Names in the Game from the Magazine

Names in the Game from the Magazine

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The Cuban defector from a hardscrabble background is ready to challenge all-comers.

Alexis Vila vs Joe WarrenIn 1997, North Carolina State assistant wrestling coach Carter Jordan was on a recruiting trip in Florida when he heard the news: Cuba’s two-time World Champion wrestler Alexis Vila had defected. Was he looking to wrestle in college? Would he be eligible? Jordan reached out and got Vila on the phone. In a few weeks, the decorated Cuban was on his way to live in Tobacco Road. Vila, then 26 years old, didn’t pass the NCAA’s eligibility Clearinghouse, but Jordan had seen him wrestle in the 1996 Olympics and knew he had to find a way to retain his talents.

“We put him on staff,” says Jordan, now the head wrestling coach at N.C. Sate. “We got him an apartment and we got him some money—the dude was bad.”

Vila began grabbing guys for extra workouts, teaching technique sessions, and contemplating a career in coaching.

“He didn’t speak a lick of English, but I spoke Spanish,” says Jordan. “He’d show moves, and I’d interpret them for the guys in the room. It worked well for the year, but he wasn’t really able to do everything he needed to do to continue on as a coach for us.”

Regardless of Vila’s ability to conjugate verbs or read posted signs, he could certainly communicate how to wrestle. The team began to do the little things correctly— the techniques that they needed to do to win at the end of matches. Controlling an opponent’s lead hand, circling to the back leg, and wrestling on the edge became part of the Wolfpack’s wrestling style. Vila was the reason.

Jordan became Vila’s de facto uncle, helping him apply for a driver’s license and earn extra spending money. Vila also wowed Jordan with stories of a life spent in Communist Cuba—the training, the weight cutting, and the country’s pressure on its athletes to succeed. Jordan had a young family, and Vila talked of the pain of leaving his newborn daughter in Cuba. He also showed off his physical prowess on occasion, most famously by doing three one-armed pullups… without grabbing his wrist.

“Dude is freakishly strong. Freak, freak, super freak,” says Jordan.

Vila eventually left N.C. State for Michigan State where he began training with future All-American wrestlers Nick and Andy Simmons as well as soon-to-be MMA stars Gray Maynard and Rashad Evans. Vila was training and coaching and, for the first time, was feeling some stability and success in America.

Vila grew up in Santa Clara, Cuba—the capital city of the Vila Clara province, which is in the heart of the country, equidistant from the north and south coasts. Vila says he was the young son of a thoughtful, tough mother—the type that saw a lively boy and put him into boxing lessons at five years old. However, boxing didn’t quell his rage, rather only exasperated it.

“I was fighting too much,” says Vila. “I was fighting all the time, and she wanted to make sure that I didn’t get into more trouble.” When he was 13 years old, his mother put him into wrestling.

Some wrestlers are brawlers, and Vila could have been one, but it was the Soviet-styled coaching—the highly technical approach to gameplans, maneuvers, countershots, and match preparation—that seemed to accelerate Vila’s game. “I always liked the technique because it taught me how to win the tough matches,” says Vila. “You make a gameplan for your opponent and you can win against anyone.”

From 1993 to 1995, Vila proved that theory right. He beat everyone. In two of those years, he was named World’s Most Technical Wrestler by FILA, the international body that overseas Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. He also won two World Championships. At only 22 years old, many considered Vila to be the best wrestler in the world. In 1996, he was expected to win Olympic gold, but a suspicious set of calls in the semi-finals (some have claimed there was a paid official) cost him a chance at the finals. Vila settled for bronze.

With the wins came the responsibility of constantly performing and keeping his weight down. Vila wrestled at the since-eliminated 48 kg (105.5 lbs.) weight class, but he had a natural body weight of 125 lbs., which meant he was being forced to cut 20% of his body weight once or twice a month.

“We flew all over the world to wrestling matches in Korea, Australia, Japan—we even spent three months in Mexico wrestling at elevation,” he says. The weight cut was difficult and cruel. Vila was once locked in a room for two days with nothing but a television and told to make weight. It was the Cuban way, but Vila’s anger from enduring that trauma hasn’t subsided.

In 1997, the Cuban team traveled to the Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico. As was the norm in the 1990s, the 26-year-old Vila took home the gold. After the match, Vila dutifully walked beside his teammates and minders, leaped onto the podium, and received his medal. The team was then planning to walk together with their minders over to the 60 kg finals match where another Cuban was competing. The team monitors stood close by and watched the match along with the wrestlers. As soon as they were distracted, Vila turned and trotted out the front door of the gymnasium and into the waiting car of a friend living in Puerto Rico. Vila had defected.

“I had to leave my newborn baby girl in Cuba to come to America,” says Vila. “I couldn’t tell anyone that I was coming here or something could have happened to me and my family.” Vila also left behind his mother and father and all of his friends. He was immediately granted amnesty. Vila arrived in Miami four months later, where he met Carter Jordan and made his way to N.C. State and then Michigan State for a few seasons. Then July 4, 2004, happened.

Alexis Vila vs Joe WarrenA scant three years after 9/11—when airports were still airtight cathedrals filled with AK-47’s and screening rooms—Vila drove his maroon-colored 1998 Lincoln Navigator into the ticket counter of South east Airlines at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Nobody was hurt, but the front windows of the airport were obliterated, and Vila—tackled by police officers trying to flee the scene—was arrested, charged, and put under psychological surveillance for 72 hours.

Federal and local investigators debated seeking terrorism charges—good for Vila that he was raised Catholic—but nothing ever came of it. Eventually, the charges were reduced when it became evident that his actions were emotional—or accidental
(Vila says he was dozing off). The court recommended a lighter sentence of 30 months in Miami FDC, a far better situation than spending 40 years in Leavenworth.

The popular refrain might be that prison is where Vila learned to fight, but it’s not—it’s where he learned confidence in his fighting ability. Many wrestlers have gained their initial bravado to step into a cage by watching former teammates and competitors win fights and then drawing the obvious conclusion—I can do that. Vila was in federal prison, and at 130 lbs., he was an easy target for other inmates. They antagonized, and he fought. “Inmates always tried to mess with me, but I know how to fight,” he says. “I spent my life in the fight. They come after me, but I know better. I don’t talk, I fight.”

Vila completed his 30-month sentence but was forced to wait another six months behind bars as Immigration and Naturalization Service determined whether or not he was to be deported back to Cuba, as often happens when new immigrants turn criminal. Vila was given a second chance, and upon his release, he immediately began teaching wrestling camps and looking for a way into MMA.

“I trained like I did for wrestling, maybe thee or four times a day,” he says. “But I train different, because in MMA I need to learn so many more things, and I need a gameplan. The guys at Top Team, they help me and they show me all the techniques, and I show them wrestling.”

Heading into Bellator’s Season 5 Bantamweight Tournament, the 40-year-old Vila was 9-0 with six finishes. His longtime friend Yoel Romero, another Cuban defector and Olympic silver medalist, had just risked his unblemished record in a Strikeforce fight and been KO’ed in the second round. Vila was facing Bellator’s Bantamweight Champion Joe Warren, a World Champion wrestler that Vila had known from their years competing in the same tournaments on the wrestling circuit, albeit different weight classes and styles.

