Comic Relief

Watch who you call a comic book nerd…you may just get a roundhouse kick for saying something like that.

The eyeglasses give him a studious demeanor—his long hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looks like a professor, however, behind those spectacles and mild-mannered face is one of the most dangerous fighters in MMA. He is UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson. Code name: “Smooth.” His mission? To defend his title against all challengers.

If you think it sounds like Henderson is something of a superhero—he’d probably like that. In a sport with a jeans and tee-shirt dress code, his favorite shirt isn’t among the ones that sponsors heap on him. No, it’s the worn, dark blue tee emblazoned with the unmistakable red, white, and blue shield of Captain America. As an avid comic book collector and afi cionado, good ol’ Cap resonates with Henderson, who aspired to be a police offi cer before his MMA career took off.

Like all self-admitted comic book “nerds,” he takes a good ribbing from his friends. “Yeah, they all give me crap because I like to read books and comics,” Henderson says. “But it’s how I relax and chill out.”

Henderson isn’t the only martial artist who enjoys comic relief. Pat Barry, Nate Quarry, and Joe Lauzon have their favorite storylines and characters. Perhaps there’s something about the heroic nature of comics that appeals to men who fight for a living. It makes sense—essentially, that’s how Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, and the Hulk “live” their lives, too. With so many of these heroes displaying martial arts skills, it’s only natural for someone competing in the fighting disciplines to have an affi nity for compelling storylines, art, and characters that feature boxing, karate, BJJ, kung fu, and wrestling. For many fighters, it comes as a reprieve to let someone else do the fighting for once.

UFC heavyweight Pat Barry grew up wanting to be a ninja and loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even today, he often sports his favorite tee with the four jiu-jitsu practicing shelled amphibians.

“I grew up on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Street Fighter video games,” says Barry. “Those are the three things that infl uenced my entire career to get into kickboxing and the martial arts. Donatello was my favorite one. He was the most athletic, so he was cool. But he also outsmarted everybody. He didn’t just outfight everybody, he outsmarted them. In a lot of kickboxing matches, I felt like I outsmarted my opponents. I was able to outthink them with a better strategy.”

It’s All in the Name

Comic characters—or at least their names—have often made it inside the Octagon. Randy Couture has long owned the “Captain America” moniker, while UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva has loosely used “Spider” in Spiderman context. Both Silva and Couture have been captured by longtime MMA photographer Eric Williams in a series of photos that reveal them taking off the masks of both heroes in startling candidness.

There’s a long list of fighters who have used comic book context for their fi ghting personas. UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell made the nickname “Iceman” even more popular than the mutant X-Man ever did. Retired lightweight Kurt Pellegrino has used “Batman” as his nickname, even going so far as to incorporate the famous winged insignia into the logo for his MMA training academy in Belmar, New Jersey, as well as on the hood of his black Lincoln Continental. Former UFC welterweight John Howard has taken on the “Doomsday” moniker from the man—or thing—who killed Superman. Former UFC light heavyweight James Irvin often used Spiderman’s arch-nemesis, “The Sandman,” as his nickname.

Fans Alike

It’s a good story and enticing drama that ttracts comic book fans to their favorite titles. MMA enthusiasts may be sports fans first, but nothing is more captivating than a grudge match between bitter rivals in the Octagon. Of course, not all fi ghts have a villain,
but if a fight needs a narrative, good versus evil or hero versus villain always resonates with UFC fans. Nothing keeps a fan more enthralled than drama between two adversaries who hate each other.

Although their true personalities might not reflect the personas they portray in interviews and the Octagon, fighters like Michael Bisping and Josh Koscheck relish in playing the role of the “heel.” Like comic book bad guys, they’ve become the guys you love to hate.

It is no coincidence that Reed Exhibitions, the company that orchestrates the controlled chaos that is Comic-Con: New York and Chicago, also organizes the UFC Fan Expo. The fan bases are similar and both love good drama. “If you’re a fan of pop culture, comic books, or just an old-school nerd, you have to go to Comic-Con,” says former UFC fi ghter Nate Quarry. “Every year I go, it gets bigger and bigger.”

One of the longest running comics and most popular booths at Comic-Con is Image Comics’ The Walking Dead. Started in 2003, The Walking Dead centers around the survival of a family and their friends in a postapocalyptic world filled with zombies. Now a television series on AMC, it has won an Emmy and Golden Globe. UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon is a huge fan, but not because of the show. “I got introduced to it at one of the gyms I train at,” Lauzon says. “I started reading the graphic novel—you know, the big, bound, hardcover version—and I just loved it. Most people, now, read the comic because of the television show. But, not me.”

While the Computer Networking & Information Systems major admits that he’s a “huge nerd,” he doesn’t consider himself a real comic book fan. All he needs are some zombies getting hacked up or shot, and he’s good to go. “For me, it’s all about the zombies,” Lauzon says. “It’s this post-apocalyptic world, and there’s defi nitely some carryover from what the heroes in stories and The Walking Dead do and what we do as fi ghters. We’re just fi ghting for our livelihood, but these characters are fi ghting, struggling for their lives. It’s pretty intense.”

If Lauzon was stuck in a post-apocalyptic zombie-ridden world, how would he kill a zombie?

“Kick him in the chest with a front kick so he falls backward and hope he doesn’t bite you in the leg,” says Lauzon.

It’s always good to have a gameplan… just in case.

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