MMA Life

MMA Life

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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.

Lopez’s Fat City Boxing club is a non-profit. Please visit yaquilopezsfatcityboxing.com to learn more or friend the gym on Facebook.

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Anything can happen in a fi ght. Once the match up has been confi rmed, the odds-makers set the lines, the so-called experts make their predictions, and everyone else weighs in – from informal water cooler talk to published articles and blogs. But the bout’s outcome is ultimately decided in the cage. Flesh and bone. Strength and skill. Heart and desire. That’s why fi ghts – and all sporting contests, for that matter – actually take place rather than just get bandied about ad nauseam on chalkboards, strategy schematics, and computer screens. When the fur begins to fl y, anything can happen.

Take the Mark Kerr/Kazuyuki Fujita bout at the 2000 PRIDE Grand Prix. The consensus was that the “Smashing Machine” would pulverize “Ol’ Ironhead.” Apparently, the Japanese wrestler didn’t subscribe to that theory and earned a hard fought decision victory. And then there’s the fi rst Matt Serra/Georges St. Pierre bout. The Sin City handicappers had “The Terror” as a 7-1 dog. Turns out, GSP’s chin was the Yorkie and Matt’s fi sts were the Pit Bulls; Serra won by TKO in the very fi rst round. And not too long ago there was the fi ght between everyone’s favorite Howdy Doody-on-steroids-look-alike Forrest Griffi n and the #2 pound-for-pound best MMA fi ghter in the friggin’ world: Mauricio Rua. A ridiculous underdog, few people on the planet gave the inaugural TUF winner a chance. Lo and behold, Forrest didn’t just beat Shogun, he absolutely dominated him for three solid rounds before submitting him via rear naked choke. And if that stunning upset doesn’t convince you that the impossible is most certainly possible, take a time machine back to February 11, 1990 where an unheralded heavyweight by the name of James “Buster” Douglas knocked out the most ferocious boxer the world has ever known, none other than “Iron” Mike Tyson. The biggest upset in the history of organized pugilism, Tyson was listed by The Mirage’s sports book as a 42-1 favorite.

However, stellar upsets aren’t just limited to the ring and the cage. In 1980, a group of amateur collegiate hockey players beat a seasoned, professional Russian squad in the gold medal match at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid; the aptly named “Miracle On Ice.” And then there’s the Joe Namath-led New York Jets trumping the highly favored Baltimore Colts in 1969’s Superbowl III. Yet another Olympic vision quest with a tearjerker ending came at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, where the world’s toughest teddy bear, American wrestler Rulon Gardner, defeated the Kremlin’s Alexander Karelin to capture the gold medal. Not only was the “Russian Bear” carrying a 13-year unblemished record at the time of their bout, he hadn’t given up a single point during the last six!

It’s stories like these that I keep in the back of mind as I train for my upcoming fi ght. The odds are defi nitely stacked against me – age, experience, and skill will all be in my opponent’s favor, no matter who they match me up with – unless, of course, I wind up fi ghting Clay Aiken or Cindy Brady. It all boils down to the simple fact that anything can happen in a fi ght. Be that as it may, I am still doing everything I can to tilt the balance of power in my favor. I fi gure at this late stage of my athletic life, if there ever was such a thing, and factoring in the whole “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” scenario, there is simply no way I will beat anyone using conventional training methods. So, I’ve been going off the reservation to fi ll in the gaping holes of my fi ght game. Granted, some of the training routines you are about to read are as far from the norm as a super model with a hairy back and a long weenie but, hey, give me a break, I have to try something!

TAMESHIGIRI

This worked out pretty well for the samurai so I thought I’d give it a shot. The Japanese art of test cutting with katanas (samurai swords), tameshigiri is ideal for building upper body strength, core strength, hand-eye coordination, balance and, if that’s not enough, it’s helped me connect even further with the history, tradition and spirituality of martial arts. It also might come in handy one day if I’m ever attacked by fresh produce at a farmer’s market and I happen to be armed with a ginsu! Although I have swung a sword or two in my day, it had been a long time since I engaged in any formal practice. So I called my friend Jason Moore, Operations Manager at Swords of Might (www.SwordsOfMight. com), “Your complete swords store.” Bottom line, when it comes to swords and edged weapons, if they don’t sell it, you don’t need it! Jason was kind enough to set me up with a hardy blade, a Paul Chen Practical Elite katana, to help get me back into the swing of things (pun intended). Now, while I certainly don’t claim to be the next Toshiro Mifune, and my cutting strokes are far from silky smooth, I’m reasonably certain Uma Thurman wouldn’t be too much trouble to dispatch. At worst, I know I could slice off Quentin Tarantino’s head. All kidding aside, as a training method for unarmed combat, using the sword has greatly improved my power, upper body rotation, and focus. Now if only they’d let me bring that sword into the cage!

CATCH THE PIG

It goes without saying that Sly Stallone looked like a tweeker in the midst of a meth meltdown when his lovable little trainer, Mickey, had him chasing those chickens in Rocky II. However, I did a little digging and discovered this is actually a legit technique for improving reactionary speed and odd-angle directional change. It certainly worked for Rocky; Apollo Creed went down for the count. Ahh, but he probably studied the script. Chances are my opponent won’t give two shits how my pre-fi ght screenplay reads. I fi gured if chickens were the “it” training tools of the late ‘70s, there had to be a better way to go in 2008. Months of research led me to a small village in the interior of southern Mexico. There I would learn to chase…drum-roll please… guinea pigs. I know, I know, it sounds as if I took one too many jabs (or roundhouse kicks) to the noggin. But until you’ve actually tried chasing those furry little varmints around, don’t poo-poo the idea. It’s not that they’re extremely fast creatures, or abnormally shifty, or overfl owing with endurance, but they have the ability to send out subliminal messages, getting you to think they’re going one way when they’re actually going another. And unless you counter their initial move immediately, too bad, so sad, bye-bye. It took me close to fi ve hours before I fi – nally was able to grasp the proper footwork to be profi cient. But considering that Rocky was able to catch chickens after only a couple scenes, the way I see it the score reads: domesticated rodents 1, poultry 0.

CHINNING WITH A GOLF BALL

First thing trainers will tell you, and this goes for pros and newbies alike: “Hands up, chin down.” Well, not being accustomed to formal hand-to-hand combat, when I fi rst started training my chin was anywhere but down. Hell, during some sparring sessions, if I gift-wrapped my jaw and stuck it on a silver platter it wouldn’t have been offered up any more obviously. But after eating a few stiff rights and lefts – along with a fl ying knee and a couple of kicks – I got the message. But just to make certain that point was driven home, I began practicing hitting the bag and shadow boxing with a golf ball tucked beneath my chin. If the ball dropped, I was screwing up. Talk about an odd, unnatural sensation. It made me feel like I had a nasty case of whiplash but was too cheap to spring for the neck brace. However, any exercise that’s designed to keep my head from
being knocked onto my back – or worse – I’m all for it.

