Josh Marunde, who also goes by the name Chachi Riot, and the rest of his Pop Evil bandmates have reached the pinnacle of their careers. “Trenches,” the lead single from their recently released third studio album Onyx, hit number one on both the Billboard Active Rock and Mainstream Rock charts. It’s the first chart-topping record in the Michigan group’s 12-year history.
“Trenches” is a motivational hard rock banger with a determined lyrical emphasis on breaking out of life’s dark trenches and making the most of the opportunities that arise. For Marunde, the track symbolizes Pop Evil’s roller coaster ride in the music industry.
“The original concept was kind of like our own personal growth as a band,” he says. “It feels like we have been waiting forever for this one chance—this album—and we’re kind of putting all our eggs in one basket. So many of us have come from little or nothing, and we’ve been fighting forever to scratch and dig and get out.”
Marunde certainly knows a thing or two about fighting. The musician began training in freestyle wrestling when he was 6-years-old, switched over to folkstyle wrestling when he was in the seventh grade, and competed in the state tournament in high school. After graduating in 2005, the drummer attended Ferris State University in Grand Rapids, MI, and joined the school’s boxing club. In 2007, during his sophomore year, he expanded his skill set as he checked into the school’s burgeoning MMA club with Steve Wagner, his bandmate from local group Saraph.
The percussionist extraordinaire was familiar with the sport. He saw a few UFC cards in the mid-90s and came back around during the TUF era. Even though he had a background for a newbie, the former high school wrestler was still a fish out of water.
“A lot of things were so much different,” he says. “I had watched the sport, and I was already a fan, but there were so many habits to break as a wrestler, like wrestling BJJ guys, who are basically pulling guard. I had no problem pushing the tempo, I had great cardio, takedown defense, all of that. My top position was fantastic. But if I was on bottom, I knew that if I bellied down, I was going to get choked out. As a wrestler, I was petrified to be on my back. That was a really hard habit to learn to break.”
Marunde eventually broke the habit, but he left the MMA club the following year to focus on music. The decision paid off, as he became Pop Evil’s official drummer in 2011. Now, they are on top of the rock music world, and bringing their sound to the UFC.
His cousin, Bristol Marunde, is a TUF 16 alum who repped Team Carwin and is slated to fight Viscardi Andrade on the Facebook preliminary card of UFC 163 on August 3. Whenever Bristol has a fight, the entire Pop Evil crew gathers around the television to watch him throw down. Bristol repays the loyalty by walking out to the Octagon to one of Pop Evil’s hit songs.
“It’s just great to be able to see somebody you care about chasing their dreams,” says Marunde. “Obviously, I want to see him win, but it’s not about winning or losing. He’s given up so much to do what he loves, and I have an immeasurable amount of respect for someone who I can say that about. I know how it feels when you have to give up everything to chase your dream.”
Keep Olympic Wrestling
Add Joshua Marunde’s name to the petition to get wrestling back in the Olympics.
The 25-year-old is a passionate wrestling fan. When he heard the ancient sport was being removed from the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, he was heartbroken.
“I wanted to cry,” he says. I hate that there’s nowhere for people who are phenomenal college wrestlers to go after college. There’s no pro division for folkstyle or freestyle wrestlers, and I really wish that would change. It’s a really old and traditional sport. It can’t be forgotten.”
From the sounds of it, it might not be. The sport is currently under consideration to be reinstated in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Show your support by visiting LetsKeepWrestling.com and signing the online petition.
FIGHT! Magazine’s nomadic journalist T.R. Foley follows his passion for wrestling to the center of Africa and into the sand pits of Chad.
Photography By T.R. Foley
On February 12, 2013, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee voted to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympic program. However, the executive board allowed for FILA, the international governing body of the sport, to submit a proposal for inclusion back into the 2020 Games. The stipulation was that the institution needed to make serious and substantial changes to its internal governance, gender equality, and match rules.
FILA met the following weekend in Thailand and removed president Raphael Martinetti through a procedural vote of “no confidence.” Next came the appointment of the back-slapping, 300-pound Serbian businessman Nenad Lalovic to the role of interim president. Once in power, Lalovic recruited and hired a coalition of consultants and experts to help modernize the turgid and stodgy organization through improvements to the sport’s presentation and fan accessibility. For a modern barometer of the opaqueness of FILA, the organization didn’t have an updated Facebook or Twitter account, and their website looked as though it was built by a sixth-grader who’d just learned Microsoft Front Page.
In an effort to help the cause to #SaveOlympicWrestling, I headed to some of FILA’s most inaccessible, off-the-grid wrestling tournaments to take photos, write articles, and generate discussion about the sport.
One of my stops was Chad, the landlocked country in the bull’s-eye center of Africa that was serving as host to FILA’s 2013 African Wrestling Championships.
To enter Africa from the east, 99 percent of travelers are processed through the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Looking to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or go buccaneering with the Somali pirates? Addis Ababa is your access point to the continent. As an American planning to sojourn through Chad, I couldn’t just transfer planes via an electronic ticket purchase. I had to find the Chadian consulate in Addis, wrangle a visa, and then purchase a flight—something that could only be done in person with proof of aforementioned visa.
Although facing a notoriously bureaucratic battle wrought with legitimate hurdles, I was optimistic because Mark Lovejoy, the co-director of my non-profit Wrestling Roots Foundation, lived in Addis and had connections at the U.S. Embassy.
