Don’t Be Scared, Homie
“My sternum hurt for, like, almost two years“
UFC 194, Las Vegas, December 12, 2015
The first time I binged on mixed martial arts, or MMA, was on a 2014 JetBlue flight from New York to California. Those take a long time. One channel was replaying UFC 168 and all that preceded it, including the eighteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, the reality show created by the Ultimate Fighting Championship to promote new talent. The season’s drama revolved around the fuck you, bitch animosity between the teams’ coaches, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, who had fought before, in 2012. At UFC 168, they rematched in the cage. Rousey tripped and arm-barred Tate to remain undefeated, then refused to shake hands. Next, the best counterfighter of all time, Anderson Silva, who had just lost his title to All-American wrestler Chris Weidman, got his own rematch. In the second round, Silva aimed a left kick at the back of Weidman’s leg, and Weidman lifted his shin to block. The impact snapped Silva’s tibula and fibula in half. The fight was over. I glanced sideways to see whether my rowmates were judging me.
A year and nine months later, on a work retreat, I found my friend Matt hunched over his laptop watching 261-pound Roy “Big Country” Nelson get clinched up against the octagonal cage with a head underneath his chin, and collar-tied and foot-stomped and face-elbowed and gut-kneed and catch-wrestled and dirty-boxed for a sweathoggish twenty-five minutes by the merely 239-pound Josh “Warmaster” Barnett, Matt’s favorite fighter. Two months after that, on a date late at night, I checked my phone on a street corner and saw Holly Holm triple-shatter Rousey’s jaw with her left leg in a hundreds-times-retweeted GIF. A month later, Matt was buying the José Aldo–Conor McGregor pay-per-view for his birthday. McGregor was the most marketable fighter in UFC history, a 27-year-old wiry Irish guy with a handsome beard, gaudy suits and tattoos, a talent for trash talk, and a wicked straight left hand — “the Celtic Cross.” But McGregor was up against the terrifying Brazilian champion Aldo, who once trained acrobatic capoeira but had focused his game into a simple, punishing one: hard leg kicks, hard knees, hard punch combos; fundamental Dutch kickboxing plus the best defense in the sport. They had spent a year feuding after fights and at press conferences — McGregor playing Mystic Mac to the crowd (“It will be done in one”), Aldo, who barely speaks English, steely with a scar across his cheek from childhood. I read an oral history of Aldo via his former opponents that was eight thousand words of “That dude will, like, cut your muscle” and “That was actually the most pain I’ve ever been in, because it was all soft tissue” and “softball-sized welt” and “I literally could not feel my fingers rubbing against the skin of my leg because the nerves were dead” and “My sternum hurt for, like, almost two years. I’m not even sure what happened.” By this point I had started training at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy. The ref says, “Let’s get it on!” Aldo jumps in with a left hook chin-first but McGregor’s left beats him to it, the punch, the punch, Aldo’s chin and body falling forward-left stiff into the mat. In thirteen seconds Aldo has lost for the first time since Jungle Fight 5 (yes) a decade earlier, McGregor has the 145-pound featherweight belt and is sitting atop the Octagon, Matt is like speechless, and there it is, I am a fan of MMA.
UFC on Fox 17, Orlando, December 19, 2015
The first Ultimate Fighting Championships, in the early ’90s, were freak-show tournaments of all sizes and styles: shootfighting vs. kung fu vs. savate vs. kenpo vs. wing chun vs. pencak silat vs. aikido vs. ninjutsu vs. Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There were no time limits: the ref didn’t stop the fight until someone either gave up or was knocked unconscious. For the first few tournaments, BJJ won. That is, the not particularly athletic Royce Gracie, through his command of mechanical and positional advantage, took down and controlled, then submitted via stranglehold or joint lock, much more imposing men. In fact, Royce’s half-brother and UFC co-owner Rorion chose Royce to compete precisely because of his scrawniness compared with their studly brother Rickson. The Gracie family, based in Rio, had invented Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Japanese judo adapted for self-defense on the ground against bigger opponents; seventy-odd years later they set up the UFC to showcase what it could do. (John Milius, who cowrote Dirty Harry and directed Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, came up with the idea for the cage.) In his first fight Royce Gracie took down an American boxer (wearing only a single glove, in case he had to tap out with his other hand) and submitted him. Then he choked out Ken “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” Shamrock, a pro wrestler who’d cut his MMA teeth in Pancrase, a Japanese promotion that had former fake wrestlers fight for (mostly) real. In the final he faced a Dutch karate champion who had viciously beaten a giant sumo wrestler and an extra-large kickboxer. But Gracie calmly body-locked him, tripped him, rolled him over, and strangled him. Temporarily it was settled: BJJ was king.
Then Olympic-style wrestlers and Red Army–style sambists, grapplers as well but much better athletes, came in with adequate submission defense, and they could take anyone down and pin them forever — “lay and pray” — or, better yet, control them while hitting them in the face: “ground and pound.” By UFC 5, Ken Shamrock had tightened up his anti-submission game; he fought Royce Gracie to a draw by lying on him for half an hour. After that, Royce retired and Rorion sold his share of the business. For a time wrestlers dominated, but eventually kickboxers and boxers learned how to sprawl — when a sweaty man dives for your legs, you jump those legs back and drop your chest on his back — and how to stand up when someone was on top of them. This was “sprawl and brawl.” The arms race continued from there, a layering of styles and moves and countermoves.
