building up inside of him. The abuse only stopped once Pyfer ran away from home at age 16, opting for a park bench during the bracingly cold Philadelphia winter than another night under his father’s roof. By this time, it was just the two of them. His parents had divorced, and the trauma endured at home had just become too much.
“I knew some of it in high school, but not details,” begins Chandler Henry, a high school friend of Pyfer’s and the director of the forthcoming documentary about the UFC middleweight entitled Journey to the UFC: Joe Pyfer. “If you could put yourself in my shoes, he would come to school with a black eye, and he’d be like, ‘Me and my dad got in a fight,’ and you’d be like, ‘Why do you have a black eye!?’
“And he'd say, ‘I train MMA; it’s not a big deal.’”
It was a big deal, but you’re not going to find many kids dealing with significant abuse who are quick to share their stories with schoolmates or teachers. Even fewer kids, understandably, will understand how to intervene, even when they get the sense something is wrong.
Henry didn’t know the details when they were students and friends at Penncrest High. Still, he understands them all too well now, having watched countless hours of home video footage laced with violent interactions and verbal onslaughts too powerful even to be included in the documentary.
There are some moments, and they’re tough to take in, especially when you know even worse was transpiring than what you see.
“There is stuff that I definitely couldn’t put into the doc, but there is also stuff where you can’t even pick up on how bad it was unless you watch the 36 hours of it,” continues Henry, who first started filming his high school friend during summer break from college as Pyfer was beginning to pursue a career in mixed martial arts. “Some stuff plays out over multiple days.
“Lots of what ended up in the doc was the physical abuse, and there is some verbal abuse in there, but honestly, from what I saw — I cannot speak for Joe at all, but I think he’s said the verbal abuse is even worse than getting hit, and it’s constant berating in these home videos — ‘You’re a quitter! You suck! You’re just a loser!’
“It’s really horrific stuff, and it’s just sad to watch.”
Pyfer was eventually taken in by his wrestling coach, Will Harmon, and his wife and made to feel like part of the family, showing what it was like to be a part of a real, loving family for the first time. Things started to stabilize.
He found success on the mats and continued to train Brazilian jiu jitsu, with the kid the other students referred to as “Taekwondo Joe,” recognizing pretty early on that he wanted to fight in the UFC in the future.
He started training, working towards his goal, and took his first amateur fight towards the end of 2016, knocking his opponent out with a laser-targeted right hand to the jaw just 17 seconds after the fight began.
Eighteen months later, Pyfer won his pro debut, registering a first-round stoppage win over Steven Covington at Art of War Cage Fighting 7.
A little over two years later and sporting a 7-1 record overall with six finishes, “Bodybagz” got the opportunity to compete on Dana White’s Contender Series and made the trip to Las Vegas for the first time.
By the summer of 2020, Dana White’s Contender Series was in its fourth season, having already successfully graduated dozens of fighters to the UFC and become one of the most significant opportunities for aspiring fighters looking to make their dreams of competing inside the Octagon come true.
Paired off with Dustin Stoltzfus in the final bout of Week 2, Pyfer was getting his chance to audience for the UFC power brokers, and when you looked at the two competitors standing opposite one another inside the cage, they couldn’t have been more opposite.
On one side stood Pyfer — red hair and pale skin. He is muscular but lean, with a long torso and long arms. From the way he stood in the corner waiting for the bout to begin to the slightly annoyed scowl, he instantly gave off “dominant athlete with a chip on his shoulder” vibes.
Across the cage, Stoltzfus was loose, crouched low with his hands swaying back and forth. A couple of inches shorter, the Pennsylvania-born fighter, who carried a 12-1 record into the contest, looked like another solid regional competitor about to be fed to a more ferocious, imposing, more promising talent.
Pyfer was the more athletic and fluid of the two and looked to pressure Stoltzfus, who backed up and circled away, trading low kicks and occasional punches with the Philadelphia native. When Stoltzfus started to settle in and come forward, Pyfer quickly changed levels, driving through a takedown to put his opponent on the canvas in the center of the cage.