“Warren always said that he respects me, but then he comes into this fight and talks shit,” says Vila. “I don’t get it. I never did anything to him, but he acted like he was my friend and then he tells people lies about me.” Warren had gotten under Vila’s skin by peppering him with insults, first about his fighting, then his wrestling ability, and then un-backed assertions that Vila had been doping.

“Warren was nothing to me,” Vila says. “He did not impress me or intimidate me. How are you going to impress me? I’m not some little kid.”

On fight night, Vila was in the throws of emotion, and not the falsetto of a high school actress. Vila looked like he was boiling from the inside out. In Vila’s mind, Warren had gone to the nice college (University of Michigan) and maybe had a nice family and some money. Vila had clawed his way from a small town in the center of Communist Cuba, wrestled the world, left behind a daughter, and scrapped through three years in a Florida prison, and now he was fighting to protect his new life. Stepping into the cage, Vila’s face showed every ounce of his fearless rage.

“I come to America and I have nothing,” he says. “Nobody give me anything. I leave behind my island and my baby. I go to jail. I fight in the streets. I do things that matter to me to make my living and feed my family.” The best knockouts are cathartic. Fans might not have known that the Cuban was a defector, or that he’d sacrificed everything for a chance at a better life, but they did know he was the underdog to the prickly Warren. When Vila landed the right hand that sent Warren stumbling back into the fence at 41 seconds into the first round, he knew his gameplan was perfect.

“If I want to take him down, I take him down,” says Vila. “I wanted to stay on my feet and use my hands. I like to fight, and he can’t stand with me. I know this. It was my gameplan.”

Warren bounced away from the fence and Vila followed the separation by throwing a left hook. Down went Warren, right arm seized skyward like a child’s action figured being pushed aside. A mere 67 seconds after it started, Warren was unconscious and falling to the canvas. Vila followed-up but was tossed aside by the referee and quickly somersaulted to his feet. He flexed his muscles and screamed at the top of his lungs.

At 40 years old, Bellator’s next star was born.  

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It’s common for sportswriters to mythologize the men they cover, to exaggerate their accomplishments, their histories, their presence in a room. Athletes, after all, exist to show us, the mere mortals, that the impossible— the hole-in-one, the perfect game, the knockout— can actually happen.

But sometimes the man and the myth are, in fact, one and the same: a mixedrace kid named Tiger shooting a 48 on the front nine at the age of three; a chubby orphan called the Babe dominating everyone he faced on the diamond, fi rst with his arm, then with his bat; a skinny white boy known as Pistol Pete busting out playground moves that hadn’t even been seen on the Rucker Park courts in Harlem yet. You can’t invent that shit.

Only time will tell if mixed martialartist Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida will someday ascend to the lofty heights of the legends described above. But a few facts already exist: First, his record, so far, is a perfect one; and second, his bio reads like something out of a comic book, or a Bruce Lee movie.

The following is completely true:

Yoshizo Machida, a seventh degree black belt in Shotokan karate, moves from Japan to Brazil in his early 20s. His destination of choice: Belem, a remote city in the northeast corner of the country, best known as being the gateway to the Amazon. He marries a Brazilian girl, and in 1978, Lyoto is born. At three years old, Lyoto begins his education in the technique and philosophy of Shotokan, which emphasizes movement, defense and accurate strikes. At the age of nine, young Lyoto sees a sumo demonstration at a local festival and decides to take up the sport. As a teenager, he gets his hands on a videotape of UFC1, and watches as Royce Gracie, a fellow Brazilian, wins the historic event using only Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He makes himself a promise on the spot: one day, he will be a champion. He then signs up for classes in BJJ.

Around this time, he meets Fabiola, a beautiful girl in his class. They never leave each other’s side. Rather than turn pro early, Lyoto waits, studies, and learns as much as he can. He wakes up every morning at 5 a.m., never drinks alcohol, and only eats organic food. He never gets a job—he just trains. He marries Fabiola. He does not want to enter the ring unprepared. Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki hears about him and offers to bring him to Japan for training. Lyoto accepts. Soon afterward, the young man, now a truly complete fi ghter with black belts in karate, sumo, and BJJ, enters the ring for the fi rst time. In just his third fi ght, he is matched up against future UFC superstar Rich Franklin, who at the time is an undefeated fi ghter who’s never had to go the distance. Lyoto stops him with a vicious barrage of strikes in the second round. Other triumphs follow. He outworks men big and small, including 250-pound behemoth Sam Greco, as well as the Prodigy himself, BJ Penn (something tells me BJ had no idea what he was in for). Then he gets a phone call. It’s from the UFC, the Big Show. They want him. He’s got his one shot to make good on his self-imposed prophecy. Up next: ACT II.

I fi rst meet Machida in the most unlikely of places—inside a conference room in an offi ce park on the outskirts of Carlsbad, California, a seaside resort town north of San Diego. This is the headquarters for Two Harbors Trading, an importer of exotic fruits whose staff also moonlights as the Kid’s unoffi cial and unpaid publicists. The gang from True Harbor has known Lyoto for all of four months, when two members of the team, Jeff Yates and Paul Jacinto, traveled down to Brazil in search of acai, the “superfruit” that’s begun to fi nd a market in the U.S. They ended up in Belem, where they found a supplier, Bony Acai, as well as Machida, Bony’s offi cial poster boy and the town’s favorite son. As it turned out, Lyoto, Fabiola, Jeff and Paul were all booked on the same fl ight to Vegas later that week, and by the time the plane landed, the men from Two Harbors were offering the young couple a place to stay and have been making introductions for them. “We just want to help him,” explains Yates of his company’s uncommon relationship with Machida. “We’re just doing it because we care about him. His major sponsor is our supplier, so the bigger he gets, the more people will know about acai. But let’s face it—from a business point of view, we don’t stand to make any real money. We all just really like Lyoto and want to do what we can to help make sure he’s successful.”

Normally, a business arrangement like the one Two Harbors has with a foreign fi ghter like Machida would reek of bad intentions. But in this case, I happen to buy it. And it’s not just because these American friends seem like straight shooters, or that Lyoto and Fabiola are two of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. It’s more than that. To borrow from the great ’80s camp chopsocky fl ick, The Last Dragon, Lyoto’s got “the glow,” an aura of unfailing confi – dence that comes only from years of discipline and training, and the results to back it up. Perhaps there’s a spiritual element to him, a yin and a yang, an inner peace that draws you in but also commands respect. Maybe it’s his heritage—one part Japanese discipline, and one part Brazilian joie de vivre. But it’s there. I spend the next two days with Lyoto and Fabiola, and everywhere we go he’s treated differently, with more respect, by both fi ghters and civilians alike. And he’s not even famous. Not yet, anyway.

Lyoto and a very pregnant Fabiola have been in the U.S. for about a week, most of which was spent at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. The next intended victim: Dana White nemesis Tito Ortiz, perhaps the most recognizable name in all of mixed martial arts, who he will face off against on May 24. Tito’s days as a top light heavyweight appear to be behind him, but his stints on Celebrity Apprentice, The Ultimate Fighter, and the red carpet with girlfriend/porn goddess Jenna Jameson have assured Machida a shot at superstardom, as well as a chance to compete for the light heavyweight title, perhaps before the end of the year. While he should enter the ring as the betting favorite, Machida isn’t taking Ortiz lightly. “Tito’s strong, he’s good, I know he’ll be prepared, because I know he wants to prove something to Dana White,” Machida tells me. “But I don’t worry about his business. He’s fi ghting me, not Dana White.” Too bad for Tito.

