The bantering can be relentless when it’s time to blaze another trail down our North Central Texas highway for our next thermal hog hunt. This trip was no different. Using his own words, I quipped, “Dude, you keep poking the bear. Run up and get done up!”
It wasn’t the first time I threatened him—in fact, it’s become routine, and so have his responses. He laughed and said, “I’m a prizefighter, Kev. I don’t fight for free.”
And that “he” is James “The Texecutioner” Vick, one of the world’s best Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitors. He gained MMA prizefighting notoriety after taking the top spot in the popular reality show The Ultimate Fighter, where he also earned a UFC contract. To date, his record stands at 13-3-0 and is, by far, one of the best in the UFC, regardless of weight class. Of course, as a lightweight fighter weighing in at 155 pounds and standing at 6’3” with a 76-inch reach, Vick is already a force to reckon with, and professional training has turned him into an all-out ass-kicking machine.
More important even than training, Vick wants it. Love him or hate him, the general consensus is that he’s a trash-talking SOB. He makes a Texecutioner’s living destroying the hopes, dreams and, to some extent I imagine, mental capacity of some of his opponents. Looking back, Marco Polo Reyes and “Irish Joe” Duffy are good examples of that. They both ran into Vick’s fists not long ago. Now Vick is ranked 11th in the world and is certainly a contender for a belt fight in the not-so-far-off future.
While Vick has proven to be one hell of a fighter, he’s reached this point in his life out of sheer determination. Honestly, I see a lot of social media keyboard warriors trolling him—perhaps his next opponent’s minions—but they don’t know Vick like I do. I’ve never seen a guy want something so badly. “Driven” is an understatement. I guess “drive” is easier to grasp, though, when you come from nothing and trouble knows you by name.
James Vick in the Early Days
While it would be easy to say that Vick came from nothing, he didn’t. But what he did come from was awfully close to it. He grew up as one of six well-loved kids of hardworking, God-fearing parents in the small rural town of Olney, Texas, but he grew up hard, disciplined and capable of handling himself. After all, fighting wasn’t lost on him—he had five brothers and sisters in his midst, one of whom is a twin that looks nothing like him. Vick would tell you he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and his brother, Jeff, is Danny DeVito.
Vick graduated high school just as the first season of The Ultimate Fighter aired. He liked what he saw, and the spark that flared in that moment charred any remnant of a normal career path, but he didn’t know it quite yet. He tried college first. With his height and athletic abilities, he became an asset to his junior college basketball team—or so he thought. A fist fight, of all things, got him kicked off the team and thinking hard about prizefighting again.
With his brief stint in college behind him and boxing on his mind, he found a happy place of sorts under the gritty coaching wing of Marine Corps Boxing Hall-of-Famer Jeremy Kemp. Well before Vick, Kemp had fought some incredibly tough bouts prior to training other Marines like Golden Glove winner, Goodwill Games gold medalist and 1992 Olympic boxer, Sergio Reyes. Remember that name; we’ll get back to it.
Under Kemp’s training, Vick established himself as a world-class boxer, and before he hung up the boxing gloves after an exceedingly short career, he had already won his own Golden Glove. He’d also been training heavily in martial arts when another season of The Ultimate Fighter crept in. This time he was ready to risk it all and became a competitor in the show’s 15th season. He left the ring for the octagon and never looked back, although Kemp still coaches him regularly.
So, there I sat next to Vick again, Waxahachie bound with Three Curl Outfitters and bacon on our minds. As we neared our destination, his needling and prizefighter quips had taken a new turn to his old days in the ring as a boxer. He began talking about his workouts, and he knew I was a Marine Corps veteran, so he made a point to talk about his coach, Kemp.
Listening to him talk about Kemp and Marine Corps boxing prompted a response from me that in some small way changed my life’s trajectory. I said, “My best friend in Marine Corps boot camp was a world-class boxer. He was a Golden Glove winner and won gold at the Goodwill Games.” I still remember staring off into the distance through the windshield as I uttered the statement of fact about my long-lost Marine Corps buddy, Sergio Reyes.
“Bro, I think I know that dude.” His words bit a little in the way unexpected, profound statements do. “I trained with him a little, and my coach trained him, too. I’m pretty sure it’s him.”
