MMA Magic

Parties at the Mansion fall into two categories: official Playboy events, like the annual, infamous,and celeb-laden Mid summers Night’s Dream Party hosted by the company’s icon founder Hugh Hefner, and third-party affairs, when a promoter or organization pays a fee for use of the grounds. Tonight’s festivities—Playboy Energy Fight Night—is the latter. But that doesn’t mean Playboy won’t protect the integrity of their brand—a public company this valuable doesn’t just lease out their symbolic headquarters and take off for the night.

 

That means that while the fight card and the publicity are left in the hands of sports promoter George Chung, a former five-time World Karate Champion and a member of the Black Belt magazine Hall of Fame, Playboy higher-ups—specifically the organization’s publicity chief, Teri Thomerson —will be on hand to make sure things run smoothly. The Mansion itself is off limits, but the expansive back garden, along with a view of the legendary 83-year-old Gothic-Tudor structure, where many a deflowering has occurred, and which Hef bought in 1975 for a cool $1.1 million (it’s worth $50 million today), is available to the masses here tonight.

 

Playboy magazine and mixed martial arts have something in common. Both embrace our most primal attributes (sex and violence), while at the same time occasionally serving as the raw material for what might be described as higher thinking—in the form of some truly great writing. Like Playboy, MMA has overcome its hurdles on its way to mainstream visibility. Detractors compare it to human cockfighting or some other metaphor connoting uncivilized gladiatorial combat. Then again, just like Playboy—or Hef—it’s impossible to put MMA into a neatly wrapped box.

 

Hef is also a big boxing fan. In the early 1960s, he provided a platform for a brash young heavyweight champ named Cassius Clay to announce and explain his highly controversial decision to convert to the Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. And he did so by employing another African-American icon, Alex Haley, to write the story. This was the same year Lyndon Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress, a time when black activists and their white supporters were in constant fear of their lives. But Hef didn’t blink. Over the years, he hired several of the best writers alive to cover boxing for the magazine, most famously Norman Mailer, whose article about Ali’s triumph over George Foreman at 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” remains one of the best samples of boxing literature ever published.

 

Only the organization’s inner circle and VIPs are permitted to park at the Mansion. The rest of us have to hop onto a shuttle bus from Palomar Hotel that takes you on a five minute ride into Holmby Hills, where many a man’s definition of paradise is located.

 

On our way up the hill, my fellow bus riders—all men in their 20s-40s—drop catch phrases from Jersey Shore like it’s going out of style. They’ve each forked over a cool G for the privilege of interacting with Bunnies on these hallowed grounds (along with the fights, of course), and all of them undoubtedly are secretly hoping they might score, or at least get some digits. I feel like I’m part of a traveling strip club audience, and the collective testosterone is palpable, with one exception: Ms. Landry Major, one of FIGHT! ’s ace photo gs and a very good friend of mine, who is totally unfazed by the locker room humor as she gets her gear ready. Landry has photographed hundreds of fighters over the years—she has experience with boys behaving badly.

 

The Mansion’s famed garden is overwhelming. This place stands alone as a testament of 1960s and ’70s excess: when hedonism was a life choice. And Chung and Playboy have delivered on providing more than a night of combat—there are scantily clad girls everywhere, some bonafide Playmates, others hired hands for the night. Landry, a former model herself, starts a conversation with one of them, a petite brunette in a neon bikini. “Basically these guys pay a grand to pose in pictures,” she says. “Some of ’em try to grab our asses. But we’re totally with that. It’s just a natural impulse.” Case closed. As a matter of fact, no one seems to be misbehaving. These guys aren’t dumbasses—it’s one thing to grab tail during a $20 lap dance in Reno and get bounced, it’s another to get tossed from the Mansion for being a tool after dropping a thousand bucks for a ticket. Considering all the flesh on display, this is as classy as it could possibly get, and Playboy deserves credit for that.

 

Approaching the makeshift ring on the back lawn, I run into famed trainer Cesar Gracie and Strikeforce Lightweight Champ Gilbert Melendez, one of the jewels in the crown of Gracie’s formidable fight squad, which also includes Strikeforce welterweight champ Nick Diaz, his UFC welterweight contender brother Nate, and with UFC’s most publicized recent free-agent acquisition, former Strikeforce middleweight king Jake Shields. Cesar and Gilbert are here to support two of their prospects and friends, welterweight Bobby Taylor and Germaine de Randamie, a female 155-pounder from Holland.