Six months ago, a highprofi le bout in the UFC didn’t appear to be in Machida’s future. That all changed in December, when he was matched up against a man who many were tagging as the future of the UFC’s light heavyweight division: Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, aka the “African Assassin,” a Cameroonian kickboxer/judo specialist who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dreadlocked alien from The Predator franchise. Despite sporting a thin 4-1 record, Sokoudjou’s last couple of fi ghts in the Pride organization had been spectacular: back-to-back fi rst-round knockouts of two of the best 205-pounders in the world: Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona. Sokoudjou had recently joined Team Quest, and been taken under the wing of none other than Dan Henderson. He was the new stud in town.

Machida, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly a UFC fan favorite. In his fi rst three outings inside the Octagon, he had coasted to uneventful, safety-fi rst decision wins over the rugged but limited David Heath, Sam Hoger and Kazurhiro Nakamura. Things didn’t get off to a good start: Machida’s passport got lost in the mail, and by the time he got a new one, the fi ght was only a couple of days away. He arrived in Vegas a mere 24 hours before stepping into the cage.< /p>

It didn’t matter. Machida absolutely dominated the Cameroonian, landing strikes at will, and then popping out without being touched. A few minutes in, Sokoudjou shot for a takedown but was reversed immediately, then spent the next few minutes absorbing nasty elbows to his thighs while he fl ailed around like a crab in the sand. The fi rst round ended, and as he walked back to his corner, Sokoudjou seemed thoroughly confused. Understandable, considering he hadn’t landed a single blow. In the second round, Machida took his time and circled, then found an opening and caught Sokoudjou with a punch as he came in. The fi ght went to the ground, and Machida began raining down strikes. A minute later, he locked in an arm triangle from top position and the fi ght was over. In less than ten minutes, Machida’s status within the UFC had skyrocketed. He hadn’t just simply outclassed his overmatched opponent; he had also shown the fans—and more importantly, Dana White—that he could beat a dangerous opponent in explosive fashion. White promptly rewarded Machida with a fi vefi ght contract.

Machida doesn’t look like a man who hurts people for a living. Save for a slightly caulifl owered ear, his face is smooth, unmarked. That’s because he doesn’t get hit. “My father always said to me, “The most important weapon in fi ghting is your eyes,” he tells me. “You always need to see the punches, the kicks, before they come. The second most important weapon is your base. You need to be strong. Everything else—arms, legs—they come afterward.”

Mixed martial arts may be constantly evolving, but most of today’s top fi ghters tend to limit their striking training to some combination of Muay Thai and Western boxing, both of which employ a squared stance and fairly straight-ahead style. Shotokan, however, emphasizes the elusive: you get in, you strike, you get out, and then reset. You never square up. It may not make for a crowd-pleasing brawl, but if a fi ghter has the athletic ability to stick and move with his punches and kicks like Machida can, he can employ Shotokan to deliver blows from unorthodox angles without exposing himself to much damage. The fact that Machida’s a southpaw only makes him more diffi cult to fi gure out. Just ask Sokoudjou.

I get a chance to witness Machida’s Rubik’s Cube of a fi ghting style in person at Vladimir Matyushenko’s VMAT gym in El Segundo, a suburb south of LAX. Machida has trained with Matyushenko (“The Russian Janitor”) on and off for the past fi ve years, and today he’s here to help his old buddy prepare for his upcoming defense of the IFL light heavyweight title against Jamal Patterson. I watch Matyushenko go at it against a number of established pros, including EliteXC middleweight Jared Hamman and UFC heavyweight Antoni Hardonk. The tough Russian, who’s built like he’s been carved out granite, moreor- less imposes his will against each of his training partners. Then he gets to Lyoto, and things change. For two rounds, Matyushenko doesn’t land a single blow, while Lyoto pops in and out, peppering his friend with an arsenal of lightly-delivered but perfectly placed punches and kicks. It’s mesmerizing.

“Lyoto waited for a long time before he went pro, and I know a lot of people thought that was a bad idea,” Matyushenko tells me after the sparring session. “But the whole time, he was observing other fi ghters, and when he fi nally did start, he was ready to go. Now it’s his time, and he’s ready. He’s powerful, but he uses his power only as a last resort. He’s a great athlete, a great striker, and he’s terrifi c on the ground. People might think a karate guy wouldn’t want to go to the ground, but just look what he did to Sokoudjou. He is defi nitely one of the best fi ghters in the world, no question about it.” Ten days later, Matyushenko would retain his title with a second-round TKO.

Also in the gym that day is Machida’s manager, Ed Soares, a cool-as-a-cucumber Brazilian-American who also manages UFC titleholders Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Anderson Silva. “By the end of the year, Lyoto will be the UFC light heavyweight champion of the world,” Soares responds matter-of-factly. “I believe that there are three fi ghters in the UFC that are bringing the essence of martial arts back into the UFC. One of them is Lyoto, the other is Anderson, and the other one is Georges St. Pierre. These guys are the next evolution of fi ghters, but we’re seeing them now. Lyoto is the Karate Kid. He’s the future.”

A few hours later, as Lyoto and Fabiola are about to leave, I tell him what his manager said about him, and ask him if he agrees. “I was born to be a fi ghter. I didn’t have any other dream, any other way to live,” he says. “Fighting has always been my life. I have confi dence in my technique, my style, my movement. I know what I can do. So yes, I think I have everything to be the best, but I just need the opportunity to prove it. ”

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I am cornering my team in an MMA event, and I look at the judges and think: These people cannot possibly be qualified. Two of the judges are men who are older than dirt and the other is a woman with a bouffant hairdo. Give me a freaking break. I tell my fighters not to leave it in the judges’ hands. These judges have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. How can they possibly know what to look for when judging an MMA fight?

 

This is a scene that repeats itself every weekend across the country. I periodically ask judges, “What is your combative sports background?” Most have never trained MMA,  but instead they take some sort of weekend seminar to learn the ins and outs of the game. I have wrestled since age 5, boxed and trained Muay Thai for 25 years, and done BJJ for 17 years, and I still learn something new every day. How can a weekend seminar or a white belt in some nondescript martial art qualify someone to judge a fight? The answer is easy—it doesn’t. The sport of MMA is too technical and complicated for people like this to be judging or refereeing. I have nothing personal against any of these people, but I do consider it an insult that they are deciding fighters’ fates.

 

FUTURE CHALLENGES

 

The futures of young fighters are put in the hands of some very unqualified people, and that does not sit well with me. Boxing has gotten a bad name because of shady judges’ decisions. Is the sport of boxing corrupt? Maybe, but more likely it has a lot to do with unqualified judges who know nothing about boxing and are deciding a fight. Now, many of those same judges are involved in the sport of MMA.

 

Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good refs and judges, but they are few and far between. One athletic commission—which will remain anonymous—hired one of their judges though shady circumstances. The head of the athletic commission was friends with a guy who owned an insurance company. They formed an alliance so promoters in that state had to acquire insurance through the friend’s insurance company. I can’t prove it, but I’m betting the commissioner was probably getting kickbacks from the deal. That’s bad enough, but for some odd reason, the wife of the insurance owner was suddenly judging fights in that state. It’s this kind of stuff that warrants a punch in the face. I wouldn’t hit the wife, but the other two would be as good as sleeping if I had my way.