Stoltzfus did well to threaten and attack, never allowing Pyfer to settle into top position and get off too much offense, landing punches and elbows off his back before threatening a heel hook that prompted Pyfer to stand and extricate himself from the entanglement. As he did, Stoltzfus clambered to his feet quickly and collected Pyfer’s hips, elevating him with just 45 seconds remaining in the opening round.
As Stoltzfus went to deposit him to the canvas, Pyfer extended his right arm to break his fall and lessen the impact, but the force of his body being propelled to the canvas caused his elbow to explode.
“Everyone says when they get hurt is that it was going to be a career-ending injury, but this was legit,” says Henry, who chronicles the traumatic injury and the arduous recovery and rehabilitation process in his film. “We all thought it was over for Joe, and when people see the injury, they understand why.”
Not only did Pyfer completely dislocate his elbow, but he suffered fractures to the surrounding bones and tore all of the ligaments encompassing his elbow as well.
His surgeon informed him that he very well could never punch again and that his UFC dreams might be over.
The kid who was told he was always going to be a failure and never amount to anything was on the doorstep of making his dreams come true, only to suffer an incredibly traumatic injury that put his future in the sport into question.
Though they’ve known each other since they were teenagers and worked together for multiple years on different projects, Henry points to the elbow injury as a significant turning point not only in his relationship with Pyfer but with his friend figuring out who he was going to surrounding himself with going forward as well.
“That arm break really changed everything in terms of understanding who was really on his team and who wasn’t, and not just in terms of the sport,” says the filmmaker. “I think it changed a lot then because he was ‘The Man’ on the regional scene; he was going to make the UFC, and then it was all over.
“That clout, that interest — no one wanted to talk to him.”
Injured and feeling abandoned, no one would have blamed Pyfer for pulling the plug on his UFC dreams and pivoting to something else, as the road back would be long and painful, with zero guarantees waiting for him at the end.
Countless individuals would have shifted career paths the instant the injury took place, and rightfully so. Others would have tapped out during the different operations, the check-ups with less than favorable prognoses, or during the hours of agonizing physical therapy sessions that felt like they would never end.
For a moment, Pyfer considered it, questioning his self-worth now that he was unable to train, compete, and provide for himself.
But he opted to press on.
“Those were the next series of events that I had to get over, come back, and test my will to find out how badly I wanted to do this career,” Pyfer says in regard to his injury, the subsequent surgeries, plural, and the months of grueling rehab that followed. “It’s definitely taught me a lot on how to keep pushing through and understanding that I’ve been at the lowest of lows.
“It wasn’t from just the loss,” he adds. “It was the injury, plus the loss, plus the opportunity lost. What’s a worse way to be injured than to be injured trying to get into the UFC?”
Depression gave way to determination, and at his lowest point, with Henry, Harmon, and his original coach and mentor Sam Oropeza by his side, Pyfer found a group of people who understood him, believed in him and wanted to help him make his shattered dreams come true.
“We’ve known about Joey all his career — he was a pretty known guy in Philly,” says John Marquez, the burly, bearded leader of one of the best outfits in the hard-scrabble “City of Brotherly Love,” when asked about how his relationship with Pyfer began. “He was with Balance Studios before. He cross-trained here and there when he was young, very young. He had his amateur career started his pro career, and we connected right after he broke his arm on the first Contender Series fight.
“They said he was never gonna fight again, he got the surgery, and right after the surgery, he came to us and was like, ‘They’re saying I will never fight again, but I’m gonna fight again; I’m gonna be something.’”
Marquez believed him, and Pyfer joined the squad.
The two men connected as much on things outside the sport as they did when it came to MMA, perhaps more.
“Me and Joe connected more on the side,” begins Marquez, stumbling over his words, choosing them carefully. “Obviously, the fighting side, but I understood him more…”
He’s silent for a beat.
“I also grew up without a father,” he says, continuing. “I know his story. Everyone in the city knows his story, so I always wanted him to prove to the world that it doesn’t matter what happens in your life. You just need to move forward.
“We talk a lot about this, Joey, and I: he knows my background. He knows I understand when he’s going through stuff when he shuts down, and things like that. Once he came to our team and I understood his goal, what he has to offer — right after that surgery — I was like, ‘If you wanna do this, we’re gonna do this.’”
Another silent beat passes.
“That was pretty cool.”
