CADILLAC — The love affair began nearly 20 years ago.
That's when Vance Swerdan took a trip to Las Vegas, discovered the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and fell in love with it.
The Cadillac resident started fighting amateur bouts in 2006 and even had a couple of professional fights.
That's where the story starts to change.
Instead of being on the giving or receiving end of the physical punishment the sport features, Swerdan is now the one protecting the fighters as an official.
He made a big step recently, working a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) event in Minneapolis.
Swerdan's switch to officiating became a matter of age.
"I didn't have my first amateur fight until I was 35 so there was no way I'd ever do anything in the sport," he said. "I was fighting against 18-year olds."
Swerdan's record as an amateur was 6-3-1 and he also went 2-2 in professional fights.
The switch to officiating happened about 10 years ago and for most of that time, it was smaller venues and fights.
He gradually worked his way up and with some connections in Minnesota, started working bigger shows there.
Swerdan officiates the Legacy Fighting Alliance, a professional MMA organization that gives rising stars and top contenders a chance to prove their talent to fans and leaders in the industry, and he also does WXC (Warrior Extreme Cagefighting) the last Wednesday of every month.
The big jump came two years ago when Swerdan took part in an intensive three-day officials' training course in Las Vegas — Big John McCarthy's C.O.M.M.A.N.D. Course.
"That's a very grueling course," Swerdan said. "It was 10-12 hours a day for the three days and it has a 90 percent failure rate.
"When we started, they said to look around the room, most of you won't make it. I think there were about 15 or 16 of us and two of us made it."
That gave Swerdan his ABC Certification, allowing him to work anywhere in the United States. He's currently certified in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
As an official in MMA or UFC, Swerdan's No. 1 job is to keep the fighters safe and to know the rules as they change.
"My job is to let them fight to the best of their ability but if they don't do that, I step in," Swerdan said. "I call fouls and make sure one of the fighters isn't committing an illegal action against the other.
"I get in a lot of traveling with this job, too. I've been all over the place. I do two shows a month now and then four or five a month in the winter.
"It's been a lot of fun. I've met a lot of people and have gotten to see a lot of things. I've been reffing in Michigan long enough that I've seen people come up as amateurs and turn pro. A lot of the fighters have a level of trust with me."
It can be a brutal job, too, Swerdan said.
"When a fighter loses, it's my fault," he laughed. "If you don't have thick skin, this job isn't for you.
"I had a guy one time, broke both bones in his leg with two kicks at the same time. It snapped the fibula and tibia. A lot of the time, you stop for cuts and things like that or the fighter gets knocked out. It's a brutal sport, that's for sure."
Swerdan's big night came recently. He officiated three fights June 29 at the Target Center in Minneapolis as part of UFC Fight Night on ESPN.
Included were Amanda Ribas vs Emily Whitmire; Vinicius Moreira vs Eryk Anders; and a big fight between Anthony Martin and Demian Miai.
"That's my goal. I had finally made it to UFC," Swerdan said. "I got to do a main card in my first show and it was a big fight."
When he's not officiating, Swerdan works for Casey Danford locally at Training Mask.
"Casey was one of my first students (at a gym) when I moved up here," Swerdan said. "I have to take a lot of time off work and you can't beat that when you have a boss that backs you on something you're really passionate about."