Meanwhile the UFC was professionalizing. It replaced Bloodsport-like tournaments with boxing-style match-ups, introduced judges, weight classes, and five-minute rounds, required gloves, banned Speedos, fish-hooking, head butts, and groin strikes . . . and still only New Jersey would sanction events under these new Unified Rules. In 2001, a company called Zuffa (Italian for “fight”), founded by Dana White, supposedly a former boxer from Boston, and the Vegas-casino-owning maybe-mobbed-up Fertitta brothers, bought out the promotion for $2 million. They used television strategically, broadcasting some fights and The Ultimate Fighter on male-oriented Spike TV, and later on Fox and its cable channels. They bought out competing promotions and worked to get the sport legalized nationwide. They strengthened drug testing and secured a Reebok sponsorship, a raw deal for fighters, who used to get five figures for an Xtreme Yogurt logo on their shorts’ ass but now had to wear a standard-issue kit in exchange for a few thousand bucks. And thus the UFC halfway cleaned up the mess that is two people giving each other brain damage in a cage.
By late 2015, the pay-per-view UFCs were approaching number 200, and the company had launched parallel series on network TV (UFC on Fox) and cable and streaming (UFC Fight Nights on Fox Sports and UFC Fight Pass). UFC on Fox 17 features Michael Johnson, among the fastest guys in the sport and the big favorite, against Nate Diaz, a year removed from a loss by unanimous decision to 155-pound Rafael dos Anjos. Diaz had come in injured, undertrained, and five pounds overweight, which cost him 20 percent of his purse; dos Anjos kicked Diaz’s lead leg till it almost fell off, then beat him up on the ground.
Nate is the younger brother of Nick Diaz, a UFC fighter with perhaps the sport’s biggest cult following: in the ring and out, he enacts most transparently the psychodrama of professional combat, which he lives and bleeds and hates. The brothers grew up poor in Stockton and trained for the burritos the older guys would buy them after practice. They learned jiu-jitsu from Cesar Gracie (it’s a big family) and boxing from Richard Perez, who had coached a local-hero world champion. They’re triathletes and quasi vegans. Nick, born in 1983, turned pro in 2001 and became World Extreme Cagefighting champion two years later, after which he began bouncing between the UFC and competing promotions; Nate, two years younger, followed in 2004. In 2006, Nick lost to Joe Riggs by decision, then fought him again in the hospital (“He came to my side of the hospital”). In 2007, Nate won The Ultimate Fighter and a UFC contract, while Nick was in Japan brawling with Takanori Gomi, who hit him with “some little hadouken fuckin’ punch” that unleashed a blood river from under his eye before Nick suddenly choked him out with his shin, a gogoplata. This victory was overturned by a pot test, no contest, six-month suspension. In 2008, Nate triangle-choked Kurt Pellegrino — legs figure-foured around his neck and left arm — while giving him the finger with both hands; Nick almost started a fight with K. J. Noons after a fight with Muhsin Corbbrey by taunting Noons, “Don’t be scared, homie.” A year’s pot suspension for Nick in 2012. Then in 2015, after lying down in the cage because Anderson Silva wasn’t fighting him hard enough, five years and $165,000 — again for marijuana metabolites. Afterward Nick gave a harrowing interview to Ariel Helwani, MMA’s fanboy Studs Terkel, in which he talked about forced ADD drugs and constant childhood uprootings and his girlfriend killing herself after his first pro fight, and how “I’m the original Conor McGregor. . . . He wouldn’t be who he is if it wasn’t for me. Nothing against him. I’m the original real deal. I never did steroids in my entire life. I had to learn how to fight the real way and the right way. That’s why I’m the best fighter in the entire world,” and, more than anything, how awful he feels that he made his brother into a fighter too. “I got us in this, and if I don’t make any money, I don’t have any way to get us out.”
So Nate Diaz is in it, and now here’s Michael Johnson. Two long, slim guys at 155 pounds, Diaz left-handed, smooth rubbery muscle tone, goatee, no tattoos, punches himself in the chin eight times when his name is called. Like a boxer, heavy on the lead leg, which Johnson tries to kick out from under him as dos Anjos had, but Diaz picks it up to check with his shin. It’s back and forth for two minutes. Diaz almost whiffs on a hooking right and turns it into a slap — the patented Stockton Slap — to get a few extra inches. No huge pain in it, just humiliation. Diaz ducks and mocks, puts his hands out like What, waves his hands Get at me, throws the 1–2, left jab–right cross, shakes his head Naw, 1–2, arms down by his sides and shoulders shrugging, leans back and crosses his arms in B-boy stance, punches and slaps, occasional kick, ticky-tack stuff, 1–2, “I hurt you,” points at him, slaps him harder and shows him the palm that perpetrated, head kick, hands behind Johnson’s head in a Thai clinch and knees him, Johnson’s coach yelling “Don’t give up” (don’t ever say that to your fighter), and with ten seconds left Johnson actually takes Diaz down, jumps on Diaz’s back as Diaz stands up, Diaz does a forward roll to shake him as the bell sounds, and then for ten seconds more the fight is done but Diaz is somehow still working on a knee bar while sticking his hands up to celebrate and Johnson’s just kicking at him in frustration.