JELL-O WRESTLING

I didn’t wrestle in high school. All due respect to those that did, but the male-on-male contact just didn’t do it for me. I realize it’s a macho athletic pursuit, but what can I say? I’m just not wired to enjoy rolling around on a mat with muscular, sweaty dudes. However, I know I’m going to need some rudimentary wrestling skills if I hope to prevail in my cage match. Naturally, I wanted to receive that training on my terms. My search led me to the doors of the CCTTJWA – the Collegiate Co- Ed Tag-Team Jell-O Wrestling Association. Comprised of three dozen fraternity brothers and sorority sisters from a smattering of Western universities, when these Greeks get together to party, togas and oil are swapped out for bathing suits and fruit-fl avored gelatin. It took a while for me to get my footing (once again, pun intended) in the sport, as some of the maneuvers are a lot more tricky than they appear, but by the end of the day I had a pretty fi rm grasp on ten solid techniques, most of which should translate well to the cage. Now, if only my upcoming opponent was a 5’5”, 120-pound brunette with big boobs and a perfect ass like the chicks I spent the day battling amid gallons of translucent raspberry dessert, I’d have it licked!

SNORKEL TRAINING

Wanderlei Silva uses snorkel training to vastly improve his cardiovascular endurance. I watched a little bit of his routine on the Internet. Fuck that noise! Way too hardcore for me. Instead, I found a training regimen that’s similar in spirit but ultimately more satisfying. While it still involves a snorkel and the taping of your nostrils, it also involves a house of ill repute. Now, it doesn’t necessarily have to involve a pay-for-play sex joint, but when I walked into my girlfriend’s bedroom with the snorkel in my mouth and my nose taped shut, my chick completely freaked! She even pulled a gun from beneath the bed and threatened to shoot unless I about-faced and scrammed. All dressed up with no one to plough, I tried my luck at the fi rst singles bar I came to but the snorkel proved to be one helluva cock-blocker. Not wanting to risk a third strike, I decided to use my paltry but workable FIGHT! Magazine expense account to get the job done. So I dashed out to Pahrump, picked a semi-pretty from the Moonlight Bunny Ranch’s line-up, and put my technique to the test. I’d give you all the details of the subsequent exercise but a gentleman never talks. Just use your imagination. I know I did!

RANGE TIME

Without trying to sound like a complete egomaniacal asshole, I’m extremely profi cient with fi rearms. Pistols, rifl es, shotguns, submachine guns; put a gun in my hand and chances are I can shoot the hell out of it. So when one of my trainers suggested I increase my usual weekly range sessions, I thought he was a bit daft. How the heck could coring human silhouette targets at distances of seven yards to a thousand yards possibly help me inside the Octagon? The answer: target acquisition. By practicing bringing my sights to bear on shooting targets, my mind and body would subconsciously be trained, as well. It would sharpen my focus, creating a mental tunnel vision of sorts, so that when it’s time to fi ght, I see only my opponent and nothing else. Besides, when it comes to smuggling, swords are rather diffi cult to conceal. But a gun? Much, much easier. Now, if only I knew where to fi nd a miniature M-60 that’ll fi t inside my cup!

LET THE HEALING BEGIN

Last but certainly not least, my body is desperately craving some rest and recuperation time. My left knee (not the one I initially injured) sounds like a spastic electric accordion with gravel inside it. When I put a lot of weight on it, it feels as if a hundred Humboldt squid are trying to pull it in different directions. My middle fi nger on my left hand – dislocated twice during sparring sessions – now sports a knot that looks as if the central joint is pregnant. My left ankle feels like it contains some of the Jell-O I recently rolled around in. And my right elbow has been drained twice; the fl uid removed looked like it came straight from a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. Where does that leave me? Hell if I know. Another month or so and I should be ready. Uh, maybe.

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It’s been almost three years since Gina Carano stepped out of the Strikeforce cage—and the hits just keep on coming for her.

The decision to continue fighting or take a stab at acting wasn’t an easy one for Gina Carano. After all, fighting had been in her life for so many years and is a huge part of her heart and soul. Now that she has tasted success outside of the cage, it may be a while before we see Carano compete inside of it.

These days, Carano has her hands full promoting the DVD release of Haywire, which she starred in opposite Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas. She felt incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such immensely talented actors and was in awe the first time she met Douglas. On top of her promotional work, Carano has a new project that she is looking forward to.

“I just got a call to star in The Fast and the Furious 6,” Carano says. “I think Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson will also be involved, and I am looking forward to working with him. I have so much respect for him and how he has made the transition from being an athlete to a successful actor—he’s someone to look up to.”

Making the transition herself hasn’t been an easy one, but it’s something she has thoroughly enjoyed. Acting has given Carano the necessary fulfillment that she needed and helped keep her mind off of competing in the cage. Even though she hasn’t fought in nearly three years, she still keeps up with the MMA world.

“I always keep an eye on Marloes Coenen—she is awesome and was someone I looked up to when I was coming up in the sport,” Carano says. “I believe things are going to grow and get better for women’s MMA, and that’s one reason I can never say never when it comes to fighting again. I could wake up tomorrow, and, if it’s in my heart to fi ght, I’ll go for it.”

Until then, show business is keeping Carano busy. She’s enthralled with the entire process of making a movie. To her, the whole experience is like a dream—the cooperation between the actors, directors, producers, and the production crew is something that amazes her, not to mention the stunts involved.

Coming from an athletic background and training martial arts for many years allowed Carano to perform many of her own stunts in Haywire. In fact, she was involved in all of them, except for one that had her character falling off of a roof. Carano wanted to do the stunt, but there was a level of concern that production of the movie would halt if she suffered an injury.

When it came time to sit down and watch Haywire for the first time, Carano surrounded herself with family members for support. At times, she cringed and thought to herself, “Why did I do that,” and questioned some of the choices she made. While it wasn’t easy watching herself on the silver screen, she knows that it was her first movie and she has plenty of room to grow as an actress.

Carano knows that MMA will always be pulling at her heartstrings, and she is thankful for the opportunities that the sport has given her. It was her first love, and leaving MMA on her own terms to pursue other venues makes it that much more difficult. She also realizes that if she does get the itch to compete again, she will be welcomed back with open arms. It’s always nice to have the support of your friends and loved ones, and Carano has found solace from a surprising source.

“Some of the biggest compliments I get are from women coming up in the sport,” she says. “I love it when a female fighter tells me she loves my work and what I am doing with my life. When I get a compliment from another fighter, I know it’s coming from a good place.”

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Morgan is not a sports psychologist, he doesn’t coddle Lesnar, and he doesn’t speak for him in public. Morgan’s job is training Lesnar by improving his fitness, strengthening his toughness, finding weaknesses in the opposition, and giving the UFC Heavyweight Champion’s 300 pounds of fast-twitch muscle fiber a gameplan with which to maul his opponent. The rest is just execution.