Mark picked me up from the airport at 6:30 a.m., and we spent much of the day in the car between the Chadian Embassy, the ticket counter for Ethiopian Airlines, and the U.S. Embassy. The Chadian Embassy had refused to grant me a visa until I had a letter from the American embassy verifying my business in Chad. The American Embassy balked, stating it was outside their diplomatic relationship to validate the travel purpose of American civilians. The diplomatic kerfuffle left me with no option but to create an elaborate diversion.
I put pen to paper.
To Whom it May Concern:
My name is Tim Foley, and I’m headed to Chad to take photos of a wrestling tournament and discuss the excellence of Chadian culture.
I presented the letter to a notary at the U.S. Embassy.
“So I’m being asked to notarize a letter about you, that was also written and signed by you?” asked the embassy notary.
“I can do that.”
The imprint of the official U.S. Embassy notary—the large blue stamp and the looping black ink signature—created enough of a peacock effect to earn me the Chadian visa. Although I was forced to pay $100 for “processing fees,” we’d wrangled the visa and could now buy a ticket to Chad.
But how exactly would I be viewed in Chad?
“The White in Shining Armor, “says Mark. “Most white people in Africa love to tell Africans how to manage this and teach that. White people show them how this is wrong and this is unhealthy. Seriously. White people come to Africa to preach and teach. Nobody comes to learn.”
I woke up three days later in N’Djamena to the rattle of consecutive emails pinging my phone. Brian, a State Department officer in Chad, who was friends with Mark, had sent the following email:
I would strongly recommend that you NOT come to Chad right now. There was an attempted coup d’etat last night, including a gunfight on the road between the Kempinski Hotel and the road in front of the Embassy. An undetermined number of people were killed.
Too late. I was under the sheets on the second floor of the Kempinski. Like most travelers, I generally disapprove of gun violence while on assignment and turned to BBC World News for more details. Although the U.S. Embassy in an embattled foreign country is every American’s most dependable source of protection, the years spent living in State Department “hardship posts” increase their employees’ tendency toward screeching maternalism.
Thankfully, the BBC covers Africa with regularity and seriousness. Chad had, in fact, been the site of what the government was now calling a coup attempt. They would know what one looked like—current President Idriss Deby was installed by coup in 1990.
The Olympic-style portion of the FILA-sponsored wrestling tournament was set to start at 5:00 p.m., so I took a peek out the window of the Kempinski, expecting headless bodies to be prone in the street, but life outside the hotel was rolling along as it had the previous few days. Men wearing traditional long-flowing boubous (long-sleeved robes) sauntered by on their way to work, and rudderless street kids played soccer in dusty fields.
I went to breakfast and asked the lady at the omelet station what she’d done to safeguard her home from these terrorist attacks.
She had no idea what I was talking about.
Every FILA continental championship has three classifications: Freestyle, Greco-Roman, and Women’s Freestyle. The rule is that each weight category must be competed in a single day, so most small tournaments can be wrapped up in only three days of competition. For areas of larger participation, like Europe or Asia, the tournament can become five full days of competition, with weight classes inside a division split up over more days.
Because of Africa’s size, the rising cost of fuel, and the general difficulty in raising funds for travel, only a dozen countries were able to afford the trip, and many of those were from north Africa, where economic circumstances are markedly better.
The Egypt and Tunisian teams have dominated the tournament in recent years, and in N’Djamena, the outcome was much the same. Time and again, the lighter-skinned Arabic wrestlers outclassed the sub-Saharan teams on the mat. Leg-laces, gut wrenches, and other forms of back exposure were paralyzing the advancement of wrestlers from countries like Cameroon, Niger, and Chad.
Didier Favori, a 50-something French national and former Olympic-caliber wrestler who worked for FILA, noticed this disparity in 2008. A year later he coordinated the assets of the French government and FILA to help establish a coaching and training facility in Thies, a city in northern Senegal. The center recruits talented—but raw—wrestlers from sub-Saharan Africa and coaches them how to compete in Freestyle and Greco at the international level. The wrestlers receive an education, spending money, and world-class coaching, and Favori gets to dream about seeing them win Olympic gold.
“This is Africa!” says Favori during the Women’s Freestyle finals, where two of his wrestlers were battling for gold at 51kg. “Here, there are some wrestlers with a feel that is beautiful. They feel wrestling in their fingertips. You visit a small village, maybe in Guinea-Bissau or Cameroon, and you find these wrestlers with more natural talent than maybe anywhere in the world. It’s in their blood.”
FILA’s Olympic readiness program has already produced results. Under Favori’s direction, and the coaching of a former Bulgarian national team coach, Senegal sent Isabelle Sambou to the 2012 Olympics in London. She’d been recruited from the Casamance, an area of Senegal south of Gambia, where women are encouraged to participate in traditional forms of wrestling.
“Today is wonderful,” says the bald and energetic Frenchman. “But you have not seen the real prize yet. The most beautiful and magnificent is wrestling tomorrow…Yes, YES! This is going to be the best event. You will see!”
The Chadian wrestlers enter the chalk-lined sand pit under the steady rhythm of flutes and synthesized drum beats. They wear tight blue and yellow shorts, while bending their knees and shoveling their arms side-to-side—low and to the right, then back to the left—as the music is pumped through two-dozen freezer-sized speakers.