Why the shock? Vick’s response came nearly 29 years after the last time I had seen or heard from Reyes. My last memories, short of saying goodbye after boot camp graduation, were of us requesting permission to switch job specialties. I was headed to North Carolina, and he was staying in California. I wanted to be in California, and he wanted more than anything to box for the Marine Corps, and the only place that could happen was at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Because the powers that be laughed at our requests and then crushed us for asking, we didn’t ask again.
After boot camp, literally the moment we were dismissed, Reyes and I congratulated each other and went different directions for nearly three full decades, until, by chance, James Vick facilitated a reunion. What are the odds? It’s funny how life turns some into warriors in a cage and others into warriors reunited. (For more on Sergio Reyes, see the accompanying sidebar on page 61.)
In the Zone
The life of a prizefighter is often puzzling. Truly knowing guys like Reyes and Vick takes time—and trials. Reyes may be a mystery now, but I knew him better than any of the other prospective Jarheads with whom we shared one of our toughest challenges, and he knew me better than anyone else, too.
Vick is also tough. As one of my closest friends, I still raise an eyebrow at some of his drive, perspective and reasoning—largely because I’m not a prizefighter and, unlike Vick, I’ve never been a fan of getting clocked in the face. When The Texecutioner gets in the cage, he’s grinning from ear to ear. That grin is as real as it gets. He’s in his element. He feeds on fists coming and going and revels in it.
Vick’s lack of fear and cool demeanor are hallmarks of his reputation in the UFC. Considering his background, he’s a bastard of a boxer, grapples with the best of them, can reach from the next zip code and has incredibly quick hands. That said, sometimes his mouth is even faster. Considering today’s MMA fighter reputations, Vick undoubtedly ranks somewhere near the top for trash talking, but it’s to be expected when you’re the world’s largest lightweight pro MMA fighter. Guys are simply afraid to fight him. Sure, they deny it, but then they refuse to fight him at every turn. Getting fights has been his greatest hurdle, and they often come as a result of brutal callouts.
But don’t assume this is Vick’s character. The UFC loves trash talk; it sells fights. And Vick? He’s just trying to get a fight. His latest war with words came with Justin Gaethje and led to a co-main-event fight at Fight Night 135 on August 25, 2018.
Vick and I talked about that fight quite a bit, and he trained as hard as ever. His first co-main-event opportunity was in sight, and he intended to take full advantage. The trash talking that landed him the fight continued up until they met in the cage. While Vick was favored to win, destiny had other plans. Every fighter acknowledges that no matter how good, how favored or how well prepared you are when you enter the octagon, all it takes is one clean freight train of a shot to turn out the lights for either fighter—and that’s what happened. Gaethje snuck one through in the first round and Vick’s fight was over, his second MMA loss in the books.
With trash talking as it was, the loss was humbling. Sure, Vick had to eat a fist and some crow, but what many fail to understand is that what they see in built-up rivalry is fight-card induced—to get fights and sell them. It’s rarely representative of the fighter’s character, including The Texecutioner. Those of us who know Vick see him for what he is: A loyal friend and proud family man who truly loves and appreciates his fans. A mountain of his disappointment from the Gaethje loss was less to do with fight-selling rivalry and much to do with slowing progress and disappointing fans.
Ready Player One
Vick rebounded quickly and was ready to get back to his other passion: hunting.
First up was a family trip to Hawaii with his better half, Ada, a native Hawaiian, and their newborn son, James Jr., for much-needed family time and, yes, a hunt. Not one to miss an opportunity, Vick packed clothes, baby stuff and a looker of a rifle—his Phoenix Weaponry AR-15 chambered in 6.5 Grendel, complete with a chain-link cage finish. I’m a bit jealous. It’s badassery defined. While I didn’t get to bump around Hawaii with him, he took a beauty of an axis deer.
Shortly after his return, we headed out to Roewe Outfitters to hunt with Jeff Thomason, the host of the Predator Pursuit TV show on Sportsman Channel. This proved to be a perfect match, as the show was sponsored by Pulsar, and Vick is a member of Pulsar’s pro staff. The hunt with Roewe Outfitters took place on large tracts of farmland near Haskell, Texas, a perfect location, since the drive up took us through Vick’s sleepy, dot-on-the-map hometown of Olney.
