At 6’2″ and 275 pounds, with a slick, bald head, neatly trimmed goatee and several tattoos stretching across his biceps, Shane Carwin ’04 looks the part of an Ultimate Fighting champion. But get him outside the metal cage, where he is known for his hard, tactical punches, and you discover a soft-spoken engineer and a dedicated family man.
“I am just an average, normal guy who goes to work every day,” says Carwin, 38, during a January lunch break from his day job with the North Weld County Water District in Greeley.
Since entering the ring for his first mixed martial arts (MMA) competition in 2005, Carwin has led a double life: creating maps and computer models of water systems by day, and climbing the ranks in what is considered one of the nation’s most brutal professional sports by night. In March 2010, he was awarded the interim title of the nation’s Ultimate Fighting Heavyweight Champion, and during the fall of 2012, he starred in the hit FX reality show, ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ which averaged 850,000 viewers over 11 episodes.
But unlike his fellow fighters, many of whom don’t have jobs outside the sport, Carwin sees himself first as an engineer, and even credits his schooling for his athletic success.
“Just being mentally strong is one of my best attributes, and that was definitely tested at Mines,” he says. “There was a ton of pressure. I had to fight for what I wanted.”
The youngest of three boys, Carwin was raised by a single mom in Greeley, where he developed a love of sports and an interest in engineering at an early age. After he applied to Mines from high school without success, he went to Western State College, where he quickly became a wrestling and football star.
He was considered a hot prospect for the NFL draft in 1998 until he injured his back, but still had the opportunity to play professionally for the New England Sea Wolves. However, urged on by his mother, he opted instead to knock on Mines’ door again.
“By the time I got to Mines, I figured I was done with athletics,” says Carwin. “I just buckled down.”
One year after graduating and landing a job with Weld County, Carwin had a friend invite him to step in for an MMA fighter who had to back out last-minute. “I’d never really even been in a fight,” he recalls. “Everyone thought I was crazy and I was going to get killed. It was the big joke around the office.”
Before a screaming crowd at an American Indian reservation in California, a nervous Carwin stepped into the cage and found his new calling. “I loved it. I felt like an athlete again,” he says.
He won his first 11 fights in the first round.
A technically challenging mix of wrestling, boxing and martial arts, the sport was once banned from venues across the country due to a barbaric anything-goes reputation. But thanks to new rules and a cleaner image, it is now one of the fastest-growing professional sports in the country. In 2010, 1.16 million pay-per-view buys were recorded for UFC 116, where Carwin was one of four headlining fighters.
With his rare combination of massive physique, agility, sharp intellect and calm demeanor, Carwin, known as ‘The Engineer,’ quickly became one of its golden boys.
“When it comes to training, he catches things so quickly because he is just so intelligent,” says Trevor Wittman, owner of Grudge Training Center in Denver, where Carwin trains. “And he is the most laid-back guy ever.”
Maintaining two careers at once leaves his schedule anything but laid back: He works in Greeley from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then drives to Denver to train from 5 to 9 p.m. Most nights he arrives home around 10:30 p.m.
When FX called to see if he could come to Las Vegas for six weeks to star in the reality show, Carwin was able to clear it with his board of directors, but it was no vacation. During production, while others in the show settled in for the evening after a day of filming, he was updating hydraulic models and designing pump stations on his laptop.
Why not just fight for a living?
With six bulging discs, a bum knee and a litany of surgeries behind him, Carwin knows better.
“I have a wife and two kids, and I have to make sure they are taken care of,” says Carwin, who has their three names, along with a cross in honor of his faith, tattooed on his arm. “I don’t think that any type of professional sport is a lifelong career. Besides, I went to school for a reason. I love my job.”