 

Lesnar first met his future coach in 1997 when he was wrestling for Bismarck State College alongside Morgan’s University of Minnesota in a small pre-season tournament in Fargo, ND. The bald headed and goateed assistant coach was sold by the sophomore’s size and athleticism. “He was just pummeling people,” says Morgan.

 

As an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, Morgan’s territory was training the team’s upper-weights, and there was noone better to spread his kingdom of dominance than the buzz-cut kid who, even in his early twenties, was equal parts rhinoceros and Rambo. At the end of his tenure at the Bismarck community college, Lesnar joined Morgan at the University of Minnesota.

 

Those who know college wrestling would argue that Morgan was the best wrestling coach in all of Division I. He wrangled the nation’s best recruits and had them in peak condition for the NCAA Championships. After his successes (see “Morgan in a Minute”), the Morgan name became omnipresent in discussions of premium head coaching positions. Some people thought he stayed in Minneapolis for 16 years because he was loyal to head coach J. Robinson, who’d been his coach in college. Regardless, Morgan never became a head coach. In 2008, however, when Lesnar was shopping for a coach to head his MMA training, Morgan was sitting atop a one-man list.

 

“Marty was the only person that could guide my training,” says Lesnar. “To be able to have the best wrestling coach around—who knows me better than anybody—in the gym everyday, overseeing my development…are you kidding me?” That brief courtship has led to the duo enjoying sadistic, Morgan-led, wrestling-inspired training sessions at the Death Clutch Gym in Rochester, Minn.

 

“Guys do what Marty tells them to do,” says J. Robinson, the three-time NCAA Division I Champion coach. “They believe in him, and that belief gives them confidence, and with that confidence comes performance.”

 

While Morgan helped make Lesnar a champion at Minnesota, Lesnar’s loyalty to Morgan isn’t just explained by success on the mat—plenty of college coaches would find themselves steering MMA gyms if it were that simple. The hiring is best explained when held against the backdrop of the former WWE star’s tumultuous relationship with the fickle potion of fame.

 

For years, Lesnar puddle-jumped across the country as a showman for the WWE, but when he retired suddenly, the result was an unhappy Lesnar and an even unhappier fan base—to say nothing of the WWE. It doesn’t take a Freud to recognize that Lesnar wanted someone in his corner who was unquestionably committed to his training and disinterested in guiding or mooching off his publicity.

 

Enter Morgan. Of course, the other refrain is that Lesnar’s emotional outbursts in response to negative fans and inquisitive reporters were troubling, and Morgan quieted that tendency in Lesnar. Maybe. But Morgan understood that Lesnar couldn’t be made to change his behavior (who’s going to enforce it?), rather, Morgan’s job was to make sure the champ was knocking people unconscious. Morgan learned that the best way to lead wasn’t to interfere or question, but simply to lead.

 

“He goes into the cage the way he is feeling, sometimes that’s angry and sometimes it’s not,” says Morgan. “I’m just getting him ready for his opponents.” The champ has responded.

 

“Wanna know what kind of guy Marty is?” queries Lesnar. “When I was in the hospital and didn’t know if I was going to survive, let alone ever fight again, Marty was there by my bedside the entire time, for two weeks.” This is something Lesnar seems certain that few other people in the MMA world would have done for him.

 

Morgan’s commitment to his long time understudy is compelling, and if his come-from-behind victory against Shane Carwin is any example, it’s also inspiring. The duo is poised to dominate the heavyweight division for years to come.

 

“We are taking this one fight at a time,” says Morgan. Next for Lesnar is Cain Velasquez, a Division I, All-American wrestler from Arizona State University and the best wrestler Lesnar’s ever faced in the cage. The strategy? Morgan won’t say outright, but he’s confident and—as always—prepared.

 

“Velasquez is talented, but we are gonna have a game plan and be in the right frame of mind,” says Morgan. “When the bell rings, Brock’s going to be ready to scrap. Guaranteed.” All that’s left now is the execution.

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I participated in traditional martial arts for several years. I started with Aikido and stuck with it for quite a while. This, my friends, was Aikido at its namby-pambiest, replete with swirling skirts, unbending arms, and cries of “Grab my wrist!” When, after 13 months of training, I realized I’d never dare to use any of this in a fi ght, I called it quits.

After many months of no training at all, I was convinced to return to Aikido–this time a harder, “more practical” version. The “practical” part turned out to be Judo. I dug Judo. So much so that I stopped going to Aikido class and only did Judo. What I didn’t dig was driving an hour round trip to the podunky town that was home to the dojo. Being a true member of Generation X, I succumbed my laziness and eventually used this as an excuse to stop going.

My next stop in this journey landed me at a very traditional Karate dojo. At the time, that’s what I thought I wanted. I yearned for a sour old sensei to bark orders at me in Japanese. I wanted to bow when I walked in, bow to the other students, bow to the instructors, just bow bow bow until I gave myself whiplash. I wanted something with a lineage, something that knew exactly where its roots were and was committed to the honorable traits of the samurai.

That’s what I got, and it bit the moose. The formality and the movements were absurd. I was screaming “Osu!” every 30 seconds and trying to fi ght from a stance that required more precision than ballet maneuvers. After earning my yellow belt I became completely disillusioned with the whole thing. I’m not a traditional sort of guy, so I have no idea why I thought I would enjoy a rigid, Japanese-style approach to martial arts.

After I broke up with Karate, I moved in with Kenpo. I thought Kenpo was the one. The school was modern, with few formalities and nothing but contempt for ideas like the chi blast. The instructor billed it as gritty, street-level defense with practical moves designed to incapacitate, maim, and kill an attacker.

It was drilled into our heads that this had nothing to do with point fi ghting. This was serious business. We were involved in a combat art whose sole aim was to render an opponent incapable of fi ghting. Or walking. Or throwing a baseball. Or doing the laundry. In fact, if the attacker ever regained consciousness then we had not done our job.

I loved it. I thought it was the cutting edge of deadly. I was only disappointed that I didn’t get to practice my eye gouges on some willing lackey. Surely, as the deadly process of Kenpo went on, certain students would be weeded out. Those students, in my opinion, should suffer one of two fates. One: They would slink from our pernicious ranks and peddle their inferior, slappy-handed shit someplace where folks stitched “Whomp Ki Do” on their gi. Two: They would become willing death-dummies for those of us bent on becoming an army of black-robed murder machines.

