Frank Mir gives us a peek into his past and dishes on growing up a loner, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and how an introduction to sports ultimately gave him the confidence to express himself on one of the largest stages in the world.
Frank Mir gives us a peek into his past and dishes on growing up a loner, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and how an introduction to sports ultimately gave him the confidence to express himself on one of the largest stages in the world.
Thousands of actors portray “tough guy” characters, but only a few possess the discipline and technique to actually stand toe-to-toe with a legit mixed martial artist. At FIGHT!, we’ve watched enough films to know which thespians could step into the cage without being maimed. They might not necessarily become champions, but here are 10 actors who could hold their own in a sanctioned pro fight … excluding Chuck Norris (supposedly, his tears can cure cancer).
10. RYAN REYNOLDS
Though known for his comedic roles in Van Wilder and Waiting…, it was 2004’s Blade: Trinity that transformed Reynolds into an action star. Four months before the movie was shot, Reynolds dieted, gained 20 pounds of muscle, and underwent intense training regimens in boxing and martial arts to prepare him for the physically demanding role. While that isn’t enough to guarantee MMA success, Reynolds is only 33 years old and has the basic fundamentals to improve.
9. WESLEY SNIPES
If Herschel Walker can pursue MMA, there isn’t any reason why Snipes can’t. The actor has trained in an assortment of disciplines, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, kung fu, and Capoeira. Most importantly, Snipes is the proud owner of a 5th-dan black belt in Shotokan, and as Lyoto Machida has shown, it’s damn near difficult to land a strike on a Shotokan black belt. Although a proposed 2005 fight with Joe Rogan fell through, Snipes could still do some damage.
8. SEAN PATRICK FLANERY
A black belt under Renzo Gracie prodigy and Hollywood BJJ business partner Shawn Williams, this Boondock Saints star has been immersed in the martial arts since childhood. While he has studied a plethora of different styles in the past and currently dabbles in Muy Thai, Flanery absolutely loves to compete. In fact, he won a handful of jiu-jitsu tournaments in 2002 and 2003. Though he has no intentions of becoming The Ultimate Fighter, the skill set is there.
7. JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME
Beginning his martial arts studies at age 12 and competing regularly in “full-contact promotions,” the Belgian was one of the best mixed martial artists in the 70’s and 80’s before the sport actually had a name. Possessing a hybrid of karate, kickboxing, Muy Thai, Shotokan, and tae kwon doe, Van Damme used his pedigree to put on memorial performances in movies such as Bloodsport and Universal Soldiers. Although competing against today’s modern day gladiators could be detrimental to his health, we’re sure he still has a little pep in his step.
6. JOHNNY STRONG
When Strong isn’t fronting his Atlantic Records rock band Operator or playing roles in flicks such as Black Hawk Down, Sinners And Saints, and The Fast And The Furious, he spends his time preparing for a dream bout with UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva. A brown belt in BJJ with judo experience and a passion for punching people in the face, Strong—who is in his early 30’s—is young enough to actually have a successful MMA run.
5. JOE ROGAN
He hosted Fear Factor, was a regular on News Radio, and nowadays, when he isn’t telling jokes, Rogan analyzes fights as the UFC’s color commentator. But don’t get it twisted, he can fight as well. A black belt in tae kwon do and brown belt under the 10th Planet BJJ system, his instructor Eddie Bravo said in 2008 that Rogan could go “straight to 170 and fuck up a lot of dudes.” Now that’s a co-sign Carlos Mencia will never get.
4. JACKIE CHAN
If Bruce Lee is the “Godfather of MMA,” then Jackie Chan was blessed with greatness in the early 70’s as he worked alongside Lee in Fist Of Fury and Enter The Dragon. Chan achieved his own acclaim as an international movie actor who flashed his background in Shaolin Kung-Fu, tae kwon do, and hapkido. Though a fight against fellow Chinese actor Jet Li would truly be a dream match, the 55-year-old Chan could possibly put the hurtin’ on a few featherweights.
3. JET LI
In ten words or less: the younger, lighter, faster version of Jackie Chan.
2. TONY JAA
The 33-year-old has done his fair share of stunt work and has a sound background in kung fu, but he demonstrated his speed and skill in Ong-Bak: Muy Thai Warrior, where he spent a solid year learning Muay Boran—the fighting style that Muy Thai derived from. If Jaa were to pursue MMA, he could do fairly well. After all, he spends his free time beating up elephants, so defeating humans shouldn’t be a problem.
1. JASON DAVID FRANK
Best known for his role as Tommy Oliver in the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (the green and, later, white ranger), Frank considers himself a martial artist first and an actor second. The 36-year-old is a 6th degree black belt, trains diligently in Muay Thai and BJJ, and was inducted in the World Karate Union Hall Of Fame in 2003. Oh, and he also keeps his eye on MMA, having cornered Melvin Guillard and founded the clothing line Jesus Didn’t Tap. With serious aspirations of competing in MMA, Frank has all the tools of making his future debut an extremely successful one.
Sherdog was born at Boeing. Yes, Boeing the aircraft manufacturer. This was in 1997, when Jeff Sherwood was 29, living in Huntington Beach and tearing it up on the Southern California beer and softball circuit. Not a circuit that compensates. Jeff needed a job. A friend got him the gig with Boeing, where he was hired as a “computer guy,” Jeff’s words, which was odd because he had never used a computer.
It took him a week to wipe out his PC after powering it off instead of shutting it down. Once he got it going again, he had a few hours each day to work and four or fi ve to dawdle. The guy who sat behind him in their cubicle suggested they create some websites during their downtime. Why websites? “You could only Google ‘boobs’ so many times before you got bored,” Jeff says.
His buddy built one on Brian Setzer, the musician. Jeff launched two: a movie review site and “Sherdog’s UFC Fan Page.” “Sherdog” was Jeff’s nickname in high school, and he says it took two seconds of thought to attach it to his site. “I mean, seriously,” he explains, “when I started this website, I didn’t think anybody was going to look at it.”
The UFC had begun roughly four years prior. Jeff wasn’t watching the fi rst event in November 1993, but a friend called and said to turn it on. He did and he was hooked, same as the rest of us.
Back in the day, though, he nearly pulled the plug on his mixed martial arts site. Thing was, more people were reading his movie reviews. Maybe it goes without saying that MMA was grass roots then in a way it will never be again. There was no SpikeTV, much less MMA on SpikeTV or on CBS or NBC, no mega pay-perviews, no million-dollar gates. Hardcore fans were the only fans, and there weren’t many of us. We went to sites like George Charlwood’s The New Full Contact for news, argued on list servers like The Combat List, subscribed to print publications like Joel Gold’s Full Contact Fighter. Sherdog wasn’t a major player then, but it was around. And despite its meager following, Jeff kept it around.
