Pretty much everyone who remembers Alex White from the time he attended South Callaway High School before graduating in 2007 described him the same way: a quiet kid who kept to himself.
They probably wouldn't recognize White when the cage door shuts behind him and he goes to work as Alex "The Spartan" White, a 9-0 mixed martial arts fighter known for his brawling style and submission wins.
Since 2008, when he trained at what is now Universal Fitness in Park Hills while working at McDonald's and living in a friend's camper, White has made his living fighting across Missouri and the world in smaller MMA promotions. He always had aspirations as a fighter to perform on the biggest stage in his sport, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's renowned Octagon, but that opportunity came sooner than he thought.
White's management received the call last week for him to join the UFC's featherweight roster in a bout against Estevan Payan on April 19, after veteran fighter and former WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown was forced off the card with an injury.
The bout airs Saturday on the FOX Sports 1 preliminary card of UFC on FOX 11. The prelims begin at 4 p.m.
Although many people from high school and his hometown of Arcadia aren't always familiar with MMA - a sport in which fighters use a combination of striking and grappling disciplines to beat their opponent by knockout, submission or judges' decision - White said he usually gets a positive reaction when people who knew him find out what he does for a living.
"They're kind of proud of me. I went from shy little me who stuck to himself, to doing something big like this, and I never would have guessed it," White said. "I encourage them to do the same thing for whatever they want to do."
White said much of his shyness came from a childhood incident in which he nearly died after he accidentally drank gasoline his father had put in a cup when their car broke down on a road trip. White survived the ordeal, but the accident burned his vocal chords and left him with a speech impediment that became a target of bullying.
He continued attending school in Arcadia until his freshman year when he got in a fight at school. White then moved to live with his father, Bob, in Fulton, attending South Callaway and running on the school's cross country team.
"I was made fun of and all that, so of course you keep to yourself," Alex White said. "I made myself go out and see what this gym was about to begin with, and develop confidence and believe in myself more. I'm more outgoing now, more outspoken. I don't stay in my inner circle, I go out a bit, just go do whatever."
After high school, Bob White got his son a job with ABB in Jefferson City, but after he was laid off there and his mother was ailing, Alex returned home and eventually wound up in Farmington.
Though he had no prior martial arts training, White's history with bullies and an affinity for martial arts movies made him decide to stop in for a class when a gym that offered training geared toward MMA opened across from the fast food restaurant where he was working. His future coach, United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame honoree Joe Worden, put him with a fellow beginner, but Worden soon realized White excelled far quicker than his partner.
"They always say there's that one diamond in the rough out there for MMA, and when he walked in I realized he was a natural athlete and coming to it pretty naturally, so it sparked there," Worden said. "I started working with him a little more, he got a couple fights and you could tell he was a little different."
White joined Worden's MMA team, Team Destruction, and soon developed his skills in the 145-pound featherweight division as a striker and in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, one of the most common bases for submission grappling in MMA. Of White's nine opponents to date, he has finished five by submission and three by knockout.
White has developed a fanbase throughout the Midwest, but one of his most longstanding fans is his father. Bob White said he is proud of his son, but it doesn't always make it easy to watch him fight.
"I'm always shaking, I'm always worried about him," Bob White said. "He's never been (seriously) hurt, he got eight stitches in his head once from an elbow, but every one of his fights he's won."
After going 15-0 as an amateur and 9-0 as a professional, Alex White caught the eye of the UFC's lighter-weight matchmaker, Sean Shelby. The UFC and White's management were in talks for White to join the promotion's roster later this spring, but the opportunity came early when Brown withdrew from his bout against Payan and Shelby needed a short-notice replacement. White got the call at 7 a.m. April 2, and by 2:30 p.m. he had a four-fight contract in hand, ready to sign.
White's opponent, Payan (14-5-1 in MMA), has yet to find his stride in the UFC, going 0-2 in the organization since his debut bout in 2013. White said that was all the more reason to respect him coming into the fight.
"First of all you've got to be tough just to get into the UFC itself, he's off of a two-loss streak, so he's going to be training his butt off in this fight just to win and stay in the UFC," White said. "So they've been pushing me pretty good, I'm doing CrossFit in mornings, I train at least two times a day, watch what I eat, just trying to get ready for this guy.
"I'm not taking anything away from him, he's a tough guy and I'm going to try to go in there and be just as tough."
White continues to train in Park Hills, where he lives with his wife and almost 2-year-old daughter. His father still describes him as quiet and humble, and White made a point to thank his friends, family and South Callaway school friends who have traveled to see him fight as he climbed the ranks to join the UFC.
Though he's ready to join the big leagues of MMA in less than a week, his coach said White still hasn't forgotten his roots.
"I think he's a good fighter, and he's just a good guy overall," Worden said. "He gets lots of support here, he had an autograph signing yesterday (Sunday), and 99 percent of the people here were kids, he had a huge turnout for kids. He's like all the kids' role models and heroes here - they were all here to get his autographs and pictures. It's like a Cinderella story. If he can make it on a dream those kids can, too."