Monday, July 7, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Fighting for Acceptance by David Mayeda and David Ching

Despite the explosion in popularity of mixed martial arts in the last 4 years, there have been few attempts thus far to conduct any serious analytical research on the sport. Given this dearth of in-depth analysis, the mere act of publishing Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society constitutes an important step in the sports history. Authors David T. Mayeda and David E. Ching have both the blessing and curse of being among the first writers out of the gate with an attempt at investigating some of the issues concerning this controversial sport, and the result is a solid but ultimately flawed effort that will hopefully facilitate further investigations. While this work grants readers access to the thoughts of many key figures in the sport, it suffers from a lack of depth and focus caused largely by the scattershot approach to the subject and a pseudo-scientific narrative conceit.

The title of this book would lead one to believe that its subject is the development of MMA from underground spectacle to mainstream phenomenon and all of the growing pains associated with its explosion in popularity. By the midpoint of the book you realize that it is actually a collection of individual essays tied together with a somewhat tenuous narrative thread. Authors Mayeda and Ching take turns addressing topics as broad and varied as the sport’s history, safety record, fighter psychology, gender issues, and the responsibility of participants to preach non-violence to society at large. Any one of these topics, if investigated singly and thoroughly, could have filled the 250 pages of this book and been the better for it.

By attempting to tackle all of these topics at once the authors have short-changed their ability to provide substantial arguments on any one subject. The chapter on MMA’s safety record perhaps comes closest to a full-bodied analysis as the authors provide actual research data on injury statistics in MMA compared to other sports. Other chapters, such as those dealing with the question of MMA’s effects on street violence, suffer drastically from a lack of statistical support. Is there a basis for concern that MMA will contribute to an increase in violence on the street? Is there much insight to be gained from a handful of interviews on this subject versus actual data to give the question the proper context? It is unfortunate that authors Mayeda and Ching pursue this topic without the proper tools of analysis while giving short shrift to very fertile topics, such as gender issues in the sport.

Given that the authors are both academics with graduate degrees, it is perhaps understandable that their work here is presented with many of the trappings of a sociological text. Chapter 3, titled “Methodological Notes and the Interviewees,” consists of 24 pages describing their methods in great detail, followed by a bio of each of the 40+ interview subjects. While the intent of this chapter is to give full disclosure of the author’s methods, there is no reason to spend 6 pages essentially saying “we sat down and interviewed people.” This level of detail regarding methodology would be more appropriate if the authors were conducting statistical or laboratory-based studies. Unfortunately for the reader, this pseudo-scientific framework is a rather thin veneer that detracts from the books’ readability.

Despite its flaws, Fighting for Acceptance is an important work in the canon of MMA literature. Authors David Mayeda and David Ching are clearly dedicated and intelligent writers who have made an earnest effort to delve into the issues arising from this young sports’ sudden popularity. Without a robust body of research to draw from it is never easy to be among the first to undertake this type of analysis. Their work hopefully marks the early stages of a continued focus on intelligent and thoughtful investigation into the sport.

Friday, June 20, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008)

In Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American, director Christopher Bell explores what he believes to be a uniquely American paradox: we will do whatever it takes to be #1 but vilify those who get caught “cheating.” Cheating in this case refers to the use of steroids, a subject that should be very familiar to sports fans. In his first major film effort Bell has crafted an expansive and comprehensive look into what drives us to be winners at all costs and how our rhetoric surrounding steroids is defined by paranoia and hypocrisy.

For body-obsessed males in the 1980s the message from the media, entertainment industry and politicians was clear: eat your vegetables, work hard, and play fair and you’ll be the best. Growing up in an overweight family in Poughkeepsie, NY Chris Bell and his two brothers joined the legion of young males kneeling at the altar of Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they competed in multiple sports and amateur bodybuilding to build self esteem. What they quickly learned is that those at the top of their game used performance enhancers and that the ceiling was low for those that refused. In this intensely personal story, Bell takes the audience through the lives of his brothers as they each try to satisfy their need for greatness and navigate the moral dilemma of doing things clean in second place or doing things dirty and being #1.

During the film’s 2 hour runtime we are taken on an entertaining journey from Bell’s family life in Poughkeepsie up to the highest levels of Congress as he deftly picks apart the rhetoric that surrounds this highly controversial subject. The cast of characters provide a robust cross-section of Americans, from politicians to washed-up bodybuilders and everyone in between. What unfolds is an even-handed and refreshingly agenda-free presentation of a topic that polarizes the American public. Are steroids the next heroin, or are the dangers on par with any legal medication? Are athletes that use steroids simply villainous cheaters, or should they be allowed to use substances that allow them to push the limits of human achievement? These questions, among many others, are left to us to ponder. This film is aimed at provoking thought, not arguing for or against steroid use, and audience members will likely leave the theater with more questions than answers. You can’t really ask for more from a documentary.

Even though the sport of mixed martial arts is not directly addressed in this film, it is no less timely or relevant given the rampant steroid scandals that characterized the sport in 2007. As Bell interviews Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter that was disgraced at the 1988 Olympics for testing positive for steroids, one cannot help but think of Sean Sherk and how much he has suffered from the stigma attached to performance enhancers. Sherk held the UFC lightweight title but was eventually stripped of this honor after testing positive for nandrolone in his defense against Hermes Franca in July of 2007. Fans immediately scorned Sherk, who maintains his innocence, and what was once a promising MMA career has been damaged immeasurably. As Sherk can no doubt testify, the taint of steroid use (or alleged use) is not easily removed. Given the immense pressure put upon athletes to perform almost superhuman feats for our amusement, the fairness of these punitive circumstances warrants debate. Bell’s thesis, if nothing else, is that the use of steroids is a vastly complex moral issue that all athletes and sports fans must navigate. Bigger, Stronger, Faster is an excellent addition to the national discourse on how fairness in sports competition factors in to our cultural identity.