His softball buddies gave him hell. One of them was Greg Savage, who now co-hosts The Savage Dog Show with Jeff on the Sherdog Radio Network. Jeff didn’t just ignore his friends’ advice to ditch Sherdog because it was a waste of time—he had shirts made. Shirts that said “Come to Sherdog’s UFC Fan Page” on the back, with an entire URL spelled out—http:// come.to/sherdogsufc—that redirected to the GeoCities address where the site was located for the fi rst few years or so. “You’re the only one who can fi t that address on your back,” Greg liked to remind Jeff.
Years later, Jeff has his own reminder: “Greg works for me now.” Sherdog was mostly event lineups and results in the early days. A few rumors. A whole hell of a lot of exclamation points in the headlines. Jeff published an e-mail exchange with Bas Rutten as Sherdog’s fi rst interview on Jan. 25, 1999. He had solicited questions from the site’s readers, which led to the following disclaimer, given in his usual deadpan, upon publication: “My personal computer took a dump so I lost all the other questions so if you don’t see your question that is why. Send it to me again.”
More interviews followed. He added rankings and a monthly prediction contest, found freelancers to send him exclusive UFC photos, and installed a forum. That original forum was an interesting place. Jeff visited Joe Moreira’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school once to introduce himself and his site, and the feedback was entirely positive until someone clicked on the forum, opened a random thread, and was greeted by a photo of two old men getting it on.
“Oh my god!” one of Moreira’s students yelled. “I thought this was about MMA!” “At that point,” Jeff refl ects, “I realized that I needed to start moderating the forum.” He began covering regional shows in California, too, with reports and what he describes as “beautiful” photos—shot after shot of a perfectly focused fence with two blurry fi ghters frozen in the background.
“You write like a third grader,” wrote one critic in an email, “and your photos suck too.” Jeff could improve the photos on his own. The writing, not so much. He recruited Greg to write recaps of local events, and together they romped around chronicling the nascent MMA scene in California. The state athletic commission didn’t sanction MMA then, a fact that shoved many shows out to Indian Reservations and summoned law enforcement to others. More than once Jeff slipped out a door while police stormed in. When the Mongols motorcycle gang rioted at a March 2002 event and stabbed a man, Jeff grabbed his camera, stepped over some blood and watched from behind a turned-over table. That was the scene then: You might get arrested, you might get knifed, and you might see a 16-year-old Karo Parisyan tossing grown men on their heads in the middle of a cleared-out Mexican restaurant in San Pedro. The sport was wide-open and growing, and so was Sherdog.
Garrett Poe quickened Sherdog’s progression exponentially. A doctoral student studying polymer science and engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi, he crafted highlight videos in his spare time and offered them one day to Sherdog. Jeff ran them, and the site promptly crashed due to the overwhelming response.
The videos were ultimately removed for copyright reasons, but they thrived elsewhere. To this day, a quick search of the Web will return them, and a quick glance to the lower right corner of each video will reveal the Sherdog. com address. It’s hard to know how many people found the site with such a glance, but the number is surely great. Garrett also took over editing duties, however unoffi cially, in the late 90s. “Yeah, kind of let me look at some of this stuff before you actually put it on the website,” he told Jeff. “So I can do a little work on it.”
Somewhere along the way they became business partners, though the arrangement was never formally discussed. The site was doing well. Videos drove the traffi c, along with pictures and previews, event coverage and op-eds. James Hirth broke down upcoming shows while Mike Sloan and Greg wrote columns. Programmer David Boehme instituted a content management system, redesigned the site, and took plenty of 4 a.m. phone calls when something went wrong. You couldn’t sell much advertising then—MMA was too much of a niche sport; everybody knew everybody—so they started a store. At fi rst they only referred visitors to Amazon.com for a percentage of the sale. This was slow business, but it let them build enough capital to purchase products directly from companies and then sell them directly to visitors.
The store saved Sherdog. Boeing cut Jeff’s position after six years there, and he called Garrett to tell him he was going all in on Sherdog. It was time to see if the site was strong enough to support his wife and two children.
“We ate a lot of noodles,” Jeff says of those less than glorious years when he sold and shipped VHS tapes, DVDs, and other products out of his garage. “Luckily that was just about the time that MMA was getting even more popular, and we were able to squeak by.” Meanwhile Garrett was optimizing the site with search engines, ensuring that fans old and new alike would fi nd Sherdog when they queried anything MMA-related. Garrett had another idea, too.
“You know what would be really cool?” he asked Jeff. “If we had this database where you punch a fi ghter’s name into it and all of his fi ghts come up, how he won and the round and the time.”
“Are you kidding me?” was Jeff’
s response. “Hell no, I’m not doing that. You know how much work that would take?” It took a lot. One source was a database on GeoCities ran by MMA fan Ryan Graham, who also worked on what would become Sherdog’s Fight Finder. “There were like six of us doing it,” Jeff says, “entering results every day for … it had to be three or four months before we could even make it live, to where it would be a benefi t to anyone.”
The Fight Finder launched in spring 2001. Currently it contains information on nearly 10,000 events and more than 42,000 fi ghters. Multiple hands have always maintained it, though Rob King is credited as the full-time staffer who lost the most years of his life in pursuit of MMA results. For a good cause, though. The massive database is undoubtedly Sherdog’s greatest resource. Josh Gross didn’t bring journalism to Sherdog, but he did build it into the engine that drives the site.
Based in Los Angeles, he cut his teeth on the same early MMA scene that Jeff and Greg covered. He found refuge during the Mongols’ riot by climbing into the ring, He was detained and then banned by a Las Vegas casino for refusing to hand over his tape recorder, edited a magazine and another website, and covered the sport all over the world before he was hired as Sherdog’s executive editor in 2004. He encountered a site strong on videos and photos, and by greatly expanding the scope and depth of reporting, he put Sherdog in a position to chronicle MMA’s explosion through written journalism as well.
The sport did explode, of course. The Ultimate Fighter reality show on SpikeTV changed MMA and the coverage of it. Updating the site when convenient wasn’t good enough anymore. News was happening all the time; someone had to pursue it and someone had to post it. Managing Editor Mike Fridley made this stage in the site’s evolution possible. The Cal Ripken Jr. of Sherdog, he was drafted for Webmaster duties in December 2002 and worked every day for the next fi ve and a half years. It’s a legendary stretch among staffers. Even Josh took a vacation once, but Mike was on call every step of the way, editing photos and videos, handling posting and podcasts, archiving essentially everything, writing when needed, copy editing, and so on.
Accordingly, the site’s infrastructure was sound when the UFC began denying Sherdog and other MMA media outlets access to events in October 2005. From the Sherdog side of things, the ban is seen as an attempt to control what is said and written about the UFC. In fact, less than two weeks after banning Sherdog, UFC President Dana White fl ew Josh to Las Vegas and offered him a $28,000 raise to run the UFC’s Web site.