I mean, if I was going to all the trouble to show up for class, and my fi ngers were cramping from being thrust, over and over, into the nonresisting air, where was the payoff? Why couldn’t my fi ngers, crying for blood, be shoved into the tearful eyeholes of one of my subordinates? My fi ngernails, fi lled with Roadhouse strength, were itching to pull throats free from skin and dash them on neon beaches. I yearned to be allowed to slam my joint-locks in so tight that an Aikido master would piss in his hakama. Why wasn’t I allowed to destroy a real person? A person who had probably tried, and failed, to comprehend the neck-cracking, spine-wrenching, skull-fucking whirlwind of hostility and horror that was Kenpo?

Where could I unleash my fury? Certainly not in sparring class, where I routinely got my ass kicked by the 15-yearold kid who never got tired. Not on the heavy bag, which I worked over like Jack the Ripper with a prostitute, never moving my feet from their anchored spot on the mat. DEFINITELY not on the fabled streets, where I was warned my skills could land me in jail if I wasn’t careful of my spear hands and eagle beaks. There were ramifi cations for knowing the crazy shit I knew.

I yearned to rip. To tear. To fi nd a way to test my mettle against folks who loved their eyeballs and their throats and had no idea that I could take them away. Where could I do this? Where would the blazing eastern sun of Kenpo take me to learn if I could pull a man’s life from his body?

Turns out, it took me to an MMA gym. The people at Performance Edge were very friendly. They never said, “You learned WHAT in Kenpo?!” They watched my rapid deterioration of faith in untested martial arts without comment. They gently nurtured my skills in real combat and they never once put me down for what I had done before. When I decided to quit Kenpo for good, those in charge at the MMA gym nodded their heads in agreement and quietly said, “That’s probably for the best. I think you’ll be happier here.”

And they were right. I knew it all along, deep in the pit of my stomach. I just had to be coaxed. Like a starry-eyed virgin on prom night, I just wanted to be talked out of my dress with a minimal fi ght so I could fi nally do all the dirty things my parents warned me about.

And dirty they were. My second week at the gym I got whacked with a fl ip-fl op, hit with a trash can lid, menaced with a baseball bat, and had my contact lens popped out in the midst of a six-man brawl.

I was unprepared for the realities of combat and was crucifi ed by the limitations of my TMA background. MMA was a different beast, and there was a long road ahead of me–one I was willing to take, no matter the pain involved.

A little over a month into my new training, the pain became a very real thing. In my intro-level class, I was learning the doubleleg takedown with another newbie. We were taught the technique and then told to practice on each other. We looked like shotgunned ducks colliding in midair. We fl opped to one knee and tried, with much grunting and fl ying spittle, to upend each other and land in a dominant position. To the untrained observer, it probably looked like two emo kids fi ghting over a Morrissey album. Apparently, it looked the same to my instructor. She yelled for one of the seasoned vets to come over. “Robert,” she said, “do a double-leg on one of these guys so they know how a real one feels.”

I was not wearing a cup that day when Robert, the veteran, blasted in on me. He came in for the double-leg like he’d done it a million times. My eyes jumped as wide as half-dollars, and my limbs froze. His left shoulder slammed into my balls as he pulled me off my feet and crushed me to the fl oor. My crotch lit up like the sign at a Vegas wedding chapel. The pain leaped all the way up my body, bounced off the top of my skull, and ricocheted back down to my stomach, where it conspired to curl me up on the mat like a wee bitch and make me moan over and over.

Eventually, I stood up. That proved to be a mistake. I had to lie down again. Very soon I went home. Despite the pain (which felt like dues after so much worthless MA for so long), I was back the next week. All the physical movements of class aggravated the intense pain in my nuts. I went to see the doctor. He told me that the jolting contact of shoulder to groin had inspired a prostate infection that was ripping through my junk like a wildfi re through California shrub.

He gave me about 9 thousand weeks of antibiotics and advised no exercise whatsoever— including, but not limited to, martial arts, jogging, biking, kicking, sit-ups, walking up stairs, juggling, and, I think, touching myself in a sexy way. It was worth it. And I’ll be back.

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It’s been six years since Forrest Griffin became a household name by going toe-to-toe with Stephan Bonnar on his way to winning The Ultimate Fighter. Since that time, the UFC has held more than 110 live events, broadcast 11 more seasons of TUF, and become an international sensation.Without Forrest, none of that would have been possible.

 

APRIL 9, 2005: LAS VEGAS, NVTUF PRE-FIGHT

 

Photo shoots are over, weigh-ins are finished,and for the first time ever, Forrest and his cornermen sit in a UFC locker room, collectively thinking, “Do we even belong here?”

 

In a short time, Forrest had gone from reluctant reality show participant on TUF to being in the show’s finale. This was the UFC’s first foray on free television. While the taped shows were airing on a weekly basis, the outcome had to remain a secret until the final show aired. In the meantime, Forrest had come back to The HardCore Gym in Athens, GA, to train for the live finale. Less than nine months before, Forrest had retired from fighting and taken a job as a cop, riding patrol in his hometown of Augusta, GA. Las Vegas and stardom were a million miles away. Each week, with every passing episode and each day of training, it drew closer and closer.

 

Kenny Florian warmed up in the same dressing room on the night of the finale for his bout with Diego Sanchez. His coach constantly told him, “It’s your time Kenny, you’re a warrior.” Forrest and I smiled at each other, and I silently wondered, “Did he want me to scream at him like that? Slap him?” At the time, all I could think was that I had no more experience playing my part than he did his. The outward confidence he showed always belied an inner self-doubt. As his coach and friend, I believed he would win every fight or die trying. Call him a warrior, gladiator, or samurai, Forrest embodies the qualities fans idolize. Smart, funny, dangerous, and rugged, Forrest was the package the modern UFC needed to reach the mainstream. I knew when he entered the Octagon that he would do whatever was needed.

 

When Forrest was introduced on his way to the cage, the crowd went crazy. Reality TV and his self-deprecating humor had already made him a star. Overtime, the size of his fights would grow and his fan base would explode, but there was no bigger moment.

 

Reflecting on that night, Forrest says, “Fighting in the TUF finale was the biggest event in my life and possibly the biggest thing that has ever happened to me, including winning the UFC Light Heavyweight Title. That moment, the way the sport took off, Spike TV, it was everywhere. In some sense, TUF still pays my bills. I knew it would change my life.”

 

ROUND ONE

 

Bonnar is cornered by the legendary Carlson Gracie, Sr. Forrest is cornered by three rookies. The fight starts without a glove touch. Both men have come to prove that they are more than reality TV creations. They both want a place in the sport. It’s a back and forth affair, and neither man is backing down. Forrest believes that Bonnar is the better boxer, and, in true Forrest fashion, he aims to find out. The crowd can sense that this will be a fight to remember.

