musings on mixed martial arts, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and all things mano-a-mano
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There will be blood

NOW Magazine

The cover story I wrote on the state of mixed martial arts in Ontario, where the sport is still illegal (despite Dana White’s best efforts) and unsanctioned bouts are held on Indian reserves. The cover type reads There Will Be Blood, while the inside story title is Cage Rage. Appeared in NOW Magazine, May 8-15, 2008. Here’s an excerpt:

BJJ is not a dirty word

MMA is getting better. It’s no long­­er 10 monkeys in a room trying to figure out how to pull off an arm-bar, but it’s still a bit of an experiment. It’s evolving. If violence in sport is a reflection of the society we live in, then perhaps what critics are most afraid to confront when they see bloodied combatants going toe-to-toe in a cage is the brutal reality of the world we’ve become staring back at them. Now, there’s a kick in the head.

I watched the first Ultimate Fighting Championship on pay-per-view back in 93 with some buddies from my dojo. Fresh off the mats from what we thought was a hard day of kicking ass and breaking boards, we were pumped to see this martial arts show­down seemingly inspired by Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport.

The event, held in Denver and inspired by Brazil’s vale tudo (“anything goes” in Portuguese) competitions, was billed as a no-holds-barred brawl. (There actually were a few rules: no eye-gouging, no biting, for example.) Victory, the hype promised, could only be earned by “knockout, surrender, doctor’s intervention or death.”

The fights took place in the octagonal cage that has since become synonymous with “ultimate fighting” and which the UFC has trademarked, leaving other organizations to stage fights in traditional boxing rings or cages with something other than eight sides.

UFC 1 promised to answer the kinds of adolescent questions martial arts fans have always wondered about: Could Bruce Lee beat Muhammad Ali? Would a ninja beat a Shaolin warrior? What about a sumo wres­tler versus a kick-boxer? And how badly would Steven Seagal get his ponytail pulled in a real fight?

What we got instead was a soft-spoken Brazilian in a white gi not so different from my own karate uniform who dragged opponent after opponent to the ground, wrapped himself around them like a boa constrictor and forced them to give up. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, also called Gracie jiu-jitsu after the art’s founding family, had arrived, and martial arts would never be the same.

“BJJ is a soft, gentle art that people don’t recognize if all they ever see is guys in the octagon doing the ground-and-pound,” says Rio-born Cesar Rezek, Toronto’s highest-ranking BJJ black belt. At Budokan BJJ, he teaches the art derived from judo and designed to defeat much larger, stronger opponents with the least amount of effort.

Gentle or not, BJJ is just one component of MMA, and in the early days, when brawlers like Tank Abbott specialized in “the ancient martial art of kicking ass,” the sport earned a nasty rep for violence not seen since the heyday of the Roman Coliseum. Indeed, it closely resembled the most popular sport of the ancient Olympic Games, pankration, a savage form of wrestling in which anything but eye-gouging was allowed and some competitors preferred death rather than surrender.

Perhaps most damaging, it was called “human cockfighting” by U.S. Senator and now Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who lobbied to have the sport banned.

But thanks to savvy marketing and a few new rules (28, up from the original three, including no hair-pull­ing, groin shots or kicking the head of a downed opponent), the UFC finally succeeded in having the sport sanctioned in New Jersey in 2000. Other states followed – 32 so far.

London’s Mark “The Machine” Hom­inick, who’s fought in the UFC, is fond of saying that everyone in MMA has a screw loose.

“There’s something different about fighters,” Hominick says. “Other­wise, we’d play tennis.”

I know what he means, although I can’t really explain it.

I train in mixed martial arts. As I type this, I’m wearing my Got Jiu-Jitsu? toque. There’s no UFC contract in my future, but if it ever did happen I’ve decided that my entrance music will either be LL Cool J’s Momma Said Knock You Out or Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?

I grew up on Chuck Norris movies and trying out the Karate Kid’s crane technique on my sisters. I’ve always studied something: karate, tae kwon do, aikido, kung fu, Jeet Kune Do, Filipino stickfighting….

I don’t have a Napoleon complex. I’m 6-foot-2. I don’t come from a broken home. My parents have been mar­ried for more than 40 years. I was never abused. Dad was a police officer (go ahead, let your mind wander), and he coached my baseball team and drove me to track meets. I was a skinny, nerdy kid with thick classes and good grades. I had a smart mouth and a bit of a temper, but I wasn’t running around beating people up. I was popular in elementary school, picked on in junior high and ignored in high school, so maybe there’s something in your Psych 101 textbook about that.

Seeing Royce Gracie win the first UFC opened my eyes. Now, most days you can find me training in Muay Thai or Brazilian jiu-jitsu or boxing or submission wrestling. The guys I train with are regular Joes (and a couple of Janes), most­ly. We’re not Bay Street biznobs getting our thug on Fight Club-style.

We’re martial arts geeks. We get a kick out of kicking each other. And out of being kicked back.

While my co-workers at NOW come to the office showing off their new tattoo or their latest piercing, I’ve got another black eye, another bro­ken nose, a sprained thumb, a sep­arated shoulder, a cracked rib, torn ligaments, a fractured shin, enough bruises to play connect-the-dots. No cauliflower ears yet, but I’m hopeful. Invariably, I’m limping or having trouble breathing.

And I love it.

I’m sure I could dig up some Lao-tzu quote to explain why, some fortune-cookie wisdom like “He who defines the terms of battle defines the terms for peace.” But most­ly that would be bullshit. I’m not some reluctant karate kid learning to fight so I don’t have to. Again, though, it’s not like I’m running around beating people up.

“It’s not about fighting so much as getting to learn all these exquisite skills,” says John Sheil, a pro fighter at my gym. “There’s no malice involved.”

People tell me they hate mixed martial arts, that it’s barbaric. Fine. You don’t like it, you don’t approve, go watch curling or synchronized swimming, like my mom does.

1 comment

1 kenneth { 10.09.09 at 10:17 am }

great article. would love to read more.

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