The judges give the fight to Diaz unanimously, and Joe Rogan, the blocky bald comedian and UFC color commentator, enters the cage for the postfight interview. “This was a beautiful performance against a very tough guy in Michael Johnson,” he says. “How do you feel about it?” What follows on television is one long bleep, but it can be reconstructed. “Fuck that,” Diaz says, a mouse forming under his left eye. He points his finger — in the air, at the camera. “Conor McGregor, you’re taking everything I worked for, motherfucker. I’m going to fight your fuckin’ ass. You know what’s the real fight, what’s the real money fight. It’s me, not these clowns that you already punked at the press conference. Don’t no one want to see that, you know you beat them already. That’s the easy fight. You want that real shit, right here.” And now both hands are up to point at his own shoulders: this fucking guy. “Hey, and another thing . . .” At which point, feeling bad for the network censors, Rogan takes the mic away.
Backstage, Diaz talks to Helwani about McGregor. Diaz: “When we fight, we’re going to fight. Fight-fight. For-real fight. He thinks he’s the ninja. I’m the ninja. Ninja Gaiden. American Ninja. Real motherfucking ninja. This ninja martial artist right here, I started that shit. That shit came from Stockton. . . . Double Impact, Lionheart, Armageddon, all this. American ninja, Irish ninja, represent your shit, homeboy.” The perfect monologue from a kid raised on Van Damme movies and video games who used to have sai fights with his brother in their mom’s living room and is now, finally, coming into his own. What’s the key to beating him, Helwani asks. “Train hard and ninja his ass up.”
Bellator 149, Houston, February 19
There are many promotions besides the UFC, in America and worldwide, but at this point only one even notional competitor: the Viacom-owned Bellator, which lately has been making fights with UFC castoffs and occasionally outbidding its rival for a legitimate talent. Bellator 149 is the former, a B-roll headlined by the third fight between Royce Gracie, now 49, and Ken Shamrock, 52; and co-main-evented by Kimbo Slice (Kevin Ferguson), 42, and Dada 5000 (Dhafir Harris), 38, former street fighters from Florida, where Kimbo became famous a decade ago for his backyard-brawl videos.
This is the kind of fiasco the UFC is good at avoiding. Gracie knees Shamrock in the balls, then TKOs him — the ref hadn’t seen a thing. Shamrock afterward: “There’s no way I’m going to fight from that point. I just can’t, because my boys are not where they’re supposed to be.” But before that, Dada and Kimbo, two overstuffed middle-aged men, Dada with a neon-red Mohawk, lying almost still on top of each other and unable to stand up, or clinched and panting asleep on each other’s shoulders, or throwing slow wild punches between deep breaths and zombied half-alive on their feet, until finally in round 3 Dada gets punched once more and staggers halfway across the ring and collapses like a cliché of a dramatic death scene. Twitter is quick to call it the worst or best fight in MMA history. Shamrock and Kimbo pop for steroids.
In April, Dada went on ESPN Radio to say he’d had kidney failure caused by rhabdomyolysis from his forty-pound weight cut, and two flat-lining heart attacks in the cage. “I was dead. When you talk about your spirit leaving your body, looking at the light, but it’s not your time to go, and you actually get brought back, that was my situation.” Supposedly everyone’s medicals checked out beforehand, but then they were fighting in Texas, whose commission is notoriously one of the worst in the country. There’s a death or two a year in MMA, and none yet in the UFC. (By comparison, there were 923 recorded boxing deaths between 1890 and 2007.) Some MMA deaths are, predictably, due to brain hemorrhage, others to undetected heart conditions, and others to weight-related kidney issues. More deaths occur in unregulated fights than in regulated ones: on Twitter there are sometimes clips of small-promotion fights that the ref hasn’t called off even after a guy has been strangled five seconds past pass-out and you wonder that more people haven’t died, but somehow the fact is they haven’t, it isn’t like boxing, where you can be up against the ropes getting pounded in the head for rounds upon rounds. In that sense it’s slightly more humane.
UFC 196 Las Vegas, March 5
In the UFC, you eat what you kill. You’re an independent contractor, and the basic contracts suck, starting at around $10,000 to show up and another $10,000 if you win, out of which you pay your team and for expensive medical exams. The payout escalates a few grand with each win, and gets negotiated higher only if you have leverage. Which means that you have to “move the needle,” which means that you sell $60 pay-per-views, which means that the UFC tracks your social-media metrics to see what kind of money you’re making them. Based on that, you can maybe get a percentage of the PPV money and a bigger base rate (there’s no fighters’ union to keep the UFC honest). Ronda Rousey and Nick Diaz move the needle, and all-timers Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva and Jon Jones move the needle, and Conor McGregor moves the needle more than any fighter the UFC has ever had. He knows how to sell himself and sell a fight, and he makes millions and brags about making millions and has license to do almost whatever he wants, especially because he fights frequently and takes opponents on short notice and knocked out one of the five best MMA fighters ever in thirteen seconds.
