Profile December 2008

Rampage

Quinton Jackson wears a steel bicycle chain around his neck, has a tattoo of a black panther on his enormous bicep, and has a tendency to howl like a wolf. He is also born-again, the loving father of four children—and known for delivering the hardest blow in the history of professional sports. Now, in attempting to defend his Ultimate Fighting Championship title, he is also trying to hold onto his sanity. An intimate portrait of a mixed martial artist—and of the growing American fixation with the warriors who earn their living beating each other bloody.
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Rampage Jackson takes a knee to the gut from Forrest Griffin during their UFC championship bout in Las Vegas.

Forrest Griffin ambles into the workout room in the basement of Mandalay Bay on the Wednesday before the fight, almost unnoticed by the reporters, which is all the more difficult considering that he is 6 feet 3 inches tall. With his pale Irish skin, stick-out ears, and lantern jaw covered in reddish-brown stubble, wearing a green waffle-pattern long-underwear shirt and a pair of Sprawl athletic shorts, he looks like an elongated version of the actor Matt Damon preparing for a role in a remake of Deliverance. A former cop from Athens, Georgia, Griffin has a political-science degree from the University of Georgia and a deadpan sense of humor. In 2005, he assured his place in UFC history by winning a blood-soaked bout against Stephan Bonnar on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s reality show on the Spike television network. The fight was so spectacularly bloody that the show’s audience doubled, then doubled again, until nearly 10 million people were watching.

Standing on the mat in the center of the room, Griffin rolls his head and swivels his hips, works on some lateral movements, and then throws a few combinations. He picks up a rope and sends it cutting through the air with a flick of his powerful wrists, then trips and hangs his head. “I swear I’m really good at jumping rope,” he says. He whirs the cord from side to side, and starts jumping again.

“Sixty seconds,” his boxing trainer calls out.

“Ten seconds.”

“Time.”

Griffin is a famous workout junkie, and he continues to sweat even after the reporters lose interest. Finished with the jump rope, he laces on his UFC-regulation gloves—padded gauntlets that soften the blow from a fighter’s knuckles while leaving the rest of the hand exposed.

“One-two, step right to him,” his trainer chants, catching the fighter’s punches. “Give me six of those. Right on his chin now. Do it quick. Hard right hand.” Even in this setting, Griffin is unable to disguise the simmering fury that drives him.

Afterward, I leave the workout room with Griffin, and we find an empty room, where the fighter lies down on the floor to rest his back while Rampage Jackson entertains the reporters next door. I ask him whether he remembers getting hit as a kid.

“I remember getting hit a lot as a kid,” he answers. “When I got hit by my stepdad, it was usually because I deserved it.”

“What did he hit you with?” I ask.

“Just his hand, or his belt, maybe,” Griffin answers. “It was just on the backside, nothing crazy. You know, the same way I would discipline my kids.”

Training himself to avoid getting hit took a while. The first fight he won was in the third grade, against a much bigger kid who hit him hard a few times until Griffin retaliated. “I head-butted him, kind of in the face, and fell on top of him,” he remembers. “And his nose started bleeding, and he curled up, and then I just kind of hit him a little bit more.” His stepfather liked to hunt deer, and took Griffin along when he was 12 years old. “I went hunting with him because I loved guns,” he remembers, “and then he fucking killed Bambi and that was the last time I ever went hunting. Fuck, no. It’s horrible. They kind of whine when you shoot them.”

Griffin had a similar reaction a few years later when he first saw the UFC on pay-per-view. “Guys in T-shirts, crazy fat guys, guys that looked like pro wrestlers—people were just getting beaten,” he recalls. “It was kind of gross.” His feelings about the sport changed when the UFC instituted formal weight classes and got rid of the tight shorts that fighters used to wear.

Fighting is the essence of human competition, Griffin says. I ask him how often he loses track of himself in the heat of a battle.

“Oh, usually when you lose kind of a sense of what you’re doing, it’s a good thing,” he says happily. “You start doing what you always do, the things you know to do. ‘Oh, I’m here to do this, I’m here to do this.’ ‘Move my hips and turn away. I can’t turn away. I turn into him.’” In bad moments, he continues, time slows down to a crawl and you start thinking too hard about what to do next.

In a previous interview, Griffin had mentioned putting all the hype and magazine articles away in a box so that they don’t clutter up his thinking. When I tell him that I liked the line, he cocks his head and looks at me.

“Oh yeah, that’s true,” he says. “It’s a big Tupperware thing.”

“There’s an actual box?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he answers. “I mean, it’s both metaphorical and real. I don’t want fucking fighting shit all over my house, to inundate myself with that. Put it in the box, and then you got it if you need it.”

