Written by Brian Vossen
Ari Taub knows all about losses. Named to the Olympic Wrestling Team in 1992, he lost his spot in a challenge match. It would take Ari another 16 years to climb his way back to the Olympics. Now, Ari wants to teach the lessons he learned through sport, like perseverance, through Hard Knocks Fighting Championship.
The atmosphere in the convention centre at Frank Sission’s Silver Dollar Casino in Calgary is electric. Cheers from 1,000 mixed martial arts fighting fans fill the air as two men circle each other in an hexagonal cage at the centre of the room. Every smack and thud resonates as the two fighters kick, punch and slam each other to the floor. Both these men are fighting for the first time in the Hard Knocks Fighting championship. Both of them want to prove they have what it takes to make it in the world of mixed martial arts. Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a controversial sport that remains popular in Alberta despite being illegal in certain parts of the country because of the stigma that the sport is brutally violent.
Somewhere in the crowd is Ari Taub. He is not a giant, but standing at six foot three and weighing about 270 pounds he is certainly a large man. His hair is cropped short and he wears a dark polo shirt with jeans. Taub’s cauliflower ears are permanent souvenirs from years of wrestling, looking like someone has grabbed and crumpled them. Though he no longer wrestles, Taub is still very active and athletic, as is obvious from his muscular build. He wears a smile on his face as he chats with some of the spectators in the crowd, laughing with his guests and drinking a beer.
It is because of Ari Taub that these people, both fighters and fans, have come here. A year ago, Taub and his partner, Beamer Comfort, founded Hard Knocks Fighting Championship, Calgary’s first and only amateur Mixed Martial Arts fighting event. This is one of the many successes Taub has enjoyed in his 39 years of life. He is also a successful lawyer with his own practice, a dedicated husband and father and an Olympian wrestler. None of it came easy though. Taub has persevered through many defeats, serious sickness and a case or two of bad luck to get to where he is today.
MMA is a combat sport that combines a variety of fighting techniques from several different fighting styles and martial arts such as karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and wrestling. Both striking and grappling moves are used in MMA and fighting is done both in standing positions and while on the ground. Because of this, athletes from numerous combative backgrounds compete in MMA fighting. To Taub, this makes MMA one of the most tactical sports around. He said that people who think MMA is a violent bloodsport need to separate the activity from the intent.
“I don’t think many people get into the cage, especially the top people, thinking about hurting [their opponent] for the sake of hurting. They think about what they need to do to achieve their objective, to win the game. . . . If my intent is to beat the hell out of you and stab you I agree that’s a socially and morally wrong thing. But if the intent is to see if I can best you according to a certain number of rules in a controlled environment that is safe I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Taub said the idea was for Hard Knocks to become a grassroots system to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which he likens to the NHL without a junior league. Without an amateur league, MMA fighters have no way to sharpen their skills before turning pro. Many MMA fighters get beat badly in their first few professional MMA bouts and end up quitting the sport. Hard Knocks acts as a funnel to the UFC so fighters can experience the ring without fearing how the outcome will affect their professional record. However, helping fighters get to the UFC is only part of Taub’s objective for Hard Knocks. His real plan is to teach people what he calls life lessons through sport.
As MMA is a very popular sport right now, especially among young men, it made sense to Taub to use its popularity to reach people with his message. Because of a wrist injury that prevents him from throwing a punch, Taub doesn’t compete in MMA but being the CEO of Hard Knocks Fighting championship has allowed him to remain in the environment he loves.
“I love combative sport. Like, I love wrestling and I think the wrestling is the biggest component in this stuff and it allows me to continue on doing stuff with wrestling,” said Taub.
Taub said he hopes to expand Hard Knocks across Canada in the future. The theory behind this is that if Hard Knocks is hosting events across Canada, more MMA clubs will sprout up across the country as well, meaning more and more Canadians will be participating in sport. Once people are practicing sport, they have the chance to learn life lessons through sport. By getting more young people to practice sports, Taub hopes to make people healthier and more active.
Taub grew up in Calgary and attended Henry Wise Wood High School. In Grade 10, he started wrestling. Most of Taub’s training in high school was in freestyle wrestling, the style where wrestlers are allowed to attack with both arms and legs and are allowed to hold those same parts of their opponents. However Taub also dabbled in Greco-Roman wrestling – the style he would later compete in for the Olympics – where wrestlers are only allowed to attack with their arms and upper bodies and allowed to hold only those parts of their opponents.
