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The Maestro: How Drew Fickett Finds Peace in the Piano

(Fickett plays Metallica’s “Unforgiven” in this recent clip from Arizona Combat Academy.)

By Santino DeFranco

MMA veteran Drew Fickett is well known for his UFC battle with Karo Parisyan, for handing Josh Koscheck the first loss of his career inside the Octagon, and for the struggles with addiction that temporarily derailed his career (and likely contributed to his appearance on Judge Judy for standing on the hood of a car and chipping golf balls off of it). But most people don’t know that Fickett is also a music junkie and piano buff — spending up to an hour a day tickling the black and white keys with his knotted knuckles and arthritic fingers.

Drew’s fight nickname, “Nightrider,” is somewhat of a new addition. For most of his career, Fickett held the moniker of “Master,” which is more fitting for a pianist, if only indirectly. “Master” is the English equivalent of the Spanish word “maestro,” a title that’s often bestowed upon great composers or other artists. Seeing as though Drew has a tattoo that reads “Hecho en Mexico” on his shoulder — though he was really born in Columbia, South Carolina — it all seems to make a bit more sense. Or at least it does by Fickett’s own logic.

I first learned of Drew’s piano prowess when he and a few other fighters from my gym were helping me move an antique piano for my wife, who has played since she was a child. After contacting a man selling the piano on Craigslist, I showed up to the guy’s house with a group of fighters to help me move it, none of whom knew a thing about the instrument, let alone how to play one, or so I thought.

I looked at the piano like a monkey staring at a computer. I checked for visible damage, hit a couple of keys, and then asked the man if he’d take $50 less than what he was asking. He said, “No.” I told him I’d take it. Drew, unhappy with my negotiating skills, as well as my inability to distinguish the musical tool from a large paperweight, chimed in.

“Tino, you don’t know how to play?” Drew asked.

“No. Not at all,” I replied.

“What the hell were you thinking buying a piano without even knowing if it works?”

Drew then walked over to the piano, pulled out the bench, and sat down in front of it. Slumped over like Schroeder from the Charlie Brown cartoons, he proceeded to blow all of our minds with the melodic sounds of songs that were unfamiliar to any of us. After about two minutes he stood up, turned around, and nonchalantly said, “A couple of keys are out of tune, but it’s a great fucking piano.”

The Maestro started playing the piano in 2003 after he broke his leg in a bad motorcycle accident. Bored, he decided to learn how to read music. Music wasn’t necessarily an arbitrary choice, though, as he was surrounded by music during his formative years. His father was an accomplished ragtime pianist, but The Maestro says, “He didn’t teach me how to play. He was a great father, but he didn’t really teach me skills. He could weld and fix the plumbing in the house. He could build a whole fucking house and play the piano, but he didn’t teach me those things. We had kind of a strange relationship, but he was a good father.”

The Maestro initially thought he’d be putting his newfound music-reading skills to use with the violin, but quickly changed his tune, and instrument of choice, “it was so exhausting after practice with all the wrestling training and boxing training. The position with the violin is fucking exhausting. It’s not relaxing at all. I always liked the idea of sitting down and relaxing and playing an instrument,” he says.

When I asked him who taught him how to play, he replied, “myself” as if I’d questioned the color of the sky. “I just got some books and learned how to read music. I’m pretty good at reading music, and I’m just now trying to get better at playing by ear — without the sheet music. I’ve been listening to a lot of new stuff out there and trying to play that without looking at the notes.”

“New stuff?” I asked. “What are you playing?”

“Metallica — really, any contemporary music. I’ve been playing a lot of rock, a lot of Christian music now. Eighties and 90’s country. Elton John’s music is really amazing. He’s like one of those brilliant composers. Out of all the contemporary artists I play, Elton John just has so much substance.”

He started out with the classics, as I’m sure many do, but found them boring and unfulfilling, so he began purchasing sheet music for the piano for the songs he wanted to play. Now, as his fighting career is winding down, and in between helping his wife with her Kratom business, the “Nightrider” transforms back to The Maestro for around and hour a day, and plays his heart out.

Santino DeFranco is a retired MMA fighter who you may remember from his stint on TUF 9, and accompanying fighter blogs for CagePotato. He’s been writing a lot lately. You can follow him on twitter at @tinodefranco.

Related: Greg “Ranger” Stott’s rendition of “Knights in White Satin”

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