The sounds pitch higher and the wrestlers grin through a progression of hip shakes and limp-legged shudders. The gyrations encourage 10,000 supportive countrymen to join the pre-match hype, inflating their spirits from cautious optimism into a full-scale tizzy. The wrestlers sway back-and-forth with confidence, arms in the air, smiles beaming. The unnamed dance is as familiar to the Chadian fans as the electric slide is to the Rotary Club of Dallas.
“Very exciting! Now we are hearing the national song of Chad,” says the bluntly descriptive emcee. “As you see, the people are dancing and they are having fun! Many people are laughing! This is a joyous time. A fun event for people of Chad!”
This isn’t Chad’s national anthem, but more like a homespun version of “Lets Get It Started.” The song is a catchy combo of high-pitch notes that stream regularly from passing cars and storefronts in the capital city of N’Djamena. The rhythm connects the Chadian fans to their wrestlers.
The Chadians wrestlers continue their hip shake through the center of the sand-filled wrestling surface and line up shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the concrete bleachers filled with their flag-waving countrymen.
As the team from the Central African Republic approaches the wrestling pit, the fans fall silent and the beat drops.
Now playing: Celine Dion.
A wrestler from Central Africa circles to his left and extends his hands out to judge the distance between himself and his Chadian opponent. It’s dark out, but the sandy ring is saturated with yellow-tinted floodlights. Overly Descriptive Emcee isn’t missing any chances to validate the success of the event and calls the action with a tenor of bias and emotion.
“The wrestlers are circling each other! As you can see these are STRONG men! The music plays for us because we like the dancing and singing,” he says. “This is part of African wrestling!”
Chad is sitting on an opportunity to earn continental strutting rights. Should they win three of the five matches, they will end their Pool B classification undefeated and face the winner of Pool A in the finals. Those wrestlers, the Senegalese, are undoubtedly the strongest wrestlers on the continent. Their events back in Dakar can garner as many as 100,000 fans for a single man vs. man match—not team competition, just two wrestlers.
The rules of Traditional African Wrestling are simple, but before the tournament begins, a referee dressed in all white, and with the assistance of the ever-vocal emcee, gives a 30-second demonstration. The style is takedown-only, but the referee works to explain that you can touch your hands and feet to the sand but any combinations of two other contact points (knee, head, and elbow) will result in a takedown. Landing on your side or your butt is also considered a takedown.
Unlike the ongoing confusion and action-less rules of Greco-Roman wrestling, the rules for this competition were so easy to understand that they helped build the enjoyment of the crowd. It’s instinctive to anticipate a falling tree, and like the tantric and cathartic yin-yang of soccer fans who hold their breath, fans released thunderous applause when wrestlers fell their opponents into the sand.
Two matches into the final dual, the wrestlers from the Central African Republic are losing 2-0 to the Chadian team. Next up is the home team’s star 80kg wrestler, who earlier in the day reversed an impossible situation to earn a takedown against a rival Cameroonian. Wealthy Chadian men ran to the edge of the ring and slapped currency against the sweaty forehead of the winning wrestler.
The crowd dances to its national song, as the masses lurch forward from the concrete stands encroached on the circle below. At ground level, more Chadian fans gather behind the rope line to surround the action. I sit still, face behind the camera lens, alternating photo opportunities while imaging possible escape paths. Like Duke basketball players after a loss to an ACC opponent, I feel the crushing energy of the Chadians and their expectant rush on the competition area as a threat to my safety.
The wrestler from Central Africa lunges at the whistle, digging for a deep underhook. The Chadian pinches his elbow down and circles his legs away from the pressure. His opponent, favoring to strike early and catch the Chadian off-balance, crouches down for a snatch-single, but the Chadian anticipates and sprawls forward, driving his opponent into the sand.
I’m 10 feet from the speakers blaring West African hip-hop, but all I can hear is the echoing chorus of Chadian applause—the whooping, the whistling, the unencumbered celebration of a proud country.
The Chadian fans begin to rush the sand. A dozen children, with a school bus-sized flag, run the perimeter of the competition area holding their nation’s colors over their heads, screaming for no other reason but to redistribute their absorbed jubilance.
I seek out Favori for a ride back to the Kempinksi, and a modicum of protection from the brewing insanity that’s leaked onto the pit. As I run across the open area, a teenager on a motorcycle appears and does an extended 360-degree burnout, kicking up sand for 20 feet in every direction. Mayhem has been uncorked.
“Imagine,” Favori says. “IMAGINE! We maybe have team competition like this in the Olympics. We have FILA do this for all the countries. Look how many fans today. Look! See! Now tomorrow for finals, maybe 20,000 fans!”
Favori was right. Takedown wrestling was attractive to the crowd because it sold the simplicity of brawn, while revealing the value of technique and courage. Like a bullfight, that simplicity could be hashed out in a myriad ways. The poets could see the harmony and fluidity of the action, while the sadists could appreciate the domination. African wrestling not only revealed the power of simplicity to promote nationalism, but the inherent equality of a minimal, unadorned sport.
For a sport like Olympic wrestling and an organization like FILA, both teetering on the edge of saleable irrelevance, the visceral charge of the Chadians might have been the lesson they needed to understand the power and marketability of simplicity.