Sports were a big part of Taub’s high school career. In fact, it was all he cared about during that time in his life. During high school, Taub had little interest in anything that wasn’t related to sports, not even girls. Taub said his parents were more concerned about his grades in school.
“They used it as a carrot,” said Taub, “They said, ‘if you do well in school you get to do sports.’ So I did well in school so I could spend the rest of my days doing sports.”
Taub showed talent early in his wrestling career, qualifying for the Calgary City Championship his first year wrestling. Ken Taub, Ari’s father, said that was when he first watched his son wrestle.
“In the spring [Ari] says, ‘Dad, I’m going to be in the City Championships, do you want to come watch?’” said Ken. When Ken did go to watch his son wrestle, he was pleasantly surprised by his son’s talent.
“I was amazed – he was winning!” Ken said, “Then at the end of the evening he was in this gold medal match. He was wrestling this little funny-looking guy who was in the same weight class as him but he probably came up to [Ari’s] shoulders. Built like a tank and had legs that were each the size of a tree trunk . . . Ari was beating this kid and I was ecstatic until the last 30 seconds when this little kid lifted Ari up over his head and slammed him down to the ground and won the match.”
It would take more than one championship loss to discourage Taub from wrestling. He continued to compete all through high school and sought every opportunity to better himself as a wrestler. One such opportunity led Taub to Clive Llewellyn, an Olympian Wrestler and lawyer who became a good friend and mentor of Taub’s.
Llewellyn said that he first met Taub at a wrestling tournament at Jack James High School in Calgary when Taub was about 14 years old. Llewellyn was coaching another wrestler who pinned Taub. After losing the match, Taub approached Llewellyn and asked if Lewellyn could show him what Taub had done wrong in order to lose the match. Llewellyn agreed to show Taub, but only if Taub started attending Llewellyn’s practices.
Llewellyn said that Taub had incredible potential as a wrestler, but as a teenager, Llewellyn also needed to discipline him a few times.
“Occasionally I threw him off the team for misbehaviour and he promptly, a week later, would call and apologize and want to come back on the team again,” said Llewellyn.
During high school Taub started to have Olympic aspirations. Though he participated in many sports during high school – including rugby and football – it was clear to Taub by the time that he graduated in 1988 that wrestling was the sport he was best at. Wrestling, not academia, was the reason Taub attended York University in Toronto. At the time, it had one of the best wrestling clubs in the country. After the head wrestling coach at York took a different job, the wrestling club kind of disappeared and as a result Taub moved to Vancouver in 1990 and attended Simon Fraser University, another university with a well-reputed wrestling club, while he studied business administration.
At Simon Fraser University, Taub met the woman who became his wife. As one of Simon Fraser’s track athletes (and a talented one at that), Sarah Howell would often work out on the bikes and treadmills in the wrestling room at the university. One day, Taub invited Howell to dinner. Taub’s hands were still taped from wrestling practice, so he wrote Howell’s phone number on the tape and the couple soon started dating. A year later, the two moved in together.
Howell said that Taub can’t function properly unless he is working towards some kind of goal and once he has a goal in mind, there’s very little that can stop him from reaching it. Such was the case with Taub’s Olympic journey.
“Once he gets something in his brain, he just does not want to let it go until it is either completed successfully or proven itself to be completely impossible to do. And even those things he might still try to keep at until he’s successful at it,” said Howell.
In 1992, Taub qualified for the Olympic Wrestling team as a freestyle wrestler. Taub received a congratulatory telegram from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a Team Canada track suit, and he was profiled by CBC for a get to know your Olympic athletes piece.
Meanwhile, Gavin Carrow, another wrestler who had not qualified for the Olympics, decided to sue the Canadian Amateur Wrestling Federation on the basis that the criteria to qualify for the Olympics were not fair. In order to avoid a lawsuit, the federation instead decided that the issue would be would be settled by a wrestle-off between the Taub and Carrow. Whoever won would get the spot on the Olympic Team. Taub lost that match at a training camp in Hamilton and was crushed when Carrow went to the Games in Barcelona in Taub’s place.
Howell wasn’t able to be with Taub at the time of the wrestle-off, but she had made plans to fly out to Hamilton right afterwards. She said Taub was disappointed in himself and angry, and bitter about the outcome of the match. As a result, Howell didn’t end up having a very nice holiday.
