Physician Spotlight: Dr. Seth Kleinbeck
When Seth Kleinbeck enters his exam room, he often looks worse off than his patients. It’s not unusual for the six-foot-two-inch doctor to come in hobbling on an injured leg, with a black eye or sporting stitches for deep gashes on his face. His patients take it in stride, often proudly. They know that besides being a family physician for rural Hazen and Stuttgart, their doctor is also a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter.
“We generally fight in cages or rings,” Kleinbeck explained, “and we can get pretty torn up.”
The sport is also called extreme combat or no-holds-barred fighting, and is possibly best known for the popular Ultimate Fighting Championships. Sometimes billed as Seth “Doctor” Kleinbeck and sometimes as Seth “Mass Destruction” Kleinbeck, he recently signed a contract with EliteXC. The MMA promotions company has a deal with the cable network Showtime, so he’s begun fighting on pay-per-view. He admitted, “It’s a little nerve-wracking sometimes having what I assume are millions of people watching the fight on live TV, but it’s fun, and an experience not many other people get to have.”
Kleinbeck grew up in the small southeast Arkansas town of McGehee. He was something of a football star, making the All-District and All-State teams and earning several college football scholarships. Though he made good grades, he didn’t study a lot or take much interest in school. He turned down college to join the Marines.
Married as soon as he finished boot camp, it was a time of changes for the 18-year-old. He was transferred to California, but about nine months into his service, a podiatrist asked him if he wanted out. “I had a lot of things on my mind then, and I figured that if I could get out of the Marines, I should.” He received a medical discharge for flat feet and turned his attention to higher education.
He worked his way through Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., as a full-time construction worker. “I don’t know if the Marine Corps changed my attitude or what, but when I got into college and I had a family and a job, I started applying myself to schoolwork, really doing well,” Kleinbeck said.
For the first two years of college, he had no idea what he wanted to do. He’d never even thought about being a physician, but for a while considered nursing. It soon became apparent that Kleinbeck was outshining the pre-med students in his classes. A chemistry professor suggested he switch to pre-med. “I thought, ‘Well, heck. Why not?’ It was really kind of a whim,” he recalled. “I love it now, but it wasn’t something I felt called to do.”
But Kleinbeck didn’t get into medical school on his first try. So he spent the year after college working in construction. He had his one-year-old son, Carson, by then and was determined not to waste his education. When he applied to the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas the next year, he was accepted.
Kleinbeck had done a little boxing here and there since high school, winning some Toughman contests along the way. But in his last year of medical school, he started learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu at a Little Rock gym. The gym’s owner was also a fight promoter. Two months after Kleinbeck started at the gym, the owner needed someone to fill in at an upcoming fight. “I took the fight on a week’s notice, and ended up winning,” Kleinbeck said. “It’s all taken off from there.”
Kleinbeck did his residency in Fort Smith at Sparks Regional Medical Center. A second son, Pate, was born in Kleinbeck’s second year of residency. Besides treating patients in Fort Smith, Ozark, Waldron, Paris and Booneville, Kleinbeck continued the fighting matches, both pro boxing and martial arts. By the time he finished his residency, his record was 1-1 as a pro boxer and 4-0 as an MMA fighter.
To fulfill his medical school community sponsorship obligation, Kleinbeck moved back to eastern Arkansas in 2004, this time to Stuttgart. He joined a seven-physician practice and began working in a family practice clinic in nearby Hazen and treating patients at Stuttgart Regional Medical Center. His old gym, West Little Rock Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, was once again within driving distance. Three times a week, Kleinbeck makes the one-hour sojourn to train there. The rest of the week, he trains at the 1,200-square-foot gym he built onto his home.
“I enjoy the competition, the preparation. It gives me something to train for,” Kleinbeck said. “You set goals, train for the goal, fight, and then you start over. I’ve always enjoyed preparing for something, no matter what it is.”
He also enjoys the deep camaraderie among pro fighters, a kind of close bond forged through the shared experiences of pain and suffering they inflict on each other.
As far as he knows, no other professional fighters also hold medical degrees. “I guess that’s sort of my niche in the sport, sort of a gimmick for the promotions,” he said.
What’s not a gimmick is his medical practice. While he plans to keep fighting for several more years, possibly into his early 40s, he plans to practice medicine for at least another 30 years. “I really enjoy family practice, developing relationships with my patients,” he said. “I’m not going to sacrifice my livelihood for 15 minutes in a ring.”
Married now for 16 years, Kleinbeck said his wife, Courtney, has gradually become a fan of the sport. But she has one fighter she prefers not to watch. “She definitely does not enjoy watching me fight, but she does come to the fights now.”
Since 2004, Kleinbeck has fought 15 times, and his overall record is 14-4. His medical colleagues express mild interest in his fighting, he said, but most aren’t major fans. “As long as I take calls and show up to work, I don’t think they really care. I think they’d start to care if I started missing calls or not doing my job, but for now it’s all been pretty smooth,” he said.
It does get dangerous. Already, Kleinbeck has had two shoulder surgeries, two knee surgeries and at least half a dozen MRIs because of fighting or training injuries. He’s sewn himself up many times and, when he was an amateur, frequently served as a ringside physician for all the fights but his.
“I’d do the physicals on everyone, including myself and my opponent, then I’d fight, and afterwards go sit down and doctor the others during their fights.” He didn’t much like that extra stress, though, and is grateful to be fighting at the professional level now, where a dedicated physician is always on hand.
“The Doctor” has plenty of fans on the MMA fan sites and YouTube, as well as in Hazen — he often has to insist on paying for his meals in the local restaurant — but his family and small-town practice help Kleinbeck stay grounded. “I don’t really put a lot of weight on all of it,” he said. “I still get up every morning and go to work to pay my mortgage. Every now and then I just happen to climb into a cage and fight.”