 

An easy way around all of the backroom, shady deals is simply to have stringent rules and guidelines that qualify someone as a refor a judge. Should they have five years of BJJ and striking? Some guidelines need to be in place to ensure the refs and judges actually know the details of the sport they are being paid to take part in.

 

Trainer and former fighter Matt Hume agrees that there is a problem. “How can a judge—qualified or not—confidently score a fight when there are no definitive guidelines?” he says. “What scores more points, a take down or a punch? A kick or a punch? Is the bottom man always losing if he’s getting hit, but attacking with submission attempts?”

 

These issues also have to be defined and figured out. Someone like Matt Hume would be a great person to head up a sanctioning body that determines national standards for judging and reffing qualifications/guidelines. If MMA is going to avoid the corruption that plagues boxing, we need national standards.

 

Know Your Role

 

Refs have an even more important role in a fight than judges.Refs cannot only decide the fate of a fighter’s career, but they can also save a fighter’s health and life. I have seen a new phase that refs have been going through when a fighter is caught in a choke. The ref will grab a fighter’s arm and lift it to see if the athlete is asleep. What the hell is this? Who teaches someone to do this?

 

It’s like watching a WWE match, and suddenly Hulk Hogan starts counting down with his finger when he is going to escape the choke. Fighters that are unconscious will have a variety of reactions: some will go stiff, some will convulse, and some will go limp. Lifting a fighter’s arm and letting it go tells me nothing. Instead, simply ask a fighter to blink his eyes, ask if he’s awake, or watch his breathing. Fighters can go unconscious with their eyes open, and many refs are also fooled by this. It’s not hard to figure it out if you have been around the sport for a while. I can tell when a fighter is asleep from my living room TV before many refs know.

 

A ref who has not competed is usually completely out of his element. It’s very hard to understand the process of someone moving from position to submission unless you have done it. When this sort of transition takes place, it is important that the ref already know what’s coming and the danger involved. Being grandfathered in due to sheer experience should not automatically qualify you as a ref.

 

The Perfect Union

 

A fighters’ union would be a great step in helping determine the requirements and guidelines that referees and judges should have to meet and follow. Many of the people in control of MMA in their states know very little about it. At the end of the day, what is it going to take for the promoters, fighters, and fans to get qualified refs and judges? I’m guessing a lot of hell raising and articles like this are a good start.

 

It’s a complicated situation with a lot of politics involved, but I have never been politically correct. I speak my mind, because in a situation like this, I couldn’t care less what someone who works for a commission thinks of me. If they care about the athletes, they will read this with an open mind. If we are going to improve the status and further legitimacy of MMA, change needs to happen. We owe it to the athletes.

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Why does such a polite young man like yourself punch people in the face for a living?

I view it more as a competition, like tennis or golf— any professional sport. Its just competition, plain and simple. It just so happens that this competition is fighting.

You’re fighting Jaime Varner next. If you could change one thing about him, what would it be?

I’m not sure. Maybe I would make him less strong, so he doesn’t punch as hard.

You were a double major in criminal justice and sociology. Sociologically speaking, why is FIGHT! the best magazine in the sport?

Sociologically speaking, FIGHT! is the best magazine because they offer the widest viewpoints. Not a bias, you know? ‘Oh, well these are the best fighters period, because we said so,’ because they are pumped by whoever is backing them. They have lots of other fighters as well, not just well known fighters and big stars.

You went to college in Nebraska. What’s the best time in the Cornhusker state?

Definitely football season. There’s no pro team. There’s really not a whole lot in Nebraska. Right when football season comes around, everyone’s all about the Huskers. Everyone’s a lot more friendly believe it or not. ‘Oh yeah, did you watch the Huskers game? Are you excited for the Huskers?’ Everything’s about go Big Red.

You ever get in trouble out in Nebraska?

I never really got into too much trouble. Me and my buddies were kind of losers. We stayed home and watched fights Saturday nights and played board games. We hung out and didn’t really do too much troublemaking.

What’s your favorite board game?

We played Cranium all the time.

I’m a Monopoly man myself. No one likes that one though.

Oh no, me and my roommates, we are hardcore Monopoly enthusiasts. We play strictly by the rules. None of that homemade rules stuff, strictly by the book rules. It got to the point where it was so bad that no one wanted to play with me and my roommates anymore. We took it too seriously. ‘It’s not even fun playing with you guys!’

I got to say Benson, I’m tempted to go down to Arizona and challenge you.

Oh man! It’d be on like Donkey Kong, let me tell you.

What’s a young Christian who happens to be a champion do to party?

I eat a lot! My own choice of, ‘Hey, what do you guys want to do? What’s going on? What do you want to do tonight?’ It’s always gonna be centered around eating.

If you could travel anywhere in the world for food, where would you go?

I wouldn’t say Korea, just because my mom is Korean, and it doesn’t get any more delicious than mom’s home cooking. I’d really like to go somewhere exotic, somewhere I have no idea what the food is like. Maybe Bosnia.

How do you market yourself in MMA without tattoos or a reality show?

You can market yourself a bunch of different ways, you know. Yeah, it’s a big stereotype of fighters as far as from all the reality shows what fighters are like and how we actually interact with each other. Sometimes it can be a little tough, like, ‘No, I’m a professional fighter—cage fighter— but no I’m not some silly drunken alcoholic guy.’

Can I make a suggestion? I think Ben Henderson scrunchies would be a great marketing tool.

This is what I’m saying! I want to get sponsored by Pantene Pro-V. I’ll do Pert Plus. TRESemme. Garnier Fructis.

Do you have any embarrassing songs on your iPod?

I suppose there are a few, but not super embarrassing. It’s not really that embarrassing—John Mayer. I love John Mayer. I have a man crush on John Mayer. He’s awesome. Any of his songs, his whole album, I know all the lyrics to his whole album. Sometimes my girl is like, “Are you serious? You need to just stop.”

You rock your glasses hard. Any spectacled celebrity you think wears them well?

We’ll go with either Harry Potter, even though he’s fictional, or Ugly Betty.

Both fictional characters, man. Outside of your camp, who do you admire in MMA?

Of course, being a wrestler, Matt Hughes. I grew up a lot watching him. BJ Penn, those are my two all-time favorites fighters to watch. Another guy who people don’t know as much about is Yves Edwards. That guy is awesome. Still now, but especially back in the day, when he was at his peak, he was the man. I liked him a lot.

Team Jacob or Team Edward?

Oh oh! I have a huge debate on my Web site www.smoothben.com, on my Facebook, on my Twitter @ SMOOTHone155. Team Jacob all the way! 100%, hands down!

I’ll be seeing you in Arizona for that Monopoly challenge.

Heeey, anytime, hit me up, let me know.

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His nickname is “Quicksand,” and for good reason. Hell, it took two months just to pin him down for an interview.

It might be easy to dismiss him as another country hick who learned mixed martial arts and got real good at it. It would be simple to draw a character sketch of him with crayons and leave it at that.

But there’s nothing simple about Mike Pyle.

For underneath the folksy attitude and tough — guy persona is a highly driven individual whose mind is his best asset … and sometimes his worst enemy.