 

Forrest writes his fight resume one brawl at a time. When he started training, it was just a way to stave off the monotony of college and the boredom of living in Athens. Fighting was a way to get closer to people without ever getting too close, a way to share something with like minded people. His life was a balancing act of letting people in and keeping them out. Everyone in Athens was Forrest’s friend, but nobody really knew him. Even today, other than his wonderful wife Jamie, I am not sure anyone knows the real Forrest. “What you see on TV is me,” he says. “But it’s only one part of me. Let’s say it’s about 14.7% of me, if you do the math. The more exposure I have, the better chance there is for people to see me mess up. It’s a lot of pressure trying to make someone’s day.”

 

Two years after winning TUF, Forrest won a battle of the top contenders with a dominant performance over former PRIDE Champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Early in his career, Forrest understood that because he did not have a world-class background in wrestling, BJJ, or kickboxing, he would have to win his fights with heart, desire, and hard work. Forrest describes himself as “Jon Fitch without the wrestling.” About his style, he says, “I keep it simple and lose myself in technique.” UFC legend and training partner Randy Couture calls Forrest the hardest worker he has ever met. This tireless work ethic has taken a devastating toll on his body. Shortly after the Shogun fight, Forrest had his second of three shoulder surgeries. Broken feet and hands and a bad back would become the norm.

 

ROUND TWO

 

Round two starts the same way round one ended, toe-to-toe. Forrest always wants to please the fans, and it’s estimated that more than three million are now watching. A Bonnar jab early in the round opens a cut on Forrest’s nose that nearly stops the fight. Forrest is looking a step slower. The momentum has shifted in Bonnar’s favor, and I wait for the ref to wave off the fight. But, like always, Forrest survives.

 

After a successful stint as a coach on TUF 7, Forrest fought Quinton “Rampage” Jackson for the UFC Light Heavyweight Title. Griffin won a unanimous decision victory and became the UFC Champion. Forrest had reached heights other fighters only dream about: champion, actor, spokesman, and best selling author. Then he lost his first title defense to Rashad Evans.

 

“In MMA, you pay dearly for little mistakes,” Forrest says. “The crown is heavy. Being the champ is a big responsibility. Everyone is gunning for you. However, I would love to do it again. It’s not about being the best in the world, just being the best that night, against the right guy, for 25 minutes.”

 

Minus his belt, plus a healed broken hand, Forrest acted like a true champion and asked to fight the best fighter in the world, Anderson Silva. Forrest lost to Silva by TKO in round one. An emotional Forrest ran out of the cage, completely dejected.

 

“Losing to Silva was tough because I felt good going in,” Forrest says. “I had a good camp, and I was in a good place mentally. I just never got started in that fight. I’m always a slow starter, but by the time I was ready to start, I was already dazed.” For the first time in his career, Forrest had been defeated twice in a row. “The thing that I thought could never happen, happened that night. I had quit mentally. It makes you question everything.” Within two fights, Forrest had gone from the pinnacle to the pits.

 

ROUND THREE

 

Standing ready for the start of round three, tired, beaten, and bloody, Forrest manages to smile. Forrest loves these moments. When it is time to rise up and claim his prize, Forrest does it. The final bell rings, and both men have nothing left to give. Team Griffin stands in the cage awaiting a decision that we are less than sure of. The decision is read. Forrest is the winner. A new star is born, and his life and the UFC are changed forever.

 

Forrest and Jamie married shortly after the Silva fight. When an opportunity arose to avenge his controversial decision loss to Tito Ortiz, he jumped at the chance, winning a three round decision. Another shoulder surgery would take him out of the game for more than a year. During that time, Forrest lost his best friend John Grantham—one of the men in his corner on that fateful night back in 2005.

 

“Losing John was tough,” says Forrest. “He was always there for me—friend, pad h
older, sparring partner, bodyguard, personal assistant, everything. I can’t help but think I could have done more for him.” John was a very spiritual person, and “I was always an X-Files agnostic—I knew the truth was out there.” Now, Forrest’s finds solace in his renewed faith. “It comforts me and makes me a better person.”

 

Forrest’s most recent fight was a victory against another UFC legend and former champion, Rich Franklin. It was a gritty win that propelled him back into the contender picture. The picture is far from clear, and Forrest knows that he can’t fight forever.

 

“About a month before every fight, my body just says QUIT. But then a few weeks after a fight, I’m ready to do it again,” he says. “Even as I start to lose some of my physical tools, I can make up for it with experience and my mental game. My body and the sport will tell me when it’s time to give it up.”

 

As for what life holds for Forrest after fighting, he has talked about acting, philanthropy, broadcasting, and religious studies. He knows he can’t escape the shadow of TUF, but he’s not running from it, either. “Sometime I feel like Mark Hamill after Star Wars,” he says. However, all of those things are on the backburner until Forrest is done doing the one thing he has always loved—fighting. For Forrest Griffin, his career is still a work in progress.

0

Most MMA fans are aware of Royce Gracie’s dominance in the early UFCs. Fighters like Gracie, plus others such as Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock put MMA on the proverbial map. But do the names Emanuel Yarborough, Scott Morris, or Joe Son ring a bell? Probably not. However, these men are a few of the true trailblazers in the world of MMA and should be given their props. Without them, MMA would not be were it is today.

Here’s a “roof-raising” to six MMA trailblazers who had the moxie to step out from behind their personal curtain of ignominy and entertain us, even if it was only for a brief time.

6. Emanuel Yarborough

Calling Yarborough “big” is an understatement. The 6’8” 600- to 800-pounder (depending on when he last ate) is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest athlete. Yarborough made his debut at UFC 3 and is 1-2 in his MMA career. His lone victory came from beating Tatsuaki Nakano via submission due to smothering at Shoot the Shooto XX. No joke, he actually smothered his way to a victory.

Yarborough paved the way for other morbidly obese fi ghters like Chad “Akebono” Rowan, Wagner “Zuluzinho” da Conceicao Martins, and Eric “Butterbean” Esch. However, none of the aforementioned fi ghters has a victory via smothering, and that’s why Yarborough takes the cake…and eats it, too.

5. Joe Son

The non-menacing 5’4” 230-pound Son is probably best remembered in the Octagon for his loss to Keith Hackney at UFC 4 when he tapped due to groin strikes. Although crotch shots were legal at the time, Son’s bruised bollocks are a big reason why pee-pee shots were fi nally banned in the UFC.

Son sports a career 0-4 MMA record, but his legacy lives on beyond the crotch punches he absorbed. Son was one of the fi rst mixed martial artists to cross into showbiz. His work in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery as Random Task – the Korean wrestler renowned for ineptly throwing his shoe – showed the world that fi ghters can act. Son blazed the trail for other MMA thespians like Don Frye (Godzilla: Final Wars) and Randy Couture (Redbelt).

4. Ron Van Clief

Known as “The Black Dragon,” Van Clief entered the Octagon at UFC 4 at the astonishing age of 51. Inspiring senior citizens and proponents of the fl attop haircut, Van Clief tangled with Royce Gracie for almost four minutes until succumbing to a rear-naked choke.