“I knew if I worked for him, I couldn’t do journalism,” says Gross, who left Sherdog in May 2008 and now covers MMA for Sports Illustrated. “So I turned it down. I think that also has something to do with him not liking me so much.”
Battles between the UFC and Sherdog have been fought publicly and privately, and God knows not always maturely, through open letters and PR people and text messages. White never gave a real reason for the ban, nor does he need to (it’s a myth that Sherdog was booted because Josh reported the fi nalists for The Ultimate Fighter 4 prior to the season airing in August 2006; Sherdog’s credentials were pulled nearly a year before that happened). The UFC president has pushed his company to unprecedented success and power in MMA, and you have to fi gure he’s doing what he believes is best for the UFC by trying to control perhaps the last check on that power: the media. Surely Sherdog’s interests and the UFC’s align much more than they confl ict, but whatever. Having nothing to lose can give you guts. That’s the best thing about being banned: You don’t have to worry about getting banned. You can write what you want.
The site has gone right on growing regardless. Internet radio was added in November 2005 and now includes shows with T.J. De Santis, Greg and Jeff, Scott Holmes and Rodney Dean, and MMA wunderkind Jordan Breen. In May 2007, Sherdog also began providing content for ESPN, and for the month of January 2009, between the .net forum and the .com news site, Sherdog generated more than 75 million page views—a long way from the 100-view day Jeff once bragged about to his buddy at Boeing.
That friend used to rib Jeff, too. His Brian Setzer site really took off, you see, and Setzer himself bought it for $5,000. But when Jeff sold Sherdog to lifestyle network CraveOnline in March 2007, the teasing stopped. Jeff and Garrett split the profi t down the middle. Garrett moved on to become the principal scientist at ManTech SRS Technologies in Alabama, and Jeff stayed at Sherdog, which he runs now with News Editor Loretta Hunt, Associate Editor Brian Knapp, Mike and me. Last September Mike tried to take off for the fi rst time in years. He made it a few hours down the road, opened his laptop, and went back to work.
Like anything that has reached considerable size, Sherdog has its fans and its critics. We’re aware of both and we don’t take the death threats seriously, though maybe we should. It’s taken a lot of luck to get here, a lot of work too, and it can all be traced back to that day at Boeing in 1997, when Jeff looked up at his glowing monitor, pecked away at the keys, and began building the biggest MMA website in the world.
What do a former IT computer geek, a man who once taught at a traditional martial arts studio in Massachusetts, and a random 10-year-old chasing highflying, karate-chopping dreams in the mid-1980s have in common? Not much, aside from the fact that today they happen to make up the trio who own and operate Mixedmartialarts. com — an all-encompassing website dedicated to everything MMA, including a tight-knit discussion forum that just might be the best-kept secret on the Internet.
The scene for this since-blossomed partnership was first set into motion on the East Coast of the United States in Massachusetts, nearly 2,000 miles away from, and more than 10 years prior to, the arrival of MMA on American soil via UFC 1. But the real story started much before then …
“My Pop is an advisor on resettlement [projects],” says Kirik Jenness, president and co-founder of Mixedmartialarts. com, in reference to his father’s career that saw the Jenness family relocating all over the world 13 times in the first 18 years of Kirik’s life. It was the well-traveled youth of Kirik that would spark his interest in martial arts when his family briefly settled in the South African kingdom of Lesotho. It was there that he started training in Taekwondo under Mr. Mogg Yoon. “One night they showed Enter the Dragon at the Holiday Inn, and I never wanted to do anything else since,” Kirik recalls. The year was 1973.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Gabe Smallman, the man who would eventually co-establish and code the original website, was literally just being born. It wouldn’t be until the age of 10 that he would wind up in a traditional martial arts school in Massachusetts — the school that Kirik Jenness was teaching at after returning stateside and graduating college.
“I met Kirik when I was in fourth grade, when I ended up at the door of his martial arts studio,” Gabe remembers. “I trained in what would be called ‘traditional martial arts’ with him for a number of years.” Ten years, to be exact, is the amount of time Gabe would train under Kirik before the bombshell of BJJ and MMA would explode in Denver and the fallout would change everyone in that little New England martial arts school forever.
During this time, future minority partner of Mixedmartialarts. com, Chris Palmquist — then about 11 years old — was in sixth grade, while his future business partners were preparing to purchase and view a new, out-of-theordinary fighting tournament on pay-per-view: The Ultimate Fighting Championship. The date was November 12, 1993.
THE BIRTH OF A WEBSITE
“We all gathered in a friend’s condo [to watch UFC 1]. It cost $14.95,” Kirik laughs. “Afterward, it took a few months, but [UFC 1] was an awakening.” Undoubtedly, the scattered seeds of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu upon fertile American minds would eventually sprout the idea of an MMA website within the mind of Kirik Jenness and a few of his students.
“The week after UFC 1, we bought Rorion Gracie’s [Jiu-Jitsu] tapes, and, having a memory so poor I can hide my own Easter eggs, I took notes on the tapes, and soon I figured I would write a book on MMA of my own,” Kirik explains. “Two years later I finished Fighter’s Notebook, but the entire market for the book, I thought, was the 14 guys training with me.” Partially motivated by the success of friend Dave Roy’s BJJ “Technique of the Week” newsletter on AOL and the goading of others, Kirik eventually gave the go-ahead and cautiously tiptoed into the land of the Internet.
It was 1998, and Kirik and Gabe had officially launched a website that, today, has been active in the cutthroat business of online MMA coverage since a time when there were almost no other figurative throats to cut.
“[The website] started as a necessity,” says Gabe, who admittedly begged to be in charge of designing the original site, then called Submissionfighting.com, before changing to MMA. tv, and finally, Mixedmartialarts.com, years later. “There were no BJJ schools around, so we built the site to communicate with people interested in learning that stuff. Around then we also found an online forum about self-defense and Kirik said, ‘I wish we had something like this,’ so I built a little forum from a sample code I got out of a book and it kept growing.”
The foundation for what would come to be known as “The UnderGround” had been laid, and many yet-to-be famous fighters began flocking to the forum, making it one of the original social networking sites with an MMA twist.
Meanwhile, a new millennium had begun. Advances had been made in both MMA and computer technology, and a generation of males who’d been understandably too busy playing Nintendo to notice UFC 1 or the explosion of the Internet had begun maturing and becoming acutely aware of both. Chris Palmquist was one of these men, and he soon found his niche within the North American Grappling Association (NAGA), not just as a competitor and occasional referee, but as a webmaster to the NAGA website — all things that would have direct linkage to his future career with Mixedmartialarts.com.
