When Renzo Gracie said, “Everyone is fighting something,” he was referring to the everyday struggles of every human being—how they are mirrored by what we see in the cage, in the battles of our heroes. Professional fighters have always had different and personal reasons that drive them to fight, but whether it’s to feel excitement, earn respect, combat insecurities, or battle inner demons, fighting helps people survive. It’s a place where damaged men can feel whole.
Mark was told that his sons had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy when they were one year old. By the time the twins were five years old, they began stumbling because their calf muscles were atrophying. This implacably cruel disease leaves the brain intact, but unstoppably wastes the body and the muscles, and is without a cure. The horror of discovering that your beautiful baby sons have a death sentence, that they probably won’t live past age 25, pounded particularly close to home for me, as I have a one-yearold son. I can’t imagine what it did to Mark. Or, maybe I can, which is why I’m writing this. The empty horror, the powerlessness of a father who is supposed to protect his sons from these things must have been earth-shattering. And what a diabolical twist—to leave the brain totally intact, so that your sons will be fully cognizant of their fate.
Mark is a professional tough guy, a PI from Brockton, which is the pugilistic home of such fistic legends as Rocky Marciano and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. On the side, Mark hosted a radio show about sports, and he had become an MMA fan. Mark was a high-school wrestler, in his own words, “The bexst asthmatic wrestler in my high school,” and his interest in MMA led him to having a local professional fighter and instructor, Mike Varner, on his radio show. During the show, as they chatted, “Testosterone filled the small room,” Mark said ruefully. Mike offered Mark a chance to fight, to “raise awareness” for Muscular Dystrophy. Mark accepted, almost without realizing what he was getting into.
Mike Varner understands the needs that fighting can fill. He had his own tough road, run-ins with the law and drugs, but fighting had come as a way out and a way forward. He’d turned his life around with MMA.
“Fighting is what people want, what they respect,” Mike told me over the phone, in his thick Massachusetts accent. “I had issues with domestic violence and drugs, girls would leave me and I would freak out … there were demons inside me. But learning to fight completely changed me. I didn’t have to lift and be intimidating to scare people. When I started to really learn how to fight, getting beat didn’t scare me. I had nothing to prove in bars or in the street. MMA humbles ya, once that transformation occurs, you’re not frustrated by losses, you learn from them.”
Mark started training with Mike at his gym, and he found something freeing in the hard realities of training, the utter exhaustion of the struggle. Mark trained with Mike for two months, and he found himself physically transformed. The day of the fight rolled around, and Mark had to deal with the normal realities of amateur MMA: his opponent dropped out. “Originally, I was supposed to fight some stiff like me, some brawler kid. He backed out a day before the fight, of course. Mike offered to come down to the ring and he’d explain it. I couldn’t do it. I got friends and family here, it’ll look wrong. So he said, ‘Alright, I got another kid here, Chuck “Cold Steel” O’Neil, who’s one of Joe Lauzon’s guys, a real serious professional.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll fight him.’ We battled, I lost a decision, but I got his respect and a lot of the guys in the sport who saw it—they said, ‘Who’s the hack father who came in here?’”
Mark fought again the following year, and lost to via armbar. He retired, he was 40 years old. But he found that not training was harder than training. “I beefed back up to 190 pounds and was feeling like a slob having a midlife crisis. I was drifting, and everything in my life was getting more difficult. I thought I should do what I always envisioned. I want to make this into a documentary. It’ll give me a reason to get myself A) physically fit and B) mentally fit, because I honestly slip mentally when I slip physically … it’s all related for me. With the emotional strain of taking care of my sons, if I’m not physically fit, I have a hard time with my coping skills. How do fat people take care of handicap kids? I don’t get it. I have to push myself to stay in the gym and train hard … because it’s the only thing that works for me. My sanctuary is Maxx Training, Mike Varner’s school.”
And there’s the key; what Mark gets out of MMA training is a feeling of satisfaction, emotional release, physical exertion, and balance in his life. Fighting, for him, is an answer to this unbelievably terrible hand he’s been dealt, a way to help his boys, a way to do something. The physical aside, it’s a way to join in their terrible struggle.
Mark’s voice changes when he talks about his boys, “They’re in a fight every day, they struggle every day. It’s tough, it rips your heart out as a parent—but you have to stay mentally strong for them. What they’re going through, well, it might be fodder for a documentary, but me training for a cage fight doesn’t REMOTELY compare to what they’re going through. Listen, these two kids are the toughest kids around. I’d do anything for them, but it’s two-fold. The whole fight thing is for them, but is ultimately for me, and it inspires me.”
When I asked Mike Varner about Mark, he said simply, “Mark never gave up. He persevered, and he fought tough guys. He just kept after it.” That made sense to me. Mark has no choice in his fights. He has to “keep after it.”
A Father’s Fight documents Mark’s journey to his last fight, where he fights on a big stage against a pretty tough kid. Mark follows his gameplan, and gets the takedown and the win, scoring a submission via guillotine (Mark’s bread-and-butter). Watching the documentary, watching his twin boys cover their faces and scream themselves hoarse during the fight, I realized that the fight was for them in more ways than one—it was a blow against the world, a victory they could cherish in the face of relentless defeat.