Jason Tiefel, editor

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 on Combat Music Radio editor Jason Tiefel was on this week's episode of Eugene Robinson's MMA radio show "Knuckle Up" on KMBT Combat Music Radio. On tap were discussions of the EliteXC shenanigans and the upcoming Affliction card. Check out Eugene and other KMBT shows at

Friday, May 30, 2008

Investigation into the Death of Sam Vasquez Concluded

Austin, TX - May 30, 2008

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation has released their report outlining the investigation into the death of MMA competitor Sam Vasquez. The conclusion reached is that the MMA event in which Vasquez competed was conducted in accordance with all of the rules and protocols set forth in the Combative Sports Program.

Vasquez participated in the Renegades Extreme Fighting event at the Toyota Center in Houston on October 20th of last year and was immediately taken to the hospital after his contest against Vince Libardi. Upon examination it was determined that the Houston-based fighter was suffering from swelling in the brain, at which time several surgical procedures were performed to relieve the pressure. His condition began to worsen and he was placed into hospice care. He died on November 30th, 2007.

In April 2008, the autopsy report filed by the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed the cause of death to be “complications of blunt trauma of head with subdural hemorrhage” and the death was ruled accidental.

Lee Parham, Business and Occupations Section Manager for the TDLR, presented his report (available at and answered questions from the media present. The report outlines the action that took place in the bout between Vasquez and Libardi, broken down by round, and the subsequent timeline of events leading from the bout stoppage to Vasquez’s arrival at the hospital. All post-fight response from event staff and medical officials on hand was found to be well within the standards set forth by the TDLR. Medical Advisory Committee member Dr. Ivan Melendez went on to describe the performance of the staff on hand as exemplary. “I don’t think you’d ever hear about someone falling off a ladder at home and being in the emergency room 14 minutes later,” said Melendez.

While the eventual death of Vasquez cannot be linked definitively to any one blow encountered in the bout, the report does describe a takedown in the first round in which he struck the back left side of his head on a cage post. Dr. Melendez did hypothesize that this blow could have been the major contributor to Vasquez’s subsequent brain swelling. In the pursuant discussion of the report Parham revealed that the TDLR will investigate implementing minimums on the thickness of cage post padding, which currently have no required specifications.

The final chapter of Sam Vasquez’s life has been closed but the repercussions will resonate in the months and years to come, not just for his family and friends but for fans of combative sports. His legacy is in illustrating that even when everything works as planned and everyone performs as they should there can still be tragic endings. Our condolences go out to all those effected by his passing.

Jason Tiefel, editor

Sunday, April 13, 2008

YAMMA Pit Fighting – It’s Got Electrolytes!

by Jason Tiefel, Editor

The much-anticipated inaugural event for YAMMA Pit fighting, brainchild of (in)famous MMA pioneer Bob Meyrowitz, was held in Atlantic City, NJ this weekend. When I say much-anticipated I mean for all of the wrong reasons. Many hardcore MMA fans were practically salivating at the potential hilarity that might ensue once this mysterious new fighting arena was unleashed on the world. Would this event rival be the ironically hysterical three ring circus that was K-1 Dynamite! USA? Would Butterbean roll down the incline of the YAMMA like a gravy-filled egg? Would Pat Smith say he’s been working on his ground game “just a little bit” in his post fight interview? The possibility for schadenfreude-tastic ridicule seemed limitless.

What transpired was actually the worst-case scenario for Meyrowitz: YAMMA was neither relevant to the MMA landscape nor was it ridiculous enough to entertain. What fans received was an 8 man heavyweight tournament with very little action of note and a few “Masters Series” bouts that failed to garner even the slightest bit of nostalgia in this longtime fan’s heart. To the fans that have discovered the sport in the last 5 years or so, this card was a veritable “Who’s That?” of mixed martial arts, featuring relatively unknown fighters comingled with once-great fighters like Mark Kerr and Ricco Rodriguez. It was an odd collection to say the least.

The ultimate irony of this experiment is the YAMMA itself: the event and the fighting area were designed to force exciting fights by eliminating clinching and pinning against the cage. The incline of the YAMMA, coupled with the absurd single 5 minute round bout structure, ultimately favored wrestlers that take opponents down and control from top position. Once fighters clinched and approached the incline, the elevation of the opponent’s legs made takedowns much easier. In the heavyweight tournament, the short bout time allowed Travis Wiuff to repeatedly take his opponents down and simply control for 5 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Wiuff won all of his fights by decision.

In an interview with, Meyrowitz stated that they plan on their next event in June and that it will take several events to figure out the riddle of the YAMMA. With their first event in the bag the questions still linger as to how viable this promotion is and if it has a place in the current MMA landscape. The marketing and production was certainly an attempt at a throwback to the early days of MMA as spectacle, but this event fell far short of inspiring anything other than a desire to know who they think their audience is.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

TDLR Rule Change too costly for amateur MMA in Texas?

by Jason Tiefel, Editor

Effective March 1, 2008 the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation passed an administrative rule change that requires amateur MMA organizations to provide increased medical coverage and death benefits to fighters. The previous requirements of $20,000 medical coverage and $50,000 death benefit are now raised to $50,000 and $100,000, respectively. While it would seem that a more robust program for medical coverage would only benefit the safety of the fighters and foster the growth of the sport, it comes at a cost that leaves some promoters questioning the viability of amateur MMA in Texas.