With our new friend Roger Roewe, owner of Roewe Outfitters, guiding and the sun slipping below the horizon, we headed out to scan crop fields with Pulsar Helion XP50 thermal monoculars. The hunt was on. Vick carried his LWRCI Six8-A5 Razorback in 6.8 SPC, I employed my own identical rifle capped with a whisper-quiet Silent Legion multi-caliber suppressor, and Jeff tapped his trusty suppressed Palmetto State Armory AR chambered in .308 Winchester.
Darkness had long since cloaked the rural Texas landscape when we found our first sounder rooting up a peanut field. Vick, Jeff and I slid out of the truck and followed single-file behind Roger. With a brisk, bone-chilling wind perfectly in our favor, we quickly closed the distance to a sounder of eight pigs. Roger stopped roughly 50 yards short of the sounder and fanned us out into a firing line. We set up quickly, leveled the crosshairs in our thermal riflescopes onto the pig-stacking spots behind the ears of the larger sows, and then waited for Roger’s lead.
“Nod if you’re ready.” We nodded, and Roger whispered our previously agreed-upon countdown: “Three, two, one.”
After “one,” we shot almost simultaneously, and two pigs dropped. Unfortunately, the sounder had been located near some tall grass and made it into hiding with lightning speed. The good news? Two bruiser sows lay motionless in the field. We trolled fields for hours afterwards, but a cold snap had all but stopped the hog activity. We soon realized that catching the sounder earlier was simply a right-place, right-time event. Fortunately, we did take another large sow a couple hours later, and still more hogs on the second night, including a wall-hanger of a boar with 3-inch cutters. Vick and Jeff shot in unison and leveled the brute. The hunt was one for the ages, and we’ll definitely be coming back!
A couple days later, Vick and I pulled up to the Three Curl Outfitters lodge. After a quick bite and good conversation with one of the guides, Corey, we grabbed our energy drinks and rifles, jumped into Corey’s truck and lit off into the sunset—literally. Again, Vick carried his LWRCI. However, this time I carried one of my personal favorites, a Brenton Ranger Hunter in 6.5 Grendel. Yes, it’s an AR-15, but it’s ripe with rich, heirloom-type hunting-rifle looks, and it shoots just as well. Like our Roewe Outfitters hunt, we both employed Pulsar Trail XP50 thermal riflescopes.
After several hours of combing crop fields with thermal monoculars, we spotted a boar less than 200 yards off the road in a ridiculously large mud pit that used to be a wheat field measuring roughly 1,000 yards square. We slid out of the truck, grabbed our rifles and filed in behind Corey for the quick stalk. Once we were within 50 yards, Vick and I fanned out and waited for Corey’s countdown: “Three, two, one.”
At “one,” Vick and I fired, again simultaneously, resulting in two shots behind the boar’s ear. It dropped where it stood. As we were just about to drag the boar out of the field, Vick and Corey stopped to scan the field. As quickly as they both peered through their thermal monoculars, they found two more hogs over 1,000 yards farther from the road.
We stalked the pair, readied our rifles and listened to Corey’s countdown again. At “one,” we each fired at the two mature sows, and both dropped from single, well-placed shots. As we contemplated getting the two hogs out of the field, Vick located a fourth pig—nothing hides from thermal imagers. All told, we killed four pigs and had them back at the lodge by about 2 o’clock in the morning.
The Next Round
We talked quite a bit on the drive home about hunting, his last fight and how the loss was foundational to his greater levels of grit, guts and drive to eventually steal away the lightweight title.
Riding through some of life’s chapters with a guy like Vick is rewarding. His desire, discipline and tenacity are remarkable, and his passions for fighting and hunting are equally impressive. He’s unapologetic in the cage and in the woods. Fear and failure are not in his vocabulary, but desire, loyalty and friendship most certainly are.
James Vick is building much more than a reputation as the UFC’s Texecutioner. He’s building a legacy—and it’ll be tough to beat.