 

Randamie, whose cornrows and shredded abs contrast sharply with her pretty face and big smile, sports a 45-0 record as a kickboxer and goes by the nickname “Iron Lady.” She lost her first and only MMA bout two years ago via arm bar, but that was before she entered the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu factory. I can tell Cesar’s got high hopes for his latest protégé. As it turns out, the Taylor and Randamie fights are the most interesting bouts of the night, but for very different reasons. Due to the fact that boxing is also on the menu this evening, the MMA matches take place in a ring.

 

While some pros prefer the squared circle to the Octagon, MMA fighting in a ring can be problematic, as I’m about to find out during the evening’s first bout: Taylor vs. Leo Kuntz (6-1), a tough-looking kid from North Dakota. Landry and I are positioned, along with the other members of the press, at the far end of the ring. The fight starts, and Taylor wastes no time in scoring a quick takedown. Kuntz scrambles to his feet and the two fighters separate.

 

Then chaos ensues. Kuntz shoots for his own takedown, driving Taylor backward and toward press row—specifically Landry, who’s about a foot in front of me. Taylor flies through ropes and lands just inches away from her, his head and right shoulder crashing hard on the plywood walkway. It hurts just watching it, especially when Taylor’s face, twisted in agony, is in such close proximity to my own. Then Taylor passes out and starts to roll over, and that’s when Landry, who’s in front of me and closer to Taylor, snaps into action with her ninja-like reflexes and maternal instincts. She drops her camera and literally catches Taylor before he falls off the platform and onto the ground. He comes to a few seconds later. “How did I get here,” he asks Landry. Ever the pro, Landry makes sure to snap a few shots of Taylor as soon as a fight official takes over for her.

 

The fight should have been called then and there, but after a minute or two, Taylor’s standing up and back in the ring and ref restarts the action. This kid is clearly tough-as-nails, but he is definitely on another planet. Still, he manages to survive the round, during which time he flies out of the ring another three times. It’s excruciating. I try to make out what’s happening in Taylor’s corner on the far side of the ring in between rounds. Cesar appears very concerned, and gives what seems to be a warning that he’ll stop the fight if anything else happens, but Taylor insists on continuing. Round 2 begins and, luckily, Taylor doesn’t take much more punishment, as the ref disqualifies him for throwing a punch after a break a minute in the action. I highly doubt that the nice kid I met in San Francisco with Gilbert even knew he was doing anything wrong—he doesn’t strike me as a dirty fighter. More likely, he was still in lala land and punching purely on muscle memory and instinct.

 

A few minutes later, I talk to a still woozy and very disappointed Taylor, who’s laid out on a bench inside a makeshift medical tent about 50 feet away from the ring. “I was winning the fight up until I flew out of the ring,” he says with a punch-drunk slur. “But then…I don’t know what happened actually. It was like…what the fuck…that was a mess.”

 

The Randamie fight I watch with special interest, not simply because of her kickboxing pedigree, but also because she and her opponent, Nicole Johnson, are perhaps the only women of their age in the entire crowd whose primary purpose tonight has nothing to do with being an object of sexual desire. Neither fighter seems fazed by the surroundings. They both come out banging with power shots thrown with bad intentions. Within the first 30 seconds, the disparity in class is painfully obvious: Johnson is simply not in the same league as her Dutch foe. Randamie doesn’t even get a chance to show off the ground game that she and Cesar have been working on. Instead, she wisely utilizes her advantages in reach, speed, footwork, and overall technique to pick apart Johnson from the outside.

 

As round one comes to a close, the ring girls climb through the ropes, and I notice something. At first, I thought they were wearing tight lingerie, really tight lingerie, but they’re actually not wearing anything. It’s body paint.

 

The next two rounds are more of the same, with Randamie putting on a Muay Thai clinic while Johnson shows her heart and a terrific chin as she endures non stop punishment through to the final bell. Randamie seems to have a bright future ahead of her.

 

On her way back to the fighters’ tent, I ask a happy Randamie how she feels about fighting in a place like this. “I really don’t care about the girls,” says Randamie, who stills works as a psychiatric nurse in her native Holland. “I saw a naked, body painted, ring girl move in a certain way, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, did she just do that?’ But I wasn’t focused on that. If it were naked men, or naked women, I don’t care. I come to fight.” Nuff said.

 

Later, the kind folks at Playboy give me a private tour, which includes a few room in the actual Mansion, the exotic petting zoo, and the legendary Grotto, an indoor bathing area/swimming pool with rock walls that resembles a movie set from a 60s Bond film. It dawns on me that I am, indirectly, a personal guest of The Man himself, and that is nothing to be taken lightly. And while tonight’s fight may not have approached Ali-Foreman in terms of talent quality, George Chung, himself quite the showman (he busted out a few round house kicks during his post-fight speech), did a fine job at promoting a hybrid card, attracting a very well-paying crowd, and using the Mansion as a draw.

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