“Kirik has always reffed matches at NAGA for [owner] Kipp Kollar, and I competed in NAGA and reffed too,” Chris says. “We also kept running into each other at the local MMA scene, and so we all started hanging out.” Eventually, this developing friendship would segue into the triad that now makes up Mixedmartialarts.com.
“Kirik mentioned that he had an editor quit the company, and I said that I could help him,” Chris explains. “I started out managing the writers, which naturally led to ad sales and then having a hand in some bigger dealings of the site — and this was all still in addition to my regular job in IT.”
But Chris inadvertently would wind up losing that job after plans to sell MMA.tv to a Las Vegas media company fell through. Before it went belly-up, the business deal had promised full-time employment to Chris — something that had prompted him to quit his job for something that never ended up materializing. As a result, Kirik and Gabe would eventually name Chris the minority partner in the website and The Three Musketeers of online MMA informatics would officially unite.
A GEM UNDERGROUND
Aside from offering a mix of news, easy-to-find listings of countrywide grappling and MMA events, an online gear shop, and a fighter database that serves as the official registry to the Association of Boxing Commissions (Kirik’s admitted “life’s work”), the true gem of Mixedmartialarts.com is its offering of what is perhaps the most unique MMA discussion forum online today — The UnderGround.
Despite the upsurge of MMA popularity, The Under- Ground dwells somewhat quietly just below the surface of the mainstream — a surprising fact, given that more than 50 well-known MMA fighters and personalities are participating members, including co-founder of Zuffa, Lorenzo Fertitta, who reportedly has Mixedmartialarts.com set as his home page. So what brought these celebrities to the “UG,” as it is commonly referred?
“[It happened] because early MMA was a small community and all the fighters and trainers knew each other, so when they’d get online, they’d always go to the same place,” Chris offers. Simply put, a lot of fighters joined the UG before they were considered world famous, not after. But today, as word continues to travel, the UG welcomes a growing number of well-known fighters every year.
“A lot of fighters in this sport love to visit the UG and interact with the fans,” Kirik says before jovially explaining how mixing celebrities with spectators in a forum can prove to be a d
ouble-edged sword at times. “[Some] of the fighter’s wish some of the more frenzied of the UG members would duplicate the closing scenes of [the movies] The Departed, or Reservoir Dogs, either one.”
Of course, Kirik is joking about well-placed pistol head shots to the types of characters who intentionally cause ruckus in a community of like-minded people. Unfortunately, troublemakers — “trolls,” as they are called online — sometimes find the ability to mouth off to a fighter from the safety of their keyboards as being too tempting to resist. But Kirik has a solution for dealing with those who cannot remain civil with the celebrities who post there, even in a disagreement. “I have banned thousands of members who couldn’t post about a fighter as if they were speaking to that fighter’s face,” Kirik says, displaying an honor that is implicit in the site. “I have tried for over a decade to improve a place that the sport’s most passionate devotees, fans and fighters alike, are comfortable with.”
And it is in this collective attitude of Kirik Jenness, Gabe Smallman, and Chris Palmquist, that Mixedmartialarts.com — and The UnderGround in particular — has essentially become not just a special place to fans, but also its own recognizable brand name after having remained a veritable constant throughout the URL identity crisis that once plagued Mixedmartialarts.com in its early days.
And it will be the same continuing effort of these three men that will ensure that the site that has grown into a budding online behemoth will unendingly strive to be synonymous with the principles of passion, respect, and excitement that all dwell within the sport for which it was spawned.
In 1994, Duff McKagan was fi ghting for his life when he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, a condition he developed due to his excessive alcohol consumption during his tenure in Guns ‘N Roses. After spending weeks recovering at Northwest Hospital in Seattle, the bassist returned home desperate to maintain a healthy lifestyle. With the help and guidance of legendary kickboxing champion Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, McKagan accomplished just that, and the only fi ghting he does nowadays is in a ring.
Although McKagan, a weekly fi nancial columnist for Playboy.com, tours quite frequently with his comrades in Velvet Revolver and Loaded, he still makes time to practice his art at F.I.T. in Sherman Oaks, Calif. All he has to watch out for are sucker punches from 60-year-old men.
What was your initial introduction into training mixed martial arts?
Somebody introduced me to Benny “The Jet” [Urquidez], and he sort of took me on as a project. He treated me as a new student and no different. [He] tore me down and built me up slowly. The fi rst year with him I was doing two-a-days with him, and it changed my whole way of thinking. Within 6 months, I was able to start getting into the ring [and] fi ghting guys who were getting ready for fi ghts, [like] pro fi ghters. I became a sparring partner, and I’d get my ass kicked. But I learned my defense and not to be afraid in the ring, and to deal with my emotions and opponents in the ring. Some guy might have gotten into a fi ght with his wife or is a thug from a gang, so you’re dealing with their emotions and their mind-set.
Is there anyone notable that you’ve sparred with?
I was able to fi ght Peter Cunningham. I remember the fi rst time I sparred with Petey. We got done in three rounds, and Pete is kinda cocky. He said, “You tell your friends that you were in the ring with Peter Cunningham and you lasted three rounds.” I didn’t. But I’ll tell you now (laughs).
Do you still spar?
Yeah. I like it a lot, maybe too much because of my injuries. I [feel like] a 15-year-old kid. I don’t think that’ll ever change, but I learned to take it easy a little bit. Hey, a 60-year-old man broke my nose last year. Crushed it. He’s a really good fi ghter, obviously.
Damn, Duff. How could you let that happen?
It was a lucky punch. No, the guy was very good. But compared to him, I’m a young whippersnapper. I just turned 45, but I don’t remember 10 years of my life. Whenever I have a birthday, it confuses my body. I turned 45 and I was like, “Oh, shit. My dad was 45. I’m going into those years!”
At least you’ll feel 10 years younger when you get the senior citizen discount. Have you thought about competing professionally?
No. I don’t do it because I got to pay the rent, and that’s the difference between a guy like me and a guy who does it for a living. That’s a whole other level. I can compete with them, but there is just that little bit of a difference when they do it for a living. They’ve got to win that fi ght, or if they lose too many fi ghts they’re not gonna get any more fi ghts or put food on the table. It’s a brutal way to make a living, for sure.
Since you tour all over the globe, have you ever had to defend yourself at a concert?
I was in Australia, and some kid – I call everybody a kid. If you’re a 6-year-old, I’ll call you a kid. If you can knock me out at 60 years old, you’re a kid. But a guy jumps on me out of nowhere. I was back behind a venue walking into a gig, and some dude jumped off a high stone barrier, jumped onto my back, and all I felt was a threat. I turned, elbowed him to the nose, and knocked him out. It was just instantaneous [from] the training I’ve done. But I don’t really like talking about this stuff because you’ll have some wiseass be like, “Oh, yeah? Then do it to me, then.”