So now McGregor wants to be 145- and 155-pound champion — no one’s held two belts simultaneously — and he’s booked to fight lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos, but dos Anjos breaks his foot two weeks out. Everyone wants this fight — McGregor is a multimillion-dollar payday — but Nate Diaz, no top contender, is the name on fans’ lips: because of his post-Johnson call-out, and because he’s a Diaz, even though Nick has always been the star. UFC president Dana White once infamously said, “Nate Diaz is not a needle mover. . . . His numbers, he doesn’t pull the numbers in.” But Nate planned it this way with his brother, he took the fight with Johnson just so he could call McGregor out afterward, and now Nate finally has his leverage. He even tweets, about McGregor, “He’s going to have to get on his knees and beg.” The UFC kneels. Negotiations drag on, and Diaz doesn’t have time to cut to 155 anymore, so they settle on 170 instead — welterweight — and sit down for a press conference. McGregor: “I should create my own belt. I am, in myself, my own belt. It doesn’t matter if it’s featherweight, lightweight, welterweight. It’s the McGregor belt. That’s it.” Diaz: “You fight midgets. You knocked out three midgets, and you’re pumped up. I’m a real mother-fucking fighter, fighting grown-ups, all the time.”
A lean and muscular man (for women it’s more complicated) can drop about 10 percent of his body weight by drinking too much and then too little water and cutting out carbs for a few days — every gram of glycogen in your muscles holds three grams of water, and your muscles hold thirteen-odd grams of glycogen per kilogram, and your liver holds some more, and essentially if you watch your levels for two weeks before a fight and then jump in and out of a sauna and wrap yourself in towels and get the shakes maybe just slightly you can dehydrate yourself very efficiently. If you’re good at weight cutting, like McGregor, you can drop more like 15 percent and go to your weigh-ins looking like a skeleton in a skin suit. Lightweights weigh in at 155 the day before their fight; otherwise they’re normal-size men, who are nearly six feet and walk around at 175 or more, and thus lightweight is the deepest and best division. Welterweight is for big normal men, and featherweight is small normal. (Then there’s heavyweight contender Stefan “Skyscraper” Struve, seven feet tall, 265 after a cut, and flyweight champ Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, five-three and 125.) Diaz was being hyperbolic about midgets, but four of McGregor’s previous five victims at 145 had been five-seven or shorter.
Their crews start throwing water bottles and Monster Energy cans at each other, and a solitary cup of Starbucks.Tweet
McGregor, barely five-nine, eats himself up to 168 pounds without a weight cut and looks muscular but sort of puffy. The six-foot Diaz is skinny-fat fresh off vacation in Cabo and enters as a gigantic underdog. The head games continue; McGregor has met someone who gives less of a fuck than he does. They’re interviewed on CNBC, and McGregor’s in a tailored gangster’s suit and Diaz is in his usual black T-shirt, and the host and McGregor are ganging up on him.
HOST: What are your financial dreams? What, to you, means you’ve made it? A mansion, a Ferrari?
DIAZ: I don’t know. I don’t care.
MCGREGOR: Say it like it is, Nate.
DIAZ: Who gives a fuck? What the fuck is this, the money channel?
And walks out. Although CNBC is the money channel.
McGregor basically has one weapon — a great left hand that he times and places often perfectly — which he disguises behind looping karate kicks and crazy pressuring footwork, and for the first round and a bit he bloodies Diaz up with it, this hand loaded up to take a head off. But Diaz is rolling with McGregor’s punches, deflecting their power; he’s bleeding badly, but he has scar tissue, he bleeds easy, Diazes don’t get knocked out because they train with real boxers like Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward, and they know how to take a punch. Conor is explosive but Nate’s a triathlete, and no one can stand and trade at pace with a Diaz — their whole thing is to taunt opponents into brawls and then pick them apart with their infinite gas tanks and little half-powered punches. The first round is all McGregor, and so are the first two minutes of round 2. Then Diaz slaps McGregor, tags McGregor, slaps him some more, taunts him some more, knees him up against the fence and begins to open up, McGregor has one more flurry in him but Diaz hits two more combinations and McGregor has given up, he’s hurt and tired, McGregor shoots a shitty panic takedown and Diaz sprawls, rolls him around, punches him a few times to expose his neck, and strangles him seconds later. It’s over — everything changed in two minutes. Diaz walks around flexing like Gumby, mean-mugging with his face masked in blood, and rubs Joe Rogan’s belly. “Nate Diaz, you just shook up the world. How’s that feel?” “Eh, I’m not surprised, motherfuckers.”
UFC 198, Curitiba, May 14
McGregor, “obsessed,” demands a rematch with Diaz, for UFC 200 in July. But then as the fight approaches he pretends to retire because he doesn’t want to interrupt his training to do a press conference. His tweet to this effect — “Thanks for the cheese. Catch ya’s later” — is retweeted 161,776 times. He’s pulled off UFC 200: the UFC showing they’re bigger than he is. You can’t skip your promotional obligations just because you want to train hard and get your revenge. Nate Diaz spends his downtime training with Jean-Claude Van Damme and feuding with Justin Bieber; McGregor pimps a fight with unhittable retired boxer Floyd Mayweather. It’s a stupid joke, a publicity stunt, an attempt to regain leverage — everyone should know that even McGregor’s untested grappling would smother Mayweather if they fought using MMA rules, and McGregor’s leg kicks would chop Mayweather down if they kickboxed, and only a mild stroke from Mayweather could allow McGregor to land a meaningful punch if they boxed; and also it’s a guaranteed UFC lawsuit. Of course plenty of suckers bite. But finally Nate–Conor 2 is announced for UFC 202. Mayweather will have to wait.