“That was horrible,” said Howell, “I mean, probably more horrible for him than for me – but it was.”
“We didn’t have a fun time,” added Taub.
However, Taub never quit. He stayed for the remainder of the training camp, even though he had to train with the wrestler who had just beaten him for the Olympic spot. It was the first step in a 16 year long journey back to the Olympics.
“There’s always been that little bit of him that sort of knew that he wanted to go to the Olympics and that he should have gone to the Olympics and I don’t think that really rested until he actually went in 2008,” said Howell.
Unfortunately, things did not get better for Taub anytime soon. In 1993, a year after losing his place on the Canadian Olympic Team, Taub was diagnosed with a stinger injury while living in Vancouver. A stinger is an injury commonly seen in athletes where a person suffers stinging, tingling, or numbing in the arms and fingers because of a pinched nerve. Taub’s doctor mistook this for a much more serious problem, a spinal column injury, which could turn Taub into a quadriplegic if he continued wrestling. Taub’s doctor recommended that Taub not only give up wrestling, but physical activity all together. Taub quit wrestling, but refused to become sedentary. In the fall of 1993, when Taub began attending law school at University of British Columbia, he began rowing competitively for UBC.
“I had a doctor who told me that I ought to just sit on the couch and never do anything and I kind of said ‘screw off,’” said Taub, “I decided that the chances of me hurting my neck by falling out of the boat into the water were not very high, so I kind of ignored him.”
Becoming a lawyer was something Taub never really questioned. He said that his parents decided that he should become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant. Taub had applied to law school at UBC before his neck injury so that he could wrestle with the Simon Fraser club while studying law at UBC. After the diagnosis, Taub just followed through with his plan.
After graduating from law school in 1996, Taub articled for a year at Ladner Downs in Vancouver for a year and then went to work for Code Hunter in Calgary in 1998. Working at such a large firm was not Taub’s thing. He felt that his successes were not rewarded.
“I’d do a bunch of work and the senior partners would make a bunch of money. Which of course didn’t seem like something I wanted to hang out in,” said Taub.
It was while working for this firm that Taub’s health started to fail. At first, high-intensity workouts tired Taub out, so he switched to low-intensity workouts. Then his body didn’t handle low-intensity workouts well either. Then he got sick and a cold that would take two or three days to recover from would take two or three weeks. Then Taub got sick and didn’t get better. After being sick for six months straight, Taub went to a doctor and was diagnosed with infectious mononucleosis (mono). When Taub’s mono never got better, doctors thought that Taub may be depressed.
“Well I [was] certainly depressed that I [couldn’t] do anything that I used to be able to do,” said Taub. He added that despite what his doctors thought, Taub was sure it was his body that was sick, not his mind. In time, Taub discovered that he had chronic fatigue syndrome.
Though Taub’s body was exhausted most of the time, his mind was still working perfectly and he needed something to occupy his time. Taub went to the Calgary Dinos wrestling club to try his hand at coaching. In order to make sure coaching was not bad for his injured neck, Taub had his stinger injury re-examined. That was when the misdiagnosis was discovered. In 2001, eight years after the original diagnosis, Taub was told he could wrestle again.
Through his connections at the Dinos club, Taub found a doctor who had a formula for recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Taub then started wrestling with the Dinos club and used that as the exercise to recover. Taub’s recovery did not come quickly though, he said he needed to take baby steps to fix his body.
“You go, ‘ok, well I can take two steps today and that’s real cool.’ Then you can take two and then you can take three but if you go and take 10 then you’ll be back at one,” said Taub.
Most people would hear of Taub’s battle with chronic fatigue syndrome as a negative point in his life. However, Taub chooses to see his low spots in a more positive light.
“Is it worse or is it just different?” said Taub, “I choose to see it as different.”
Taub added that getting sick was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Because of chronic fatigue syndrome, Taub quit the job he didn’t enjoy at the large firm, returned to wrestling and later – when he was well enough to start working again – started his own law firm.
May 18, 2001, was Taub’s last day working at Code Hunter. It was the same day that Madi and Courtney, Taub and Howell’s identical twin daughters, were born. Nearly three years later, on March 24 2004, Taub became a father for the second time when Howell gave birth to a set of identical twin boys, Nick and Conaire. Howell said that though she and Taub knew they would probably have children at some point, the kids just kind of happened. The fact that it was two sets of identical twins was just incredible luck.