Donning American fl ag shorts in his lone UFC appearance, Van Clief can be viewed as one of the founding fathers of MMA patriotism. He was also very, very old. Randy Couture would have to fi ght for six more years (plus work things out with Dana White) before he takes the age title from The Black Dragon.

3. Jim Brown

Will Brown be best remembered for his football career, his acting chops, or the color commentary he provided for UFCs 1-6? Only time will tell. What he lacked in knowledge of joint manipulations, techniques, and styles, he made up for with lively comments. He also added an athletic legitimacy and toughguy panache to the early pay-per-views. If there were no Jim Brown in the infancy of the UFC, there would be no Joe Rogan today.

For every astute Brown quote like, “I don’t know what kind of technique was used there, but there was a lot of kicking and punching,” there is an equally perceptive Rogan quote. After all, Rogan did say, “If Tyson Griffi n was a girl, I’d say he has a badonkadonk.” Sorry Goldie, but in an ideal world, Brown and Rogan would be sitting side by side in the commentating booth.

2. Scott Morris

Morris competed at UFC 2 and listed his fi ghting style as “Ninjistsu.” UFC announcer Ben Perry actually said, “We don’t know much about Morris because he is a ninja.” What we quickly learned is that ninjas do not belong in the Octagon. After winning his fi rst match via guillotine choke, Morris sustained the worst beating in Octagon history as Patrick Smith mounted him and delivered a devastating series of punches and elbows. Morris retired from MMA with a 1-1 record, but his ninja spirit lives on in others like Murilo “Ninja” Rua.

1. Kimo Leopoldo

Kimo was part-time evangelist and part-time tough guy. Anyone who beats up people in the name of the Lord deserves to be #1 on the list. Although Kimo lost to Royce Gracie in his fi rst match at UFC 3, he did give the Brazilian enough of a beating that Gracie had to withdraw from the tournament due to exhaustion.

Kimo also gave fans something to talk about besides the prowess of BJJ. Kimo was the fi rst great showman of MMA. Covered in tattoos and sporting a ponytail (which Gracie legally pulled in their match), the Hawaiian walked to the entrance of the Octagon carrying a large, wooden cross on his back. His message was simple: I am a Christian, and I want to kick your ass in the confi nes of this Octagon. And people think Phil Baroni has entertaining entrances.

If Bud Light ever does a “Real Men of Genius” commercial for mixed martial arts, there is a good chance it will dedicated to one of these unsung MMA founding fathers: Yarborough, Son, Brown, Morris, and Kimo. They came, they saw, and they tried their damnedest to conquer…

0

We all know the story. On April 7, 2007, at UFC 69, Matt Serra shocked the world. After his hard-fought win on Season Four of The Ultimate Fighter, he faced then Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. Serra found himself labeled the underdog—the “Cinderella Man,” as he puts it. “I think it’s great. I love that role. … I never got caught up in any of that hype. I used it to my advantage, and I defi nitely felt I had the element of surprise.” Inside the Octagon, Serra took full advantage, stopping St. Pierre—a fi ghter many consider one of the best all-around athletes in the UFC—at 3:25 in the fi rst round. “It’s funny. Everybody thinks I’m going to get killed,” Serra says, recalling the lead-up to the event. As a result, he adopted the underdog role and decided to “just go in there and stuff it up their asses.”

But what is it about Matt Serra that we fi nd so compelling? Sure, we pull for the underdog. And as Serra often fi nds himself undersized, relying upon larger-than-life fortitude, he plays that role better than anyone. Today, more than two years later, Serra remains the underdog, as he trains to regain the Welterweight title. However, athletes from all sports love to live the Cinderella story. Why is it that we fi nd ourselves drawn to the outspoken Long Island native?

Sitting behind the desk in his gym in Huntington, Long Island, Matt Serra talks casually with his friends and students. Having changed out of his black gi, which he describes as his father’s, Serra, now attired in a black T-shirt and camo cargo shorts, radiates casual. Naughty by Nature’s Hip Hop Hooray plays in the background. Ever the instructor, he constantly interjects shouts of “Good!” and “Nice!” In his gym, negativity does not exist. All visitors— old friends from high school, students, fellow instructors, or writers from FIGHT!—are met with the same level of comfort and kindness. The familiar voice tinged with the familiar Long Island accent rings out, “Nice pass, Rich!”

Listed at 5 feet 6 inches tall, Matt Serra’s personality fi lls any room he occupies. With his high school friends, who unexpectedly stopped by for a visit, he poses for pictures and tells stories about Las Vegas suites, UFC fi ghters, and the Octagon itself. For his students, he offers each a handshake or a pound. He calls every man out by fi rst name and checks to see if they have any injuries. For me, he hides behind no pretense. He slaps me on the shoulder and talks with ease, as if he has known me longer than the last 10 minutes.

Beyond the hints of sweat and humidity that pervade most gyms, an air of teamwork and camaraderie is present. Imagine the perfect classroom. Students actively engage in a given assignment, debating the correct path in a scholarly manner. The teacher moves expertly throughout the room, offering a helpful hint to one group, a gentle nudge to another, and a necessary kick in the rear to a third. There is an energy to this classroom, but it is not wild. Instead, all that energy aims at a specifi c goal.

That is the scene presented at Serra Jiu Jitsu off the Jericho Turnpike. Matt Serra is a consummate teacher. Every few minutes, when the right moment arrives, he drops to the fl oor and rolls with his students, encouraging them to learn or perfect some new technique. After 2 minutes or so, when one student had gained and worked to maintain dominant position, the digital timer blares, and Serra blurts, “Guy on top now on bottom…In other words—Payback time!”

For fi ghters, keeping a consistent mind-set is what matters most. The ones who get rattled by the high-profi le environments or shaken by an unseen right hook do not hang around for long. In mixed martial arts, success is so fl eeting and so diffi cult to attain that those unable to cope with setbacks and losses ultimately disappear from the landscape.

If consistency and serenity in the face of adversity are keys to a fi ghter’s success, there should be no doubts that Matt Serra is a master. Serra is just as willing to talk about his triumphs as he is regarding his defeats. After winning the title from St. Pierre, Serra was scheduled to defend his title against Matt Hughes. However, a back injury kept him from the fi ght, and Hughes and St. Pierre met to decide who would be the champion while Serra convalesced from a distance. For most, such a circumstance would have been maddening. Serra took it in stride. “I had the misfortune of hurting myself getting ready for Hughes. The fi ght was up in April, and I got myself in shape. I recovered from the back injury.”

In Montreal on April 19, 2008, Serra lost his rematch to Georges St. Pierre. Ask him about the fi ght, though, and there is no sidestep, no defl ection. He speaks straightforwardly about a loss that could have had devastating physical and mental consequences. “Everybody has a bad day at the offi ce. There’s no excuse.” Serra shrugs, “It is what it is, man. I can’t make excuses. I should’ve rolled out sooner. So, it sucks, but what are you going to do? It’s part of the game, and I don’t want to take anything away from St. Pierre’s victory.” Nevertheless, smiling wryly, he wags his fi nger and adds, “I never said uncle. I never tapped.”