In the meantime UFC 197 is a drag, and UFC 199 is the most unexpectedly violent and thrilling card of the year, and UFC 198 is held in Brazil, with at least one Brazilian in every fight — the kind of thing the UFC likes to do to shore up a national market (“World Fucking Domination,” as they put it in 2013) — and I mention it only because of Demian Maia, a beautiful man. In 2007, he won the Abu Dhabi Combat Club championships — some sheikh decided to make grappling his country’s national sport and fund the world’s most prestigious no-gi tournament — and then signed with the UFC. His jiu-jitsu got him to 11–0. But then Nate Marquardt knocked him out in one punch, and Maia refocused on kickboxing; he lost a few more fights as opponents brushed off his weak jiu-jitsu takedowns, so he started training American wrestling more seriously; at age 38 he’s become a complete fighter, disguised as a fourth-degree BJJ black belt. And now he does just enough striking, or striking footwork, to get in on your leg, chain-wrestle you down, float over your guard, take your back, and strangle you or crank your neck till your nose starts bleeding. It’s become inevitable. He makes it look easy. Here at 198, against Matt “The Immortal” Brown, Maia does it again, backpacking Brown for two rounds before pretending to be hurt, luring him to the ground again, and locking in the rear naked choke. It’s a masterpiece. The current trend in jiu-jitsu is toward dynamic submission-hunting from anywhere. But Maia shows that the old Gracie style — proceeding step by efficient step through increasingly dominant control positions — works if you perfect it. No one who hasn’t taken BJJ likes watching him fight. I hope he’ll be welterweight champion, and not only to annoy them.
UFC Fight Night 90, Las Vegas, July 7
Dana White loves, loves, to go on ESPN to break news, but that’s the closest MMA comes to a normal media environment; otherwise the UFC is off on its own. Its subscription streaming service Fight Pass, on which this card is being shown exclusively, has every UFC fight ever, and it’s a record of what a force the UFC has become. It includes the libraries of World Extreme Cagefighting, which had a lot of great light fighters, and the Japanese promotion Pride, where all the top heavyweights once were (including Fedor Emelianenko, who never fought in the UFC), and Strikeforce, which had Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate as well as good big male fighters. This is because the UFC bought out all of them, took their assets — fighters as well as old fights — and shut them down. Fight Pass also shows Glory, one of the best kickboxing promotions, and the women-only Invicta, and Eurasia Fight Nights, which has a Russian announcer who can be counted on to say things like “That was unexpectable” and “Excuse my French, ladies and gentlemen. This is nearly terrific,” and rusticated amateur hours like the Alaska Fighting Championship (there’s a raffle), and the Eddie Bravo Invitational, the most exciting grappling event going. There are of course many dedicated MMA news sites, and ESPN has ramped up coverage, but the best discourse takes place elsewhere. Half of what I’ve learned has been from podcasts like Heavy Hands and Fights Gone By and pseudonymous YouTube analysts and a Twitter user handled @GrabakaHitman, who’s devoted his life to GIFing every last fight anywhere anytime. Exemplary tweet: “Can someone find a Fuji TV One stream so I can watch a Russian hand-2-hand combat expert fight a Mongolian wrestler on a moat at 4am? Thanks.”1
And of course, “Train by day, Joe Rogan podcast by night, all day!” That was Nick Diaz in the cage to Rogan at UFC 137 after beating B. J. Penn. What do you know about Joe Rogan? My sister used to watch NewsRadio, and Phil Hartman was amazing, and Andy Dick and Dave Foley and Maura Tierney and Stephen Root and Vicki Lewis and Khandi Alexander were very good, and Rogan was fine; who had any idea that he would become a paragon of some new American masculinity after a stint on Fear Factor, that show where people ate bugs? Now he has an incredibly popular hours-and-hours-long YouTube podcast where he sits around with his flat-earther friends and drinks Budweiser and talks DMT and flotation tanks and libertarianism and kale shakes and fighting, and he’s likable despite himself and adjacent in confusing ways to other very contemporary ambivalent figures like Sam Harris the anti-Islamist meditating neuroscientist and Tim Ferriss the Silicon Valley lifehacker and Jocko Willink the Navy SEAL business consultant who wakes up every morning at four-thirty to lift weights and GET AFTER IT; the next thing I need (“need”) to do is figure out what Rogan and Marc Maron think of each other. (On the other hand, Rogan and Ira Glass interacting is unthinkable.) Rogan, lately, is backing away from UFC color-commentary duties, and it’s not that he’s exactly been great at that job, but he is wildly enthusiastic, especially about jiu-jitsu, and manages to ignore or shout over his idiot partner Mike “Goldie” Goldberg, usually with an “Oh, he tagged him, Mike!!” It’s a shame that Phil Hartman isn’t around to replace him, or Orson Welles. During the events Rogan isn’t working, he and his pals livestream alternate commentary.