Pyfer is understandably guarded, and trust obviously doesn’t come easy for him. He admits to wearing his emotions on his sleeve and having no problem telling people exactly how he’s feeling, even when that means being short with folks because he’s in a bad mood.
There is a presence about him in person — you can somehow feel him in the room without his saying a word or directly interacting with you — and it resonates when you look to approach him.
It’s not that he’s unwelcoming. It’s just that when you’ve been through everything Pyfer has been through, the shields are always up, and unknown individuals seeking a moment of his time are frequently met with an understandable hesitancy and suspicion.
His coach makes the case for why this is.
“His guard is always up, brother,” says Marquez, laughing. “Imagine, right? The people that brought you into this world, you had a bad life experience with these people, and who are we for him to trust us?
“His guard is always up, but he has a good heart. Once he gets to know you, he loves you.”
“I can be kind of standoffish, but that’s okay too — not everybody deserves a seat at my table, and a lot of people just try to get things from me,” says Pyfer, acutely aware of how he comes across at times. “Sometimes I can be a bit mean, but I think it’s just my demeanor, my nature, and life has shaped me to not really want to deal with b******t, so that has been difficult at times.
“I think it’s a relatability, and I think that’s a big thing when it comes to comfort, letting your guard down, and being able to trust somebody,” he says regarding the close circle of people he has surrounded himself with since his horrific injury, specifically Marquez. “If you have somebody that is of a like mind and understands the struggle that comes with abandonment or the struggle that comes with the absence of someone being in your life, especially a father figure, (that’s important).
“So, it’s cool to have met Coach John, and the relatability there is where the trust comes from.”
Recognizing what he had on his hands with Pyfer, both in terms of his physical talents and his traumatic past, Marquez has been vigilant about making sure that the 27-year-old middleweight knows that he’s surrounded by people who love and support him, want what is best for him personally and professionally, and do their best to help him navigate things as they come up.
“When you get to know Joey, this kid is f***ing hurt, bro,” says Marquez, who also counts welterweight standout Sean Brady, TUF alum Andre Petroski, and Jeremiah Wells amongst the group of fighters he works with. “Inside — he’s getting better at managing it — but he’s a broken child.
“When you have the people that are supposed to love you treat you like s**t, you have no one to look up to, nothing to look forward to — that s**t breaks you, man. It creates a monster, and while he’s getting older — he’s a grown man, but he’s still growing. He’s learning how to control that f***ing beast. It’s a work in progress all the time.
“Once he realized who we are as a team,” continues the coach before taking a beat. “We’re a family. I don’t believe in super-camps. I don’t have nothing against it, but I try to run my team as a family, and once he came into our team and felt, ‘Okay, I am loved, these people believe in me, and they want to see me do good,’ the connection was immediate.
“Bro, the way he grew up, the way I grew up, it’s insane, but once you get good people around you — people that truly love you and want to see you do good — it helps keep that side away.”
Fifteen months after the injury in Las Vegas, Pyfer stepped back into the cage.
Healed and cleared but unsure how he would hold up when push came to shove, he returned to the East Coast regional circuit, facing off with Austin Trotman at CFFC 104 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on December 17, 2021.
Watching the fight, you could see the rust and the hesitation. There are little split-second moments where things would be more fluid and smoother pre-injury, but triggering those right hands and knowing everything would be okay was a little more complicated post-injury.
Just shy of three minutes into the second round, Pyfer landed a right hook that finally put Trotman down and ended the fight. He was back in the win column, on the road to making his dream a reality, and on the UFC radar.
In July, he returned to Las Vegas to compete in the final bout of the opening week of Season 6 of Dana White’s Contender Series. Paired off with LFA champ Ozzy Diaz, he entered as the underdog, a status that pissed off the already irascible returning middleweight, and he marched out to the cage with focus in his eyes.
The first was competitive, with Pyfer showing off some of his grappling skills and some of the rust that remained following well over a year away and standing in against a solid, game opponent. But a little over 90 seconds into the second round, the two men met in the pocket, and when Diaz aimed a left hook at Pyfer’s midsection, the Philadelphia resident took aim at Diaz’s chin.
The follow-ups were academic.