Don’t let the southern twang fool you. This guy is smart. Intelligence isn’t only measured by some letters and numbers in high school or college. Intelligence is about problem-solving — in life or on the mat — and the ability to take information and apply it effectively to a number of situations. For Pyle, tests and grades couldn’t measure his intelligence, especially not his kinesthetic intelligence — muscle memory, learning by doing.

No, any man who can teach himself to be a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu by watching videos is not simple. That man is a genius.

LIKE A SPONGE

It was a loose life in the Pyle household in Dresden, Tenn. Pyle spent most of his days hunting and fishing on the family’s 15 acres of woods and teaching his younger sister, Keisha, to do the same around the family’s backyard creek.

“My mom just taught me to fend for myself,” he said. “When I left the house in the morning, she’d say just to be back by sundown, and that’s the way I liked it. But I was never in any trouble or anything like that.”

Early on, however, Pyle’s smarts made themselves very evident, perhaps not through his grades, but in the ways that he outwitted his teachers — almost as if he were bored with school. Instead of studying, he was the class clown pulling the pranks.

“I remember he went out and bought one of those programmable remote controls,” recalled Keisha. “Then he somehow went to all of the TVs in the school and figured out what the code was for each one. During class, while the teacher was talking, he programmed the remote control to turn on the TV and change channels. It was hilarious. They all thought something was wrong with the TVs. The school had people come in and look at them … It took them like three weeks to figure it out!”

By age 17, Pyle felt the tug of wanderlust and moved to Birmingham, Ala., to work in his uncle’s machine shop. Not even old enough to run the machines, he spent his days mindlessly cleaning them, and cleaning the shop — bored again.

“Honestly, I never liked jobs,” Pyle said. “I knew I had to do something.”

Enter the martial arts.

“I started with tae kwon do, practicing that for a year, but didn’t really get too much into it,” Pyle said. “I liked it a lot and excelled in it pretty fast, kicking the black belts in the heads and whatnot. But I had just seen UFC for the first time and I was like, ‘Wow, I want to learn ‘the jits.’ I want to grab somebody’s arm and break it or choke a guy.’ I was really impressed, and realized this was what I wanted to do.”

After nearly five years in Birmingham, Pyle moved back to Dresden, now dreaming of dropping his own bombs and pulverizing opponents.

So he ordered dozens of video tapes of UFC fights and jiu-jitsu instruction.

He cleared out his family’s old 15-by-15- -foot shed, put down five or six rugs and carpets, covered the shed with a tarp (with which one would normally cover firewood) and made a makeshift mat.

“Then I bought a grappling dummy out of a magazine,” Pyle said. “And that was my training partner for a long time. So I beat the shit out of that thing, threw it around. It had arms, so I did all the arm locks on him. His name was Bob.”

Once Bob had worn out his usefulness, Pyle turned his attention toward Keisha. Or rather, Keisha’s boyfriends.

“He was looking for any live body to practice moves on,” Keisha laughed. “It was very difficult for me to have a boyfriend because one, Mike is very protective, and two, he’d beat them all up. After a while, nobody would come near me. Then he made me and my friends hit him in the face as hard as we could, so he could at least get used to getting hit by someone.”

Pyle’s body and mind soaked up the repetition and instruction like a sponge. He learned and applied information quickly. Akin to how some people are voracious readers, Pyle devoured any martial arts information and instruction that he could get his hands on.

The day that Pyle happened to attend a jiu-jitsu seminar in Louisville, Ky., was the day that the martial arts world really opened up to him.

“It was at a Royce Gracie seminar when we first met Mike,” said Jason Hawkins, owner and chief instructor of Three Rivers Martial Arts Academy in Paducah, Ky. “He was pretty good, but we didn’t know a lot about him. Since we were only about an hour and a half from where he lived, he said he’d come to our facility. But that was that.” “Then a week later, one of our senior instructors, Brad Lynn, said to me, ‘Hey, remember that guy from the seminar? He’s here.’”

Like a thirsty man in the desert …

Some people study and train for years to achieve a lofty status. Yet Mike’s career seems to topple the pillars on which martial arts training is built, with his steady progression in turning learned skill into pure instinct.

For underneath that homey, southern, devil-may-care attitude, there is a man who cares quite a bit.

Whether it’s for his career, his family or his fiancé, there’s a lot going on up in that head of his. At first, like when he’s on the mat, it is extremely difficult to get your hooks into Mike Pyle. But when you do, you’ll be glad to know him.

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Forrest Griffi n’s face was covered with blood, but Jacob “Stitch” Duran didn’t hesitate to start working on a serious cut in the middle of Forrest’s forehead. It was UFC 76; Forrest was in the middle of arguably the biggest fi ght of his career. The cut, courtesy of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s elbow, was threatening Forrest’s vision and possibly the outcome of the fi ght due to a possible doctor’s stoppage. Stitch worked vigorously yet cautiously on the gash. The bleeding subsided and Forrest was sent out for the third and fi nal round, where he went on to fi nish Shogun with a rear naked choke sealing the victory.

The cutman is an extremely important part of any fi ghter’s corner, especially in mixed martial arts. “In MMA, there is nothing like it,” Stitch said, comparing MMA to other combat sports. “You’re dealing with knees, you’re dealing with elbows, with everything for the most part. Cuts are bigger, more jagged, and in multiples,” Stitch explained. “When I work with [boxer] Vladimir Klitschko, I kinda feel like I’m cheating him, because when he gets cut, it’s a single cut and I can almost do that with my eyes closed now,” Stitch said with a chuckle.

Cutmen bring a wide array of supplies to the ring in order to get the job done. That equipment includes an enswell, a small piece of steel with a handle that is kept on ice, to help stop swelling and decrease the blood fl ow in areas around a cut or bruise. Vaseline is used to help prevent cuts to the face, and is applied by the cutman to a fi ghter before he steps into the ring. Adrenalin chloride (also referred to as epinephrine) is used by cutmen to help decrease blood fl ow. Avitene, a white cotton type substance, coagulates the blood.

“When Forrest got cut between his eyes, he had a real nasty zigzag cut. First, I used the adrenaline chloride, which I applied with pressure to constrict the blood vessels. But to coagulate the blood that was still coming out, I plugged it with avitene, and then covered it with a mixture of adrenaline chloride and Vaseline. Low and behold, I gave him another round and he ended up winning the fi ght,” Stitch said. Cotton swabs are used to apply medicines, and cutmen are required to wear latex medical gloves.

With all the materials cutmen carry with them, organization and preparation is key. “I can make it into the ring and start putting pressure on the fi ghter within fi ve or six seconds after the bell rings. You have to be prepared to eliminate as much time as possible. Seconds are very important,” Stitch stressed. “I am getting my medications ready; I am getting the Vaseline ready, the enswell ready just to expect the worst scenario. The guys that open up the gate for the Octagon are very good with me, they know that I go in fi rst.”

The job of a cutman doesn’t end with stopping blood fl ow or swelling. “From the moment I walk into the dressing room, until the moment the fi ghts are over, we stay very busy,” Stitch said. At weigh-ins or rules meeting, fi ghters are asked if they want their hands wrapped by the cutmen. Cutmen are usually the best at this task, so the majority of fi ghters want them to do it. This keeps many cutmen working hard throughout the night. Many organizations have at least three cutmen on hand at a fi ght. This can help ease some of the pressure cutmen have to deal with, and allows them to concentrate on their tasks.