Rafael dos Anjos’s broken foot has finally healed, and here he is to defend his lightweight title, not against McGregor — who’s now slated for his Diaz rematch — but Eddie “The Underground King” Alvarez, a boxer-wrestler from Philly whose wife sits in the crowd screaming Eddie! What a fight. I head to Twitter, where @GrabakaHitman has already synced up the video with the voices of Rogan and Joey “CoCo” Diaz, a comedian from Alvarez’s neck of the woods. Here’s what it’s like (Rogan in italics):
Dos Anjos caught him with that left high kick. And that’s what I’m talking about, he can add in — [Alvarez feints left, loops a right hand through dos Anjos’s guard, wobbles him.] Oh Jesus Christ. Oh, he almost slipped him! Oh Jesus Christ. Dos Anjos is in big trouble! Oh Jesus fucking Christ. Oh Jesus fucking Christ. Alvarez is all over him. [Alvarez is winging wide lefts and rights, but dos Anjos somehow stays on his feet.] Oh Jesus fucking Christ. Jesus. Oh Jesus. Fucking. Christ. He’s gonna win. Jesus fucking Christ. Oh my God. Oh my God Jesus. This is fuckin’ tremendous. Oh! He decked him again. This is heart against fuckin’ skill, Joe Rogan. Oh! Flying knee! [Dos Anjos is backed up to the cage and Alvarez jumps into his head knee-first.] Nothin’ but fucking heart. Nothin’ but fucking heart. Oh no! He went down like this. [Alvarez falls down after the knee and dos Anjos climbs on top.] Oh Jesus. Side control. Yeah, but he don’t know where he is. Alvarez back up! [Dos Anjos is obviously stunned, and can’t keep Alvarez down.] He doesn’t know where he is. Alvarez is back up and he takes him down. [Alvarez quickly double-legs dos Anjos and keeps punching him in the face.] He doesn’t know where he is! This is heart against fuckin’ skill! I’m telling you cocksuckers! I’ve been waiting for this fuckin’ fight for three fuckin’ months! This is what I’m talking about! This is what the fuckin’ problem is with the UFC! [Dos Anjos has somehow stood up again, and still Alvarez is punching him.] Look at him going to the body. Every once in a while, you run into a brick fuckin’ wall! This guy, Diaz, these people are savages! Ohhhh! [Alvarez is knocking dos Anjos’s head into orbit with uppercuts, but the champ stays standing.] Look at this shit! You gotta kill this motherfucker! [Referee jumps in, waves the fight off.] That’s it! It’s fucking over! [CoCo Diaz, pounding the desk.] There’s a new one fifty-five! Where’s Conor McGregor now? Where’s Conor McGregor now? This kid’s Philadelphia. You dumb motherfuckers. Eddie Alvarez. [Coach Mark Henry jumps on Alvarez’s back in celebration.] This is crazy. I told you this was the fight of the fuckin’ year, you fuckin’ momos. Holy shit.
The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale, Las Vegas, July 8
Women’s MMA is a few years behind men’s. Ronda Rousey remains the second most famous fighter in the world, after McGregor — she got incredible mileage out of her Olympic judo and pure bullying aggression, until Holly Holm, twice The Ring magazine’s best female boxer, kept her distance, took her time, and showed up Rousey’s limitations by breaking her face at range. Only a handful of other women rate with ranked men. Cris “Cyborg” Justino weighs too much to make 135, which is where Rousey and Holm fight, and the UFC has so far refused to start a 145-pound class. Then there’s Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha, by far the two best 115-pounders. Gadelha has muscles that make you think steroids. And Jędrzejczyk (she likes Joanna “Champion,” the Internet likes Joanna “Violence”), 11–0 and belt-holder since 2015, is a slightly built kickboxer with brutal elbows — one of the top strikers in the sport. Gadelha wrestles Jędrzejczyk down for two rounds, but Jędrzejczyk keeps standing back up, and by round 3 Gadelha is gassing out (big muscles guzzle fuel: the dangers of being jacked) and Jędrzejczyk is snap-kicking her in the face, elbowing her in the clinch, teeping her so Jędrzejczyk’s toes dig right up under Gadelha’s sternum — hitting her almost at will. Jędrzejczyk even, in a flourish, takes Gadelha down. When Gadelha waits on her back, legs up in guard, Jędrzejczyk kicks Gadelha’s calf dismissively, walks away with her back turned, and pumps her fist in the air like a . . . violent champion. After losing the first two rounds, this stylish, evil woman wins the next three going away. Who the hell’s gonna beat “little Joanna from the hood”?