Army Combatives turns soldiers into fighters on the battlefield and in the cage.
When Tim Kennedy found out he’d be making his Octagon debut against jiu-jitsu ace Roger Gracie, he asked himself who was best suited to help him get ready. Without question, his longtime coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn would train and corner him at UFC 162, giving him advice for which they’re so renowned. His friend Nick Palmisciano from Ranger Up and his wife would be providing moral support. But who would guide him when he wasn’t in Albuquerque, NM, getting in rounds? Who should help him at home in Austin, TX, when he began the slog toward peak fight condition?
Should he choose a striking guru so that he could KO the Brazilian before they hit the mat? Should he fly in a Division-I wrestler so his sprawl might be invincible? Should he just call Steven Seagal? Many of his eventual picks were what you’d expect, but he also chose one you might not—Army combatives instructor Kristopher Perkins, who’d never before been a part of a UFC fight camp.
Just about everyone knows Kennedy is a soldier first and foremost—an Army Ranger, Green Beret, and sniper. As an MMA fighter, he’s aligned himself closely with Jackson and Winkeljohn’s squad. Perhaps that’s why Perkins was surprised to get an invitation from Kennedy, although it made sense once his friend and colleague explained the decision.
“In Army combatives, our soldiers’ hand-to-hand incidents were happening inside small rooms,” says Perkins. “This requires the soldier to know how to take someone down where a wall is involved in the scenario. This is why our wall takedowns have advanced. We have been evaluating and training this portion of the fight for a long time. It naturally crosses into MMA takedowns against the cage, and Tim wanted to utilize that idea.”
Perkins is an expert in the hand-to-hand combat taught in modern combatives, which was founded in 2001 by Army sergeant Matt Larsen. The combatives school Larsen founded at Fort Benning, Ga., swapped old-school Judo and karate techniques for modern arts that include jiu-jitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai and boxing. It provided a blueprint for stripping away ineffective fighting tools for ones who work in the field.
Perkins teaches takedowns, but they’re not the variety done by guys sporting mohawks and Hayabusa shorts. When his soldiers put an opponent on the ground, they’re often in fatigues, a Kevlar vest, and a helmet. They might have an M-4 assault rifle slung over their shoulder. And they’re fighting for their lives.
When not drilling in close-quarters combat, Perkins’ students are training in the cage at a huge facility in Fort Hood, TX. For the past three years, his combatives team has won the All-Army Combatives Tournament, which combines submission wrestling, Pancrase-style fighting, and MMA.
“If you teach a guy how to be an MMA fighter, even if he’s just mediocre, he’s going to destroy people in combat,” says Perkins. “He’s mentally tougher, he’s physically fit, and if it goes to a hand-to-hand fight, he’s just so advanced.”
Graduates of the combatives school carry accolades far from mediocre. Kennedy won the Combatives Tournament three times and is a Silver Star recipient. Army Ranger Colton Smith won The Ultimate Fighter 16. Watching opponents try in vain to escape Smith’s takedowns on the reality show, it’s easy to see why Kennedy requested Perkins to acclimate himself to the type of pressure that Gracie could bring.
“I attribute quite a bit of my success in MMA to the Army combatives program,” Smith says.
If you watched UFC 162, you know Kennedy didn’t exactly dominate the grappling savant in his native territory. But he certainly wasn’t chaff in the tank, and he defended takedowns while landing his own and scoring points on the mat. It was far from a barnburner, but it did get him his first UFC win.
Kennedy and Smith, of course, are finished products. Years before the soldiers ever got their hands raised in the Octagon, however, they had to triumph over their own nervous systems. As soldiers, they trained for the field by turning fear into action, so that when a threat came around the corner, they would never be unprepared.
While Perkins might be a good guy to know when you’re looking to stay upright or ground someone, his main job is to bridge the gap between those responses.
Back in the day, the Army’s idea of hand-to-hand combat instruction was a two-hour block where you tossed a buddy over your back with a judo throw. As Perkins remembers, “That was it. God go with you.”
While serving as a drill sergeant at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, Perkins found combatives. A former wrestler who once tried to walk on to Oklahoma State University’s team, he understood the necessity of practical ground fighting. By 2006, he was working out in a cage that the program called “The Laboratory.”
Then, he went to Iraq, where he ran into “a lot of bad situations.”
“I found that I started reacting just like I did in the cage,” Perkins says. “When you get blown up by an IED, it feels like when you almost get knocked out. You know if this guy hits you one more time, the next thing you’re going to see is the fight doc. So you start reacting. I have to achieve the clinch, I have to fight back, I have to continue.”
He tried to take that mindset home when he was enlisted in 2007 to run a combatives training program at Fort Hood. The Army invested $3 million in converting an old basketball court into a modern facility with MMA equipment and a “kill room” for scenario training. The program was divided into four levels that started with basic fighting techniques and expanded to tactical applications, which address how to subdue opponents or get back to a gun.
“If we became an MMA gym, the Army was only going to keep us around about 18 months,” says Perkins, who became a government services employee when he retired from active duty in 2010. “We still have to keep pushing the tactical training, and that’s how the place stays in business.”
Soldiers in levels three and four train to become certified instructors, but they get an added twist: a fight every Friday. They also fight in full gear and practice clearing the kill room.
“When they get into the cage for their first sparring, the guys are tagging them up,” Perkins says. “They keep backing up, they keep getting tagged. But if they close the gap or counterpunch, they start learning that the way to make this stop is to fight back. Then we notice that they become very mentally resilient, and also physically resistant.”
Perkins might take students on a five-mile run and interrupt them midway to fight. He says his goal is not only to physically prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat, but hone their instincts so they make the right choices under duress.
“Let’s say you’re driving down the street, and someone starts shooting at you from the stores on the side of the street,” he says. “The only way to survive that is to turn and fight into it. You don’t have a lot of time to think, ‘I have option A, run and get shot at.’ You’re going to do what’s instinctual. That’s why we train and train.”
There’s apparently another side effect of that preparation. It turns soldiers into great MMA fighters.
“I used to take guys to pro/am fights in a casino,” says Perkins. “We’d end up taking six guys in a night and just crush everybody. It got to the point where we’d have to travel out of state because people were like, ‘It’s not fair to fight you guys. You train all the time.’”
With soldiers still deploying to Afghanistan and hot spots around the world, combatives remain an essential part of the military’s training. Domestically, however, the program is fighting a more insidious battle. Budget cutbacks, which came earlier this year as the result of the government’s sequester, have eliminated much of the funding for competitions such as the All-Army Combatives Tournament. That’s prompted Perkins to take his team on the civilian circuit.
“We still have to convince the Army that fighting is something that soldiers should be doing,” says the coach, who’s contract with the government expires this month.
