“I feel this inside my bones”: UFC Veteran finds purpose in Albuquerque as an angel on Albuquerque’s streets

UFC Fight Night: Kikuno v Mulhern

Quinn Mulhern was thousands of miles from home, half blind and drowning in debt, when he realized it was time to move on.

The night before, in the opening minutes of a fight against a journeyman lightweight in Singapore in 2014, a punch shattered Mulhern’s orbital bone that left him unable to gaze above his horizon line. This was Mulhern’s second loss in a UFC two-fight series. It was a devastating blow that left him unable to see beyond his horizon line. The lifelong martial artist lost his mind in the darkness. At age 29, he’d reached the grandest stage of the MMA world, and aside from a few fond memories and a bank account $20,000 in the red, what did he have to show for it? Mulhern also ripped off Band-Aid the same day with an honest Facebook post.

“It was not nerves. I didn’t freeze.

“Bottom line is that I could put in years of continued work but I won’t be competitive at this level. Perhaps I’d get quite a bit better, but I think I’d rather spend that time on something new.”

“I feel this in my bones.”


Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

What was he supposed to do? Mulhern spent his childhood chasing a dream. He’d won 18 of his first 20 professional fights and mounted a successful run in the final days of Strikeforce. Each decision, from the early hours of the morning to late at night, was made in pursuit one thing. His plans to start a family were put on hold. He moved from California to New Mexico in order to dedicate himself to JacksonWink. To keep his finances afloat, friends loaned money to him, and he accumulated credit card debt to pay for training camps. All this under the pretense that everything would come back around when he got there. There are no do-overs in MMA. There is no instruction manual for discarded prizefighters.

“I had reached that wall,” Mulhern says today. “I had fought somebody who was not a top-tier guy even. He was good, but I was not competing against the best of the best. Und I was losing.

“In another sport, you might get another chance or another game, or your teammate might go in for you. In MMA it is you. That’s it. No one’s going to cry you a river over it. I might have cried some rivers, I won’t say for sure, but it was tough. It’s hard to recalibrate your whole identity and purpose in life. I began to see myself in the face .”


And so the man who for so long found peace in violence had no choice but to find another way.

Earlier this year, Mulhern, now age 37, responded to a call over the Albuquerque 911 dispatch system. When he arrived on the scene, the subject in question was irate, and clearly not of the soundest mind. She had parked her trailer home on private property in a commercial lot and officers from the Albuquerque Police Department had already responded. The situation, for all intents and purposes, was at a standoff. The arrest for criminal Trespassing appeared to be inevitable, in spite of the obvious despair displayed by the woman.

In years past, that would’ve been the end of the story — another down-on-their-luck soul swept into the U.S. justice system, and a familiar cycle set to start anew.

But then Mulhern and his partner tried their hands at a different approach.

” We were able build trust, communicate with her and use our empathy to get her calm enough to allow us to connect with the services that would actually help her get out of this situation,” he said. The police appreciated that we split up the roles in a positive way and were able do our parts in this whole process. They went and did their part, and we went and did ours.”

It was only one of many examples for UFC fighter, now a part of Albuquerque Community Safety Department. Launched in September to be a third branch of crisis response within the city — with the police and emergency services serving as the other two — the purpose of Albuquerque’s ACS is simple: To provide 911 dispatchers an option beyond sending out an armed officer, allowing social workers and those with backgrounds in behavioral health to field the type of calls few others want to take.

Mental health problems, suicide ideation and unsheltered persons in housing need — all of these would have been dealt with by police a year ago. These cases now come under the ACS umbrella.

“Say that someone is sleeping outside a building or home. We go to the person and use our social skills to help them,” Mulhern says. “If they need maybe some sort of crisis intervention, like if they just need someone to talk to, we’re there for that. If someone is having trouble sleeping or is feeling agitated, we can help them get to the nearest social service.

“If their issue is that they need housing, we work to connect the dots for them to get into a housing program. They may need counseling for mental health, or a psychiatrist to give them medication. We try to help them find the right social services. It can be difficult, particularly for those in crisis, to find the right person to contact .”


Mulhern is part of an international movement to tackle the issue of police brutality.

According to a 2016 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, anywhere from a quarter to 50 percent of all fatal police shootings each year involve a victim with some form of mental illness. Yet several programs in the ACS mold have generated encouraging early results throughout the country, with the best example being Oregon’s CAHOOTS model (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets). In 2019, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police intervention was needed less than one percent of the time.


Mulhern (right) responds to an ACS call in Albuquerque.

Mulhern has taken to using one metaphor, in particular, to describe the effect.

“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” the former UFC fighter says. “And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m not trying to insult police in saying that. They have a focus, and should be allowed the freedom to maintain that focus. And the response from APD, from the police in Albuquerque, has been quite positive … [because] when you’re a hammer and everything looks like a nail, there can be situations where things escalate when they don’t need to.

“The police, they’re hyper-trained in one area. In a way, they’re experts. They are specialists in a sense, but the nature of welfare states means that they have been given responsibilities that extend far beyond their training. These people will be social workers and counselors. It is expected that they can resolve conflict for the benefit of people and provide comfort. It’s expected that they can do many things, even if it’s not what their training is about. This department’s purpose is to take away the clogs that can cause them to receive a lot of calls .”


It may seem like a tough gig, with many emotional and long days. But, it is not normal for the UFC veteran. His surprise abilities are what have kept him going.

It was both the shock of a lifetime and no shock at all the first time Mulhern’s former coach, Brandon Gibson, ran into his old student while walking through his daily paces around City Hall.