UFC 200, Las Vegas, July 9
Diego Sanchez has been fighting approximately forever — since winning The Ultimate Fighter season 1 in 2005, and before that three years in King of the Cage and Aztec Challenge and Ring of Fire — and he thought he might have chronic traumatic encephalopathy from too many head blows. Nope, false alarm, he tells an interviewer for fifteen run-on unblinking minutes: “I’m sharp, I’m fast, I’m primed, I’m prepped, and I’m peaking . . . Cerebrum Brain Health Centers got this [points to his head] back to optimum . . . look at me, I don’t look 34, I am alkaline, alkalized, I’m on point, and I’m coming to dominate and destruct . . . I got my brain fixed, I got this shit balanced . . . the left side of my brain and the right side of my brain . . . blood tests where we ran my blood for 250 different cooked and uncooked foods . . . zero inflammation in my body, zero inflammation in my brain . . . three hours a day meditation . . . I was in the sauna doing eye exercises . . . the eyes are the brain and the brain are the eyes . . . I got away from the meditation because I’m all about Jesus Christ . . . but it’s not the devil . . . this is training . . . now when all the guys at the gym are, Waah, my body’s catabolic, I need food, I need rest before my next training session, Diego Sanchez is at the gym, outside, in a balance pose, in the ice bath, meditating, I mean Sanchez is on point, Sanchez is coming for the belt, I’m outside saying Yes, yes, yes, yes.” Then this MMA Molly Bloom gets in the Octagon with Joe Lauzon, whose cauliflower ears make him look like Bat Boy, and is TKOed in two minutes.
Nate Diaz is interviewed cageside. McGregor’s trash talk can’t touch him. “There ain’t nothing to say. The reality of it, in times of war he ain’t even alive.” What’s the point of a rematch when you already could have strangled someone to death?
Republican National Convention, Cleveland, July 19
After months of rumors, all of them denied by Dana White, the UFC gets sold for $4 billion to Ari “Brother of Rahm” Emanuel’s WME-IMG talent agency: a two-thousand-times return on investment, of which the fighters see nothing. “The feeling I have is that I had a son, and they adopted it, sent him to study at Harvard, and now my son controls Wall Street,” Rorion Gracie says proudly.
WME-IMG makes White’s staying on a condition of their purchase. His role in the UFC is peculiar. He’s a combination Vince McMahon and Don King: promoter and matchmaker and hype man and negotiator, hero and heel. He feuds publicly with troublemaking fighters, cursing at them for not fighting often enough, or fighting boring fights, or refusing fights on short notice, or trying to earn full market value. He pretends to reward company men, but screws them over, too. He’s been on the cover of Men’s Fitness more than once, most recently its Special Success & Big Muscle Issue: “Sculpt Huge Arms, Get Shredded Abs, Kick Ass Like HIM!” In the accompanying interview, he gives an echt-Dana quote: “Believe me, the guys who deserve the money are the ones you don’t hear bitching about money.” He’s petulant and straightshooting and a pathological liar and almost the biggest personality the UFC has. He loves Family Guy.
So guess who shows up at Donald Trump’s GOP convention. “What’s up, GOP?” White’s more than a little shouty in his jacket and open-collar button-down, but his four minutes onstage are almost charming and almost plausible (this is the Dana paradox). In 2001, when all of America and John McCain hated this “human cockfighting,” Trump called White and made an actual good deal for presenting UFC 30 and then 31 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. “Nobody took us seriously. Nobody. Except Donald Trump. Donald was the first guy that recognized the potential that we saw in the UFC, and encouraged us to build our business. He hosted our first two events at his venue, he dealt with us personally, he got in the trenches with us, and he made a deal that worked for everyone. On top of that, he showed up for the fight on Saturday night and sat in the front row. Yeah. He’s that guy. He shows up.” And, wouldn’t you know it, “I’ve been in the fight business my whole life. I know fighters. Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump is a fighter.” I would definitely pirate that pay-per-view.
UFC Fight Night 92, Salt Lake City, August 6
I should feel bad about liking fighting, or liking fighters who are violent and ugly in their everyday lives, or liking fights until the moment when the referee should have stopped the beating and only then turning on my disgust. And I do, sometimes. But usually I just wish the fighters got paid better.
“We all fight to get paid,” Nate Diaz has said. “But I’m also fighting for myself. If I’m not fighting, I’m dying.” Lots of guys talk about how fighting saved their lives. Matt Brown is nicknamed “The Immortal” because he clinically died from heroin before being resuscitated, then moved on to OxyContin; when three acquaintances died in three months, he joined an MMA gym. Mark “The Super Samoan” Hunt’s memoir is called Born to Fight: his father beat Hunt and his brothers with brooms and branches and for twelve years raped their sister; Hunt himself went to prison twice before he was persuaded to take up kickboxing and God. Besides barbed wire and the fighter’s nick- or given name, God is a big tattoo theme in the UFC — angel wings and crucifixes and belly text reading GOD’S GIFT — and He makes His way into half the postfight interviews. For the faithless, on the other hand, fighting competes mostly with fucking. Georges St-Pierre is equanimous: “There’s three things in life that excite me,” he told Ariel Helwani. “There’s a woman, of course; dinosaurs; and the violence of the Octagon.” But then there’s Nick Diaz: “What can I say. For me this is a curse, you know. I haven’t been fanatical about being an MMA fighter since I turned pro. People are always like, ‘Oh, so that’s your passion.’ I’m like no, it’s not my passion. Women are my passion. Or at least, maybe, well, one woman. Potentially. I suppose.” Teruto Ishihara, an unranked young featherweight from Osaka with cornrows and a septum ring, is with Diaz: “I don’t like MMA. I don’t like boxing. I don’t like wrestling. I don’t like grappling. I like only bitches. I don’t want to fight. I really don’t. I’m not trying to get fans or be different from anyone else. I don’t want to fight. I do this because it’s the best way I know of to get girls.” In Salt Lake City, he gives free tickets to the first three women to kiss him on the cheek outside My Thai Asian Cuisine. While retreating at Fight Night 92 he plants his back leg and knocks Horacio Gutiérrez down, then jumps on him with hammerfists and gets on the microphone: “Party tonight! Come with me, Salt Lake bitches, baby! Today, my mother happy birthday, I love you!” That night he is Instagrammed in bed with four women. Everyone has their clothes on.