Understandably emotional in the cage and during his backstage interview with Laura Sanko, the two-time hopeful instantly became the newest poster boy for the annual talent search series when UFC CEO Dana White singled out his performance and approach as the way others should conduct themselves when they step before him and the rest of the UFC brass on Tuesday nights.
“If you want to get into the UFC, and this is where you wanna be, act like Joe Pyfer! Be Joe Pyfer! Be excited to be here. Be fired up to fight. Try to finish the fight. Try to win. Be Joe Pyfer, and you will get into the UFC,” shouted White, walking off before stating that the middleweight finisher had garnered a UFC contract.
After a lifetime of being told he wouldn’t amount to anything, here was the most powerful and influential man in the sport demanding that others with UFC ambitions follow Pyfer’s lead.
Since officially joining the roster, Pyfer has only kept producing impressive performances.
In his promotional debut less than two months after dispatching Diaz, he knocked out Alen Amedovski in the opening round. Last April, he finished 50-fight veteran Gerald Meerschaert in the opening stanza. In October, he gave fans, observers, and other competitors a glimpse of his grappling skills. He submitted Abdul Razak Alhassan with an arm triangle choke to run his overall winning streak to five and his record to 13-2.
“All these m**********rs are gonna find out!” says Pyfer when asked about his 2024 campaign, which begins with a main event assignment opposite veteran Jack Hermansson in Las Vegas.
“I think people think there is maybe a lack in my jiu jitsu or my wrestling. I don’t know what people think, but I started out grappling. I have very underrated jiu jitsu. There are very few people that can beat me in jiu jitsu, in my area, Sean Brady being one of them, and they’re high level.
“I just don’t see anybody,” he adds, trailing off as he searches for the right words, his tone becoming slightly more agitated. “I think there is always going to be…
“It irritates me and frustrates me because there is always the doubt.”
Assessing the talents and upside of a fighter like Pyfer is challenging because one of the best ways to measure where a competitor stands in their respective division is by examining their resume and what they’ve shown to date.
With Pyfer, you can see the explosiveness and power, the grappling that is better than most people understand, and the ferocity with which he approaches each fight. You can pull up the performances, watch him finish Amedovski, run through Meerschaert, and show a little something different against Alhassan and recognize that you’re looking at a fighter with obvious potential, but potential to go how far?
Yes, he’s beaten everyone put in front of him thus far through his first three UFC appearances and done it with style points, but on paper, he has limited experience against high-level competition. In a sport where you’re judged on who you’ve beaten as much as anything else, people are still skeptical about where the ascending standout fits in the 185-pound ranks.
“What frustrates me about it is I don’t think people understand what experience is,” says Pyfer, the irritation evident in his voice. “It’s not just in the cage — it’s how you train, how you recover, how you perform.
“I’ve shown against a jiu jitsu guy, against an apparent knockout artist, against another apparent knockout artist, against an LFA middleweight champion that I can box with the best. None of them, as far as resumes go, are the best, but they all had knockout potential.
“I fought Gerald Meerschaert,” continues Pyfer, flowing with his thoughts like he would with his hands in a pad session. “Everybody talks about experience, but there’s a guy that has 50 f***ing fights, who has the most submission wins in middleweight history and whatever else they kept saying to put me as the underdog, and it’s like, ‘Whenever somebody tells you they’ve been doing this since four or five years old, understand that is experience.’
“I’ve gone with nothing but adults. I’ve competed since I was five years old. I understand how to turn it the f*** on when I need to turn it on. I’m a beatable man — I’m a human being — but these guys are gonna keep asking these questions, and they don’t understand, but they’re gonna find out.”
That unknowable piece is one of several things that makes this sport and fighters like Pyfer endlessly fascinating to keen observers because there really is a possibility — even if the majority believe it to be small — that the hard-hitting bruiser is the best fighter in the middleweight division. He might be someone who will ascend to the top of his category over the next year or two, depending on health and opportunities.
Scoff if you must, just remember that at one point, few people believed Leon Edwards could claim welterweight gold, and now “Rocky” reigns supreme in the 170-pound weight class.
And while he’s undoubtedly biased by association, Marquez can see his charge reaching the throne in the future.