Another six years later, in February 2010, eight year-old Madi is answering the door to their home in north-west Calgary. There is a reporter there to write a story about her father. After Taub explains this to Madi, she starts jumping up and down and yelling, “Daddy’s gonna be famous again! Daddy’s gonna be famous again!”
Inside Taub’s home is the rest of his family. Nick and Conaire are seated at the dining room table, both in front of laptop computers playing some kind of videogame. Somewhere downstairs, Courtney is watching a movie and later makes it clear that she has little time to take pictures for the newspaper.
Madi however, is more than excited to be photographed, and declares that she wants to be famous like Taylor Swift. While Taub chats with the reporter in the living room, Howell is kept busy shuffling from room to room keeping tabs on her children. Many would think that managing two sets of twins would be a full time job. Taub and Howell manage while they both have their own careers to boot. Taub runs his own law firm and Howell works as a real estate agent from home.
Taub said that most people’s perception of lawyers is that they don’t really want to help people and they don’t really do anything, they just charge a lot of money When Taub started his own firm, Taub Law; he didn’t want it to be like that kind of typical law firm. Instead, Taub came up with his own model to work with for his firm. Taub referred to himself as a business lawyer or business coach and said he primarily works with entrepreneurs. When working with clients, Taub often has discussions with them about what’s going on in their lives in order to understand how his clients view the world. He will then help them set goals for themselves for both their professional and personal lives and put step by step processes in place to help them achieve those goals. Like most of the projects Taub is working on right now, it also relates to life lessons through sport. Taub said that many of the skills he uses when working with clients he learned through sport.
While wrestling at the Dinos club when he was still recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome, Taub met Beamer Comfort. As the only senior wrestler near Taub’s weight, Comfort became Taub’s most frequent training partner at the Dino’s club. Through training and travelling with Taub, Comfort watched Taub wrestle his way to recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and become a competitive wrestler once again.
“Ari managed to actually get to a point where he was either as good as or better than he was before the chronic fatigue,” said Comfort.
When Taub qualified for the Olympic Greco-Roman team in 2008 Comfort said he was happy that his friend had realized one of his dreams and Comfort got to share in that success.
“It was exciting for him because he was getting to do this thing that had been a goal for all of us for a long time,” said Comfort. “To a certain extent when you help someone get ready for that you get to live that goal a little too.”
Taub said that there were many athletes who gave up some of the Olympic experience in an attempt to perform better in Beijing; Taub was not one of them. Knowing this was the only chance he would ever have at coming to the Olympics, Taub spent 26 days in Beijing and took full advantage of his Olympic experience. The opening ceremonies were one thing that stuck with Taub. Though the heat and pollution in Beijing made Taub uncomfortable, he forgot about his discomfort as he marched in the opening ceremonies with the rest of Team Canada.
“There had to be at least 100,000 people there cheering,” said Taub, “It was really loud. It was probably something most of the people there will never forget. It was really hot. I mean it was five hours outside in almost 100 per cent humidity. It was really uncomfortable physically but it was really cool.”
Though Taub lost his first and only match, he still considers his performance at the Olympics a success. For Taub, competing in Beijing was an accomplishment in itself. He managed to make it to the Summer Games despite factors like his age – Taub was 37 at the time – and previous sickness.
After returning to Canada from the Olympics, Taub and Comfort started School of Hard Knocks Fighting Championship. Hard Knocks was an idea that Comfort had for awhile and even worked on with other wrestlers, but never managed to get it off the ground. Essentially, Taub put his line of credit on the line for the first event, and now he and Comfort do their best to sell enough tickets at each event to pay for the next one.
“I had retired from wrestling and was trying to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up and I said, ‘you know what? Let’s give this a shot.’ We both thought it was a great opportunity to use the popularity of mixed martial arts to drive life lessons through sport.” said Taub.
It’s the day after the fights and Taub is going back to the Silver Dollar Casino to run a wrestling practice with Comfort and some of the fighters in the cage. Taub watches for awhile and sees one of the fighters struggling with a manoeuvre. Taub works with the fighter to help him improve the technique, patiently explaining and demonstrating the move over and over again. Once again, he is showing his incredible ability to persevere by never once becoming frustrated or giving up on the fighter. If this fighter learns nothing else from Taub other than perseverance, Taub will have accomplished his goal. He will be teaching a life lesson through sport.