Back when I was 23 or 24 years old, I competed in an MMA event in Orlando, Florida. A few hours before the show started, I was in a locker room with a middle-aged karate champion and his son. Although I don’t know the son’s name, I am pretty sure it was Daniel or some shit. I mean, what else is a real life karate champion going to name his son? They were standing in front of each other doing the Mr. Miyagi wax-on/wax-off bullshit. No kidding. Father and son were making little circles in the air with their hands. I’m not one to get grotesque with my analogies, but it looked like they were polishing a massive, invisible wiener (please do not interject your Freudian analysis).
After I had been informed by someone from their entourage that the father was a true karate champion back in 1984 (yes, “karate champion” is just an awesome way to say “point sparring champion,” but for some reason the karate guys never mention that), the man approached me. He pointed to his fat son, who was in the process of getting his gelatinous hands wrapped, and asked me to say a few words to him. Quell his nerves, you know.
For those of you who thought I became a sarcastic douche after I acquired quasifamous status, you’re wrong. I went over to the kid and said, “One of two things will happen…” The kid’s eyes brightened, and I could tell he was thinking I would say, “Either you are going to win or you’re going to lose. No big deal either way.”
That’s not what I said. Instead, these words came out of my mouth: “Either there is a God and you’re going to heaven after this fight, or there isn’t a God, in which case, there is no real reason prolonging this whole charade.” Although I didn’t come right out and say it, I hinted that both outcomes involved his death.
Feeling like a dick, I made a joke of it and bullshitted with him for a few minutes. I told him that he would be fine, a referee would be in the cage with him, and that he would get to punch someone in the face and not go to jail for it. It was obvious that this kid had never received proper MMA training (and by “proper” I mean any at all), and he had no business stepping into the cage. But who was I to tell him this. I had only been training martial arts for three years, and half of my time was spent learning how to wield plastic knives.
I turned around to continue warming up, and this burly looking guy had joined us. He was standing there, starting blankly at a pair of six-ounce gloves.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I just didn’t realize that you guys wore gloves,” he said.
Later I learned that, yes, this guy was competing in the event. And, no, he had never trained before. I guess, when a fighter dropped out of the event at the last minute, the promoter had gone down to the local bowling alley and asked some shady looking characters who the toughest guy in town was. They had produced the name of the guy before me, the promoters tracked him down, and he was transformed into an MMA combatant before my eyes. Medicals? Who needs stinking medicals?
Things were starting to look pretty shady, but hey, I wanted my $600, so I kept my head down and warmed up with my good buddy Rory Singer. When the fights got started, the burly tough guys printed from the locker room, but here turned a few minutes later looking like he had been run through a meat grinder. Guess he wasn’t that tough after all. Later, he told me that he rarely fought sober, and if he’d had some drinks first, he would have done better.
Next, the karate kid and his world champion father left the locker room. Although I didn’t see this first-hand, I heard the details later. When the karate kid stepped into the cage, he got the first good look at his opponent, Wes Sims. I can only imagine what went through this kids mind. In addition to Sims being a well-tanned, 6’9” monster, heal so had Mark Coleman crouching behind him in his corner. To warm up, Sims began throwing knees into the air, and every one rose higher than the karate kid’s head. It simply became too much for him, and he went running over to his father.
“I can’t do this,” he pleaded. “I need out. I am not fighting him.”
You would think that that would’ve been that. The promoter would realize that this kid did not have the right stuff and would let him out of the cage. Instead, the promoter climbed into the cage and began bargaining with the kid, trying to offer him more money to fight. The promoter didn’t pull him aside and talk to him in private—he talked to this kid in the middle of the cage with the entire audience listening. It would be like a junior high school teacher begging one of his students to go out on a date with him in the middle of class. Needless to say, it was awkward for all parties.
The kid obviously didn’t fight. What he did do was come back to the locker room while I was warming up. He came over tome and tried to rationalize why he didn’t fight. I was on-deck, and I didn’t have the words that would make this kid feel better about himself, so I said, “Man, you should probably go back down to the karate school and tell them about it. I really don’t think I am the one you want to talk to about this shit.”
