Tim Credeur on returning to the cage, bringing respect to MMA and the documentary Fightville
For a brief time a couple of years ago I was a fan of Forrest Griffin. A very brief time. It began after I read his first book, Got Fight?: The 50 Zen Principles of Hand-to-Face Combat. It ended a couple of months later when he Usain Bolted from the octagon after being punched in his pride by Anderson Silva’s fade-away right at UFC 101.
Until Griffin embarrassed himself – not by losing to the best fighter on the planet but by sprinting for the locker room like he’d pissed himself and refusing to comment for months afterward – I thought he had something to say about what it takes to be a fighter, a mixed martial artist and to a lesser degree, what it takes to be a man. Something to say and something worth listening to.
It was redneck Neanderthal wisdom, to be certain, delivered tongue-in-cheek but with the tangible understanding that this guy knows what he’s talking about, at least when it comes to getting in a cage and trying to tear somebody’s head off. He was the original Ultimate Fighter and a former champ, after all, and his opinions were worth noting, and respecting.
Now, I’m getting a similar good sense about Tim Credeur. While he hasn’t fought the battles Griffin has, and he has no plans to write a book (at least not that I’m aware of), this Ultimate Fighter alumnus has something to say about what it means to be a mixed martial artist, a folksy I-can-talk-the-talk-precisely-because-I-walk-the-walk insight that’s grounded in a hardscrabble for-the-love-of-the-gameness and an underlying respect for the martial arts.
Credeur, who makes his return to the octagon at The Ultimate Fighter Finale 13 in June after nearly two years away from the cage due to a brain abnormality, is the subject of the documentary Fightville, which I effused about a couple of weeks ago. Fightville has its Hot Docs premiere in Toronto on Thursday and it’s a must-see for MMA fans.
Directed by Mike Tucker and Petra Epperlein (the team who made the terrific troops-in-Baghdad doc Gunner Palace), it’s one of the best sports documentaries of the last couple of decades, a Hoop Dreams-meets-Friday Night Lights story of young scrappers trying to make it in a barnstorming MMA promotion in Louisiana. There’s a punchiness to it (no pun intended), a jangly edge-of-your-seatness as these fighters, including Credeur and his protégés, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback, grind it out in the gym, in the cage and in life.
I had an opportunity to speak with Credeur by phone last week, and he was anything but crazy, as his nickname suggests. Instead, he was relaxed, earnest and thoughtful, delving into questions far more deeply than I’ve learned to expect from MMA fighters, who tend to speak in hyperbolic sound bites.
When Tucker approached Credeur about shooting a documentary about him and his young UFC hopefuls at Gladiator Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana, he was pretty sure Tucker had the wrong guy. “There are so many misconceptions about mixed martial arts – sometimes even fighters feed into those expectations with their false bravado about the sport – that I was afraid Mike would find a bunch of guys just trying to get better at being martial artists kind of boring. I mean, I’m married, I have a kid, I go to church, I don’t know any ring girls. A movie about us isn’t going to be a Tapout commercial. I’ve met fans like that, though, who are about the lifestyle but not the life,” he says. “But Mike didn’t want us to put on a bunch of skull T-shirts and dance around like douche bags. He was interested in the real story of what it takes to be a mixed martial artist.”
The result is the best portrait of life inside MMA yet produced, a tall order given that The Ultimate Fighter purports to do the same thing on some level and the never-ending spool of glossy shows being produced to hype each UFC card. Fightville is only tangentially about what actually takes place inside the cage – there’s fight footage, and it’s beautiful and gripping and real, but it’s used to pay off the momentum built up by the unfolding drama outside the cage and not merely as “fight porn” to satisfy our hard-on for action. It’s very much a slice-of-life story, except part of that slice involves fighting.
“I hope this film helps to tear down some of the myths that surround mixed martial arts,” says Credeur. “We’re the guys next door. We have dreams, too. We’ve just chosen a different path in life.”