While the job of a cutmen is stressful, it has it’s rewards. In Forrest Griffi n’s case, the work of his cutman allowed him to go out and fi nish his job. “Those are the things that make our jobs special, right there,” Stitch said. “The respect and admiration they give us is something you can’t go to the store and buy. It is something that you have to earn. The fi ghters want every opportunity to win, and we can help give them that opportunity. That’s what we live for.”

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When Renzo Gracie said, “Everyone is fighting something,” he was referring to the everyday struggles of every human being—how they are mirrored by what we see in the cage, in the battles of our heroes. Professional fighters have always had different and personal reasons that drive them to fight, but whether it’s to feel excitement, earn respect, combat insecurities, or battle inner demons, fighting helps people survive. It’s a place where damaged men can feel whole.

Mark was told that his sons had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy when they were one year old. By the time the twins were five years old, they began stumbling because their calf muscles were atrophying. This implacably cruel disease leaves the brain intact, but unstoppably wastes the body and the muscles, and is without a cure. The horror of discovering that your beautiful baby sons have a death sentence, that they probably won’t live past age 25, pounded particularly close to home for me, as I have a one-yearold son. I can’t imagine what it did to Mark. Or, maybe I can, which is why I’m writing this. The empty horror, the powerlessness of a father who is supposed to protect his sons from these things must have been earth-shattering. And what a diabolical twist—to leave the brain totally intact, so that your sons will be fully cognizant of their fate.

Mark is a professional tough guy, a PI from Brockton, which is the pugilistic home of such fistic legends as Rocky Marciano and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. On the side, Mark hosted a radio show about sports, and he had become an MMA fan. Mark was a high-school wrestler, in his own words, “The bexst asthmatic wrestler in my high school,” and his interest in MMA led him to having a local professional fighter and instructor, Mike Varner, on his radio show. During the show, as they chatted, “Testosterone filled the small room,” Mark said ruefully. Mike offered Mark a chance to fight, to “raise awareness” for Muscular Dystrophy. Mark accepted, almost without realizing what he was getting into.

Mike Varner understands the needs that fighting can fill. He had his own tough road, run-ins with the law and drugs, but fighting had come as a way out and a way forward. He’d turned his life around with MMA.

“Fighting is what people want, what they respect,” Mike told me over the phone, in his thick Massachusetts accent. “I had issues with domestic violence and drugs, girls would leave me and I would freak out … there were demons inside me. But learning to fight completely changed me. I didn’t have to lift and be intimidating to scare people. When I started to really learn how to fight, getting beat didn’t scare me. I had nothing to prove in bars or in the street. MMA humbles ya, once that transformation occurs, you’re not frustrated by losses, you learn from them.”

Mark started training with Mike at his gym, and he found something freeing in the hard realities of training, the utter exhaustion of the struggle. Mark trained with Mike for two months, and he found himself physically transformed. The day of the fight rolled around, and Mark had to deal with the normal realities of amateur MMA: his opponent dropped out. “Originally, I was supposed to fight some stiff like me, some brawler kid. He backed out a day before the fight, of course. Mike offered to come down to the ring and he’d explain it. I couldn’t do it. I got friends and family here, it’ll look wrong. So he said, ‘Alright, I got another kid here, Chuck “Cold Steel” O’Neil, who’s one of Joe Lauzon’s guys, a real serious professional.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll fight him.’ We battled, I lost a decision, but I got his respect and a lot of the guys in the sport who saw it—they said, ‘Who’s the hack father who came in here?’”

Mark fought again the following year, and lost to via armbar. He retired, he was 40 years old. But he found that not training was harder than training. “I beefed back up to 190 pounds and was feeling like a slob having a midlife crisis. I was drifting, and everything in my life was getting more difficult. I thought I should do what I always envisioned. I want to make this into a documentary. It’ll give me a reason to get myself A) physically fit and B) mentally fit, because I honestly slip mentally when I slip physically … it’s all related for me. With the emotional strain of taking care of my sons, if I’m not physically fit, I have a hard time with my coping skills. How do fat people take care of handicap kids? I don’t get it. I have to push myself to stay in the gym and train hard … because it’s the only thing that works for me. My sanctuary is Maxx Training, Mike Varner’s school.”

And there’s the key; what Mark gets out of MMA training is a feeling of satisfaction, emotional release, physical exertion, and balance in his life. Fighting, for him, is an answer to this unbelievably terrible hand he’s been dealt, a way to help his boys, a way to do something. The physical aside, it’s a way to join in their terrible struggle.

Mark’s voice changes when he talks about his boys, “They’re in a fight every day, they struggle every day. It’s tough, it rips your heart out as a parent—but you have to stay mentally strong for them. What they’re going through, well, it might be fodder for a documentary, but me training for a cage fight doesn’t REMOTELY compare to what they’re going through. Listen, these two kids are the toughest kids around. I’d do anything for them, but it’s two-fold. The whole fight thing is for them, but is ultimately for me, and it inspires me.”

When I asked Mike Varner about Mark, he said simply, “Mark never gave up. He persevered, and he fought tough guys. He just kept after it.” That made sense to me. Mark has no choice in his fights. He has to “keep after it.”

A Father’s Fight documents Mark’s journey to his last fight, where he fights on a big stage against a pretty tough kid. Mark follows his gameplan, and gets the takedown and the win, scoring a submission via guillotine (Mark’s bread-and-butter). Watching the documentary, watching his twin boys cover their faces and scream themselves hoarse during the fight, I realized that the fight was for them in more ways than one—it was a blow against the world, a victory they could cherish in the face of relentless defeat.

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Imagine that tomorrow when you go to work, be it in a cubicle, an oil fi eld or on the mean streets handing out parking tickets (bastard) that the day determines your salary for the next year. Your morning Starbucks won’t be the only thing to make your butt hole pucker up, and “Have a good day at work” takes on a whole new meaning now doesn’t it. Imagine one big day determining your worth for the next several months at the very least. This is the situation a fi ghter faces every time he enters the ring. But how much is the fi ghter really worth? Is it a dime, a dollar, millions? The answer differs, depending on who you’re asking. Here are a few that I’ve heard throughout the years.

“You ain’t worth a damn.” -trainer

A former trainer of mine said these exact words to me a long time ago. At the time, he was probably right. I hadn’t paid him a red cent, and I hadn’t earned much more than that for myself. On top of that, what little money I did earn for appearing in a small show in Hawaii, got left in my suitcase because when I packed I was drunk off my ass. TSA security staff confi scated it during a “routine” inspection of my bags, which also “routinely” captured a video camera of mine. When I got back, my walking papers were waiting for me and as a young Jason always did, I said, “I don’t give a fawk!” and skated on my merry way. Although I was worthless to my coach, my training partners felt like they just got hit with the adjustable rate on their mortgage, because when he booted me out of the gym, they lost one of the most valuable pieces of human capital they had. I was training with a group of mostly kick boxers, and being the “Jiu Jitsu Guy” I was a big piece of a massive puzzle, a puzzle that got kicked across the kitchen fl oor when I left. A few of my buddies went on a streak of getting submitted, because they didn’t have my style to see in the room. “Not worth a damn” indeed. On the fl ip side, I myself underestimated the worth of having that team environment and I took a few asswhippins before I found a new team.

