Interviews November 2008

Heart of a Samurai

David Samuels talks about spending time with one of Ultimate Fighting's most vicious, and haunted, practitioners.
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When John McCain used the phrase “human cockfighting” more than ten years ago, he was referring not to the less delicate moments of electoral politics, but to mixed martial arts, a combat sport in which competitors employ a variety of fighting styles to try to force their opponents into submission. The sport is a sophisticated and violent one, and when it first debuted in this country in the early 1990s, it did not fare well. Following the 1993 founding of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) league, nearly 40 states banned the events, and they were disparaged by many as a repository for washed up wrestlers and their equally washed up viewers.

Also see:

Rampage
In the ring with Quinton Jackson: a profile of an ultimate fighter. By David Samuels.

Interview: Lorenzo Fertitta
A conversation with Lorenzo Fertitta, the billionaire majority owner of the UFC.

Interview: BJ Penn
David Samuels interviews Ultimate Fighting Champion BJ Penn.

Interview: Arianny Celeste, Octagon Girl
David Samuels has a chat with one of Ultimate Fighting's bikini-clad ring-card-carrying girls

But in the past decade, the mixed martial arts have fought their way to a comeback. New safety regulations have won over big-time promoters and networks—not to mention dozens of state athletics boards, up from zero in 2000. The biggest UFC fights now draw millions of viewers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money—including tens of thousands for bonus awards, with titles like “Submission of the Night” or “Knockout of the Night.”

In a new Atlantic piece, David Samuels takes a look at this evolving sport by profiling one of its most unorthodox champions: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Like the sport itself, Rampage is an unusual hybrid—all at once a born-again Christian and a father of four, known for his self-effacing personal decency; a regular staple of the Hollywood club scene, who shows up in a monster truck fashioned with a giant image of his own face; and an unyielding fighter who won UFC’s light heavyweight championship in 2007 with a brutal series of punches in the first round.

On the night of July 5, 2008, Jackson defended that 2007 title against fellow mixed martial arts fighter Forrest Griffin. Reporting before the fights, Samuels captured the scene—along with what some fans get from the sport:

The pay-per-view broadcast starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday night and goes until ten. By five, maybe 3,000 people are already in their seats. … The supervising physician from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, whose name is Doc Brown, is the first to claim his seat at ringside. “I’ve probably worked 100 fights,” he says. ... When I ask him what the chances are that he will have to leave his seat tonight and enter the ring, he nods his head. “I’ll be in there tonight, I guarantee it,” he says. It’s not that mixed martial arts is an especially brutal sport, he says, but rather that the fighters are so skilled that some form of injury is virtually guaranteed. …
I head for the back of the arena, where I have arranged to meet the singer Mandy Moore. ... She got interested in mixed martial arts a year ago, when her girlfriends brought her to a fight after a bad breakup. “It balances me out, because I’m a little bit boring, to be quite honest,” Moore explains, brushing her light-brown hair away from her sweet teenybopper face. “I feel like it’s one of the only things in my life that gives me a little edge.”
I leave, and find Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, standing at ringside. He is surprisingly geeky, with long, straight hair flanking his sallow face.

“It’s something that requires being plugged into the universe in a very special way,” the rock star explains, in the distanced, even-tempered tones of an introvert who twists and shouts onstage. “I admire the amount of time they put into it. I admire their tolerance for pain. It’s a lot deeper than what meets the eye.”

I spoke with Samuels about mixed martial arts and Quinton Jackson in mid-November.

—Conor Clarke


This piece is about Quinton Jackson, a born-again Christian ultimate fighting champion, which I suppose is not the most obvious of subjects. How did you get interested in this? What was the impetus for the piece?

The impetus was that I’m interested in fighting. My brother, who’s a hedge fund trader on Wall Street, had gotten into UFC fighting and said, “Dave you’ve got to check this out.” And so I started watching on TV and I got to wondering who these guys were and how they trained—you know, were they kept in basements chained to the wall? Were they exploited like Thai prostitutes? Did they train under a mysterious master of recondite Asian martial arts that I’ve never heard of? Or are they all ex-club fighters who couldn't make it as boxers?

So what did you find?

As I began to watch more and more of this, it became clear to me that the sport has gone through a transformation in the last ten years, and there’s now a cadre of these fighters who can do really incredible things. These are world-class athletes who’ve combined a lot of traditional moves—from martial arts, wrestling, boxing and other styles—into this new kind of evolution in martial arts.

A lot of this is the kind of stuff that I grew up watching first on Batman and then in Bruce Lee movies. And you feel like Wow, it would be amazing to see someone really do that. The top fighters at this level really can do those things. So I was interested because it seemed like I could write both about the evolution of fighting, and about a world where the top competitors really are great athletes. It’s not simply a freak show.

And how did you find Quinton Jackson? How did you go about choosing him as a subject?

There’s a Brazilian fighter named Anderson Silva. It would be fair to consider him the greatest mixed martial arts fighter in the world right now. But he is a Brazilian guy, and to really do that piece well, I’d have needed to spend some time in Brazil and write about the martial arts culture there, and I didn’t feel expert enough to do that. I don’t speak Portugese, either, and Silva’s English isn’t that great.

Georges St. Pierre
Georges St. Pierre

There’s also a great Canadian fighter named Georges St. Pierre. But he’s Canadian, and I felt that since this is an American magazine I should write about an American fighter. There’s a fighter named BJ Penn, from Hawaii, who’s a really terrific fighter and exciting to watch, but he’s in a lower weight class.

And then there’s Quinton Jackson, or “Rampage” Jackson. The first time I saw him was in a parking lot in Hollywood. It was outside a big nightclub and it was about three in the morning and Rampage Jackson came driving in with his monster truck with his picture on it. I was with a photographer and I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “That’s Rampage Jackson. He’s a really nice guy.”

He looks like Mr. T, but he’s a born-again Christian, and he’s sort of a modest guy who’s willing to talk to you and be self-effacing and funny. But he drives a big monster truck with his face on it. He seemed to be a person who had a lot of contradictions and would make for a good profile. And he’s a hell of a fighter.

But reading about these contradictions, I have to wonder, is it for real? Is someone who beats other people up for a living actually as nice and as religious as he’s purported to be?

Oh, he’s for real, with all the opposing personality traits that you can mention. I mean people are contradictory and strange animals and he’s a contradictory and strange animal. And I didn’t notice any shortage of fighting last time I read the Bible.

Fair enough. He comes off as extremely sympathetic, as most of the fighters do. They come off as complicated psychologically—one of them has this degree in political science, and so on. The less sympathetic characters were the corporate types running the UFC. I wonder what you make of that divide.

I liked the fighters that I met very much. I think one thing that makes martial arts different from boxing is that there tends to be a combination of mental, physical, and, one could almost say, spiritual discipline that’s associated with learning these various striking techniques. So anyone who studied the martial arts for a long period of time—which almost all of these guys have done, because most of these fighters do come from a martial arts background—will have spent some amount of time cultivating other sides of their personality.

We tend to think of fighting as something that goes on in the ring, in the half hour of physical competition. But the reality is that most of a fighter’s life has to do with training, practicing, and learning to discipline your body. It takes a lot of dedication, and the ability to focus on a distant goal. It requires a lot of self-denial. All of these are positive traits in a human being, and it’s not a surprise that people who have become world-class fighters at this level have other interesting aspects of their personalities. Georges St. Pierre, the great Canadian mixed martial arts fighter form Montreal, is also a very good chess player.

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Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.
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