Credeur chose his path at a very young age, when his father would take him to the local boxing gym and let him hit the heavy bags. He changed course after watching Royce Gracie in the first UFC and decided to devote himself to Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“In 80s and 90s, people were selling bullshit to soccer moms – martial arts schools were like daycare with costumes. People were taken advantage of by businessmen who gave seven-year-olds black belts for swinging around shiny sticks. There’s a stain on martial arts; we damaged the integrity of martial arts and what it is and what it could be,” Credeur says, with a mixture of anger and sadness. “If I meet someone and they ask me what I do and I say martial arts there’s an air of ‘I’m a child and doing martial arts at 33 is ridiculous.’ But if I say I’m an MMA fighter, they’re like ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ It’s up to us to take some of that respect back.”
Credeur owes some of his success and popularity to TUF, in which he appeared on season 7 alongside Amir Sadollah, CB Dollaway, Matt Brown and Jesse Taylor. And he admits that the show hasn’t always helped the cause of bringing respect to mixed martial arts when it features frat-house buffoonery.
“I don’t think it was a great idea for Spike TV to put all that drunken ridiculousness in the show. I didn’t participate in it. I have five-year-old students – and their parents – who I have to face,” he says. “But I understand why it’s in there. My wife is a huge reality TV fanatic; people want to watch other people. People are done with soap operas – All My Children and One Life to Live got cancelled last week and women are crying over it. People are more interested in what is actually happening in people’s lives, even if it’s not entirely real. And it’s not like TUF instigated anything, or encouraged a specific kind of behaviour. You put 16 200-pound cage fighters in a small house and have them fighting over food, over space, over careers, stuff like that will happen.”
At the other end of the scale, he points to Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields, who will clash at UFC 129 on Saturday, as examples of fighters who are mixed martial artists first and foremost.
“They’re being sold as great athletes and tough fighters, and they are. But there’s a different mindset and attitude and moral compass that martial artists have than those who are merely fighters,” Credeur says, building up a head of steam.
“In other sports the activity is the end result, winning is the end result, while in mixed martial arts the fight is not the end result. Murilo Bustamante doesn’t fight any more, but he’s still in the gym training, trying to make himself better every day. How often can that be said of baseball players or football players? You don’t see them in the batting cage or running pass plays after they retire. I’ll be doing armbars until I’m 80 years old and trying to fix what’s wrong with my guillotine. It’s a way of life. Sport in our culture has changed to the point where it’s about winning above all else. So many young athletes all they want to do is win, and if they can’t win then they don’t want to participate. It’s become disgusting.”
For a moment, though, it looked like Credeur might not be polishing his guillotine for very much longer. Three weeks out from a May 2010 bout with Tom Lawlor his doctors discovered an abnormality during a brain scan. “One minute I was thinking about the fight with Lawlor – Tom Lawlor’s strong, I’m going to be on the bottom, I’m going to triangle him – and then the doctor tells me I might have a brain tumor. Then, on my way to the car 15 minutes later and my wife calls me. ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna tell her?’ I answer the phone and she says, ‘I’m so excited, I’m pregnant, I love you.’ I didn’t have time to whine and complain and cry about it. I didn’t tell her for a week so I could let the excitement and happiness of her being pregnant happen,” he says.
As it turns out it wasn’t a tumor or a cyst or a blood clot. “It’s just an abnormality, a birthmark, like a freckle, in a place near my hypothalamus, and it took months to figure out what it is. I’m lucky. It could’ve been so much worse.
“Now we have a baby, a beautiful fat little baby named Audrey Jean, and I’m fighting again, a great fight too, against Ed Herman. He’s a beast. He’ll probably kill me. I might sneak out a submission, you never know. He’s amazing, he’s awesome, tough as nails, never stops coming forward, fights to the death, and I’m 0-2 against damn Team Quest so I gotta get one of those back. Rasslers, man…”
And that’s Fightville. Not the details – very little of Credeur’s personal struggles come through in the film, while Poirier’s and Stainback’s are explored at great length and to tremendous reward for the viewer. But the film delivers sense of who these people are who devote themselves to the fighting arts. It’s not about tough talk and a tougher walk; it’s about substance.