In dealing with the loss to St. Pierre, Serra reveals the other aspect of himself—perhaps the part that is most compelling. He lifts the curtain and provides a glimpse of the devoted teacher and caring instructor that we saw in both of his appearances on The Ultimate Fighter. “I mean, what do you do? You can either cry yourself to sleep or try to learn from it. I learn from it not only to make me a better fi ghter, but to make my guys better.” That is what sets Serra apart.

As passionate as he is about his own fi ghting career, Serra goes the extra mile for his students and fi ghters. “My instructor, Renzo Gracie, once said that he’s the test pilot. He’d test himself, test the techniques, and pass it down to the students. That’s how I feel. He passed the lessons he learned not only in fi ghting but in life to me, and I do that for my students. I like being on the front line in there.” When he teaches, his students focus upon his movements as much as his words. At one point during the class, Serra demonstrates how to roll from a dominant position at an opponent’s back into a leg lock. Costa Philippou, a boxer training at Serra Jiu Jitsu, where everyone calls him “Gus,” looks around, shrugs his shoulders, and laughs as if to say, Wow, how in the world did he do that? This little gesture indicates the respect that Serra’s students have for him.

Despite all that, an imposing fi gure stands in Matt Serra’s future. When he steps into the Octagon at UFC 98, it will have been more than a year since he last fought and he will stare across the ring at Matt Hughes, one of the greatest champions in UFC history. That the two men do not get along is no secret. “I enjoy fi ghting, so I don’t have to psyche myself up or hate the guy. But it is a contact sport. So, if you’ve gotta hit somebody you like or somebody you don’t like, I’d rather hit the guy I don’t like.”

When questioned about his differences with Matt Hughes, Serra pulls no punches. He sees Hughes as the opposite side of his coin. Where he feels he remained grounded and down to earth in the face of success, he asserts that Hughes changed. “He might’ve been that good country boy way back when, but he’s not that guy anymore.” Serra insists that a lot of people feel similarly, but he has been more openly vocal about it. “I’ve become the voice of that. I’d rather wear my heart on my sleeve. I don’t want to be cool with a guy a
nd then talk behind his back.”

Though Serra relishes the thought of matching up against Matt Hughes, he brushes aside the idea that it is necessary to hate his opponent in order to succeed. “I get along with the majority of the guys I fought, win or lose. I mean, Din Thomas: That guy has a victory over me, and he’s one of my closest friends in the UFC.” Ultimately, for Serra motivation is never an issue. “It’s easy. It could be as simple as wanting to prove everybody wrong. What stays with you are all these memories of the fi ghts, leading up to it, the hard training, testing yourself, learning new skills, looking to pull those techniques off in a fi ght.”

At 34 years old, Serra knows that time is no longer on his side. Though his skills are sound and his body feels good, age is beginning to take its toll. The bout with Hughes was originally scheduled for UFC 79 on December 29, 2007, but Serra suffered a herniated disk in his lower back while preparing to defend his then Welterweight title. In April 2008, during his fi ght with St. Pierre, Serra damaged the ulnar nerve in his elbow, which left him unable to train for a few months. “I still have my technique, even when I’m dead tired. I’ve shown that I have my technique to back me up. I take it a fi ght at a time. The only thing I don’t like is that I get injured more now. I never used to get injured.”

Matt Serra still has limitless passion for the sport and continues to push himself. He has not allowed success to change the way he deals with those around him, and simply takes life as it comes. “I feel real lucky to be in the position that I’m in, not just with fi ghting. I make a living doing what I’m doing.” He gestures to the mat where his advanced Jiu-Jitsu class works through an “hour and a half of hell.” “I could hang out with these guys, teach Jiu-Jitsu, work out with my MMA team. I get to fi ght in the UFC. I love my life.”

“No matter what happens from here to the rest of my career, I know that I fought the best guys on the planet, and, at one time, I was that guy. I was the UFC Champion. That’s the stuff that’s going to stay with me until I’m old and gray.” And on May 23, 2009, as he concludes his 2-year dance both around and toward Matt Hughes, Matt Serra looks to add one more fi ght to that long list of memories.

0

Damn good but not great, fi rst runner up always gets a line in the almanac but fades quickly from public memory. Don’t believe me? Quick, who lost Super Bowl XXXII? Name the fi ve teams the Chicago Bulls trounced en route to their six NBA titles in the 1990s. Who did Muhammad Ali defeat in his fi nal successful title defense?

Still skeptical? Ask Gary Goodridge. The 6’1”, 240 pound, 42-yearold fi ghter was born in Trinidad, but is a lifelong resident of Barrie, Ontario, Canada. He holds a professional kickboxing record of 11-19 and a professional MMA record of 23-15, but you’ve probably never heard of him.

Largely forgotten by longtime American fi ght fans, and completely unknown to the newest generation of combat connoisseurs, Goodridge was tapped by former UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz to compete in a YAMMA Pit Fighting Master’s division superfi ght at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ on April 11 along with Eric “Butterbean” Esch, Don Frye, and Oleg Taktarov.

The new promotion, a joint venture between Meyrowitz and Live Nation, the country’s leading concert production company, has been greeted with a number of pressing questions: What is this mysterious YAMMA fi ghting surface? Why is Meyrowitz diving back into the fray? Who is Gary Goodridge?

Even though he has fought for the UFC, PRIDE FC, K-1, and K-1 Hero’s during his decade-long career, it could be argued that Gary “Big Daddy” Goodridge has less name-recognition than the guy who left The Ultimate Fighter house in season three because his girlfriend was supposedly stepping out on him. Goodridge attributes this to, “new people discovering a new sport,” and concedes that fi ghting almost exclusively in Japan for the last decade didn’t help his stateside celebrity.

A solid fi ghter with a respectable resume, Goodridge was good enough to challenge for numerous high-profi le titles but never good enough to win more than one. Goodridge burst onto the scene on February 16, 1996 with little more than some boxing skills and his credentials as a competitive arm-wrestling champion. He took out two opponents at UFC 8 that night, including a brutal elbow strike knockout of Mark Herrera, before losing in the fi nals to Frye. He returned three months later and lost to Mark Schultz at UFC 9, and again to Mark Coleman two months later in the second round at UFC 10. Frye defeated Goodridge again in December of that year at Ultimate Ultimate.