Command Sergeant Major Dan O’Brien, the senior enlisted advisor for combatives at Fort Hood, says the program isn’t being pulled any time soon. But with fewer resources to go around, soldiers won’t be able to test their skills against the best of the best when it requires the military to ship them to competitions.
“When money is tight in the military, then it’s up to an installation to conduct tournaments,” he says. “There are other priorities in the military right now, which makes it hard to send everybody to one central location. I personally feel that the program is only as good as the people who support it, and as a senior leader, I support the program. Combatives runs very strong in my unit. But I can’t speak for all the other units across the Army.”
Like Kennedy, Smith considers himself a soldier first and fighter second. It still irks him to hear other fighters talk about going to war in the cage. Having seen what war actually looks like, he makes a point to pay his respects to the people he considers to be the purest warriors, because no MMA camp will ever truly compare to preparing for battle.
“The intestinal fortitude you get in the combatives program—it’s for possible life-or-death situations,” he says. “I’m sorry, but the cage, it’s not life or death. Obviously, people can pass away, but chances are, worst-case scenario is that you’re going to be single-legging Herb Dean in the cage. What we do in the cage is easy. What soldiers do overseas, that’s hard.”
Four decades after the classic novel, Stockton continues to instill hope and pride in the ring.
Just where is the legendary fighting town known as Fat City? Stockton, California, is only a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, but is, in many senses, worlds away. It isn’t defined by technology or tourism as much as it is by agriculture and, to an extent, fighting. For generations, it has been a hub of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the major produce regions in the United States.
In recent years, Stockton has mostly been known for its problems: violence, drugs, and empty or abandoned homes. In 2011, Forbes ranked Stockton the worst U.S. city to live in, citing foreclosures, unemployment, and crime. The city moved to the 11th position in 2012, but according to most reports, it’s not a place you want to be. It’s a place you should leave.
Stockton is also the setting of Fat City, perhaps the greatest boxing novel written in American literature. The title of the 1969 novel is ironic—it means that you’ll reach for the good life but never achieve it. Author Leonard Gardner, who grew up there, perfectly captured the rogue’s gallery of fighting: the strivers and the marginal characters who populate gyms and corners. Four decades after the novel and John Huston film adaptation, fighting is still a point of pride for Stockton, whether it’s the exploits of hometown MMA stars Nick and Nate Diaz or the boxers who compete in local gymnasiums and clubs.
It’s easy to see that Stockton is having tough times. The downtown is largely quiet in mid-summer, although a few people make their way into bars and businesses. Storefronts are vacant. But the downtown streets only tell part of the story.
Legendary boxer Alvaro “Yaqui” Lopez’s Stockton gym has thick bars on the windows and a fenced-in parking lot. Classic boxing photos line the walls, including one of Lopez smiling with Muhammad Ali. Younger boxers hit speed bags. The salty smell of sweat lingers, and air conditioning is a daydream. Lopez’s old cornerman, 88-year-old Hank Pericle, watches the action from a chair near the ring.
Lopez, a boxing Hall of Famer, was born in Mexico and later raised in Stockton. When his legendary career ended, he worked as a garbage man in Stockton. Boxing helped him purchase a home in town for his mother but didn’t give him financial security, so he went back to work. Two discs in his spine dissolved after years on the job, and he looked for ways to give back to the city that built him into a boxer. He settled on a downtown gym. It wasn’t just meant to be a place where people came to learn to fight. It was also meant to build a community.
“My goal is to help youngsters go straight,” says Lopez, who is still agile and strong despite the battles. “There are plenty of people in this town who go to the wrong places and do bad stuff. If I save even one or two people than I’m more than happy.”
Yaqui Lopez’s Fat City Boxing teaches that salvation comes from discipline rather than championships. Gritty optimism and hard work reign. Many of his boxers had troubles before they came here for a second chance. The gym has become a second home.
If they don’t have enough money to pay the monthly dues ($65 if you are older than 13 and $45 if you are younger) Lopez will sometimes cover them. The boxers see part of their story in Lopez’s journey—a glimmer of hope, a shot at the American dream, a chance to make something of themselves.
One of Lopez’s boxers is 26-year-old Abel Michael Carreon. Carreon’s brother was killed several blocks from the gym in a shooting. Carreon called Lopez repeatedly years ago and asked him to teach him to box. Lopez finally agreed.
When he first trained with Lopez, Carreon stood in front of a heavy bag and threw random punches. Lopez taught him to move properly, to stand on his toes, and punch efficiently. The workouts quickly got harder and more rewarding. In his two-plus year pursuit of boxing, Carreon sees a way to grow and avoid the temptations of the street. “When my brother passed away, I was out in the streets and it slowed me down,” he says. “Before I trained with Yaqui, I was trying to build a routine. He was the one who told me ‘let’s do this.’ Now, I try to talk to kids and get them to come down here and see if they might have talent. This place keeps me focused instead of being out there chilling and drinking and smoking. I feel like I’m doing a lot better. When I got here, I thought it would just be throwing my fists, but this is a thinking game.”
Ask someone from Stockton about their home and you’ll hear nothing but pride. It’s what makes Nick Diaz wear Stockton sweatshirts at UFC press conferences and shout “Stockton” in the cage. Surveys can’t measure heart, which is what defines a fighter or a city. Even after his successful boxing career, Lopez didn’t leave Stockton. Heart is why Lopez is revered here for going 14 rounds with light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad in 1980 before a TKO stopped the fight. It wasn’t about what he wore around his waist. His spirit is what mattered.
Lopez says his gym is all about honoring that spirit and instilling it in younger fighters who might be tempted with crime or gangs. He’s heard the bad things about his hometown but insists he can find something greater by creating a makeshift family. He’s even offered his services to MMA fighters. They come here to work on hand speed, to learn to move with punches, and spar with boxers. Lopez, however, hasn’t become a fan of mixed martial arts. “I don’t like it because people are knocked down and they are still kicking!” he says, laughing.
He teaches his fighters the old ways: early roadwork; hard and frequent sparring; nimble counter punches that find elusive openings. Jose Chavez, 23 years old, has embraced his methods. The 1-1 amateur decided to start boxing again after high school. He now wakes up in the morning to do his road work and spends hours in the gym in the hopes of becoming a professional boxer. “When you are with Yaqui you can just feel his energy and experience, “ Chavez says, as sweat pours off his forehead. “He’s firm and he is really a perfectionist. He doesn’t want you to try to hit hard with improper technique. The power and the speed come later.”
The novel Fat City ends on a sour note. The aging veteran Tully wins a fight but realizes that his career—which never really took off—is an afterthought. The green, young boxer Munger starts his professional boxing career, but his path is uncertain. There’s a slight implication that he needs to leave Stockton behind to avoid becoming a jaded former fighter imprisoned by memories of the ring.