This motion, proposed in October of 2007, was initially tabled largely due to objections from Texas Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Association president Chip Thornsburg. “My original argument was that this measure was prohibitively expensive for amateur organizations,” states Thornsburg. “The increase in operating cost is going to be around $2000 or more. When you’re talking about $20 tickets for an amateur event, that’s another 100 people you have to get just to cover the increased cost. When some amateur events average around 500 people attending, that is a significant gap to cover.” This sentiment was echoed by some on the TXMMA.COM message board in a topic titled “Amateur MMA on life support in TX.”

While promoters are often maligned wholesale by hardcore MMA fans as merely profit seeking off of the blood and sweat of fighters, there are economic realities that are brought to bear anytime an event is put together. Amateur organizations like TAMMA are typically non-profit groups that are essential to the vitality and growth of MMA. A promoter having the ability to manage costs and hold events gives fighters the avenues for displaying their skills and developing as athletes. According to Thornsburg, TAMMA events have produced bottom lines that range from $3400 profit to $2700 losses. Given these erratic figures, a 200-300% increase in operating costs is an understandable concern.

Not all promoters of amateur events are predicting ill effects from this change. Steve Armstrong, President of TAMI Amateur Combative Sports Promotion, Inc. remains positive. “Truthfully, $2000 is a lot of money to come up with for amateur organizations, but this will separate the men from the boys. There are a lot of promoters out there that don’t do right by the fighters. You’ll have to be even more committed now to put on an event. Guys like Chip and me have been doing this for awhile and we’ll find a way to adapt and move on with this.”

This measure puts Texas in a unique position when it comes to insurance requirements. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, considered to be one of the most well established and robust regulatory entities for combative sports, has a similar requirement of $50,000 medical coverage but requires no death benefit (NAC 467.149). Taking this kind of step leaves one to wonder as to the timing and reasoning behind this decision. Part of Thornsburg’s argument against the measure centered on the subtle but important differences in TAMMA’s rule set, namely the use of heavier gloves and the prohibiting of elbows and reinforced knees to the head. These factors should reduce the amount of injuries sustained in competition, so some see this step as perhaps a bit premature given the infancy of the sport.

At first glance one could speculate that the tragic passing of Sam Vasquez last year has created an overly reactionary climate in our state regulatory commission. Greg Alvarez, program manager for the TDLR’s combative sports program, dismisses any connection between increased insurance requirements and the death of Sam Vasquez. “The beginnings of this rule amendment date back to August of 2007, well before Sam Vasquez’s tragic passing. At the TDLR our primary concern is the health and safety of the fighters, and we strive for consistency in how events are regulated. This change puts the numbers for amateur events in line with those of the professional organizations.”

When asked about the objections of TAMMA and the effects of this measure on an amateur organization’s ability to put on shows, Alvarez is optimistic. “There are several companies that will offer $100K death benefits, and the TDLR has set no minimum requirements for the deductibles. An organization looking to keep operating cost down has the ability to choose a plan with higher deductibles, which will significantly reduce the cost of the insurance policy. The deductible is the biggest factor in policy cost, and we have not set restrictions on that.”

As fans and participants of combative sports, we all face the challenge of finding the right balance between what is best for the fighters’ health and safety and what is economically feasible. It would be difficult to find anyone that would disagree with giving fighters the best coverage money can buy, but this is a “perfect world” scenario. Real world constraints require that promoters manage cost and turn profit on their events to be able to continue giving fighters the opportunity to develop. No doubt Texas has taken an important step in developing a more robust program to protect fighters, and only time will tell if there will be any tangential effects that hinder the growth of amateur MMA in Texas.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shalorus Captures King of Kombat Welterweight Title

By Jason Tiefel, Editor

Austin, TX, April 5 – World Class Cage Fighting hosted their third fight card, one that was full of action and first round finishes.

In the main event, Kamal Shalorus captured the King of Kombat welterweight title in a quick domination of Oklahoma’s Jeff Davis. The difference in strength and explosiveness was clear from the outset, as Relson Gracie student Shalorus backed Davis up with several quick combinations. A missed kick from Team Elite’s Davis gave Shalorus the opportunity to take the fight to the ground, where he proceeded to drop several punishing shots from top position. The referee decided to save Davis from further punishment and called a stop to the bout at 1:06 in the first.

In the only heavyweight bout of the night (or superheavyweight, as the WCCF prefers to call it) Austin’s Mathew Thompson lost a plodding split decision to Amarillo’s experienced Chris Guillen. Rounds 1 and 2 played out in a similar fashion, with Guillen putting Thompson on his back early while the South Austin Gym fighter worked for submissions from the bottom. Thompson was able to take round 3 by taking Guillen’s back, landing some strikes, and eventually rolling for a heel hook/kneebar. Time ran out on the Austin fighter and Guillen was awarded a 29-28 victory on two of the judges’ score cards.

In somewhat of an upset, veteran fighter Brandon McDowell succumbed to strikes from Grappler’s Lair fighter Patrick Miller at 4:13 in the first round. McDowell scored a takedown early in the round but was reversed by Miller, who was able to maintain top position throughout the fight. Miller, a US Army soldier who just returned from Iraq, landed several hard shots to the left side of McDowell’s head, forcing him to tapout. As McDowell rose, the source of his demise became clear: his left ear, exhibiting the typical cauliflower effect found in many fighters, had swollen to 2-3 times its normal size.

In perhaps the most competitive bout of the night, Grappler’s Domain fighter Duece King defeated Death Row MMA’s Lane Yarbrough via unanimous decision. Yarbrough came out strong in the first, attempting a flying knee that missed and quickly taking Deuce’s back. Duece then grabbed his opponent’s head and flipped him to the mat. After several minutes of groundwork, the fighters returned to the feet where Duece landed the better of the strikes. Yarbrough was able to rally late in the round, slamming his opponent to the mat and taking his back. He worked for a rear naked choke that never came as the first stanza came to a close.