Since he is one of the most highly acclaimed striking gurus, Gibson also serves as the Deputy Director of the Department of Arts and Culture of Albuquerque. In addition, he was Mulhern’s sole cornerman when he traveled to Singapore. He says the memory still haunts him. Mulhern was injured and couldn’t fly. Gibson needed to return home to work so he “left him in Singapore with an orbital broken, which still hurts my heart today,” Gibson said. He was so strong .”

The coach admitted that it was a shock to him when Mulhern first told him about his plans to become a social worker. It wasn’t the usual rhetoric he hears from his trained killers, but in some small way, it also made sense. Mulhern was always a bit different than most fighters, never someone who relied on raw aggression and anger to fuel him to wins. Mulhern’s approach was more cerebral and levelheaded. Too well-meaning for his own good.

“His empathy radiates. Gibson said that even if you do not know Gibson well you can still see the compassion he shows.

“And it’s definitely not a glamorous job, so if you’re going to do that type of social work, you really have to believe in what you’re doing and knowing that you’re making a difference.”

Mulhern isn’t oblivious to the irony of where life has led him, that a person who spent his first few decades learning how to hurt others in the most efficient of ways could now spend his afternoons efforting to do the opposite. He’s the first to admit that he was adrift for a time after that nightmarish week in Singapore. He floated between small-time gigs teaching jiu-jitsu in the northeast before coming to grips with reality — that a total reset was needed if he was ever going to find the purpose he lost when his UFC dream died.

” I kinda just got my sh*t together,” Mulhern said. “I went, I applied for school — New York has a pretty good public system called CUNY that’s relatively cheap, and so I got into grad school basically, wrote all the papers, did all these things, because I thought that social work could be this career that would give me some meaning in the things that I valued.”

After the pandemic struck, Mulhern had to move to Albuquerque in order to save some money. Everything came together to make ACS a reality. Mulhern received his master’s degree as social work. The former prizefighter felt like fate was sending him a message. “I was like, this is really cool. He says that he can be part of the cutting-edge thing. It was just a handful of people trying new things out of nowhere. “And because they were such a new department, they were ambitious in their hiring process, they really wanted to get a really diverse group of people in there, so I think me coming from a slightly unorthodox background, they actually kind of liked that.

“They took a chance on me .”

Gibson believes the unlikely pairing is perfect. Mulhern still has the martial arts’ ability to teach conviction, strength, and resolve. Ex-fighter does not carry guns and isn’t allowed to go on the streets for arrests. The tools of his trade are words, snacks, blankets, and compassion. And in an area where the murder rate has climbed to be make Albuquerque one of the most dangerous cities in America, the added help of ACS has been a boon for an already overburdened police force.

” “It’s what our community needs,” Gibson states. “The police can only do so much. The firefighters and EMS teams can only do so much. It really does take long-term solutions to help people that are battling addiction and battling illness, battling homelessness. Quinn’s group is out there getting the information out and putting people on the right paths to get help.

” I think [that UFC background] is a great foundation for any role in first response. It allows you to interact with those going through hard times. Quinn will never feel a pulse rate increase. He’s never going to have a big ego. He’s able to manage himself, protect others, as well as those he comes in contact with. All of these skills make him calmer, more efficient, more effective, and clearer in his communications. I think it’s better to be the warrior in the garden — and that’s where he’s at now.”

It’s been a while since Mulhern watched MMA. Too long, probably. The end is still a bit too fresh, the memories a bit too bittersweet. They don’t take away his love for the game. He knows he’ll go back one day and be a dedicated fan once more.

The physical scars remain a reminder. Mulhern says he has permanent damage in his right eye related to his fight career, but for the most part, the financial debt he accumulated from MMA is a thing of the past. That’s good, because his 18-month-old son Redd is already quite the handful. Between a new child and a loving wife, Mulhern finally has the family he always wanted, a support system that lights up his every day. So even if he’ll never be able to fully let his fighter’s spirit go, he knows he’s moved on to a different chapter.


Photo via Quinn Mulhern

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘F*** man, I’ve still got it.’ But at that point you’ve got to be careful, because most of the time you don’t still got it,” he says with a laugh. “That’s what they don’t tell you.”

Yes, in a strange way, the former UFC fighter is where he was always meant to be. He knows that now. It took him a while, but he and Gibson both see it. Mulhern was made for this.

Maybe things could have been different in a parallel universe. Maybe he could’ve kept going after Singapore. Mulhern has thought about it, what it would’ve been like to grind back through the regional circuit and find his way back again to the UFC. It could have turned out as Mulhern hoped, or it might just be a delay.

Or maybe not.

” I made the right choice,” he said.

Mulhern remains ambitious though. This is evident. As ambitious as he was when he was a 23-year-old kid full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on the world. He says, “It’s only, this is what I’m putting my energy into right now, it’s trying to see positive Reform.”

” I am not trying to delude you, but I don’t think I will be the president one day or anything like that. I think that a lot people feel the same way. This snowball is going downhill just a bit. Because I must, I will add my little bit of energy. It’s going to be a bit of a push. I think that’s where I’m at. It’s always my goal to find a way for America to have good times for everyone.

He may not be the hotshot prizefighter who put New Mexico on the MMA map. He may not get harangued with autograph requests every time he steps into Whole Foods, or have the world hang on his every word with every Instagram post. But the streets of Albuquerque remain his home. And if Mulhern can make a difference in just one life, save just one down-on-their-luck soul from needlessly throwing it all away, who’s to say it wasn’t all worth it in the end?