I. The Mayhem Show
Some people are just blessed with more energy than the rest of us, I think as I watch my friend Jason” Mayhem” Miller at his manic best whipping up the crowd of screaming fans on the set of his hit show Bully Beatdown, I’ve been here two days at the invitation of the show’s producer Eric Van Wagenen. They’re taping all the fight sections of the season’s episodes back to back over a few days in a mammoth warehouse on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah. Mayhem is earning his money as the show’s host, jumping frantically around and waving his arms in the air psyching the crowd to “get up” The people in the crowd are also in on the act. They know the wilder and more dramatic their reactions to Miller and to what they will see later in the cage the better their chances of getting seen on TV. Miller leaps onto the side the cage and hangs off it like a monkey, glowering and glaring into his close-up, while another camera attached to a giant crane scans out over the crowd for the reaction shot.
The show, in its second season has a simple premise. It gives victims of real life bullies the chance to get even with their persecutors by having them fight a professional mixed martial artist. The show even throws money into the equation because if the bully accepts the challenge they get a chance to win 10,000 if they can survive two rounds with the pro. Here’s the twist. Every time the bully is tapped out or knocked down 1,000 dollars is subtracted from their total and goes to the victim.
The show has been a huge ratings success and attracts some big name mixed martial artists to be involved with it. While I’m here I see Eddie Alvarez, Jake Shields, Andre Arlovski and several others devour their respective bullies. Once he’s whipped the crowd into enough of frenzy to suit himself and the producers, Mayhem begins to shoot his promos and introductions to the show segments. He works off a hand full of multicolored index cards that were given to him by the show’s producer Eric Van Wagenen. Van Wagenen crouches on his director’s perch at the foot of the cage and Miller and discusses how to do the various shots with miller and the cameramen. Miller always snaps out of his hyperactive antics and pays rapt attention to whatever Van Wagenen says. As out of control as Miller sometimes appears to be in actuality he’s a real pro. He does several readings of each line, giving it a slightly different take each time and he almost always nails it.
During my first day on the set Van Wagenen spoke glowingly of Miller and his contributions to the show’s success. “I write the show,” he said before pausing for emphasis “and Mayhem sells it. There wouldn’t be a show without Mayhem. Mayhem lets the audience in on the joke,” Van Wagenen explains. “and the joke is that these guys (the bullies) are fucking crazy to want to try to fight a professional MMA fighter. Mayhem lets the audience in on it early. So it’s fun to follow along right into that moment when your bully’s let in on the joke,” Van Wagenen is good natured, with wicked sense of humor and can’t help but smile at the thought of the bullies getting their reality check every episode. “And that moment comes about two seconds after Big John starts the fight. You see that look in the bully’s eyes.” Van Wagenen calls it the “Oh Shit moment.” And he says it’s the most real moment on Reality Television.
“Why do any of the bullies do it?” I ask him. “Haven’t they seen the show? Don’t they know they’re going to get destroyed?” “One of the wonderful tenants of reality television” he says “is that when you cast people, they always think that it’s not going to happen to them. Everybody always thinks that they’re going to be the exception to the rule.” He continues with a happy grin “God bless them. We love that kind of thinking.”
II. Can’t we just all get along?
After Miller cuts his opening lines the “victims” as they are called come to the ring. They’ve been cast not only for their stories but also for the pitiable way they look, they might as well have VICTIM written in bright red letters across their foreheads. Mayhem plays the part of the cool big brother as he listens to the victims complain about the unjust treatment they’ve had to endure. He elicits a tale of woe from each victim and I can’t help but chuckle at the over the top howls of indignation and cries for revenge from the crowd that punctuates each of the victim’s ignomies. “Help me Mayhem,” the victims say in exasperation as each one details the wrongdoings they’ve had to endure – “he pushed me down the stairs-he wrecked my car- burned me with an iron-breaks all my stuff – tea bagged me in the pool- owes me money and won’t pay me back-slapped methrew food on me at work- always comes to my house and clogs my toilet etc…” Mayhem does his best to look shocked and shakes his head in disbelief.