Round 2 belonged to Duece as he landed heavy strikes that kept his opponent on the defensive. He landed a stiff left jab that dropped Yarbrough, but after a sloppy armbar attempt by Duece his opponent was able to recover. Yarbrough began to look gassed as he continued to take punishment on the feet for the duration of the second.

Yarbrough regrouped and was more methodical in round 3, where he picked his shots and landed several high kicks and solid body shots, but it was too little too late. Duece did not offer much in this round, but had already pulled far enough ahead on the judges’ scorecards to be granted a 29-28 unanimous decision.

Duece’s post-fight interview setup a future bout with well-established local fighter Nick “the Ghost” Gonzalez. There has been trash talking back and forth between these two for a while and Gonzalez took the opportunity to enter the cage and challenge Duece. This fight is currently scheduled for the June King of Kombat show and should be a barn-burner.

Relson Gracie Academy’s Ryan Larson needed only 1:03 to dispatch his opponent, the tough Maxwell Smith out of Denver. Smith tossed Larson to the canvas only to find himself on the business end of a well-executed triangle choke. Larson improves his record to 4-0 and establishes himself as a solid local prospect.

Oklahoma’s Jared Hess may be a talented wrestler, but he showcased some solid striking skills in his defeat of Chief Flores. These two came to bang and threw some heavy leather at the starting bell. Hess landed a stiff left jab and some solid knees from the clinch before taking his opponent to the mat. The ref stepped in at the sight of blood and halted the bout to give the doctor a chance to evaluate Flores. The bout continued but Flores again found himself on the bottom of Hess, who delivered enough damage from the top for the ref to stop the fight at 1:52 in the first.

If there was a theme to tonight’s card, it was that Relson Gracie students know how to apply a triangle choke. The academy’s Randy Vera submitted San Antonio’s Adrian Sanchez by applying a very quick triangle that forced his opponent to tap at 1:58 in the first.

Corpus Christi’s Conan Cano submitted his opponent Ryan Carranza by armbar in just 42 seconds, giving the Austin crowd yet another quick finish. Carranza, fighting out of Solidarity MMA in San Marcos, was a late replacement for Chidi Njokunani (whose name was still on the event schedules handed out at the event).

No fight card is complete without some controversy, and tonight’s came courtesy of Dallas’ Ralph Calvillo. His opponent, Selma’s Chris Kuntschik, came out swinging and attempted a double leg takedown that was stuffed by Calvillo. The Dallas fighter applied a standing guillotine choke and Kuntschik dropped to guard, which only served to make the choke tighter. He was able to weather the storm and regain the standing position, but a heated exchange resulted in an accidental thumb in the eye that sent him doubled over against the cage. The ref did not see the infraction and Calvillo swarmed his opponent with punches until the bout was stopped at 1:49 in the first. In response to his opponent’s protests, Calvillo (the self proclaimed “most hated man in Texas MMA”) called for a rematch, so look for these two to meet again in upcoming events.

Grappler’s Domain fighter Garrette Bennette kicked the night off with a dominating performance over Waco’s Louis Sims Jr. Sims’ only moment came with an early right hand that did not seem to faze Bennette as he took his opponent down with a transition from a single to a double leg takedown. Bennette’s attempt at a kimura from half guard did not result in a submission, but he was able to use it to transition to mount. From there he landed enough strikes to force his opponent to tap at 2:51 of round one.

With this event, WCCF is quickly establishing a reputation for putting on quality fight cards. The show had solid production values, a good turnout and all of the athletes were impressive in both victory and defeat. No doubt the Relson Gracie Academy made the strongest showing, with all three of their fighters ending their bouts quickly. New champions were crowned and fans got to experience how great the local MMA scene in Texas has become.

Monday, March 10, 2008

From Russia With...More Frustration

These are exciting and frustrating times for fans of Fedor Emelianenko. Reports have surfaced through most major media outlets that the Russian heavyweight is again a free agent, causing many to speculate just what has become of the M-1 organization that was being built on top of his accomplishments. This picture can be considered a visual representation of Emelianenko's career as of late: a lot of sitting idly with a huge legacy slipping off of his shoulders.

Announced in October of last year, M-1 Global was an interesting but ultimately risky and doomed-to-fail prospect. While fans were simply excited about the potential for the much-revered Russian to fight again, many of us were ultimately skeptical of the idea that you can build an organization on the shoulders of one fighter. Although no official statements have been made, it is clear that internal struggle between the US and European offices of M-1 are likely the cause of Fedor’s current return into the free market. It does not bode well that M-1 has yet to announce a fight card since their press conference last year.

The question now for fans is the same one posed after the downfall of Pride: what now for Fedor? The highly public negotiation process with Zuffa last year did not end amicably, with Dana White calling Fedor’s management “crazy Russians” and Fedor’s camp stating that White is not someone they want to work with. If Fedor were to enter the Octagon, he will likely not be facing Randy Couture anytime soon as the former UFC champ is wrapped up in litigation with Zuffa. Fedor will be entering a rather anemic division fronted by a champion he has already defeated twice in Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Aside from a fight with former champ Tim Sylvia, there is little of interest in the UFC for the Russian. Fedor signing with Zuffa also prevents a matchup with one of the few qualified heavyweights that he has yet to fight: Josh Barnett. Dana White has stated several times that he is uninterested in even tabling an offer to former UFC champion Barnett. Anything is possible when money is involved, so it will be interesting to see how negotiations go the second time around.

Fedor’s prospects of fighting top competition are even more grim outside the UFC. EliteXC is still searching for top heavyweights while building up their star prospect, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson. Kimbo is perhaps several years away from qualifying for a legitimate bout with Emelianenko, but in divisions lacking top contenders this does not mean it won’t happen sooner. The rest of the talented heavyweights are strewn about the MMA landscape and it will be difficult for Fedor to find consistent competition.

