Heart of a Samurai

David Samuels talks about spending time with one of Ultimate Fighting's most vicious, and haunted, practitioners.

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:

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.

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.


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.