By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
The Marine Wing Support Squadron 374 deployed to Iraq in February 2004, where they would first convoy to Kuwait before reaching Al-Taqaddum. Ground support in this sector never saw any live fire aside from mortars; they filled sandbags for the first few weeks. The food was hot and the danger minimal. The worst Tyner endured was rabies shots for spooking a coyote lurking near refuel bags.
Less than two months into deployment, Fugate heard commotion and combat boots passing him in chow. He figured a fight was on, since that's what Marines tend to do when boredom sets in. When he followed, he saw a small cluster of soldiers surrounding a tent. Tyner was inside, threatening to shoot himself. They were not there for an intervention.
"Do it, pussy," someone yelled.
"Marines—it's a bunch of 18-to-24-year-old guys," Fugate says. "We weren't the best support group."
A commanding officer talked the gun out of Tyner's mouth, then put him on suicide watch. Some Marines remember him getting a troubling letter from his wife. Having put on weight since college, he was also badgered for not "taping out," or having proper body measurements for a soldier. It forced him into remedial physical training, which the once-decorated athlete despised.
He was sent back to California for a psychological assessment and discharge. Superior officers would spend weeks processing a soldier's early leave by treating them like the dirt below dirt. Flunking the Marine Corps, they said, was flunking life. Enjoy flipping burgers.
The support squadron at Twentynine Palms never expected to see him again. Instead, here came Tyner pulling up in a jeep, wearing a hard hat and orange vest.
"Livin' the dream," he said with a smile. He had gotten a construction job on the base, cruising around other units that didn't know the whole story. He was free to make up his own.
When Tyner returned to Salina in late 2004, he told high-school friend Austin David that he had gotten into a physical altercation with an officer in Iraq. He also said he'd been forced to clean out a Humvee that had been blasted by Iraqis, blood and brains all over the cab. During his deployment, however, no one had been killed in Al-Taqaddum.
"He didn't look well," recalls Cindy David, Austin's mother, who frequently hosted Tyner at her family's country property, where he would bow-hunt or shoot deer from tree stands. "He had a smile you couldn't miss. But he became very serious, solemn." Once, he left a carnival when the fireworks started, unsettled by the noise.
Fugate, however, resents any discussion of post-traumatic stress. "That fucker wasn't over there long enough to see shit," he says.
Work came in spurts: bouncer, county tree service, a cement plant. He tinkered with cars. He met another woman. Another baby came along, and with it a sense of urgency to provide support. Wrestling friends were getting into cage fighting, which was becoming popular thanks to The Ultimate Fighter reality-TV series. He phoned Jason Nicholson, a friend in the business, and asked if he could get a match. Nicholson got him several.
Tyner trained at a few fight gyms around town, but usually wound up on the mats at Locust Grove, where he had been so celebrated a few years prior and where his Hall of Fame plaque still hung on the wall.
"The kids loved seeing him," Cook says. "Before he left, he'd always say, 'Love ya, Coach, love ya, Coach.' That was Byrd."
He fought once in late 2006 and six times in 2007, including a bout he accepted just 10 days after his last. Even with the extra weight, Tyner was formidable: He won all of his contests in the first round. But for an October bout, he spent more time golfing than training. After feeling the sting of a kickboxer's strikes—like a baseball bat swung at you—he promptly quit both the fight and the sport.
In 2008, Tyner took a traveling job as a welder and pipeliner, disappearing for weeks or months at a time to Pennsylvania or Arkansas on jobs. His training partners would occasionally see him in town, hitting bags and sparring to stay fit.
Denny Phillips was someone who noticed Tyner around the gyms. A wiry 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, the tattoos snaking up his neck guaranteeing he'd never work an office job, Phillips—also known as Phil DZ or simply D—struck up an easy conversation. Both were Cherokee, both into fighting, both from Mayes County. He knew Tyner was a good cornerman, well-versed in mixed martial arts, and asked if he would help train him for a fight.
The sport, after all, had barely existed when Phillips had last been in town. He had just gotten out of prison after serving 11 years for stabbing a man with a knife he'd kept concealed in his belt buckle.
I-35 runs along the Mexican border, a conveyor belt for contraband. Nearby Tulsa is the methamphetamine capital of the state, an honor that made Oklahoma one of the first to ban ephedrine—a key ingredient—from being sold over the counter without a signature. It's a twilight subculture, where drugs, prostitution, and gangs collide, creating a marketplace to numb a numbing existence.