What this comes down to is the rapidly diminishing legacy of one of MMA’s most dominant fighters. MMA is a sport like most others: it is a confluence of money, power, politics, and athletic talent. As the quest for true mainstream acceptance continues, it will indeed be a shame if these elements cannot come together to give us the fights we all want to see.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Eugene Robinson Interview: Part III

This is our final installment of the Eugene Robinson interview. Eugene talks about the reason we exist: MMA.

PART III: M to the M to the A

TSS: What does the perfect MMA look like to you? Do you prefer how the spectacle evolved into sport or do you prefer the Vale Tudo days and the Rio Heroes of the world?

ER: Well, I want to get rid of the cage. I was undecided for a long time about that but I’ve seen way too many guys get jammed up against the corner of that cage and the action stalls. Then it becomes a discretionary issue of whether or not the ref will stand them up. I am perfectly happy with the Pride method of pulling fighters back into the center of the ring in the same position. It’s a faster game without so much reliance on that third man in the ring.

I’d like to see striking a downed victim come back...or downed competitors I should say (laughs).

TSS: So what do you think of Rio Heroes, those sort of throwbacks to the early vale tudo days?

ER: I really like Rio Heroes, but it’s interesting because have you seen how guys fight when they don’t have their hands protected? They really don’t hit very hard because it hurts (laughs). I found that to be really compelling but it’s not as cinematic, so that won’t happen. The only thing I was glad to see go was the headbutts. That’s not a technique…anyone with a head can do that. Most people have legs but they can’t do an omoplata. But I’d like no cage, no gloves, and striking a downed opponent.

TSS: I prefer the way the sport has evolved under the unified rules because it emphasizes the athleticism and technique over sheer brutality. Some of the techniques used in vale tudo are more about viciousness…

ER: Like what techniques?

TSS: Well…soccer kicks I can do without. Very rarely to they stop an opponent that was not already injured beyond continuing. Elbows I go back and forth on because of the tendency to open ancillary cuts that result in stoppages. It is unfortunate to see a fighter dominating a fight and get barely clipped with an elbow and lose on a stoppage. MMA to me is about answering the question “who’s the better fighter?” When stoppages like that occur it is inconclusive and unsatisfying for all parties. Ultimately I think they should stay because that case is more the exception than the rule.

ER: Well this is where it gets kind of weird because I think they’ve been stopping the fights too early because of the blood looking bad on TV. That last Nick Diaz fight should have continued. If the guy can hop right up and protest it should have gone on. It’s unfortunate to see a guy like Nick get denied the chance to come back. When you look at that last Gonzaga fight, after he broke his nose the ref asked him if he wanted to continue and you could tell he wanted out. That fight was allowed to go on.

TSS: So who’s the best fighter in the world right now, pound for pound?

ER: Oh man, with MMA it’s so tough…I’d have to go with Fedor.

TSS: I was wondering if you’d subscribe to the school of thought that suggests he be dropped due to lack of quality competition in the last year and a half.

ER: Well, that happens. That’s the business end of the sport. I mean, is he ducking Randy? Absolutely not. I think he’s an amazing fighter and the fact that Zuffa didn’t make that deal happen is a travesty.

TSS: Well, they are 100% concerned with the UFC brand, not necessarily what is best for the sport as a whole.

ER: They’ve proven to be largely independent but they’ve also shown that they can take virtual unknown and unproven fighters and make them stars. I like Forrest Griffin and all, but to me he’s still a TV fighter. What was that last fight he had…

TSS: Well he did fight Shogun and finished him.

ER: Oh, man…that smelled so bad to me. I hate to be a conspiracy theorist, but that was highly suspect. Playing devil’s advocate, if you were going to fix a fight, how would you do it? You could fake an injury or something but that would involve the complicity of other people. The only way you can really do it is to gas. Then all the mistakes you make after that make sense to the masses. I mean c’mon…Shogun get’s rear naked choked out? At that level you just don’t see that very often.

TSS: Well, it did happen at 14 minutes plus in the bout. When guys are gassed and/or hurt that’s when you tend to see that. But don’t you think that the stakes are so high that if it ever came out that Zuffa had fixed a fight it would be disastrous? Why would any promotion in the U.S. risk that?

ER: Yeah, but we’ve seen stinky things before. A decision is announced and the crowd boos and all of a sudden there was a miscalculation on the score cards. Look at the Hammill/Bisping fight. That was pretty suspect, but their big mistake there was thinking that people from Manchester gave a shit about someone from London. When they announced Bisping the winner the entire crowd booed.

At the UFC 79 post fight press conference someone asked why Pride fighters are doing so poorly in the UFC and Dana said it was “Octagon jitters.” Oh, really? Quinton Jackson was sitting in the room and he fought in front of 65,000 people at the Tokyo Dome. I know it’s reaching, but I’m enough of a paranoid lunatic to play devil’s advocate (laughs).

Check out Eugene Robinson’s work:
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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Eugene Robinson Interview: Part II

We continue our compelling discussion with author Eugene Robinson on the topic of fighting and its consequences.


TSS: These kinds of behaviors are not uniquely human, at least in terms of the violence itself…

ER: I disagree, but go ahead.

TSS: Oh, really?

ER: Yeah, I think the violence part is uniquely human. David Grossman writes that the way humans employ violence to solve their problems is markedly different than the way animals do it.

TSS: It is, but violence in and of itself is not uniquely human however our ways of intellectualizing it are, and providing meaning and context to it. At any point in researching for the book did you find yourself disagreeing with the way some of these guys were intellectualizing their violent proclivities?