Many fans are out of their minds, and will give over their fi rst born to be close to a fi ghter. I’ve seen some of my own friends become infatuated with “Mayhem” when they’ve known “Jason” for years – and don’t even mention it if somebody like Chuck Liddell comes around. With PPV buys at about 50 bucks a pop, a fan may sell his mothers house to get close enough to touch a real life fi ghter. In fact I feel very strange about the whole thing, the same way I feel weird when I see old footage of girls going bananas for the Beatles, or people passing out at a Michael Jackson concert, before he turned into a creepy old white woman. Not that I don’t like it, but I’d prefer if it was only hot chicks. Hey, that could be a great formula to fi nd a fi ghters worth – subtract the fi ghters ugliness from the hotness of the groupies that he gets, divide that by how crazy his hottest one is, and multiply by how many baby mamas he has. So for the mathematically inclined BM (U-HG/C). OK, now I’m confused.

If the fans love you, you are worth mountains of steaming hot cash to the promoter, but they will do anything possible to not let you know that. The promoter’s job is to make you feel as if you are worth nothing, and then pay you as close to that number as you will take. I don’t think that fi ghters should feel bitter towards the promoters for this; it’s just as close as you can get to an adversarial system and still be in business together. While you are smiling in each other’s faces, you may be cussing behind each other’s backs. Good times, and a hell of a way to run a business. The other situation is that you are friends and you try not to be adversarial at all, just make the money together, and that can work great. You can be butter cupping with the promoter, and be king of the world – waving your fl ags over your massive bleached-blond head, getting choice opponents thrown beneath your fl aming shorts, with a nation of millions at your feet, but the minute you bite the hand that feeds you, you suddenly have your mic cut off and you’re ushered out of your own press conference after your last fi ght. The promoter may see you as a friend, but the minute you turn out to be more of a hassle than you are worth, prepare for trouble. Usually when a friendship ends, it doesn’t have to be a big deal, but when it’s an MMA break up, prepare for drama. The promoter makes the rules, and if he gets angry, he can take his ball and go home. Any fi ghter that tries to buck the system better prepare to take a beating – in their pocketbook. The promoter will do his best to ensure that happens in the ring as well. When you are worthless to a promoter, they’ll do their best to ensure your market value goes down – i.e. when it’s time to renegotiate your contract, the hardest of the hard fi ghts tend to come up, whereas when they want to be your best friend, they tend to hand you fresh and juicy tomato cans.

Now with all the pressure put on a fi ghter it is easy to get down on oneself. I’ve had moments when I felt like 98 cents. That’s not enough to get something from the value menu. Not even a coffee. A promoter can make you feel like you aren’t even worth a cup of coffee, but you can turn around and run into a fan and feel like a million bucks.

Open a letter that is handwritten, complete with, the backwards “R’s” from a “Thank you for your fi ghts, you make them entertaining” from a young fan, and POW ! Ferrari money instantaneously. It’s a wonder that more fi ghters aren’t head cases with that up and down battle of self-worth.

That being said, it is easy to have the self esteem of a 15- year old-girl, and if a fi ghter starts feeling like that, he fi ghts like a 15 year old girl. I think I speak for most fi ghters in that, I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of my worth. If you get caught up in worrying what everyone thinks about you, you may as well hang up the gloves and strap on some Goth make-up and T-shirts from Hot Topic (keeping with the 15 year old girl references)

If we cared about what everyone else thinks, we probably wouldn’t be fi ghters in the fi rst place. I’d probably be a computer consultant of some kind, more miserable than my most destitute days as a fi ghter, maybe working out of a cubicle for dear old dad, sometimes double-legging him through the thin walls of my cubicle, just to break up the day a bit.

I guess the best thing a fi ghter can do is take all the happiness and shove it in a piggy bank, under his mattress, or a high yield, interest bearing account, and save for a rainy day, then when it starts to pour, buy a jacket, some goulashes, or some computer classes. Hell, I guess that is good advice for anybody, so go on, “Have a good day at work.”

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If you’ve ever seen one of his many MMA pencil portrait drawings, you’re likely to have had the same type of take-your-breathaway reaction countless others have had when viewing his artwork for the fi rst time. Evan Shoman’s art is timeless and brings forth both the essence and spirit of each fi ghter he draws.

You’d think the right-brained Long Island native, who moved to San Diego when he was 11, would make a killing in the art world given his unique talent and dedication, but they don’t call them “starving artists” for nothing. This 35-year-old married father of one lets us know, with his self-proclaimed “ridiculous and raw” sense of humor, what’s up the world of MMA art.

So Evan, how old were you when you realized you had this amazing artistic ability?

I still don’t see it. The only thing I see myself excelling at in life is being a dad. What Fedor is to MMA, what Kelly Slater is to surfi ng, and Jordan was to basketball is how I am to parenting.

Tell us what makes you a stellar dad.

My son is my best friend and I treat him as such. I bring my son everywhere with me. Not to fi ghts though. He doesn’t experience that side of his daddy’s life. His last “what my parents do” showand- tell was epic for him. He got to bring in pictures of my drawings of Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and Darth Maul. Also he showed pictures of himself doing karate with Clay Guida, whacking Dan Henderson with a foam noodle, and fi ghting with Mayhem Miller. He was hero for a day in kindergarten even if the kids thought his dad was nuts. He’s also pooped in my hand twice—don’t ask— pissed in my ear, and vomited in my lap… and I didn’t kick his ass. I deserve a medal for the love I give my son.

Did you go to college to study art?

Nah—I never had a passion for it. I wanted to be a sportscaster since I was six. I went to college simply to get a degree and fi nish school. I wanted nothing more in life than to just be done with homework, studying, and, classrooms. I needed a degree and didn’t want to be buried with studying all the time. So I fi gured… art was a way to get around this madness.

Who was the subject of your fi rst MMA drawing and how did that come about?

I did simple black inked t-shirt designs for Ken Shamrock for his fi ght with Don Frye, but my fi rst MMA portrait was of Chuck Liddell in 2005. I posted it on Sherdog, where I was a member. The forum response was tremendously positive.

How many MMA portraits have you done so far?

I’ve done over 80 MMA pieces. How stupid is that? I’ve made about $19 in 3.5 years doing MMA portraits. Giving BJ’s for crack is more profi table.

I’m hoping $19 is a slight exaggeration.

Fine. $19 is an exaggeration. It’s more like $15 but I wanted to show-off for readers of FIGHT! Magazine. You know what they say, “If you want to make money being an artist… become an accountant.” Fighters on the undercard of the “Barn Fighting Championship” in Tustin make more than artists in the fi ght game. They get paid with dry milk chips too.

So how do you choose who you’re going to draw next?

Honestly, it usually just comes down to who I’m “feeling” at the time. There is no real order to any of it. I get emails all the time from fans telling me who to draw. Sometimes I listen. Most times I don’t.

What happens once you decide who to draw next?

According to MMA forum members I use Photoshop fi lters and call it a day. In reality, I just draw my ass off once I start. It takes 40-60 hours per portrait give or take. When I am done, I scan it into the computer so I can advertise online. Then I put the drawing in my pile of drawings in my closet and never look at it again.

Why would you pack your fi nished drawings away in the closet?

