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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But there are parts of this that seem a bit gruesome and crass—the corporate guys handing out bundles of cash in the locker room for the strongest blow or best knockout or whatever. And there’s a perception that it’s—well, there’s that John McCain line about how this is essentially just human cockfighting. What about that aspect of it?

To me, all professional sports are, in some sense, seared with this element of the grotesque. Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently grotesque about throwing a curveball or being able to hit behind in the count, or being able to complete a long touchdown pass, or being able to score a goal in hockey. Human beings, from our earliest days, have found ways to test our God-given physical talents and to find structures in which to do that—structures that hopefully don’t involve murdering other people or burning down their homes, if war can be seen as the ultimate extension of football. Sports are both an alternative to, and a way of practicing, more deadly kinds of human pursuits. And certainly the Olympic movement in the 20th century had as a noble ideal a sporting competition among nations that could supplant warfare. Which didn’t turn out so well—the Olympic committee ended up staffed by fascists.

Yikes.

Dana White
Dana White, president
of the UFC

But the marriage of the pure human desire to catch, throw, hit, run wrestle—the marriage of that with the commercial is always grotesque. Look at the NFL. The game of football isn’t inherently grotesque—there’s nothing better than watching a group of kids do that, or even some old men huffing and puffing and playing touch football. But then you get a bunch of guys pumping themselves full of steroids and trying to cripple each other being sold to kids as something fun. And you have people like Bill Belichick skulking around trying to steal the signals of opposing teams. All of these things happen because there’s a big cash incentive.

These fighters are packaged and marketed. That’s necessary for the sport to be promoted, and it’s geared to catch the attention of your average 10 year old. The fighters get paid a relative pittance. Dana White [the president of the UFC] would say that these fighters earn a living that they wouldn’t have been able to earn if they hadn’t built the industry. And I think that’s true. On the other hand, I think there is something grotesque about the marriage of ancient Eastern martial arts disciplines—which were meant to be disciplines of the mind and spirit as well as the body—with the most crass kind of World Wrestling-style theatrics.

But as Dana White would be the first to say, this is a business. It’s the fight business.

What was also interesting to me were some of the moments where your role as a reporter kind of enters the piece itself. The places I have in mind are when you’re sitting with Chuck Liddell in his hotel room on New Year’s eve with his girlfriend, or where rampage Jackson gives you a little tap or slap on the face, and it’s hard to tell if he’s being 85 percent playful or 65 percent playful, or what. What was the experience of reporting the piece like? Terrifying?

I’ve reported in a wide variety of situations, some of which have involved a degree of physical danger—like Gaza or the West Bank or Bosnia. So I wasn’t really terrified of the experience. As a reporter, putting yourself in a narrative is a technique that allows the reader to enter in, or allows for the deflection of certain kinds of anxieties that a reader might have as they’re reading a piece. It also helps to establish your perspective, instead of sticking to that sheen of supposed objectivity.

I think that any good reporter tries to enter into the world that they’re reporting on as fully as possible, without letting their ego get in the way. If Rampage Jackson wants to pick me up over his head and throw me across the room, I’m game. I hope I don’t get hurt. But it’s not really about me. It’s about being able to experience a new and somewhat foreign reality as fully as possible, from as many angles as possible, so that I have the biggest bank of thoughts and feelings and perceptions available to me when I sit down and organize it all into a story that’s fun to read.

The piece follows Quinton Jackson before the fight, and preparing for the fight—and then he loses. It doesn’t have an especially happy ending, at least for him. He ends up staying up for a week on energy drinks and then gets into this car accident. Have you followed him since you finished the reporting of the piece?

As a writer, you learn to live with this kind of funny split screen set of responses to the reality that’s unfolding in front of you. When I saw Rampage Jackson go down in the second round of that fight, I had two exactly opposing responses. The first was a human response. I had spent weeks with this guy. I was up with him in his training camp. I had met his children.  And now I see him go down at the hands of this cold, devilish, calculating and determined fighter who has decided that Quinton Jackson might be stronger and faster than him, but he won’t be able to fight on one leg. And I thought, Oh, God. This is horrible, how’s Rampage going to pay his bills? I hope he’s OK.

And the other part of me thought: This is great. He lost the damn fight. He’s finished. This is fantastic. Because you set out to write a piece like this; it’s a much more interesting piece if the champion loses than if the champion beats the guy he’s supposed to beat. “Champion Defends His Title” is not much of a story. But “Champion Loses to Clever, Determined Underdog” is a nice twist. And it got a lot better when he stayed up all night on energy drinks and speaking directly with Jesus, prophesying in a psychiatric ward. There you have real story.

At the same time, you feel terrible. I like him. I feel very bad for him, and I just hope that he’s OK. The irony for him is that part of being OK means that he’ll able to continue doing what it is that put him in the hospital in the first place. He will be fighting.  On December 27th, he’ll be fighting Wanderlei Silva, who knocked him out twice. I’ll find it very hard to stay away from that fight.

I wanted to ask you about one irresistible detail. Possibly the most surreal moment in the piece comes when you’re at this fight, and suddenly you’re talking to Mandy Moore, who is also at this fight, and apparently an avid fan. And, as a reader, you kind of think, what the hell is she doing there?

I saw a strange and kind of entrancing group of people at these fights. From the porn star Jenna Jameson, to Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Barry Bonds, and Gavin Maloof, the billionaire who owns the Palms Casino, and a close adviser to the ruling emirs of Dubai. It’s not exactly like a circle of hell, but you could imagine these guys as the audience in an updated 21st Century American version of Cabaret.

It was funny, actually. I was sitting ringside with this Middle Eastern guy, who will remain nameless, but he’s very close to the ruling family of Dubai. And he said, “Isn’t this fantastic?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s really something to watch.” And he said, “Do you know why this is so exciting, and why people all over the world will watch this sport?” And I said, “Why is that?” And he said, “Because it’s about creating a superman.”

I had to pause for a moment. And then I realized, ‘that’s correct.’ We want to know who’s strongest—who’s fastest. And now that we live in a truly global society, at least as far as 24-hour sports channels are concerned, we want to know, Does the style of the Germans work better? Does the style of the Brazilians work better? And so there is something—particularly now as cultures are increasingly permeable and visible to each other—where we want to know which country fights best and how we can combine those techniques in a way that’s even more effective. And so that global perspective is married to this universal human desire to—not to fight, I’d say, because only part of one gender likes to punch or kick opponents in the head—but to watch other people fight.

Dana White has this cute little bit he repeats ad nauseum in his interviews, but it’s true. It goes like this: There’s one group of kids on a streetcorner playing baseball and another group of kids on another corner playing football, and yet another group of kids on another corner playing handball, and then a fourth group of kids on a fourth corner playing hockey. And a fight breaks out. All the kids are going to run from all four corners to watch the fight. Because that’s the thing about fighting. People want to watch it. Even Mandy Moore.

Conor Clarke is a new media fellow at The Atlantic and the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism.
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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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