ER: Prior to meeting him, I had the hardest time with Kevin Weeks (Weeks was a lieutenant in James “Whitey” Bulger’s Boston mob set, the Mafioso that provided the basis for Martin Scorcese’s crime film The Departed –ed.). In terms of the story arc I had a hard time making sense of why I would want to put what I thought might be a convicted murderer in the book. What he has done in his life far exceeds any meditation on interpersonal combat. After reading his book I thought he might have an important perspective on the Irish immigrant experience and the urban experience, plus he had 70+ fights with only two losses. He was nothing if not a competitor and I found myself running out of reasons to exclude him.

It got really confusing because I liked the guy, but I wanted to ensure that I didn’t end up lionizing what I believe to be substandard behaviors. I grew to understand that in the context of his universe, his oath of service was much like a soldier’s. I’m still trying to make sense of it and so is he, which is what makes him such an interesting character study. How he’s attempted to square himself with his past I think is honorable. Less interesting to me is how he’s trying to fashion a future out of it. It’s the whole lion in winter syndrome, you know…what happens to the aging tough guy? Which interests me because I’m an aging tough guy (laughs).

TSS: As you get older do you struggle with your past behaviors, which at the time were necessity but are now a commodity you're selling?

ER: I don’t really know if they were ever necessity. There’s not a single fight that I’ve had that I couldn’t have walked away from. The thing is that this stuff is in your blood. Just like the example of the guy talking too loud in the next booth, I’m telling him to shut up 100% of the time. I am constitutionally disinclined to let that kind of behavior slide because it’s a subtle form of bullying. He’s breaking the social contract, which is in place everywhere at all times. All of these other people are modulating their voices…if they were at home, they’d probably be louder. They’re adhering to the social contract. I'm not remorseful about my past choices and I'm using them to tell a story.

TSS: Do you see these lines as universal and immutable, or do they vary from person to person?

ER: I see them as universal and immutable. It’s just like good art or pornography…I know it when I see it. This is when our animal natures actively and healthily come into play. Everyone can feel that temperature change when you know you’re in the presence of a bully. When someone is violating the social contract, we all know it and have our choice of response.

TSS: We all have those lines, whether we draw them intuitively or they are universal. In Chapter 13, titled “I Killed a Man,” we get a glimpse of what happens when that ultimate line is crossed and a fight ends in a fatality. The rest of the book is a fun ride filled with knife-wielding commandos, bar fighters, etc. and then you throw this curve ball in there…

ER: Yeah, I wanted a chapter that would make people stop laughing for 5 seconds. I wanted the reader to know that I know what the logical extension of all this stuff is, you know, sh*t like this…that a daughter’s father is dead on the sidewalk at 3 in the morning because of some stupid sh*t.

TSS: What are the lessons from that chapter?

ER: It’s really not so much about a lesson but rather a depiction of people that are driven by issues of the blood. It’s like Sylvester in the Cat in those cartoons. I know the bird is not that tasty, but I’ve gotta go after it, you know. You can see from this guy’s story that he’s just incapable of doing it any other way. He sees a guy beating his wife, stealing a purse, or whatever then that Superman complex is going to kick in. I wanted to touch on one of those characters that took fighting beyond sport, recreation, or whatever. He said he felt bad looking across the courtroom at the guy’s daughter but I have a suspicion that if that night were to repeat itself 1000 times, he would do it the same way. There’s something about the unrepentant nature of extremely dire circumstances that I found compelling.

TSS: After hearing his story, have you thought about the possibility of this happening to you, given the situations you encounter with Oxbow shows, etc?

ER: Well, when you train and you get skilled enough you can make healthy decisions much longer into the process of a fight. When I have an encounter I can modulate how much of a beating will be dished out and meet the situation with an appropriate level of response.

The guy in Chapter 13 had only been training about a year, and I’ve learned that in the life of a martial artist those early months and first year are the most dangerous times for you and everyone around you. People often know just enough to be dangerous; they don’t back down from confrontations that perhaps they should, or even seek them out as a way to test what they’ve learned, etc. If he had trained longer he may have been able to better control the moment and not cross the line.

Stories like this are why I favor the grappling arts because grappling is about control, whereas striking is about chaos. There are so many variables when you hit someone. How hard do I have to hit him to stop him? I don’t want to seriously hurt him, but if I don’t hit him hard enough I’ll have to hit him again, you know. That’s why I usually use strikes only to setup the grappling so I can control the situation.

To Be Continued…

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Eugene Robinson Interview: Part I

If you’ve read much of the press out there about Eugene Robinson you’ve likely seen journalists highlight the same three things ad nauseum:

1) He likes to fight and "you’d better watch out or he’ll kick your ass”

2) He’s 6 foot something and 200 something pounds (this changes from interview to interview)

3) He writes like Norman Mailer

We at The Sweeter Science have something new and more important to add: Eugene likes pancakes, he’s a gentleman and a scholar, and if you know anything about MMA he’s in the conversation for the long haul. As for the Norman Mailer comparisons, we can’t comment since we don’t really know who that is.

What we do know is that Eugene has a fantastic book on the shelves for fight fans (FIGHT, Harper Collins 2007) and was incredibly gracious with his time. Thanks Eugene. --Jason Tiefel, Editor


The Sweeter Science: On the cover of FIGHT you’re described as “award winning journalist and competitive fighter.” Since lineage is very important in martial arts, give me a brief run-down of what you’ve trained in, with whom, and for how long.