Lopez doesn’t ever plan to leave. In some senses, his gym offers a hopeful epilogue to the novel. He doesn’t want to abandon his city because of the challenges. He wants to work to make it better. His mission is to offer people a sense of purpose no matter what people say about Stockton.
Lopez shares a story to illustrate the importance of his work. Two of his young boxers knew each other from the streets. Their beef continued when they got to the gym. Lopez told the boys—both about 150 pounds—that they had to spar, but they initially resisted. “They got into the ring and they wanted to kill each other, but now they are good friends,” Lopez says. “Before that, they hated each other.”
With that, Lopez returns to the gym. There are plenty of mitts to hold.
Zoltan Bathory is a changed man. The judo-throwing guitarist of Five Finger Death Punch typically lugs around mats with him whenever the metal band hits the road so he can practice jiu-jitsu techniques. Now, as the gold-selling quintet promotes their new studio album American Capitalist on the headlining trek of the Share the Welt Tour, he has ditched the mats and is visiting dojos at various tour stops.
“Almost every bigger city has some kind of academy, and thank God I know enough people to hook me up,” says Bathory. “I get into town at noon and check out the venue, and then I go to a gym and roll in the afternoon. After that, I come back and do the band meet-and-greets and interviews.”
The metal juggernaut typically trains two or three times a week when he travels, but that’s assuming the tour bus doesn’t arrive to town late and that there is a reputable jiu-jitsu gym close by. Even so, Bathory can work on his ground game whenever he wants because he is traveling with his faithful companion Bubba—the ultimate grappling dummy that’s used by jiu-jitsu practitioners to perfect their art.
“It’s a life-sized dummy,” the guitarist says. “It’s 140 pounds, and I put a gi on it, so when people roll by, everybody gets scared. They’re like, ‘Who the fuck is sitting there?’ And it’s a dummy. It’s pretty fucking funny. So that’s Bubba…Bubba Shrimp.”
While scaring people with a disguised grappling dummy is funny business, Bathory is extremely serious about BJJ. The Hungarian-born musician—who currently resides in Las Vegas—has been training in the submission discipline for the past four years and previously expressed to FIGHT! (May 2009) that he wanted to compete in a future tournament.
As the five-piece began recording American Capitalist late last year, he decided to accomplish that goal. The guitarist affiliated himself with the Gracie Humaita Las Vegas Competition Team and trained extensively under black belts Mica Cipili and Don Charley.
On Jan. 29, 2010, Bathory—as a second stripe white belt—stepped onto the mats and made his tournament debut at the Abu Dhabi Pro World Trials in the heavyweight blue belt division. Although butterflies would have been expected, the metal-head was cool under pressure.
“It’s the same to me as when I go on stage. I don’t get nervous whatsoever. I actually get really calm, and the more people that are there, the better it is for me,” he says. “I’m a performing artist, so it also gives me some confidence. I’m playing shows for thousands and thousands of people every day, so that whole adrenaline rush affects me in a different way. It’s not a jittery thing. I have an excitement like, ‘Fuck yes!’ I just like to fight.”
Bathory, who holds a judo black belt and is the co-owner of the MMA clothing line Alpha Dog Combat Gear, made the most out of his jiu-jitsu debut and won a silver medal at the Abu Dhabi Pro Trials in Las Vegas.
The guitarist, however, wasn’t done. He took home a silver medal at NAGA in the white belt heavyweight division, won a bronze medal at the 20th Grappler’s Quest West Championships in the blue belt heavyweight division, and earned his blue belt along the way.
While proud of his accomplishments, Bathory still has his eyes on the ultimate prize. “I fucking love it, so I’m going for the gold,” he says. “Next year, I am going for the gold. World Champion needs to be on my résumé.”
He already has gold-selling music artist on his résumé, as do the rest of the members of Five Finger Death Punch.
Formed in 2005, Five Finger Death Punch spent their formative years building their reputation and crafting their debut album The Way Of The Fist. By the time it dropped in July 2007, the collective was tapped as an opening act on Korn’s road festival The Family Values Tour. They were also given a slot on the Jagermeister Stage at the Rockstar Mayhem Festival the following year.
When the five-piece’s sophomore album War Is The Answer dropped in September 2009, it grabbed commercial metal listeners while maintaining their loyal underground following. Five Finger Death Punch (who, along with Bathory, is comprised of vocalist Ivan Moody, guitarist Jason Hook, bassist Chris Kael, and drummer Jeremy Spencer) would ultimately go on to headline the Rockstar Mayhem Festival in 2011 and sell out shows wherever they played. In addition, both of their records turned gold by moving more than 500,000 units—a feat rarely accomplished by a metal band in today’s musical landscape.
Now the quintet returns with American Capitalist, their third studio endeavor, and it appears as if it’s only a matter of time before it turns gold. It debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 top albums chart by moving over 91,000 units in its opening week, giving the group its highest showing ever.
According to Bathory, it’s a testament to the fans. “We have sort of an underlying attitude and message that resonates with a lot of people. It’s about a general attitude of life that you’re an achiever. You don’t give up on shit,” he says. “This band has been successful because every single member of this band is a hardcore, driven person who will not give up, and that attitude goes into the music. From the lyrics and the music, to the way we talk and the way we do interviews, people can feel that.”
Five Finger Death Punch is a group of warriors, and if Bathory has his way, his grappling dummy Bubba may be joining them on stage for the long haul. “Actually, I think he’s gonna be the sixth member of the band,” Bathory says with a chuckle. “We’re gonna have to give him an instrument.”
Zoltan Bathory has earned silver and bronze medals in jiu-jitsu tournaments, and along with his Five Finger Death Punch band mates, he already has two gold records as well.
The Way Of The Fist (2007)
The five-piece’s debut offering contained a heavy onslaught of intense groove metal rhythms and tight fretplay with heart-pounding bass backdrops. Vocalist Ivan Moody displayed his wide vocal prowess, especially on tracks such as “The Bleeding,” “White Knuckles,” and “Death Before Dishonor, as he alternated between singing emotional confessions and screaming his frustration.
War Is The Answer (2009)
The group strengthened its grip on the metal culture and achieved mainstream rock notoriety with their crossover sophomore set. While radio-friendly records “Hard To See” and “Far From Home” grabbed commercial heads, the collective maintained its thunderous core as showcased on “Bulletproof” and “No One Gets Left Behind.” There’s also a cover of “Bad Company.”
American Capitalist (2011)
Looking to further establish their metal dominance, the quintet amped up their destructive resonance on their third studio album. Arguably their hardest, most polished gem to date, American Capitalist is a cutthroat effort about standing up for yourself and giving the finger to the naysayers. That’s best illustrated on “Under And Over It,” “The Pride,” and “Remember Everything.”