“We need to learn from this,” says Favori, as we hopped into the SUV. “Wrestling needs to learn from Africa.”
Comedians have an attachment to mixed martial arts. Listen to even a few hours of Jay Mohr’s cosmically popular podcast Mohr Stories, and you’ll hear comedian after comedian talk about their affection for the world’s fastest growing sport. Opie and Anthony, Jim Norton, Bob Kelly, and preeminent comedic MMA nut Joe Rogan all share a fascination for the abuses and beauty in the cage. Maybe it’s the thought of being alone on stage, struggling, and having to soldier on. The cage and stage can seem eerily similar.
Fellow funnyman Rob Riggle shares the same fondness for MMA. Riggle made his climb to the stage via the United State Marine Corps, a setting that taught him hand-to-hand combat and the humble nature of a man who has seen war zones in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It also taught him to respect the fighters who lock themselves in a cage to fight.
“I remember being a Marine in Corpus Christi, Texas, and turning on the first UFC and seeing Royce Gracie walk out there against guys who’d get progressively bigger and scarier,” says Riggle. “I’d be like, ‘This guy’s dead, what’s he doing?’ Then he would win, win, win. I was the biggest fan of him. I’d tell all my buddies about him.”
Riggle was a 2nd Lieutenant, a recently commissioned officer, who like many of today’s young fighters, saw that he could “get a job as a waiter…or do something unique in the Marines and see the world.” He had graduated from Kansas University with a film major and done well on his AQTFAR, a flight aptitude test that is essentially the “SAT for flight school.”
The Marine Corps wanted pilots and Riggle wanted to fly. It was a match, or so Riggle thought.
In addition to studying G-forces and hoping to one day keep up foreign relations after a stint at Top Gun (“You know, sir, flipping him the bird.”) Riggle, was sent to Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, a base with the moniker “Crossroads of the Marine Corps,” because all office candidates are required to clear The Basic School (TBS) and Officer Candidate School (OCS). When Riggle went through the schools in the late 1980s, much of the hand-to-hand combat training was focused on how to “submit assailants with quick and lethal force.”
“The Marine Corps called it Line Training—it wasn’t Krav Maga in name, but it was a mix of martial arts. We focused a lot on getting opponents to the ground with judo moves and used a bunch of lethal and non-lethal holds,” says Riggle. “Combat training was really focused on wrist locks, elbow locks, grappling, and wrestling—things of that nature, like dealing with knife attacks and how to fight with the butt stock of your rifle.”
Riggle says that a few years after he completed TBS and OCS, the Marine Corps developed Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. The new system focused on Marines becoming thoroughly proficient with their techniques and earning belts of green, tan, and gray. “It’s nothing elaborate,” says Riggle. “The point was to get to neutralization as quickly as possible.”
For Riggle, the fighting was fun. However, it was only a few weeks before Riggle was supposed to get pinned with his wings that he started having second thoughts about his career plans. “I was a 24-year-old kid, and I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, I want to give the comedy thing a try. I want to try, I wanna know.” Days before committing to flight training and signing over the next eight years of his life to the Marine Corps, Riggle decided to become a ground officer. He’d serve his four-year contract, and, in the meantime, he’d practice his comedy.
Riggle joined the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City where he worked in the Office of Public Affairs, which was well-thought placement by a senior officer who knew of Riggle’s affable disposition. He worked during the day as a Marine, and in the evening, he’d dip into Chelsea and work on his comedy. The Marine Corps didn’t have a problem with his moonlighting. “As far as I know, it was allowed. They never said a word about it, and I never mentioned it.”
Riggle never went to Flight School, but he also decided against full retirement. Instead, he became a Marine Reservist—able to be called into service as needed. Staying on meant that he had to keep up with his drills (one weekend each month and two weeks each year) and that he’d be sent on occasion to combat zones to work as a Marine and to later entertain the troops. In late 2012, he made a full retirement after serving for 23 years and earning the rank of Lt. Colonel. “I would’ve liked to see if I could have made full-bird, but it was too much trouble keeping up with my drills.”
Riggle is still meddling in MMA. In addition to picking up poker games with former UFC Champion Randy Couture, his FOX pregame show invited UFC president Dana White to the set to promote the UFC on FOX. The skit included White dressing up as a homeless man, which some of the thin-skinned media types balked at for being crass. “I just heard about that and was dumfounded. I mean, get a sense of humor, Give it a break,” says Riggle. “Dana was a stud for coming out and playing with us. I appreciated it so much.”
Although Riggle had scene-stealing roles in some of the biggest comedies of the last five years, including The Hangover (“Ride the lightning!”), his career is still in rapid ascent. This year, he’ll be producing more episodes of his hit online series TK and shooting a pilot for FOX with a working title The Gabriels. Riggle also made a guest appearance in May on the number one show on television, Modern Family, which gave him a chance to work with Ed O’Neill.
“Ed is a black belt—a Gracie black belt!” says Riggle. “How cool is that? A comedian with a black belt who loves fighting.”
When Colt Ford has an idea, it usually pays dividends.
In 2008, the smooth country rappin’ phenomenon co-founded Average Joes Entertainment, an independent record company where he is the flagship artist and whose roster of talent includes Montgomery Gentry, LoCash Cowboys, Bubba Sparxxx, and Nappy Roots.
