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...