Eugene Robinson: The first time I started to do any kind of combat thing I was about 11 years old and I started boxing at the Boy’s Club in Brooklyn. Then I did Shotokan Karate at a church around the corner and wrestled at 165 in high school. I was also getting into bodybuilding at that time. Then there was a long dry spell of doing nothing but a little wrestling in college. After college I did competitive Kenpo for 7 years, but became disillusioned with the point sparring. I knew I needed something that would be more street effective, so I started taking Muay Thai. After about a year I knew I needed some more grappling so I found Matt Furey. Matt’s kind of an internet joke now but what’s sad to me is that he can fight and he’s good…I just think he likes money more than fighting. I trained with him at AKA in San Jose for 2 years. Then I started training with Marcus Vinicius at Beverly Hills jiu-jitsu for awhile. Since then I’ve been like a hermit crab…training wrestling and san shou with Sam Spangler, training at Ralph Gracie’s school, jiu-jitsu at Fairtex.

TSS: At what point did you turn the analytical eye to fighting as opposed to something you were just doing. At what point did you start intellectualizing it and writing about it?

ER: Never (laughs). Looking back it seems amazing to me that it took the careful ministrations of others to get me to this point. Joe Donnelly, a big Irish cat, got into a pushing match with some Marine at a bar in Los Angeles. We were talking about it and I was analyzing the fight, what he did right and wrong, and he said “man you should write an article about this.” I just laughed it off at the time but I ended up doing a 5,000 word article on fighting for LA Weekly, and some people in New York got a hold of it and called a meeting. Since no one knows who I am, we decided I should write a book on fighting, sort of an “everything you need to know about fighting” type of thing.

These were things that had been coming to fruition a lot earlier when I was writing for men’s magazines. I wanted the men’s magazine to be something beyond apology. The media depiction of men these days is either the King of Queens well-meaning doofus or the Maxim reading good-natured…doofus (laughs). These are all variations on the good-natured doofus and I wanted to challenge all of the back-peddling. I wanted to make a claim that I don’t think fighting is reprobate, that’s it’s not a retrograde impulse that we need to civilize ourselves out of. I think it’s the f*cking glue that keeps this sh*t working.

TSS: You’ve had your share of fights while touring with Oxbow, most notably the incident with a member of Austin-based rock band Amplified Heat. In the promoter’s version of that event, which you posted on Oxbow’s website (, he states “Eugene is definitely the kind of person who is looking for a fight. He claims he doesn't start them, but he is certainly looking for them. He revels in it. He will even use logic to argue why he started the fight. It's pretty astounding and challenging to deal with.” What is your general reaction to that statement?

ER: Well, with me it’s an issue of variance. We all have different skills in our quivers, and at any time we may choose to use negotiation, accommodation, confrontation or the threat of confrontation, etc. According to him I too willingly availed myself of the negotiation through confrontation method. If you read that whole string…we aggressively disagreed. For example, if there’s a guy sitting in that booth over there talking at the top of his lungs while we try to talk or eat, I’m telling him to shut up 100% of the time. Does that mean I’m looking for a fight? What does the average person do in that situation? Do you complain to the waitress? Move your seat? Do you suffer? I’m a firm believer in sharing the suffering, especially in situations where the other guy really should have known better. This guy in Amplified Heat was a musician and really should have known better. By standing a few feet from the stage talking loudly to his friend about guitar equipment during our set, he was communicating in a language that I felt needed to be answered in the same language. And it’s like I told the guy afterwards, disrespect begets disrespect.

TSS: When I read that statement I think that he is trying to say that while you don’t go looking for fights per se, you position yourself in such a way that fights are likely to happen. In reading the book I see parallels between this accusation and what people like Tank Abbott and Patrick from Beacon do. While they don’t openly challenge others on the street, they put themselves in positions where others will challenge them and they can justifiably engage in a fight. Do you put yourself in this category?

ER: Nope.

TSS: What do you think of guys who do?

ER: I don’t think that any of those guys like Patrick or Tank think of themselves as anything less than superheroes. I got to see Tank work, and after he consumed a bottle of vodka he picked out a guy at the bar. Had I not redirected it somehow it was clear that something was going to happen with this guy and he fully deserved it. The guy was a douche bag and you could tell and with very little effort you could set this guy up to where he was about to make a serious judgment error. Like Tank said when guys call him fat or whatever, that is all it takes to get things going. This guy was like super tan, maybe 265 lbs. and Tank was just itching.
Guys like Tank and Patrick are very different from guys like BJ Penn. BJ Penn’s deal is to go to a bar, walk up to the biggest guy, and say “you’re standing in my spot.” Then the guy moves and he says “yeah, that’s my spot too” (laughs). That’s very different from Tank…in legalistic terms you could say that guys like Tank and Patrick are entrapping people, but you can’t entrap someone that isn’t prone to being entrapped.

TSS: Like Patrick states in the book, “The way this works karmically is that those in need of a beating will always find those who need to give one.”

ER: Yep.

TSS: And do you agree or disagree with that statement?

ER: I agree (laughs)! It seems to be the case, like dance partners or a romance these things seem to be intuitively chosen somehow.

TSS: So is this a biological imperative? Is it social? What are the origins of this relationship?

ER: I don’t know. What is the sum total value of these interactions in our lives? I would say that each time I’ve been beaten it’s taught me a valuable lesson about the life that I’m living. I don’t claim that when I’ve beaten someone that it’s purely didactic. Initially when I started the book tour I think I was making that claim, that much like a superhero I was serving a positive life function for these people. This was masking the fact that this is purely incidental when I go into it. I’m not necessarily out to teach you something about yourself, I’m teaching you something about me.
I’m reminded of a situation where I was leaving a party, the cops came or whatever, and there was this biker type guy blocking my way. I ask him if he’s going to move and he flicks me off or whatever, so I drop him and the cops show up and ask me what happened. I told them he fell and they arrested him. Months later I see him in a parking lot and I try to avoid him but he comes up to me and apologized for that evening. He said I gave him exactly what he deserved…his family ran a pharmaceutical company and he offered to hook me up with health supplements or something. What I took from that exchange was that he was saying “I needed something that night, and you gave me exactly what I needed.” He learned a valuable lesson that night. And I’m not saying that is common. I’d say 80% of fights are just stupid sh*t, but most of mine clearly aren’t.
That’s what irked me about that guys characterization of me (referring to the Amplified Heat incident). I despise bullies. He made it seem like I’m that guy waiting in the alley with that biker two-step, where you tell someone “who you callin’ a faggot”, and when they say “I didn’t call anyone anything” they say “so you’re calling me a liar?” That’s not me.