Next it’s time for the Bullies to be introduced and they come to the ring in a torrent of abuse- a lot of it so nasty that I’m sure they’ll have to edit it out for TV. When the bullies come face to face with their accusers the victims show the tell tale signs of real stress. They turn read, shuffle nervously and look down. Miller always teases the bullies and makes fun of them during these sections. He can always tell just how far to push them without going overboard and this builds suspense until the pro fighter is announced. The first time a bully knows who it is they will face is when they see the fighter walk down the aisle to the cage. Both Mayhem and Van Wagenen told me they were waiting for the day a bully sees his pro come through the cage and says “Fuck this!” and walks off the set. Hasn’t happened yet though.
To watch the fights, Miller is sits with the victims, perched above the crowd in a special bleacher. The fights all follow pretty much the same pattern with the bullies getting thrashed and beaten again and again to the delight of the crowd. However the reality of the situation doesn’t seem to register with the bully until about thirty seconds into the fight when he has been taken down and submitted for the second time. If you’ve never been in against a world class grappler, and I’m sure none of the bullies have, the experience is one akin to being devoured alive or maybe what it feels like to drown or suffocate. Slow, tortuous, irresistible. If the producers of the show wanted the bullies to feel helpless, having them manhandled by the likes of Eddie Alvarez, Jake Shields Andre Arlovski is the best way to do it.
III. The Lights go down
A huge man sits slumped over in his chair in the makeshift locker room where the bullies are taken after the fights. The doctors check them out to see that they haven’t been too seriously messed up during the fights and they conduct the follow up interviews for the show. He shakes his head his hair still dripping with sweat and looks up at one the interviewers” Y’all are mean Dawg.” He says in disbelief. . “When I heard them say Andre Arlovski,” he says running his fingers through his hair as he stares at the floor “I thought it was a joke.” He shakes his head again and breathes hard.” That was fucked up.”
I make a point to follow the bullies back stage and watch them after their fight. I want to see their authentic reaction to what had happened after the lights had gone down and the adrenaline had settled. They all deal with it in different ways. Some get angry throwing their stuff or slamming the locker doors. Some seem depressed or despondent- humiliated. A couple just sit there complying
with whatever the production people tell them to do in the dazed and docile way of the recently concussed No doubt though, they have all been physically dominated in a way they have probably never experienced before and most seem legitimately humbled. The ever perceptive Big John McCarthy, who reffed all the fights, put the reality check this way.
“They do not understand the levels that separate the average person from the professional athlete. Actually that bully may think they’re good at fighting. Maybe they hit somebody in a bar and that person went down or something, but they don’t realize what their level of good is compared to someone who’s really trained’s level of good is. There’s just light years’ separating them. The best part about this is a lot of them say, (before the fight) ‘I’ve never had my butt kicked,’ and they get their butt kicked.”
I also get a chance, post fight, to speak to the fighters and victims. I am surprised at how seriously the fighters take their job as bully punishers. A few told me that they themselves had been bullied once upon a time, Arlovski said that up until age 14 when he started to get a little size on him that he had been mercilessly bullied in his native Belarus and that it felt good to put his bully in the proper place.
“I understand what they [the victims] go through because I’ve been there before,” he says speaking just enough English for his Russian accent to be heavy and menacing.
Right after I finish talking to Arlovski I run into Van Wagenen who gives me a knowing smirk “This is one of those times I feel particularly evil about what we do to these guys.” He says referring to putting the guy in there with Andrei.
The two former victims are now triumphant giving interviews and saying that since they’ve seen him take his beating, they know the bully’s learned his lesson and are willing to put things behind them. They pose triumphantly with Mayhem and heaping handfuls of fake money as the photographers click away. Justice, reality TV style, has been served.