Also in that year, Ford co-wrote “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song his friend Jason Aldean covered in 2011, helping make him one of the biggest stars in country music.
But Ford’s latest idea doesn’t exactly pertain to music. It involves a gym, an accomplished MMA fighter, and a camera crew. “It would be cool to put together a reality show and have a pro fighter train me,” the 43-year-old says. “I’d either die or become a badass, one or the other.”
About 30 years ago, Ford—whose real name is Jason Farris Brown—was a middle school kid whose only real glimpse into the martial arts were from Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris flicks. That soon changed when Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was being taught in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. Intrigued, Ford gave it a try and enjoyed it. His training was brief, however, and he began to focus on golf, eventually playing in a Nationwide tour event and becoming an instructor.
Despite taking a permanent leave from the submission world, he watched some of the early UFCs and identified with the first family of BJJ.
“I always liked the Gracies,” says Ford. “It’s amazing when you look at some of the things they’ve done. They look so undersized, but they just dominated. They had the ability to utilize their leverage. I played professional golf for a living, and that’s a leverage thing. That’s why Roy McIlroy hits the ball a long way. He’s not 6’5,” he’s 5’9” and 165 pounds, so a lot of that has to do with leverage and angles. A lot of martial arts is proper technique, leverage, and angles, and the little guy can take a big guy any day if you do it correctly.”
Ford began watching MMA more regularly, starting in the TUF era, and soon he had a stable of favorite fighters, including Andrei Arlovski, Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, Georges St-Pierre, Randy Couture, and former Athens resident Forrest Griffin.
“I’m a really competitive person, and their mentality is something I try to apply in my life,” Ford says. “You watch those guys and there’s no quit in them. Those guys just keep going. They don’t care about what the deal is, they just go until the final bell. I like that mentality.”
Ford spent much of his career songwriting for all types of artists, ranging from country musicians Jamey Johnson and future label mate Montgomery Gentry, to alternative rock band Lit, hip-hop producer/rapper Jermaine Dupri, and bite-sized rap duo Kriss Kross. But yearning for more, he took a shot at performing and recording some of his own material.
In 2008, he forged his own way into the industry by launching Average Joes Entertainment with Shannon Houchins. Accompanied with a country rap vocal, the southern fried bossman released his debut album Ride Through The Country later that year, which contained the original version of “Dirt Road Anthem” that he co-wrote with Brantley Gilbert.
Although the independent hustle and the lack of major label muscle made it difficult to get placement on the radio—much less become mainstreamed—Ford has become a success story, as he built an organic following of diehard fans. While he continued to pick up more and more steam with his next two LPs, 2010’s Chicken & Biscuits and 2011’s Every Chance I Get, his most recent effort, Declaration of Independence, topped the Billboard Country Albums Chart and peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200.
Released in August 2012, Declaration of Independence is a sincere 15-track collection where the country melodicism perfectly complements Ford’s signature flow. Some of the highlights include the reflective “Back,” featuring Jake Owen; the woodgrain whip banger “Drivin’ Around Song” with Jason Aldean; the party smash “All In,” featuring Kix Brooks; and the EDM-flavored “Dancin’ While Intoxicated (DWI)” with LoCash Cowboys and Redneck Social Club.
Also included is the leadoff single “Answer to No One,” featuring JJ Lawhorn, which—if Ford had a midlife crisis and decided to become a fighter— would be his theme song.
“That’s a pretty badass song. That says it all there,” says Ford. “I think most fighters feel that way. Other than the Good Lord, I ain’t scared of none of y’all. I think that’s the attitude you gotta have, and that’s what I wanted to convey in that song. I would imagine a lot of MMA fans are probably country music fans—hard working, blue-collar folks who go out there and get it done every day. I have a lot of respect for people who do that.”
Jimmy De Martini is carrying the banner for fiddlers across the globe. The 36-year-old is an integral part of the Zac Brown Band, a platinum-selling country music group that has crossed over into the mainstream. The band won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album for Uncaged this past February.
When De Martini isn’t performing with his band mates, he is throwing down at KnuckleUp Fitness in Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, this fiddler can scrap with the best of them—despite being known for playing the least intimidating instrument on Earth.
“My coaches will joke about it,” says De Martini. “I’ll be in the ring sparring with some dude that I’ve never sparred with before, and my coach will throw some shit out like, ‘Hey, this guy’s a fiddle player. A fiddle player is beating you up. He’s a violinist! What are you doing?’ Yeah. I get that a lot.”
Although the musician often gets teased by his fellow gym rats for playing a pint-sized orchestral instrument, he has thick skin and possesses an extensive skill set he had once hoped to display before the band got its big break. Before De Martini was a rolling stone, he was preparing to be a cage fighter.
Growing up, De Martini was a fight fan. He loved kung fu flicks starring Bruce Lee, boxing matches featuring Mike Tyson, and some of the early UFC cards. “I had always questioned which martial arts would work well if you were actually in a real life situation,” he says. “The different fighting arts piqued my interest.”
In 2001, he decided to find out. The musician took up boxing, starting in his garage with a heavy bag and some instructional books on how to punch. From there, he went to the local LA Boxing gym and took private lessons with a trainer. While he enjoyed the Sweet Science, his skill set evolved by accident. The gym changed its brand to Velocity Kickboxing (later becoming KnuckleUp Fitness), and expanded its business by offering Muay Thai and aerobic kickboxing courses. Along with the name change came a different type of athlete, and De Martini was not impressed—at first, that is.
