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...

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