MMA Rocks

Alex Varkatzas, lead singer of the metal band Atreyu, is a slender man, but his voice fi lls arenas. On May 27, 2006, it fi lled the Staples Center in Los Angeles before the main event of Ultimate Fighting Championship 60: Hughes vs. Gracie.

Varkatzas says one of the coolest moments of his life was hearing his band’s song, You Eclipsed by Me, blaring from the arena’s giant speakers. “All these people are on their feet, and our song is getting them pumped up,” Varkatzas said. It would be a triumphant moment for any musician, but Varkatzas’ excitement was amplifi ed by the fact that he is an avid martial artist and mixed martial arts fan.

Actors, musicians, and athletes from other sports have long made ringside appearances at fights. Many have trained in boxing and martial arts to maintain their physiques or to prepare for physically demanding roles onstage or screen. Varkatzas is only one of a growing number of musicians from Orange County, CA who both delivers a pummeling on stage and is willing to take one off it. Alex, along with vocalist Brandan Schieppati and guitarist Brian Leppke of Bleeding Through, and Avenged Sevenfold vocalist M Shadows, is leading the charge of high-profile SoCal rockers willing to knuckle up and throw down with serious fi ghters.

The tatted up 25-year-old Varkatzas was a Tae Kwon Do tyke who liked to watch the early UFC tournaments with his younger brother. He watched The Ultimate Fighter Season One to kill time on tour in 2005, and was inspired to train. When Atreyu finished its run of shows, Varkatzas signed up with Cleber Jiu-Jitsu in Huntington Beach and trained twice a day for six months. “I’m a blue belt, but I’ve been on a Muay Thai kick for about a year or so,” Varkatzas says.

There are a lot of blue belts out there and a lot of so-called kickboxers, but Varkatzas is “by no means a candy ass,” said OC Muay Thai owner Dave Janssen. UFC veterans Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Joe “Daddy” Stevenson, Justin Levens, and World Extreme Cagefighting star Cub Swanson have trained at Janssen’s gym. “When [pro fighters] are there, Varkatzas trains with them,” Janssen told us.

OC Muay Thai occupies a warehouse space east of the 405 in Santa Ana, CA. It’s a “total fuckin’ warrior dungeon,” according to Schieppati. He should know; the 27- year-old trained there for several months before transitioning to OC Kickboxing to work on his ground game. The screamer brought guitarist Brian Leppke, with him and the pair trained heavily in both Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu before the band’s next tour.

M Shadows lives the sporting life when he’s not on the road. A lifelong athlete, the 25-year-old dedicates much of his free time to working out and participating in recreational sports leagues. He was introduced to the Freestyle Fight School by a friend and now “every time I get off tour, I get my ass kicked every day,” he said. Take the rock star’s word for it: UFC, Pancrase, Shoot-fi ghting, Vale Tudo, and King of the Cage veteran Todd Medina operates the no-bullshit MMA academy inside Club MetRx in Costa Mesa, CA.

Atreyu, Avenged Sevenfold, and Bleeding Through often spend six months or more each year on the road, which makes traditional training impossible. “It’s hard to train for a month and leave,” Leppke says. As a result, the gym has to come on the road. Each band takes Thai pads and focus mitts on tour. Varkatzas carries mats too, so that he can roll with band members. If there is no where to train, “I’ll go to the gym and do a gnarly workout just to do something,” the Atreyu vocalist said. Occasionally the band will spend several months touring with other acts whose members or road crews fight train, and he will get to roll with new faces.

But months of less-than-ideal sleeping arrangements, bad food, and countless hours spent sitting in vans and on buses takes its toll. “I get dull and it takes me a week or two to feel comfortable in the gym after returning from tour,” said Varkatzas, but after that “I’m feeling the rhythm, you know what I mean?” The life of a full-time touring musician is hard, and all of these guys would like to have more mat time.

But their lifestyle does afford them the freedom to hit the gym four to six times a week when they are home. Orange County is paradise to those who know it only through Hollywood’s lens. Warm Pacific winds blow over its nearly 800 square miles and 34 incorporated cities. Those cities range from sleepy beachfront towns, to ultra-wealthy gated enclaves, to scrubby inland bedroom communities. It is one of the most affluent counties in America, a vanity-driven culture of bronzed bikinied bodies and expensive rides. M Shadows notes that, “once a few cool people do something, everybody wants to do it.” From car culture and fast food, to surfi ng and skateboarding, Southern Californians are the cool people the rest of the Western world has emulated since World War II.

But Hollywood’s version of the OC isn’t entirely accurate. Some residents’ American dreams have been deferred amidst Southern California’s embarrassment of riches. “I think people have chips on their shoulders because they see people who have something and they want it,” Schieppati says. The children of paradise have something to prove, and right now the cool kids of Orange County are heavily tattooed metal heads who like to fight.

“There are probably more 18-to-25- year-olds in OC involved in MMA than not,” says Throwdown vocalist Dave Peters. Boasting Schieppati as a former member, Throwdown is another OC band that exploded from small, underground shows to the summer festival circuit of Warped and Ozzfest tours. Southern California is awash with high profile gyms, fight teams, and “a bunch of buttheads” according to Schieppati. Those buttheads are the growing legion of fanboy wannabes in Affliction t-shirts. In Orange County, image is everything and “everybody thinks they’re a cage fighter,” Schieppati says.

Throwdown is an example of the cultural crossover. While Peters is a fan, he is not a fighter. However, the band tapped into combat culture for the artwork on its 2003 album Haymaker as well as the video for Forever. In the video, a group of young men gather in a darkened storage space to bust each up Fight Club-style while Peters spits and snarls his way through lyrics about commitment and integrity. Peters thinks that MMA offers the same catharsis that some look for in the churning mosh pits of hardco
re and metal concerts.

Those pits, inspired by the chaotic and often violent shows of early 1980s punk bands, have become a ritualized fight where participants smash each other and anyone else standing too close to the perimeter. What was once a space for the frustrated and fucked up to blow off steam is now a place for maladjusted jocks to beat each other’s heads in. Fights at shows are common, and the culture of violence often carries over into other parts of show-goers lives. Schieppati admits that he used to run with knuckleheads, but “ever since I started training, I’m calmer. It just evened me out.”

Heavy music and combat sports have enjoyed unprecedented success after spending years on the freak show fringe of pop culture, and Orange County has served as an incubator for both. The members of Atreyu, Avenged Sevenfold, Bleeding Through, and Throwdown remember playing in rec halls and dank nightclubs to small crowds. These same bands now play to thousands a night in large halls and amphitheaters and watch themselves on MTV2. Every big-name mixed martial artist can share a story about fighting in a fairground exhibition hall or run-down casino. These same fighters now step into cages and rings in arenas and cavernous casino event centers.

Success is sweet for the misfits and miscreants who were told to stop playing music and get a real job and for the eccentrics and extremists who only feel free in a cage. But that success is complicated. What was once a passionate pastime is now a brutal business with promoters, managers, and hangers-on all working their own angles. These musicians stay focused on one passion by immersing themselves in another.

“The music industry is full of sharks and shitheads,” Varkatzas says, “but when you’re rolling, your intentions are clear. It’s a noble truth; I want to beat you, you want to beat me.”

Arena-sized sound system or not, the rock singer is coming through loud and clear.

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