Patrick Cummins Just Wants to Ride His Hardtail

Patrick Cummins has been fighting in the UFC for the past five years, but the character he cultivates on his Instagram feed is less battle-hardened tough guy and more adventure-loving goofball who loves to ride old-school mountain bikes

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Photo: John Watson

Words by Brendan Borrell

Patrick Durkin Cummins breaks a lot of bikes.

He doesn’t mean to, of course. Cummins is not sending massive gaps or hucking himself off ten-foot drops. The problem is that he weighs 220 pounds, has quads like concrete pylons, and makes a living pummeling people in the face with his fists. Carbon, steel, aluminum frames—all have failed under his might.

Photo: John Watson

Cummins will be blissfully pedaling up a trail on one of those perfect Southern California mornings when his chain starts skipping. He’ll look down, bemused, trying to diagnose the problem. That’s when he spots the whole rear triangle flopping around. “You never think to look at the frame,” he says when I meet him for a ride high in the San Gabriel Mountains, east of Los Angeles.

Photo: John Watson

Cummins, 38, has been fighting in the UFC for the past five years, but the character he cultivates on his Instagram feed is less battle-hardened tough guy and more kombucha-chugging, adventure-loving goofball. He’s more likely to share his favorite flax and chia seed pancake recipe (#pancakeparty) or post a picture of himself giggling as two butterflies copulate on his face (#notoothtuesday) than tell you about his weight-lifting regimen. “He’ll shrink himself down to mix in,” says his brother, A.J. Cummins, a chef based in Denver. “He doesn’t want to be trapped and labeled as a meathead.”

Photo: John Watson

“I’m definitely not ashamed of what I do,” Cummins says. “I want that room to just be a goofy kid.” 

Photo: John Watson

You might expect to see a heavyweight like Cummins bombing downhill on a 35-pound enduro rig with six inches of suspension, but here, again, he goes against convention. He is the world’s most unlikely retro grouch. A brand ambassador for Niner Bikes, all six of his rides are 29-inch hardtails, many of which are singlespeeds. Not a one has a dropper post. When he sees my full-suspension ride, he good-naturedly calls it a “robot bike.”

Photo: John Watson

Some of his asceticism is just practical: one less part to destroy. And he’s not a total Luddite—he couldn’t live without disc brakes—but he does like stripping things down to their essentials. “He’s the kind of guy who wants to make everything from scratch,” says his friend Keanu Asing, a professional surfer. “If you want hummus, he’s going to get the garbanzos.”

Photo: John Watson

On the day I ride with him, Cummins pulls a rigid Niner Sir 9 off the roof of his 15-year-old Nissan Versa hatchback. “I’m going to need all the gears today,” he says, explaining that the previous day’s Muay Thai training session was a killer. As we hit his favorite trail, a scenic 15-mile loop with some serious exposure and some even more serious yucca spines, I downshift for a steep, sandy switchback, and my derailleur stutters and clanks. “If that happened to me,” Cummins pipes up from behind, “I would have ripped the thing right off.”

Photo: John Watson

The thing that’s so compelling about Cummins is the way he wants to challenge our notions of toughness. There’s an epic photo of him stepping out from the UFC Octagon with two swollen black eyes and blood dripping down his face after a hard-won victory. He somehow has the wherewithal to put his hands on his hips and mug like a seven-year-old kid playing dress-up. It almost feels like the UFC had been punked. “I do like to mock things,” he says. “At the same time, obviously, I’m pretty serious about what I’m doing.”

Photo: John Watson

During his college years at Penn State University, as Cummins rose to become an all-American wrestler and later a two-time member of the U.S. national team while studying for a fine-arts degree, he always had the sense of being an outsider. He thought of himself as an artist first and a fighter second. When he would walk into the ceramics studio in his wrestling sweats, he hated that his professors treated him like he was just a jock there for the easy A.

Photo: John Watson

Feeling like an outsider extended to his social life. State College, Pennsylvania, is a party town, but Cummins was too ambitious to be much of a drinker. After college, when he was working as an assistant coach, he and a wrestling buddy entertained themselves by sneaking into fraternity houses, pulling Greek paddles off the wall, and stashing them in their basements. Once, they nabbed a massive projection TV from a living room and set it out on the front lawn. 

Photo: John Watson

This insanity went on for years—way longer than it should have, Cummins admits—until someone finally took down a license plate and reported the troublemakers to the cops. Upon his arrest, Cummins says he confessed to everything. “I didn’t have a lawyer,” he says. “I was an idiot.” Prosecutors wanted to lock him up in the state penitentiary for a year, but eventually his sentence got whittled down to seven months in the county jail. Cummins remembers sitting in the rec room, watching a heavyweight wrestler he had mentored at Lehigh University win the national championships. “I felt like such a loser,” he says.

With a felony burglary charge on his record, fighting became Cummins’s means to support himself. He sold all his possessions and landed in Southern California with two suitcases and his bike, a Niner Air 9. For four years, he lived at his manager’s house in Dana Point, struggling to get anyone to fight him. His big break came in February 2014, when a fighter dropped out of a match with Daniel Cormier, another former wrestler, and Cummins took the match with just ten days to train. He lost, but his place in the UFC was secured. 

Photo: John Watson

Cummins’s manager soon reached out to Chris Sugai, Niner’s president, who has an interest in martial arts. The company sponsored Cummins during one of his early fights in Brazil. It still sends him a bike every year for personal use. “Anyone with their business hats on would say that doesn’t make any sense,” says Sugai. Nevertheless, when he saw that Cummins had affixed Niner’s logo to his fight shorts, he got a kick out of it. “He bent over and got this guy, and all you see is ‘Niner’ on his backside,” he laughs. 

Over the past five years, riding bikes has been a counterbalance to Cummins’s fighting career, and the trails a competition-free place that he can escape to. Most of the time, he rides alone, but his girlfriend, Christine, a nurse living in the Bay Area, goes with him when they’re in the same town.

Photo: John Watson

As we loop around the far side of a mountain called Strawberry Peak, Cummins marvels at how remote it feels, considering we’re less than 20 miles from downtown L.A. “You’d really be in trouble if you got hurt out here,” he says. “I like that.”

Photo: John Watson

Knowing the toll that fighting takes on the brain, his friends and family are all eager for him to move on. During his most recent bout, in Rochester, New York, in May, he was feeling great, but a well-placed knee to his temple sent him wobbling backward on the road to a knockout, his third loss in a row. During one of our stops during the ride, we talk about what’s going to happen next for him. “I’ve only got one or two more fights in me,” he says.

The UFC has since ended his contract, but he says he could continue fighting for a lesser-known fight promotion company.

Photo: John Watson

Recently, Cummins played a villain in an indie movie, taken knife-making classes, and tested out recipes for a possible venture with his brother A.J. He thinks he could be happy doing a lot of things, but he feels certain that mountain bikes will always be a big part of his life.

We pick our way through a nasty rock garden and come around a corner to hear the gurgling of a stream. “I get really sad when I hear the water,” Cummins says, “because that means the ride is almost over.”