“I would see the Muay Thai guys going at it, and it seemed to me like none of them were very good boxers,” De Martini says. “They were concentrating on kicking too much, and I thought it wasn’t practical. But eventually, I became too curious. I wanted to try it, and I just got hooked.” He also tried the aerobic kickboxing and developed a soft spot for it. A focus on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was soon to follow.
De Martini also cut his teeth with some of the gym’s mixed martial artists who are now emerging in the bigger fight promotions, including Dave Vitkay, who just won in his Bellator debut in March. Although the fiddler initially wanted to follow in his fighting brethren’s footsteps, he stepped aside as Zac Brown Band was stepping into the spotlight.
“It was kind of a no-brainer because we had already been doing really well,” De Martini says. “It’s tough seeing guys I trained with turn pro and just wondering what I could’ve done. But I think I definitely made the right decision.”
Just because De Martini’s main focus is on his music career, that doesn’t mean his love for MMA has subsided. He still trains, and it has given him and his band something to bond over. Front man Zac Brown used to participate in judo competitions and is a big MMA fan.
Besides the group’s shared passion for watching fights, they also try to keep fit while on the road. After they arrive at a venue, De Martini will set up a makeshift fitness room with 13 different stations, featuring dumbbells, mats, and benches.
“We spend one minute at each station and go four rounds, so it ends up being an hour, and we do anything from jump squats to push-ups to bench press to abs,” the fiddler says. “It’s a great workout, and we get a lot of the guys in the band in shape that way.” He also carries Muay Thai and boxing pads with him so he can sharpen his skills on the road.
Now, the chicken fried collective plans to take their fitness regimen to another level. After a recent outing, De Martini and company were impressed with how tour mates Dave Matthews Band kept in shape.
“Those guys have a complete tractor trailer workout gym, and that’s all it is. It goes from show to show, and it’s air conditioned, has a television, weights, treadmills, and ellipticals—basically, anything you need,” he says. “We’re in the process of designing one right now, and I think in a couple of months, we’re gonna have the final schematics and start building one.”
It sounds like De Martini will be utilizing his touring gym a lot more as the Zac Brown Band continues to grow in popularity.
Just as fighters add various disciplines into their MMA regimens, the Zac Brown Band tends to weave different elements—including bluegrass, reggae, southern rock, and pop—into their country music base. The latest style clash happens on their fifth studio album Uncaged, which was released in July 2012.
Although the album title further complements the group’s connection to the sport, the central theme of Uncaged is breaking down barriers. Some of the many highlights include the heartbreaking pop ballad “Goodbye In Her Eyes,” the enriching confessional “Day That I Die” featuring singer-songwriter Amos Lee, and the rocking title track, which Chael Sonnen contemplated using as his entrance theme at UFC 159.
The fusion comes naturally for the band. “We don’t really try to be diverse, we just come from different backgrounds,” De Martini says. “It comes out in the music, and I think that makes it a little different than everything else. It was pretty cool when we won the Best Country Album Grammy this year—and wow. That’s cool because we’re not totally country, but we still won the Best Country Album, so that was pretty exciting for us.”
// Data provided by Reed Kuhn at fightnomics.com / @fightnomics
Of all the exhilarating things that can happen inside an MMA cage, a fighter dropping an opponent to the floor with a single strike is perhaps the most iconic. The fundamental physics and biology of a strong and well-placed strike to the head will trump the strength of beast, the heart of a warrior, and even a lifetime of training. But who is truly the best knockout artist in MMA history? The punch-for-punch, pound-for-pound most dangerous striker? To answer the question, let’s deconstruct the ingredients of striking, and see what we might learn about how fighters land on the highlight reel, for glory or for shame.
This analysis is not about counting career totals. If we look at just the list of fighters who have scored 10 or more distance knockdowns (as opposed to clinch or ground) in the UFC/Strikeforce/WEC, we see some familiar names, and more than a couple of champions.
While these records are interesting, knockdowns and knockouts are biased toward career longevity and skewed toward heavier fighters. So this isn’t the answer. But we can also measure accuracy to correct for career length, looking for fighters with the best power head-striking accuracy as a measure of their skill. Swing as you might, when standing at a distance, only about 25 percent of head strikes will actually land on target. Once a strike is initiated, a more accurate fighter will be more likely to hit his target, and therefore has a better chance of knocking out his opponent. These guys may not overwhelm with flurries, but once they swing, they hit. And that’s a sign of an effective striker.
Here are the five most accurate strikers with at least 150 attempted power head strikes in the UFC.
This is definitely another impressive list of highly skilled fighters, with even some overlap of names. But just being accurate doesn’t imply doing damage. So let’s create a new measure to determine the most dangerous striker. This qualifies as a “thought experiment,” but by using numbers intelligently, we should be able to look past the single-metric record holders to make a quantifiable claim as to who the most dangerous striker on the planet really is.
In theory, if a fighter wants to maximize the chances of knocking down an opponent, he should throw a lot of strikes, land them as often as possible, and throw them as hard as possible. The chances of scoring a knockdown then can be incrementally improved by boosting any combination of volume, accuracy, and power. These are the basic metrics that drive striking damage, which we will measure by distance knockdowns. In order to determine the most effective striker, we’ll need to account for these variables properly.