UFC 202, Las Vegas, August 20
Finally Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz are due to fight again. McGregor has moved his whole operation from Ireland to Iceland to Las Vegas at the cost of $300,000: coach, assistant coach, movement coach, performance coach, nutritionist, masseuse, cardio expert, jiu-jitsu and boxing sparring partners, videographer for his new lifestyle channel, fast cars, mansion, bespoke training facility with kettlebells and battle ropes. Diaz meanwhile does curls at a globo-gym. The buzz around the fight is strangely muted, until McGregor shows up to the prefight press conference half an hour late. And suddenly Diaz says, “Fuck your whole team, how ’bout that,” and walks offstage at a sign from his brother. Their crews start throwing water bottles and Monster Energy cans at each other, and a solitary cup of Starbucks. Nick Diaz immediately Snapchats himself with a small smug girl who claims McGregor clocked her. “That’s fucked up. Bro. Why you hitting. Kids with bottles?”
I run around looking for a sports bar. The first one I try is filled to capacity; at eleven-thirty, I walk into Bleachers on Flatbush, and order myself two Bud Lights for about twenty bucks as the DJ plays “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems.” The card has gone by superfast. The guy standing next to me runs his hand across his throat — a twelve-second decapitation by Anthony Johnson of Glover Teixeira in the co-main. He is the only one around me not in a pro-wrestling shirt: NWO, SUPLEX CITY, THAT’S ROODE — some multiracial crew rolling deep. Five minutes later it’s fight time.
McGregor walks out wrapped in an Irish flag, to “The Foggy Dew/Hypnotize,” Sinead meets Biggie, and swaggers about the cage like he owns it. Diaz enters to Tupac (his bulldog is named Makaveli) and stalks around, glaring. They don’t touch gloves. Mike Tyson is cageside. Round 1, McGregor isn’t fighting McGregor-style. He’s throwing efficient flat-footed Muay Thai leg kicks instead of bouncy wasteful karate kicks; he’s counterpunching instead of just loading up his left hand — more willing to adapt than his bluster would indicate. A counter left knocks Diaz to the ground, and Diaz throws up guard, but McGregor doesn’t take the bait, doesn’t rush in for a knockout and risk getting submitted. Round 2, McGregor’s left hits Diaz twice more, and twice more he goes down, the guard comes up, and McGregor just beckons Diaz back to his feet. Diaz’s face is a mess again, his front leg is chewed up. But he keeps walking forward. And halfway through the round, maybe a minute later than McGregor gassed last time, again he loses steam. Diaz starts pressuring. Now he has his hands out, What?!, wiping blood off his face, pawing in flurries at McGregor. Round 3, Diaz is out for the kill. McGregor runs away to reset his position, and Diaz points at him for cowardice. They’re up on the fence, in the clinch, and Diaz gives the finger to McGregor’s corner; the cage mic gets him saying, “Fuck all of you.” Fuck your game plan. He slaps McGregor, catches his leg but can’t get him down — Diaz has never been a wrestler, he’s a boxer who uses his BJJ if you panic-wrestle, and McGregor has enough counterwrestling to defend. He runs, Diaz points. Diaz hits 1–2, 1–2 against the fence, to the body and head, knees and uppercuts, and McGregor is saved by the bell. Round 4. Now Diaz is the tired one — is that possible? — and McGregor has recovered, as if round 3 was all rope-a-dope. Diaz can barely see. Is the fight tied at two? Is McGregor up 3–1? Diaz probably needs to finish him. Round 5, and Diaz flexes for the crowd. McGregor is running again, and again they clinch, and again Diaz can’t take him down. McGregor walks away, and Diaz gives him the finger. Diaz clinches him up again, elbows and knees, and judo-trips him with eleven seconds left. The bell sounds. Diaz helps McGregor up and they hug for a second. Diaz’s face is dripping blood; McGregor is limping. One judge has it a draw, but the other two give three rounds to McGregor. Conor: “Surprise, surprise, motherfucker. The king is back.” It feels rehearsed. Nate: “I thought I won that fight. They can’t have a motherfucker like me win, I’m too real for this sport. . . . I didn’t get to train, I had injuries. Fuck that, I ain’t into making excuses, but he should have finished me off. I want number 3. I gave him number 2 the second day, so I’m ready to go again.” One of the wrestling fans gives me dap, and I walk out high on violence.
After too many copyright violations, he’s now @Grabaka_Hitman. ↩