Big Daddy then took his game overseas, winning three fi ghts in one night at a Brazilian tournament. Then it was on to Japan, where he fought as a kickboxer and mixed martial artist for PRIDE, K-1, and K-1 Hero’s. Promoted as a gatekeeper by PRIDE, Goodridge beat Taktarov, Frye, Jan Nortje, and a slew of lesser-known fi ghters. “I can mix it up with anybody in any style,” Goodridge said, and he proved it against Jan Nortje. He faced the Dutchman – who recently wrecked PRIDE and K-1 veteran Bob Sapp at a Strikeforce event – and defeated him by knockout and submission in their two matchups.

But Goodridge lost to all the top-fl ight opponents he faced while competing for the three organizations, solidifying his reputation as a dangerous but inconsistent fi ghter.

So even if Big Daddy’s fi ght against Butterbean scores him some old-timer love from American MMA fans, it is anything but a comeback. The fi ghter has enjoyed more success against high-level competition in this decade than most of his MMA-pioneering peers. He fought frequently for K-1 (mostly losing) and PRIDE and K-1 Heroes (mostly winning) until the end of last year. At 42, Goodridge believes he’s gotten better with age and told FIGHT! that, “with the exception of Fedor and Randy Couture I can handle anyone.”

Let’s hope for his sake that he fi nds success stateside, because second place is nothing but a footnote

0

Wigby Pearson has always been fascinated with extreme sports. The president and founder of Earache Records, an independent metal label based in Nottingham, England, has worked in the past with skateboarders and BMX riders, and even released a compilation for Extreme Championship Wrestling. So when he heard that hometown boy Dan Hardy was fighting for the UFC, Pearson invited him to the office.

 

“We got on very well,” Pearson recalls. “He’s a fan of rock and metal music, and our first meeting, he was telling us as a teenager, he used to see shows at the local club here in the 90’s. He’d actually go see our bands and he comes from an area of Nottingham where I grew up, so we have a connection. [We] went, ‘Wow, this is the guy we want to get involved with,’ so we did a sponsorship deal and sponsored him ever since.”

 

Syntax Records is another indie who supports local cage warriors. The San Diego-based Christian hip-hop label has had mixed martial artists like K.J. Noons and Waachiim Spiritwolf appear on podcasts, and when Syntax President Timothy Trudeau heard Dean Lister was interested in wearing their company’s imprint on his short sat UFC 92, they struck a deal.

 

Although Lister dropped a decision to Yushin Okami in the unaired prelim, Trudeau was thrilled to have his label represented. “We were bummed it didn’t get televised and that he lost, but it was still exciting to have our logo enter the Octagon,” he says. “It was fresh for everyone involved at the label because they’re fanatics, so it’s a big deal.

 

Those two companies, along with Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish Inc., a Massachusetts-based record label that sponsors fellow statesmen Joe and Dan Lauzon, are the few independent labels that have expanded into mixed martial arts.

 

ComBAT This!
Cancer Bats make new friends and idolize TankAbbott.

 

Independent labels sponsoring fighters might be a developing trend, but music artists have always supported mixed martial arts. Take the Cancer Bats, for example. The Canadian hardcore punk quartet was hooked on the sport since the very beginning, citing Tank Abbott as their favorite cage warrior.

 

“I like that he came up as this underdog,” frontman Liam Cormier says. “Punk rock and hardcore is very do it yourself, and this guy just seemed like he came from the streets, fighting his way from bars to the ring, and I think that’s what appealed to us so much.

 

While the band shares a strong fondness for Abbott’s striking style and “gnarly”goatee, their music has found its place within the MMA community. In fact, it’s helped them make new friends.

 

“The guys we meet, all the bouncers and mixed martial artists, are always the nicest dudes,” Cormier explains. “They don’t have to walk around being tough guys. They already know they’re the toughest dudes in the whole room, so they’re always super friendly and usually want to hang out. It’s really wicked.”

 

The Cancer Bats’ new album Bear, Mayors, Scraps & Bones, the first release off Good Fight Music, is available now!

 

While these entrepreneurs are fans of the sport, they also realize MMA is an intelligent way to further cement their brand. Over the years, several smaller and diverse businesses have benefited greatly from sponsoring fighters, including Jaco Clothing, Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor, and CondomDepot.com. Perhaps a record label could experience as much success.

 

Carl Severson, founder of Ferret Music and co-partner of Good Fight Entertainment, sees the potential. Aside from working with a growing roster of artists including the Cancer Bats, Severson—who has 15 years experience in the music industry—has strengthened Good Fight’s presence by sponsoring extreme sports athletes such as pro skateboarder Mike Vallely and BMX rider Dakota Roche. With a passion for MMA, and his wife diligently training in jiu-jitsu and taekwon do, he’s kept a close eye on the fight scene.

 

“There is exposure to be had for a record label to get involved in MMA,” Severson says. “Exposure can result in sales, so that is definitely not out of the question. Although the relationship may not be that cut and dry, we would definitely have to approach it from a creative standpoint.”

 

While independents have found their mark, one has to wonder when major labels will bully their way into the cage. After all, the big four—Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony, and Universal—will stop at nothing to make a buck. Between the recession, online piracy, changes in buying trends, and the rise of indie music, majors are reporting multi-million dollar losses every quarter, so jumping in bed with a popular sport could be feasible.

 

“I can’t necessarily speak for how major labels will attack anything. There are people that work at major labels [and] their job is to think outside of the box. Maybe they are thinking about it now,” Severson explains. “To the tune of a major label sponsoring a fighter, I don’t see that being as plausible as having an individual band sponsor a fighter. Major labels have such diverse rosters, that for some artists it might not make sense for them to sponsor a fighter and for some artists it would.”

 

Although Earache has yet to reap any financial rewards, they have used their sponsorship with Hardy as a vehicle to further brand their name. “He wears some t-shirts of ours, basically stands inside the corridor right outside our office where the light is, and we just take some snaps and put them on the Internet. We try to make the connection between the fighter and the brand Earache with the merchandising,” Pearson says. “We get a great bit of visibility from that. Those photos are all over the Web and that is a good thing. We had the logo on the shorts that got us a lot of visibility and just the brand of our record company being in people’s mind. That’s what we’re hoping for. To be honest, we haven’t seen thousands of kids in the UFC buying Earache stuff, but I think there is an awareness going on, which we’re pleased about.”

 

Trudeau shares a similar branding philosophy. “It’s like those NASCAR cars,” he explains. “If you’re a super well-known brand like McDonald’s, you’re not putting [the logo] on the car because you’re hoping people will get to know what McDonald’s is. It’s more of a reminder.”

 

While Earache has expressed interest in sponsoring fellow Nottingham welterweight Paul “Semtex” Daley, and Syntax with other San Diego fighters in the future, it’s very possible that other indie strongholds like Jamey Jasta’s Stillborn Records, Century Media, Nuclear Blast, Suburban Noize, and Victory could be the next to enter the fray. As Severson says, “Record labels tend to be copycats and once some labels start working with MMA, more labels will probably follow suit.”

 

But for now, Earache, Syntax, and Deathwish are the only labels to grace the Octagon.

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