Swayze Valentine sits by the cage door as two amateur fighters throw punches. The bout progresses before a fighter with what appears to be a broken nose submits to a rear naked choke; when he stands and the oxygen comes back to his brain his nose releases a geyser of blood. Valentine runs into the cage, ice pack in hand, to check on him.
She will repeat this drill several times during the Tuff-N-Uff Memorial Day event in Las Vegas. There are multiple knockouts in this casino equestrian center on Sunday night and a fair amount of blood. Valentine has been here before, including the time she mended a cut above an eyelid so deep that an entire epinephrine swab fit in the wound. She isn’t fazed by the injuries. “This is a fighter’s livelihood and we want them to provide for their families,” she says. “We try to give them one more round.”
During a fight, the cutman is the only person who provides a moment of compassion. There is intimacy in a fight, but it is the intimacy of violence: the arm around the neck, the punch that snaps the head out of place, the commingled blood and sweat. The coach is there to counsel and motivate, detect flaws in strategy and dissect the other fighter’s weaknesses. The cutman mends wounds, mops blood with a towel and holds an ice pack on swelling. There’s a paradoxical nature to their work. While the doctor works to heal and mend, a successful cutman works to ensure a fighter can confront another three to five minutes of violence and uncertainty.
In the sometimes-atavistic world of the cage, Valentine is one of the few friendly faces. After years of hard work, the 27-year-old mother of two is establishing herself as a cageside presence. UFC cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran has dubbed her “The Queen Of Cuts.” She is finally getting paid for better gigs. But her seat at cage side – and the personal support from Stitch this evening in Vegas – wasn’t guaranteed. She’s still struggling to achieve her dream of becoming the first female cutwoman in the UFC. “This is a huge burden for my family,” Valentine says. “I am living on bare minimum to hopefully achieve this dream. We’re all chasing dreams. Some of us make it and some of us don’t.”
Finding your way into the trade is in some ways more challenging than climbing the ladder in the sport, even if it doesn’t pose any physical challenges. Any MMA gym will accept membership and teach an arm bar; Darwinian logic ensures that the best, most committed athletes will rise. Becoming a cutman requires a mentor, and there aren’t many of them. True, there are costly workshops that claim to teach you the tricks. But an apprenticeship where you truly learn the craft is like finding a shaman to instruct you on a hidden spiritual path. Valentine’s search for a mentor was even more difficult because of her gender. “When I started there was no future for a cutwoman in fighting,” Valentine says. “Learning this art isn’t just about cuts or swelling. It’s a package deal and it takes a journey.”
Valentine didn’t always want to work in MMA. In her early 20s, she worked as an animal specialist at a Petco in Anchorage, Alaska. She removed dead fish from tanks and was rebuffed in her multiple attempts to get a managerial position. “I believed I was one of the best workers in there,” she says. “At one point, I sat down with my manager and asked ‘what’s wrong?’ and he couldn’t give me an answer.” She realized that she had to find another path.
Like many who join the fighting family, she was wooed the first time she watched amateur MMA in person. Her first fight was an event put on by Alaska Fighting Championship in 2006. “I’d always been interested and would watch things on television. But the first time I went to an event, that’s really what captured me,” she says. “The atmosphere was incredible. It’s just one of the most honest and true sports out there. But I didn’t see any opportunities because I didn’t want to fight.”
She called a local promoter and asked if there was any way to help. She was told there was an opportunity —as a ring girl. She spent an evening parading around in a black string bikini top and booty shorts. “It was next to almost nothing,” Valentine says, laughing. She had nothing against the job. But she didn’t want to be a prop. She saw the coaches wrapping the hands of fighters that weekend and it caught her attention. “There seemed to be no greater honor than to take care of a fighter’s hands, which are registered weapons,” she says. “That’s when I started doing my research.”
Valentine worked for free. She went into schools and wrapped fighters’ hands for sparring. She wrapped the hands of relatives and friends. In order for her to pursue her dream she knew she needed to devote all of her attention to the craft. A divorce left her broke, however, and forced her and her sons to move in with her parents. Her vocational choice made things tougher. An apprentice cutman is paid small honorariums, if at all. Like fighters, the payoff comes when they make it big.
She broadened her net and started to work shows in Las Vegas and elsewhere. She called gyms and offered to work for free. At a charity fight in Vegas in 2011 she met cutman Adrian Rosenbusch, who was mentored by Stitch. Rosenbusch noticed something special about his future protégé—an emotional maturity and attention to the smallest details.
“One of the things that impressed me about Swayze is that she was willing to spend her own money just to be here,” says Rosenbusch. “From the beginning, she was very professional and very hungry. I was wary because I’ve had a lot of people approach me to do this, but very few can. It takes a very special person. There are some intangible qualities.
The art of wrapping is the art of applying pressure. Too much and a fighter’s hands constrict. Too little and bones break. A fighter’s hands may bludgeon but are treated with the same care as china. With the proliferation of fighting styles, wrapping has become even more of an art. Each fighter might want their wraps customized for their fighting style. A grappler, for instance, might want slightly less pressure to allow them to use their hands for takedowns and clinching.
Before she wraps a hand, Valentine massages the hands. Then, she reinforces the wrist – an area that needs extra care because it is jarred when punching. She weaves the gauze around, expertly looping between the fingers. She later adds just the right amount of tape. When she is finished the wrap feels as solid as a cast yet it’s strangely pliable, almost an extension of your skin. “I got the repetition down pretty quick,” she says. “But the biggest thing was definitely pressure. It’s a true art to find the pressure. You don’t want their hands to fall asleep.”
“You always have to look at someone’s intentions,” Rosenbusch says. “There are humbling beginnings. Can you get excited about bringing someone a drink of water? You have to want to be here for the right reasons and Swayze does.”
The wrapping of hands is the symbolic moment when a fighter puts aside the world to attend to the difficult task ahead. Few have mastered the art, which is why you see the same faces backstage and during round breaks. If Valentine continues on her path, she could become one of the masters, one that elite fighters call on to wrap their hands and mend their wounds.
At the end of the fight card Valentine packs her kit: gauze, enswell and swabs. It’s been a long day. She’ll return to Washington State tomorrow. When she gets back, her sons will probably be asleep. They don’t know about the broken faces their mother fixes. It’s still a fun game to them, albeit one with fists. “I tell them Mommy is going to go away to take care of the fighters. And they say, ‘Are you going to go take care of the fighters when they play knuckles?’”
She’ll kiss them both and get some sleep. The next day they won’t talk much about the fights. She’ll soon be flying somewhere else, and for time being, they are happy to have her home.
Here’s what an expert cutman carries:
Gloves: Protects against blood and pathogens. Vaseline: Greases a figher’s face and controls bleeding. Swabs, dipped in epinephrine: Stops bleeding. Iced Enswell: Controls swelling. Towel: Cleans/dries a fighter before treatment.