Singularity of purpose is Griffin’s strength. When I ask him whether he ever worries about hurting his opponent in the ring, he shakes his head no.

“One, I’m selfish. I want for me,” he answers evenly. “I’d cut you off in traffic, I don’t care.” He pauses and looks up at the ceiling, stretching out his injured back. “Two, self-preservation is an overwhelming instinct. It stifles and balances all others. Self-preservation destroys your humanity. It’s you or them,” he concludes. “In a fight, it’s always gonna be them.”

The fighters on the dais listen quietly as a handsomely besuited vice president of the MGM Mirage Corporation, which owns Mandalay Bay, opens the pre-fight press conference. “We couldn’t be more excited about this Fourth of July weekend,” the Mirage executive says. The UFC has brought 10 fights to the casino over the past three years, he adds. The estimated gate for Saturday’s fight is $3 million. His eyes low under a battered baseball cap festooned with faded glitter, Forrest Griffin looks even less comfortable than he did two days earlier, as Dana White, the UFC president, describes him as “the American dream.” White then recounts the story of the Stephan Bonnar fight. “It sounded like a freight train was driving through the place,” White says, cocking one eyebrow up. The combination of his shaved head, ripped jeans, black Pumas, and old CBGB T-shirt is a particularly obnoxious approximation of Ramones-style punk as handed down by the mall-culture vultures of Abercrombie & Fitch.

White tells me later that half his fighters make more than $100,000 a year, which he regards as “damn good money.” The fighters’ cut equals less than 10percent of the UFC’s gate and pay-per-view revenues. Boxers traditionally might receive half. He rejects the implication that he talks too much and hogs the limelight at the expense of his fighters. “I’m the fucking promoter!” he objects. “I come on and say, ‘Listen, we’re gonna do this fucking fight, it’s gonna be a great fight, this guy’s fighting that guy!’”

White grew up in Ware, Massachusetts, and moved to Las Vegas with his mother when his parents divorced, before dropping out of college and moving back to Boston. At the age of 19, he quit his job as a bellboy at the Boston Harbor Hotel to open up a gym under a courthouse in Southie.After getting shaken down by a deputy of the gangster Whitey Bulger, who demanded a tribute of $3,500 in cash, White fled back to Las Vegas, where he taught cardio-boxing to local businessmen who enjoyed the experience of getting hit in the face, and soon opened a few gyms. Among his clients were the Fertitta brothers—high-school friends from Vegas he had run into at a wedding.

One weekend, White and Frank Fertitta bumped into a UFC fighter named John Lewis, and decided that they wanted to learn “the ground game”—the sport’s trademark combination of Gracie jiu jitsu, Greco-Roman wrestling, and hard elbows to the nose, eyes, and skull. “It was fucking literally like taking the blue pill in The Matrix,” White remembers. “We became addicted to it and started training in it three or four days a week, trying to rip each other’s limbs off.” White also began managing some major UFC fighters. When he found out that the UFC was in trouble, he went to the Fertitta brothers, and together the three developed a new business model for the sport, in which the UFC would combine the traditional roles of promoter, manager, matchmaker, and sanctioning organizer.

“Basically, I’m in the contract business,” White explains. “I can sign them up for a one-fight deal or a two-fight deal or I can sign them up for a three-fight deal. Or I can get a guy like Chuck Liddell that I want to lock up for as many fights as I can.” White is also famous for rewarding showmanship by coming into the locker room after fights and handing out bundles of cash. “I don’t wanna see somebody running around in fucking circles,” he explains. “So to incentivize these guys, we give them bonuses—Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night, Submission of the Night. We bonus ’em.”

When I ask White about the UFC’s habit of monopolizing revenues from pay-per-view broadcasts and from a heavily criticized new merchandising deal, he bridles.

“Let me ask you a question,” he says. “How many fucking people are out there right now buying a Larry Holmes doll?” he says, referring to the dominant heavyweight boxing champion of the mid-1980s. He flexes his broad weight lifter’s shoulders. “Now let me ask you another question: When’s the last time Rowdy Roddy Piper wrestled?” he continues, referring to the former pro-wrestling star. “Twenty years ago, when I was a fucking kid! You can still go buy the Rowdy Roddy Piper fucking doll at the store. Rowdy’s sitting on the couch watching fucking cartoons right now, getting paychecks in the mail.”

“So the fighters get what percentage?” I ask.

“I don’t know what the fuck off the top of my head the percentage is,” he answers, “but I could tell you this: if we do a fucking quarter of what World Wrestling Entertainment does, they’re gonna be very happy guys.”

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