Dishing Out The Pain
Anthony and Ottavia Bourdain may have taken different paths to MMA, but meeting at that crossroads makes for some wild good times.
On the night that Ronda Rousey became a star in women’s MMA, Ottavia Bourdain was blowing chunks. She was fever-riddled with stomach flu and in a state of delirium, yet she contentedly watched Miesha Tate’s arm bend in ways that would give Gumby the fidgets. And in that addled dream state, she got carried away on a wave of contemplation that would make any sane woman squirm. Maybe, with a special-occasion fight scheduled for May, she could do a “grappling only” match with Cris “Cyborg” Santos.
Hell, she could do it. Of course she could—and just for the privilege of rolling with an idol.
She pitched the idea to her husband, Anthony Bourdain—the star of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations, author, erstwhile chef, and everyday bon vivant—who plans to make her first fight a centerpiece of an upcoming taping in Brazil. Like most men, he’s scared shitless of Santos. But, knowing how strong and feral his wife can be, and with a keen sense of what makes good television, he fell in with her delirium and saw the whole thing for a wild minute. Millions of people watching, Bourdain vs. Cyborg, grappling only—ballsy, sure, but compelling theater. And why not? He once rolled down a sand dune with an ATV toppling over him. Where would he be without fits of daring? The Bourdains are gamers.
Yet, when a recovered Ottavia brought the idea to Igor Gracie, whom she trains with at Renzo’s in New York City, he told her something important that Ottavia paraphrases: “You’re batshit crazy. Cyborg outweighs you by 30 pounds. You would be a like a steak being slid under the door.” The gist was that Igor wasn’t about to let that happen.
Now it’s back to the drawing board as to whom she’ll fight in Rio come May for the television masses.
And if you gain anything from that little anecdote, it should be this—Ottavia Bourdain, a fiery Italian who gazes at the changing of her bruise colors the way you take in a sunset, is a little bit crazy.
A few weeks earlier, on Valentine’s Day, I met the Bourdains at the Lamb’s Club in midtown Manhattan, right next door to Jimmy’s Corner, the famous little dive bar where so many of boxing’s greats have imbibed and now sit in frames along its corridor. Anthony grew up a rabid fan of the Sweet Science in the day of the impossible heavies. In fact, in his career-altering book Kitchen Confidential, he says he once considered himself the Chuck Wepner of the kitchen. It’s easy to see that. Wepner’s reconfigured face could have matched Bourdain’s calloused, distorted hands from his chef prime—gnarled, battle-tested, and proud of how things got that way.
“I grew up in the golden age of 1970s boxing, and to me, in all seriousness, there was George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Muhammad Ali,” Anthony says. “When you talk about great inspiring Americans, Ali was an enormous hero and electrifying figure in my life—as a person and an entity, as a fighter and a historical figure.”
We’re in Bourdain’s milieu—he is a Liebling-esque figure, eating good food and talking about fighting. He is smearing a pat of the parfait of foie gras that’s been brought on bread, sipping a lager because they didn’t have his bourbon of choice. There’s also a plate of semi-melted Guanciale (house cured pork cheek) on garlic toast, and Pied de Cochon. We didn’t order any of this—it’s all compliments of the chef.
“It wasn’t just sports, it was everything,” he says of Ali. “That was a truly dangerous man to the existing social order. So I was a psycho Ali fan from very early on. If you look at the quality of heavyweights in those short years, it’s a once in history division— Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes, Earnie Shavers, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali. These were not pretenders, these were beasts. I’m a boxing enthusiast, so I am inclined to like a good fight.”
Anthony never boxed—aside from a comical sparring session with Miguel Cotto— but he was a wrestler for a year at the Englewood School for Boys in New Jersey while in high school. “I was freakishly tall and skinny, which was a difficult thing to contend with for short, squatty guys,” he says. He also did judo for a few years but “the only thing I took from that was that I learned I fall very well—I can fall down without hurting myself. And I fall down a lot.” Now, having met Ottavia, he’s come around to mixed martial arts—the bouillabaisse of combat sports.
“First of all, I like to see a little artistry,” he says. “And I grew up that way. In MMA, the transition was…in the UFC for instance, just as with a lot of people, I tend to like stand-up because you can see them, and they are doing something I can understand. Ottavia was the one who got me to appreciate and understand the ground game because the fight was over for me after the takedown.”
They married in 2007. That’s the same year Ottavia walked into the New York Sport’s Club on the Upper East Side and began training Muay Thai with Robert Ramsey to get back in shape after giving birth to their daughter. Ramsey was “the first guy to punch me in the face,” she says, apparently unaware of any red flags in the statement. “He would beat me up and it would not be a problem. He beat me so bad once I couldn’t walk for two days.”
After working in the restaurant business for many years, she found a different calling. Since then, MMA has become an essential part of the Bourdains’ lives. They take in as many fights as they can live, and find bars showing them when traveling. Ottavia is gung-ho to be beaten up by men on a daily basis. Anthony jokes that she was a “delicate flower” when they met in 2006 (which she says is bool sheeta). But he is there for support, both literally and in narrative. And while Ottavia is a brute when it comes to the nuances of the fight game, Anthony can be, well…a softie.