To Be Continued...

Monday, January 28, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: FIGHT by Eugene S. Robinson

"Everything you wanted to know about ass-kicking but were afraid you'd get your ass kicked for asking", indeed.

Human beings, perhaps since we discovered the utility of standing upright and making a fist, have had a love/hate relationship with violence. We have managed to make use of all types in our development as a species, from mass genocide to one-on-one interpersonal conflict. While violence in and of itself is not necessarily unique to us, our ability (and perhaps need) to intellectualize violence and give it context and meaning is an essential part of our humanity. Some of the more thoughtful fans of fight sports like boxing and mixed martial arts may recognize a paradox in how we deal with the ancient art of fisticuffs: we tell each other that two people should not settle their disputes by punching each other, but we would gladly pay to see it if they are in a ring (or cage) and wear gloves.

In FIGHT: Everything you ever wanted to know about ass-kicking but were afraid you’d get your ass kicked for asking, author Eugene S. Robinson has produced perhaps the most unabashedly honest, unflinching, and unapologetic look at what makes two people want to punch each other in the face…and what makes other people want to watch. His central thesis is that fighting is an “expressively honest” endeavor that should be explored and indulged in for the lessons to be learned, not only in victory but in defeat. Both fans and detractors of fighting should find this assertion challenging and fascinating, and this is a refreshingly difficult book to categorize. It is all at once a chronicle, a travel diary, an instructional and homage to those who fight. Robinson is less an analyst than a tour guide as he takes readers on a journey through a world that most people either condemn outright or only enjoy as spectators.

Robinson is no stranger to the subject, having been in his share (and perhaps your share) of fights. He is not only the front man of Oxbow, a dark and often confrontational rock band, but is also a journeyman martial artist and competitive fighter. He is quick to make the distinction between competitive and professional fighter: he has spent many years studying various martial arts and challenging some of the best fighters in the world, but as readers will quickly learn he loses most of these challenges. Fans of mixed martial arts will be familiar with the adage that a fighter learns more from a loss than a win, and Robinson’s bouts with lesser known fighters as well as top athletes such as Cung Le, Darrell Gholar, and several members of the famed Gracie clan provide the main narrative structure of FIGHT. It is rare in martial arts literature to have an author give his readers this level of access to his many defeats, which gives FIGHT its unique character. These firsthand accounts are interspersed with interviews with popular figures in the fight world (David “Tank” Abbott, Kevin Randelman, and Gilbert Melendez to name a few) and investigations of lesser known fighting styles such as the mythical “jailhouse rock” prison fighting.

In his treatment of this broad subject of fighting, Robinson employs an almost jazz-like rhythm as he bounces from interviews to investigations to sidebars (such as the top ten best and worst movie fights). This gives the reader the ability to read the chapters as a straight narrative or in non-chronological spurts. In short, it goes equally well on the coffee table or on the back of the toilet (no offense to Mr. Robinson, but we all know a great deal of our reading gets done there). His style is all unaffected bravado with a James Ellroy edge perfectly suited to the subject matter. There is no pretend tough guy posturing on display here: Robinson is close enough to the subject of fighting to present a true depiction while keeping enough distance to still provide solid journalism and avoid lionizing his interviewees’ behavior or interjecting his own values into the proceedings. This journalistic distance allows for one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book: the reader is left drawing their own conclusions about what Robinson’s subjects are saying and doing.

At first glance Robinson’s humor and levity in dealing with interpersonal conflict may cause some readers to dismiss his book as a juvenile exaltation of our basest behaviors. Such criticisms can be dismissed upon reading Chapter 13, titled “I Killed a Man,” in which his interviewee recalls a street fight that was ultimately avoidable but ended in the accidental death of his opponent. Readers get a glimpse of how easy it can be to cross the line into the ultimate consequence, and how one choice forever altered the lives of all parties involved. It is weighty stuff that presents an interesting dichotomy when juxtaposed with the rest of the book: we enjoy reading about the world of fighting until we see the ultimate consequence of death and its aftermath. In fact, the placement of this chapter is the only misstep in the book: seeing the gravity of a fight gone wrong makes the subsequent chapters on soccer hooligans and hockey fights seem quaint and insignificant. This chapter would have better served the book as its finale.

FIGHT is an impressive work and one of the few brutally honest meditations on interpersonal combat from an author who is qualified to investigate it. The book can be all things to all readers. If you are a thoughtful and introspective fan of combat sports, you will find much to reflect on and you may find yourself questioning your personal value system and just what you get out of watching or participating in fighting. If you are against fighting, the book will not likely change your mind but it may help you better understand some of the various motivations that drive people to fight. Or if you just want to read about people kicking ass, that’s here for you too.

--Jason Tiefel, editor

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Welcome to The Sweeter Science

Boxing is the Sweet Science. MMA is the Sweeter Science. It is the latest evolutionary stage in fight/sport/entertainment, or fightsportainment, if you're into the whole brevity thing. You are here because you love MMA, Texas, or MMA in Texas. We're glad to have you.

What is the Sweetest Science, you ask? Probably the one that eventually cures cancer.