The kid skittered off—obviously butt hurt—and I made my way toward the cage. As I left the locker-room, I noticed the promoter had put up a bunch of signs that read, “This is an unsanctioned fight, and you could go to jail for competing.” It was actually written in legalese, and was much more verbose, but that was the gist of it. If I was a smarter man, I might have reconsidered like the karate guy, especially since I was pondering a future career in law enforcement, but that $600 and the thought of punching someone in the face was just too enticing.
Did I belong there more than Daniel-san? Well, maybe a little, but no much. I beat the holy hell out of my opponent for about two minutes, he took me down, and I locked on a kimura. I heard his elbow pop, he let loose with a blood-curdling scream, and I let go and stood up. He stood up, looked at me like I was the biggest idiot on the planet, and then we fought for another 13 minutes. Luckily, my big, dumb ass managed to pull off the decision with a little help from my friends, who happened to be judges.
A few minutes later, I was back in the locker room sitting next to my opponent on a table. Both of us were receiving stitches from a cut man who had Tourette’s Syndrome—no bullshit. Over and over the cutman would say, “Shit, fuck, mother fucker, N-word, N-word, love you honey.” I had seen him earlier in the night, and in addition to having a terrible case of Tourette’s, he also had regular spasms. Luckily, when he was doing detail work like putting in stitches, the spasms vanished.
What brought up this memory from my past? Well, I was thinking about the sport and how it has evolved, and I realized a very short while ago that there is no real separation between “I want to be a professional MMA fighter” and “I am a professional MMA fighter.” Personally, I didn’t start training until I was 20 years old, and just a year later, I was a professional MMA fighter. Back in the recent past, there were only a few requirements to compete in the sport. 1) Don’t have AIDS. 2) Don’t have hepatitis. 3) Have two working eyes. And even number three wasn’t that important because all you had to do was tell the doctor you felt fine—rarely did they actually give you any sort of detailed examination.
Being able to follow your dream and become a
n MMA fighter, despite lacking an Adonis-like physique or having a background in athletics, led to what I like to call the “Cinderella Effect.” Or the “Jeremy Horn Effect.” Or the “Forrest Griffin Syndrome.” When people watched a fight, they believed that if they were to climb into the cage with the guys they were watching on TV, they just might have a chance to beat them. I mean, there were a lot of ways to win, and maybe, just maybe, if the average Joe applied himself, he would have a chance at fame and glory. In the beginning, it was this belief that catapulted the sport into mainstream.
However, when the sport became famous, it changed (much like myself). Almost overnight, you would see UFC fights on Spike every other hour of the day. Sometimes, every hour of the day. As a matter of fact, there were so many fights on Spike that I began to think the cable station only had three programs—ultimate fighting, reruns of CSI, and a show about how boobs once killed a man in Iowa in 1987 (that is actually a fact).
With the UFC airing so much on television and millions of people purchasing the pay-per-views, it started to bring in the money. And once the money came into the sport, so did a new breed of combatants. Instead of simply being watched by would-be tough guys like myself, 15-year olds were watching the sport. And instead of looking up to athletes such as David Beckham, these kids began idolizing guys like Randy Couture. And guess what—those kids began training their asses off in the gym, and now many years later, they have begun to enter the sport. The money also began attracting skilled athletes. Instead of being filled up with guys like myself—guys who were tough and liked to fight, but were not particularly athletically endowed—the sport began filling up with wrestlers who had gone to college for five years on a scholarship, but were not quite good enough to make the Olympics. It began attracting guys who were two seconds away at the NFL Combine.
What made people tune into the UFC back in the day was the hope that if they truly applied themselves, they just might have hope of becoming an MMA champion. Just look at guys like Rich Franklin and myself. I was a cop and had pretty much given up on fighting. But just three years after getting on the first Ultimate Fighter, I was champion. Look at Rich Franklin. He was a math teacher, and then just two years later, he was champion. Guys like us truly made the average Joe think he could do it. But with the mainstream popularity and the new addition of money, that has all changed. The athletes are coming, plain and simple. The initial rise of the sport caused by the Cinderella Effect is not there anymore. It is gradually changing. I am not saying that it’s a bad thing, but personally, I find it a little bit sad. It will lead to more exciting fights, which in turn will lead to more ticket sales and pay per-view buys. But it is always a trite depressing to see the end of an era.