First, we’ll need to consider striking volume. This variable requires some corrective action, as a fighter who unloads hundreds of strikes should eventually hurt their opponent, no matter how inaccurate or ineffective their strikes may be. We don’t want to reward volume, instead, we want to adjust for it. So we’re going to divide knockdowns by the number of strikes it takes to accomplish it. The fewer strikes per knockdown, the more effective and/or skilled the striker. Accuracy is implicit in this calculation, as more accurate strikers will make the most of their striking attempts. You can’t knock your opponent down on volume alone, you have to land the strikes.
It’s also important to remember that not all strikes are created equal. The same overhand right or high kick will have very different outcomes depending on who threw it and who absorbed it. The reality is: size matters. The physics of collisions rely on mass. Larger fighters that can put more body mass behind their strikes impart more momentum and kinetic energy into the heads of their opponents. More mass behind the strike means more brain rattling in the target and more corresponding knockouts. It’s not just the mass of the fist or foot—it’s also the mass of muscles throughout the body if the strike is thrown properly. As we observe in UFC statistics, the chance of a power head strike causing a knockdown rises consistently with weight class, demonstrating this effect.
This quick view of the results reminds us of our weight class bias. Upper weight class fighters dominate knockdown lists and finish far more fights by (T)KO. But if we want to compare fighters across weight classes to each other, we’ll have to account for this trend and normalize fighter performance based on size. Based on aggregate benchmarks, we’ll inflate the knockdown rate for smaller fighters and deflate the value for larger fighters to arrive at a normalized value. You’ll have to trust me on the math. Once this pattern is adjusted for, we should be able to answer the question of who the pound-for-pound most dangerous striker is.
The experiment and number crunching boils down to a single winning metric. With the highest adjusted-knockdown-per-attempted power head strike, Anderson Silva is statistically the most dangerous striker to ever compete in the Octagon. The rest of the top 10 offers more familiar names of excellent strikers.
When a strike is attempted, these 10 fighters have maximized the effect of each attempted punch, kick, knee, or elbow far above and beyond their division peers. And only after our proper accounting of size differences and strike volumes could we see flyweights and heavyweights side-by-side on the same list.
Here’s what we learned:
— The UFC leaderboard for knockdowns favors heavier fighters with long careers in the Octagon.
— To identify the most dangerous and effective strikers, volume and size must be adjusted.
— The greatest strikers do the most damage in the fewest striking attempts.
— Anderson Silva is the most dangerous striker of all time.
— B.J. Penn may be impossible to knock down.
//Illustrations By Tadd Trueb
Fighting. Never Back Down. Supreme Champion. If you can sit through these recent “MMA movies” without scissor-kicking yourself in the face, you have the patience of Job, the attention span of a goldfish, or narcolepsy. They just don’t make fighting films like they used to during the Golden Age of movies. I’m not talking about the 1940s. I’m talking about the 1980s.
What did cinema in the 1980s prove to fight fans? Easy. Mullets are badass. Actually, the enigmatic ‘80s proved that no man is unbeatable. And, if you’ve got a friend with a chip on his shoulders, no beatdown goes unavenged. In an ode to all things mulleted, I bring you three of the best absurdist-revenge-fighting movies of the 1980s.
3. Road House (1989)
Victim: Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott)
Villain: Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara)
Hero: Dalton (Patrick Swayze)
Quote to Live By: “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead.” —Wade Garrett
Wade Garrett was one part Caine from Kung Fu and one part dirty old creeper at the end of the bar. The aging cooler (specialized bouncer) was a mentor to Dalton, but the antiquated sensei bit off more than he could chew when he crossed paths with the small town’s head honcho Brad Wesley. Not even Garrett’s knee-kick finishing move and savvy bar-fighting street smarts could keep the knife blade out of his back. In the end, Garrett got all the sleep he needed. However, Dalton (whose hair was slightly more magnificent) exacted his own brand on throat-ripping street justice. The only thing missing was a fight-to-the-death in a trophy room filled with stuffed bears and rednecks with rifles. Oh, wait, it had all of that.
2. Rocky IV (1985)
Victim: Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)
Villain: Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren)
Hero: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone)
Quote to Live By: “I’ve retired more men that Social Security.”
When Apollo Creed came out of retirement to fight the unbeatable Soviet machine Ivan Drago, he did it so stylishly that it must have offended the steroided Siberian. Donning an Uncle Sam outfit with “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown in tow, Creed declared it was time for America (hell, yeah) to put Cold War communism in a body bag. Unfortunately for Creed, he was the one getting toe tagged at the morgue after Drago tenderized him like a bowl of borscht. However, if Rocky Balboa has taught us anything, it’s that a diminutive-sized Italian with brain damage can do anything he sets his disabled mind to. One Siberian-training montage later, Rocky defeated Drago, gained the respect of the Soviet empire, and slurred his way through another post-fight interview. Here’s hoping that a script is currently being written for Rocky VII: The Return of Apollo.
