A decade-long trip from 'human cockfighting' to mainstream
April 2010 marks the writer's 10-year anniversary covering mixed martial arts
Once known as 'human cockfighting,' MMA is now the world's fastest-growing sport
MMA has taken the writer around the globe, including longtime hotbed Japan
Let me start by saying something my friends and family already know: I'm generally awful at being sentimental. But in trying to sort through a decade of covering mixed martial arts -- April 2010 marks my 10-year anniversary reporting on this rags-to-riches tale -- it occurred to me, if there was ever a period worth getting reflective about, it's this one.
From "human cockfighting" to the fastest-growing sport in the world. That actually happened.
This was mixed martial arts before it was MMA. The sport didn't really have a name when I started. Depending on the circle you were in, it was "no holds barred" or "extreme fighting" or vale tudo (Portuguese for "anything goes"). Whatever it went by at the time, few would disagree cage fighting equated to the sporting Wild West -- though those of us around it didn't give a damn what anyone else cared to think.
After storming into the public consciousness in the mid-'90s, when basically anything did go, the sport was stymied by the time it hooked me. Like any red-blooded American male, I'd seen at least one UFC. Everyone had heard of that Royce guy. But it wasn't until I met Dutch star Bas Rutten in 1998 in a Los Angeles gym prior to his UFC debut against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka that I felt compelled to immerse myself in the culture of it. And make no mistake, MMA has cultivated its own unique culture.
A local Japanese video store provided a window to Shooto and Pancrase events. I soaked in everything and quickly knew this wasn't at all what critics made it out to be. There was skill and heart and effort -- everything that compelled my education via the L.A. Times sports page.
I went to my first live card as a fan in May 1999. It was promoted by a group known as Neutral Grounds at the Hollywood Athletic Club under open-hand pancrase rules. Toby Imada, who pulled off MMA's best submission in 2009 competing for Bellator, fought that night and defeated the local Brazilian favorite.
Tensions ran high. I felt comfortable there.
It became my mission to seek out events. The sport, an easy target for politicians, was effectively outlawed across the U.S. In California no legal measures existed for it to fall under the purview of the state athletic commission. That meant it had to go underground, which it did exceedingly well. I recall long drives to the middle of nowhere, like that freezing November night in 1999 to a baseball diamond on the Barona Indian Reservation in North San Diego County, where Jeremy Horn decisioned John Marsh, and fighters like John Alessio and Antonio McKee gained experience well past midnight.
Five months later, I wrote the first story I was ever paid for, a cool $50 for a poorly-worded piece in Full Contact Fighter -- one of the few periodicals covering the sport at the time -- that outlined the California State Athletic Commission's decision to be the first state in the union that signed off on MMA. Red tape and a dysfunctional commission, headed at the time by Rob Lynch, meant it would be six years before the state actually followed through. But the passing of the rules in April 2000 was the point from which all other regulation began -- that same night, New Jersey adopted the rules.
That September I made the first of what would be many interesting trips to Atlantic City to cover New Jersey's entree into MMA regulation, an IFC event promoted by Paul Smith. I distinctly remember Larry Hazzard's face contort with disapproval as Gan McGee, all 6-foot-10 of him, slammed knees to the head of a grounded, overmatched Brad Gabriel. Hazzard made sure IFC: Battleground 2 was the first and last state-approved card in the U.S. to feature such a tactic.
Two months later, the UFC's first regulated card took place in Atlantic City. Dana White was not the promoter. Bob Meyrowitz was. And he put on a hell of a main event between Randy Couture and Kevin Randleman. I watched the event on the other side of the country at Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den gym in Chula Vista, Calif.
Millions of dollars from Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta's casino-filled coffers, White's prodigious efforts, and television made the whole thing just sort of unfold after Zuffa replaced the SEG regime.
I covered my share of UFC events from 2001 through '05, until Zuffa decided to deny access to a growing contingent of MMA media prior to UFC 55 at the Mohegan Sun. Never regaining my seat hasn't done anything to suppress memories of sitting within arm's reach of the cage at Royal Albert Hall on that emotional night when Ian Freeman stunned Frank Mir (or being at the posh London nightclub later that evening where Lee Murray popped Tito Ortiz, though I missed the punch); seeing Matt Hughes lift Frank Trigg in the air and carry him across the cage (still the most electrified response I've heard from a crowd); writing for Sherdog.com in 2005 that "MMA neophytes ... should now understand what these brave men are about" after Forrest Griffin went toe to toe with Stephan Bonnar live on Spike TV.
Prior to 2006, the sport's big-money epicenter was Tokyo, and I was fortunate enough to document that first-hand, traveling a ridiculous 12 times in 18 months to Japan while I was enrolled at San Diego State. It didn't take a lot to drop out of school, choosing instead to learn through doing. Not much has changed there.
The memories are flooding back now.
This one is something I haven't shared before because it makes me look stupid. Standing on the floor of the Tokyo Dome as 67,000 people went crazy while Wanderlei Silva walked out to "Sandstorm" at Pride 17 before his championship fight with Kazushi Sakuraba, I couldn't help myself. Apparently the only way to deal with the emotion in the building was to shadow box. There are so many others, like feeling a crowd lose its breath during the Pride heavyweight title fight in 2003 when Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira met Russian challenger Fedor Emelianenko. From 25 rows up, at the seven-minute mark, Emelianenko, from his knees, connected to Nogueira's head and it sounded like a 12-gauge had just gone off in Yokohama Arena.
MMA, says my passport, is global. Rutten's home country of Holland was stamped several times. In fact, it's there that I met many of the same people in charge of the European MMA scene today: Bas Boon, Apy Echteld and Ron Nyqvist. Don't know Nyqvist? He was the guy handing out wads of cash to fighters on one particular trip in 2001 to Amsterdam prior to the region's most ambitious mixed-fight card. Kickboxing was never my beat, and I was there to watch Gilbert Yvel fight Carlos Barreto, but it was nonetheless special to witness what at the time was billed as Ramon "The Diamond" Dekkers' final fight.
Still, the one figure I remember most from that trip is Nyqvist, a co-founder of Golden Glory who today helps run the fighter management and promotional company even as he sits in prison. In a previous life, Nyqvist was regarded as one of the largest exporters of ecstasy from Holland to the United States. Friends say, ironically enough, he cleaned up his act by the time he entered fight promotion in 1999. Nyqvist, now 41, has one year remaining on his sentence for killing two business partners, unrelated to MMA, before they killed him -- which they tried three times, including once by car bomb.
As for Rutten, I once saw a mini-van knock him 30 feet into the air at 4 a.m. in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. But that's a story for another time.
For a reporter covering an outlaw sport, it doesn't get much better.