September 13, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tufts of wild prairie grasses and forbs once fought for light where Ryan Roberts now lays tile on his kitchen floor. But before they were excavated—before the slab, footings and foundation walls of his house were poured, the mixed martial artist lived in drunk tanks, jail cells, and rehabilitation centers.

Roberts lived his own personal hell. Now he’s laying the groundwork for a new home.

“I don’t know how professionals lay tile,” Roberts muses on a recent morning, staring down a rotating blade with naked eyes. “I only know how I do it.”

His table saw shrieks, echoing throughout the emptiness that will soon become a family room for his wife and daughter. Clay dust drifts onto the carefully arranged path of tiles that Roberts, 35, says he’ll set before the day is done. The VFC featherweight champion has a plan.

It hasn’t always been that way.

“My first five fights—I was drunk in every one,” Roberts says, thinking back to 2006. “I didn’t know any better.”

He had been a free-swinging, Red Bull and vodka-shooting brawler in those days, punishing most fighters with a flurry of punches and submitting to the technical prowess of very few. Away from the ring, Roberts says he received his drubbings from drunk-driving accidents, “hanging out of windows, bouncing on the concrete.”

And then there were the DUIs. Thirteen to be exact.

After his most recent arrest, his second 4th offense DUI, Roberts says he finally decided to quell his thirst for alcohol. And although he couldn’t sense it at the time, his five-year quest for sobriety would culminate with a victory in the biggest fight of his career.

Roberts says he had a nickname growing up: Tete. Phonetically, he pronounces it “teet,” but what his friends had really meant to call him was Teek, a mischievous rodent from George Lucas’ forest moon of Endor.

“So my nickname is misspelled on my f—ing back,” he says, pointing to four faded Old English letters. “First tattoo I ever got.”

Roberts entered the Omaha Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in 2009 a shell of Tete, or perhaps he was a shell of Teek. Either way, he says he felt as confused as his moniker, witnessing fellow patients abuse heart medication and other substances for four months.

The ink had only just begun to dry from his second back tattoo, which was a cross Roberts says he got immediately after his best friend and drinking buddy, Cody Cummins, shot and killed himself playing Russian roulette.

“He was my brother,” Roberts says, lifting his baseball cap and mussing his hair. “He was a lot like me, but taller and just an ornery son of a bitch. His life was taken too early.”

After transferring to a 28-day recovery program in Lincoln, the brawler says he resolved to turn himself in for a DUI he received years before in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Roberts hung a punching bag in the rehab center’s carport. He would need to win a fight to afford the train ticket to get himself out to Colorado.

Roberts did a month of jail time in Glenwood Springs, followed by about two months in the Douglas County Corrections Work Release program. With a clear conscience and finally sober, the fighter formerly known as Tete was ready to take on a new identity of “Are You Ready?”—the epithet he received for his eagerness in the ring.

“Honestly, I was just starting to grow up,” Roberts says. “I had a lot of work to do.”

And then his sister was brutally murdered.

The biggest test to his maturity came last summer after Nikko Jenkins shot and killed his sister, Andrea Kruger, in a car-jacking on the morning of August 21. She left behind three children.

“They will never know how great their mom really was,” Roberts says of his two nieces, 2 and 4. “They just won’t remember all the things that she had done for them.  She did so much for so many people.”

Roberts is determined to remind them anyway, he says.

Adding to the ink cross he proudly displays for Cummins on his back, Roberts got a set of angel wing tats for Kruger, which was completed about a week before his match with L.C. Davis in December. The ensuing five-round marathon became one of the greatest fights in VFC history. Roberts eventually won by split decision.

“He’s by far the biggest star of our organization at the moment,” says VFC owner Ryan Stoddard. “He’s also one of the hardest working guys I know.”

And he has no plans to slow down—not even while tiling the kitchen.

“Enjoy life. Don’t waste it,” Roberts says. “When I die, this body is going to be completely used up.”

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