“I came home with a bad concussion one time—I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to do nothing,” Ottavia remembers. “And my husband was like, ‘Baby, I’m going to show you something. It’s going to change your life.’ And he showed me When We Were Kings. Oh my God, you should have seen him sobbing.”
“Hey, you watch a man at the end of his rope, everything he’s tried hasn’t worked, standing there in his corner recalculating, rethinking,” Anthony says. “That gets you.”
Henry Miller wept at the immensity of the Grand Canyon. As for Anthony Bourdain, who did plenty of time in the gutter enroute to stardom? He weeps at the sight of a man plumbing his own depths, like Ali did between rounds in Zaire when trying to solve George Foreman. Ali was his own immensity.
Whether this changed the concussed Ottavia’s life is debatable. But we’re sitting there talking about it on Valentine’s Day as a romantic memory.
There are glasses of Chateau la Rame, Sainte Croix du Mont, rounds of Abita beer. Ottavia’s not drinking, because she’s training for a Grappler’s Quest in late March. She’s not eating the hors d’oeuvres, either, saving up for a “meat orgy” at the Brazilian steakhouse Churrascaria Plataforma later. She’s taking her training seriously, even if she’s realistic enough to know that she’ll probably never become a professional fighter. It’s in her blood a little late for that. But she’s grateful it’s found its way into her blood at all.
“I went to see Gina Carano at an EliteXC fight in September 2007,” she says, referring to Carano’s fight against Tonya Evinger in Oahu. “That sealed it for me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want to do this.’ I’d never seen a woman doing that before. So I was at New York Sport’s Club for a while, before moving to Punch Fitness, where some of the Muay Thai instructors there are actually students of Renzo Gracie’s. I started going to Renzo’s last September, and they told me why don’t you try doing jiu-jitsu? And I found my new passion. For some reason, I don’t know, I find it even more appealing than Muay Thai. Jiujitsu is really more mental—you really need to figure out how to make it work.”
Now the Bourdains have a room in their New York City place that’s been converted into a grappler’s den with a punching bag. Sometimes that punching bag is the 6’5” Anthony.
“Every time Ottavia starts getting frisky, she gets this look,” he says. “She has this look where I think, ‘Oh, that’s really sweet,’ but then I realize she’s looking at me like a grappling dummy.”
Ottavia laughs. “I tried to get Tony to at least try either Muay Thai or jiu-jitsu so many times,” she says. “And he’s like, ‘No, I want to do martial arts from the movies. I want to go kill my opponents immediately.’”
“I grew up in the Grind House era watching Bruce Lee movies,” he says. “And I’ve got to say, I have a soft spot for Sonny Chiba. Chiba was fucking awesome, man. He was a dirty, nasty, artless, graceless, cheesier version of Bruce Lee. He didn’t knock you out with a bunch of smooth moves—he’d rip your heart out and show it to you. He tore your nuts off!”
The real question is, what happens when Ottavia is matched against another woman? All this training with world-renowned grapplers and gender-blind Thai boxing instructors makes her unsure of how she’ll handle being confronted by somebody of the same sex (and of the same size).
“I don’t know how the fight in May will go, because I never spar with women,” she says. “I only spar with men. Once I took a class and I rolled with a woman and…I mean, they all say I broke her nose. I don’t know if that’s true, but there was blood all over the place. Now they’re like, ‘You can’t take the women’s class anymore,’ and Igor makes me roll with one of the smaller guys who are still a good 15 pounds heavier than me.”
When they roll tape for No Reservations in May in Rio de Janeiro, it’ll be one hell of a debut for Ottavia. She won’t be getting Cyborg (probably), nor will she be getting a pushover.
“Under whose aegis this fight will be held is yet to be determined,” Anthony says. “What is for certain is, there will be money involved. That means, whoever is fighting Ottavia will have a compelling reason to train, fight, and win. It will be held in Brazil, and it will be seen my many millions of people.” And even with that unique pressure and situation, he knows his wife’s mean streak will carry over just fine. “I have a reasonable degree of confidence that whatever they throw in her path, it’s going to be okay.”
And for all the talk that went on for Rousey/Tate and the exposure to women’s MMA, Ottavia has a rare opportunity to showcase her wares to a global audience.
“I was talking to some of the guys at Gracie’s, and asked what they thought about women’s MMA, and they said that women should do something graceful,” she says in her Sardinian accent. “Something like volleyball. And I was like, what about somebody like me? I can’t dance. I can’t do volleyball. I’m a beasta. This is natural for me.”
Ottavia is part hellcat, and Anthony wouldn’t have her any other way.
“Every time Ottavia starts getting frisky, she gets this look… She has this look where I think, ‘Oh, that’s really sweet,’ but then I realize she’s looking at me like a grappling dummy.”