1. Bloodsport (1988)
Victim: Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb)
Villain: Chong Li (Bolo Yeung)
Hero: Frank Dux (Jean Claude Van DamMe)
Quote to Live By: “I ain’t your pal, dickface.” —Ray Jackson
Ray Jackson was the American Vale Tudo fighter who befriended Frank Dux upon his arrival in Hong Kong for the Kumite. What Jackson lacked in fighting sophistication, he made up for with raw aggression, sleeveless tees, and a serial killer grin. However, Jackson flew too close to the sun on his Harley Davidson of wax in his fight against unbeaten Chong Li. After giving the champ a substantial beatdown, Jackson caveman-grunted-fist-pumped in celebration instead of finishing the fight. The brief hiatus was the opening Li need in order to head-stomp Jackson into a coma, earning him a one-way ticket to the hospital via rickshaw. This set the stage for Dux (Army AWOL) to harness his inner Tanaka Clan skills and defeat Li in the finals. It should also be noted that Li blinded Dux with quicklime in the finals, forcing Dux to pantomime around the platform before utilizing his early-years-blindfold training. Talk about a movie that comes full-circle.
All-Star first basemen Prince Fielder hits hard on the diamond and in the cage.
At first glance, 5’-11”, 275-pound Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder looks like he could go toe-to-toe with any UFC heavyweight. Watching him leap into the air to deliver a perfect flying knee while MMA legend Bas Rutten holds the pads supports that belief.
With a leg press of 1,000 pounds and 22-inch biceps, the four-time All-Star has the athletic ability to contemplate a move from the baseball diamond to the Octagon, but after signing a nine-year, $214 million contract to play first base and bat clean-up for the Tigers in 2012, it may be awhile before he begins crushing opponents instead of baseballs.
“I would like to,” says Fielder, about the possibility of fighting professionally one day. “It would be a challenge, but I’m pretty sure taking one elbow would be enough of that for me.”
Jon Burke, owner of the 6 Levels Gym in Orlando, Florida, and trainer to other big name athletes like former NBA great Shaquille O’Neil, LPGA golfer Paula Creamer, and NFL placekicker Ryan Longwell, believes Fielder could transition into the fight game if he wanted to. “Whatever Prince decides to do, he will be successful—that’s his mentality,” Burke says. “If he ever did crossover into MMA, I’d worry about his opponent. Prince is an extremely powerful individual. Applying principles of mixed martial arts like knees and striking—his power would be unparalleled.”
As the sport continues to grow in popularity and gain mainstream attention, more professional athletes from other sports are incorporating MMA into their training programs.
“MMA is an alternative solution to the daily grind,” says Burke. “Some of these athletes have been doing the same thing for 15-20 years and want something new that’s going to challenge them.”
Fielder is MLB’s active Iron Man for consecutive games played (343), and he has only missed one game in the last four years, so it’s no surprise that one of the toughest players in baseball would be into one of the hardest-hitting sports in the world. What is a little shocking is how he discovered MMA.
“My kids [Jadyn, age 8; Haven, age 6] would go to jiu-jitsu classes at 6 Levels, and my wife would send me videos of them training. I thought it was really cool, so I came here in the offseason, and it’s been a blast. It’s a lot better than just running on a treadmill.”
Now, he can’t stay out of the gym. During spring training when the Tigers were in nearby Lakeland, Florida, Fielder trained general MMA with Burke five-times a week, concentrating on his conditioning and tying in elements of boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. The MMA results are paying off with his day job.
“MMA training has helped me with my hand-eye coordination, my agility, footwork, conditioning—everything. The explosiveness I’ve gained this offseason is incredible. It also helps you with confidence—hitting the mitts, learning something new, it helps your mind and is mentally tough,” says Fielder. “The training is hard, so getting through that helps you on the field. If you go 3-10 in my sport, you’re an All-Star. That’s failing seven times, and if you can’t deal with those seven times, it’s going to be rough mentally.”
Even his “old school” manager, 68-year-old Jim Leyland, was impressed with the results. “He thought I looked great and was really proud of me for working hard in the offseason to stay in shape,” Fielder says. “For me, that was a great compliment from a manager who has been around a long time.” Although Fielder isn’t 100 percent sure Leyland really knows what MMA is, he better be careful around the veteran. “Coach did say he could pressure-point me and knock me out.”
The Tiger’s locker room isn’t becoming a Fight Club, but there have been a few instances when some MMA has gone down.
“My kid once came into the clubhouse and put my teammate Miguel Cabrera [seven-time All-Star/AL Triple Crown/World Series Champion] in an armbar,” Fielder says. “He was like, ‘Ow! That hurts.’ “I said, ‘Yeah, you’re supposed to tap.’ Even though not all of the guys train, it brings us together because it gives us something to talk about. In order to win, I believe you need to be a unit.”
The Tigers made it to the World Series in 2012 for the first time since 2006 and are considered favorites in the American League in 2013. Who knows, maybe someday Fielder will need to break out some of his MMA techniques on the ball field. He made it very clear that, now that his kids are older, there’s no chance he would rush the mound. But, if he had to choose what his finishing move would be?
“I don’t know,” Fielder says with a laugh, “maybe a guillotine would be cool.”
Burke offers more details.
“If he had to rush the mound—fictionally speaking of course—he probably would use a superman punch or flying knee because no one would expect that from a guy his size, and then follow that up with a takedown and some ground-and-pound.”
After spending the day in the gym watching Prince Fielder in action—if he were to deliver a flying knee to a pitcher, there will be no need for any follow-up.