Why? Imagine dating a smoking hot ring girl with a phenomenal rack…three years go by and you look at this gal and her rack every day. She bitches, complains, and gets so complex that the mere sight of her pisses you off. By the time year four rolls around, you are so sick of her that you think, “I just want to leave this broad and fi nd a fat girl ‘cause it’s different.”

What are some of the portraits you’re most proud of and why?

These bastards and their tattoos… my best piece is “Notorious” Rick Slaton. He has tatts on his head, feet, hands…basically wherever there is skin. That was easily the most tedious and diffi cult piece for me. I had to shade and detail his body and THEN had to go in and do his tatts over that. Rick and I are good friends but while I drew his piece I cursed him up and down. He called me and I’d just hang up on him. After two weeks he got the hint and waited until I was through. That piece pissed me off so much that I can’t help but be proud of how it came out.

So what’s on your website?

I have autographed drawings of over 30 MMA fi ghters and prints of sports stars, celebs, and musicians on Shomanart. com. Mainly my focus is on MMA though.

What portraits will you be working on in the near future?

Whoever is important to the MMA community. Right now I am drawing Greg Jackson’s camp of Villasenor, Jardine, Marquardt and Evans. A lot of suggestions…or demands… are coming in to draw Brock Lesnar. I just don’t want to get all the “nice upside-down penis sword” jokes.

Obviously you’re a huge MMA fan. How did that all come about?

I watched Ken Shamrock at UFC 1. You either became a Royce Gracie or Ken Shamrock fan after that event. Ken was my favorite and no matter how many times he “hasn’t” been knocked out I will always support him.

Thanks, Evan. I think we’ve actually got a shot at getting most of your ridiculous and raw answers printed!

All this better be in. It’s gold! I can’t be boring and just answer questions easily. That’s Tyson Griffi n.

You said it not us!

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Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. It garners more attention and new fans daily. The emergence of so many new athletes sometimes makes it hard for fans to notice some of the fighters on the verge of making it to the next level. MMAWeekly.com takes you deep inside the sport and presents you with some of the upcoming New Blood.

JORDAN MEIN

RECORD: 26-8
KEY VICTORIES: Forrest Petz, Evan- gelista Santos, Marius Zaromskis
WEIGHT CLASS: 170 lbs.
AGE: 23
COUNTRY: Canada
NICKNAME: Young Gun

Many pundits often talk about the next generation of fighters sprouting from kids who grew up in the sport—Jordan Mein is of that generation. He may be just 23 years old, but Mein has already fought 34 professional bouts, defeating some size- able names in the world of MMA, including UFC veterans Forrest Petz, Joe Riggs, and Josh Burkman, Pride alum Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos, and former Dream Welterweight Champion Marius Zaromskis.

That’s a formidable list for a 23-year-old, but Mein is a formidable fighter. He had his first kickboxing bout at 11 years old, his first amateur MMA bout at 14 years old, and his first pro bout at 16 years old. How’s that for growing up in the sport?

Mein has never backed down from a fight, consistently taking on every fighter thrown his way. In fact, his pro debut was against current UFC welterweight con- tender Rory MacDonald. That may have led to a 4-4 start as a pro, but since late 2007, he has added 22 wins to that total. The lone blemish in his last nine fights was a split decision loss to recent Strike- force title contender Tyron Woodley, but Mein followed that fight up with wins over Tyler Stinson and Forrest Petz.

As for Mein growing up in the sport, he has a true love of fighting, training, and competing. For him, just taking that step forward with each fight is all part of the process that adds up to a career. “I think by beating guys with names, it gives you more recognition,” says Mein. “I’ve had some hard fights, but I’ve been fortunate enough to fight guys who have been around. Fighting in The Score Fighting Series this last year gave me a lot of recognition in Canada. Fighting for Strikeforce in the States helped me get my name out there worldwide. I just want to get my name out there. That’s my goal.”

With Mein still under contract with Strikeforce, and Strikeforce folding into the UFC in early 2013, it’s likely that Mein’s name will soon get even more attention.

JESSE RONSON

RECORD: 12-2
KEY VICTORIES: Ryan Healy, Alex Ricci
WEIGHT CLASS: 155 lbs.
AGE: 26
COUNTRY: Canada
NICKNAME: The Body Snatcher

Canadian lightweight Jesse “The Body Snatcher” Ronson continues to make strides forward in his career the old fashioned way—by beating increasingly difficult opposition. Such was the case in August, when he defeated fellow up- and-comer Alex Ricci by unanimous decision in The Score Fighting Series.

“The key to that fight was staying smart and keeping my balance,” says Ronson. “I had to stay straight up, stay alert, and stay ahead of him. I did, and I proved I was the better striker. I thought I could finish him, but he’s tough and was in great shape.”

The win was Ronson’s sixth in a row—a streak that began after he made an overhaul following a loss to Mike Ricci in April 2011.

“That fight with Mike, I was doing all the wrong things in camp,” says Ronson. “I was training to defend his strengths. After that fight, I changed my coaches and the way I train, and I put on some size. Everything has been coming together. Everything has changed. It was a huge revamp, and I can honestly say that I’m a 100 percent different fighter than who I was when I fought Mike.”

Ronson’s most recent victor y was over Ryan Healy, brother of Strikeforce title contender Pat Healy. Ronson had to go the distance, but he did so against an increasingly difficult veteran, proving once again that he’s ready for the bright lights that The Score Fight Series has afforded him on A XS T V.

“2012 has probably been my most successful year as a fighter,” he says. “I fought some really tough guys and got a lot of exposure.

ELVIS MUTAPCIC

RECORD: 12-2
KEY VICTORIES: Joseph Henle, Jacen Flynne, Cezar Ferreira
WEIGHT Class: 185 lbs. AGE: 26
COUNTRY: Bosnia-Herzegovina
NICKNAME: The King

Growing up during the Bosnian War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Elvis Mutapcic didn’t discover his combat sports chops until he left basketball and soccer behind when his family moved to Iowa. Mutapcic spent the majority of his formative professional years fighting for the Midwest Cage Championship, amassing a record of 8-2 before finally getting a shot in a bigger regional promotion in Las Vegas.

The transplanted Iowan served notice that his was a career to watch when he crushed Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira at Superior Cage Combat 2. The 25-second knockout of Vitor Belfort’s pupil—who is currently in the UFC—coupled with a follow-up submission victory in MCC, launched Mutapcic into the Maximum Fighting Championship in Canada.

Mutapcic wasted no time once he hit the bright lights of the MFC, quickly establishing himself as a force there, finishing off longtime veteran Jacen Flynn. He TKO’d the TUF alum in less than two minutes in his MFC debut.

“I went out there and fought at my pace, and I thought I performed pretty well,” Mutapcic says. “I was prepared for the best Jacen ever and assumed he was a well-rounded fighter, which he was, but I landed a good knee to his chin and ended the fight.”

That performance ratcheted his re- cord to 11-2 and threw him into a battle for the vacant MFC Middleweight Title. In that fight, Mutapcic took out formerly undefeated Joseph Henle, TKO’ing him with a leg kick and taking home the gold. Mutapcic’s career is on a skyward trajectory, and he doesn’t see it slowing down any time soon, although his goals are modest.

“I want to take it one fight at a time, but I think 2013 will be a bigger year than 2012,” he says. “I’m currently a full-time fighter, but I also have a full-time job, and I just want to be able to support my family and do what I love. That’s the main goal right now.”

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