“It’s world champion, bro; you’ll see,” he says when asked to assess Pyfer’s upside. “Joey still hasn’t shown in the three fights he’s had in the UFC what he’s capable of doing. Even though he’s knocked people out, he still hasn’t shown — he could get 10 times more savage than what every one has seen before.”
Throughout his UFC run, Pyfer has used his opportunities on the microphone to share pieces of his story and encourage others who have been through or are actively going through similar situations to keep soldiering on.
I ask him if frequently discussing what he’s been through, regularly detailing the trauma he’s endured, is complex, and another side of Pyfer shines through, at least initially.
“I don’t view it like that,” he begins. “I’ve already come to peace with my past. I’ve already come to peace with what my life has become, what it is. I’m not somebody that is sitting there sulking when I’m talking about it — I try to detach the emotions from it when I talk about my past because I am where I am because of my past, and it’s nothing shameful to talk about.
“Sometimes it can bring a sting to your eyes when you reminisce about how far you’ve come on the journey — and you never want to forget the journey you’ve taken to be here — but the point in going back and talking about things like this for me is the kid that’s listening, or the teenager that is listening that isn’t a perfect human being.
“Throwaway kids is a very wide statement to say,” he continues, the tone and tempo shifting, heightening. “It’s not just for abused kids. It’s the people where no one believed in you. It’s for the people that were cast aside. It’s for the people who everyone thought you were weird in high school because you were saying you were gonna be in the UFC, and now they’re all fans.”
He takes a beat.
“I have a bitter attitude towards people that tell you that you can’t do something because I was supposed to fail,” Pyfer says, the frustration with those who doubted him and abandoned him when he was injured bubbling to the surface.
“That’s not my whole identity either, but I spark certain emotions when I go in there to hurt a person, and that came out in one of the fights to get back into the UFC because everybody cast me aside — adults, friends, especially family — so it was a big ‘F*** you!’ to everybody that sat there and said I couldn’t do it.”
Once again, Marquez sums things up perfectly.
“Joey thrives off spite and what he’s been through,” he says. “‘People don’t want to see me do good. People don’t want to see me be a champion. I’m gonna go out here’ — he doesn’t do it for the sport; he does it (to prove people wrong).
“When you have the people that are supposed to love you treat you like s**t, you have no one to look up to, nothing to look forward to — that s**t breaks you, man. It creates a monster, and while he’s getting older — he’s a grown man, but he’s still growing.
“He’s learning how to control that f***ing beast. It’s a work in progress, all the time.”
But he’s making progress.
Not long ago, Pyfer felt alone, unwanted, and worthless.
The people who were supposed to love and support him tore him down and caused him pain, so much so that he picked a frozen park bench in the dead of winter over spending another night at home.
Today, he’s an ascending UFC middleweight and a rising star in the sport, with a big opportunity in front of him and, more importantly, a group of people around him who genuinely care for him and about him.
“One hundred percent, yeah,” he says when asked whether he truly knows that the people around him love and support him completely. “If I didn’t have those people around me now, I would say I was doing something wrong because I’m not attracting the right people into my life, I’m not allowing the right people into my life.
“I think a whole part of maturity is how you carry yourself, and that’s what you attract,” continues Pyfer. “I carry myself with respect. I carry myself with dignity. I carry myself with pride. I carry myself with a healthy ego, too. I think the way I carry myself has attracted really good people into my life, and the people that helped build me into the mature person I’m becoming and I am. I still have relationships with them and very healthy ones at that.
“Now I’m 27 years old, I’m maturing, I’m trying to put the pieces to the puzzle (together) so that I can have a life of happiness more consistently. I’m never going to be happy every day, but as long as I’m working towards being happier and working towards what happiness is, (things are moving in the right direction).”
There is a block of text in the trailer for the documentary that Henry made sure to include.
It reads, “The Impossible True Story.”
“I really feel like if this was Hollywood and I was writing a film, and this was the story, they’d be like, ‘Nah — it’s too unrealistic,’” he says with a laugh. “'We’ll do this to him as a kid, he’s gonna work his way up, then he’s gonna have to start over after the worst possible injury a fighter could have?’”
Henry shakes his head, smiling.
“And that’s just what makes it a brilliant story.”
The even better part?
It’s far from over.