Show Business: Liddell vs Wanderlei

The entrance music prefigured the styles and ring personas of the two fighters perfectly. Liddell’s music was slow, gliding, full of danger, and intimidation.  Wanderlei’s was a manic, lightning-paced, overwhelming tidal wave of energy. The Japanese reporter sitting next to me on press row had his head bowed in prayer. Wanderlei Silva had been the biggest mega star in Japan for years and Liddell was the most recognizable fighter in the UFC. Liddell with his Mohawk, and Wanderlei with his baldhead tattooed to look like a fireball, were ready-made to market the sport and their fighting styles were camera-friendly as well.  When they won they did so in highlight reel fashion, knocking their opponents out with explosive violence.

They represented the same stage in the evolution of the sport; namely the reaction of the striking arts to the early dominance of BJJ and wrestling.  Both Liddell and Silva followed a similar strategy: don’t get taken down and while you’re on your feet, swing away.  In Japan, where kicking a downed opponent was a legal maneuver, Wanderlei’s favorite technique was to toss his opponent to the floor and soccer kick him in the head until the ref pulled him off. Liddell was a little subtler.  He liked to set up his long-range punches, including his trademark: a cannonball of a right hand, with footwork.  His gangly barrel-chested physique belied a good deal of physical grace and just by looking at him you wouldn’t suspect that he’d once cleaned out the light heavyweight division, making seven successful defenses and winning all by impressive knockouts.

Continue reading “Show Business: Liddell vs Wanderlei”

Motorcyle Hill

MOTORCYCLE HILL

“You must make friends with suffering!” Greg Jackson shouts to a group of about 15 professional fighters and one aging, but aspiring, participatory journalist as we all struggle up a diabolically steep and absurdly huge sand dune on the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM.

I’d arrived the day before for a two-week crash course at Jackson’s famed MMA camp. The trip caps a six week course begun in Atlanta in preparation for my first professional MMA fight. When I got there, Jackson told me about the brutal conditioning to come and why he was throwing me in the deep water right off the bat.

“I want you to get to that terrible place in your mind,” he said, (referring to the dark mental space familiar to all fighters and athletes who train endurance events) “ and get used to being there, because that’s where you’re going to live for the next two weeks.”

On only my second day at the gym, Greg had “ambushed” his team by springing on everyone that we were running the dunes that day. The object is to run up the huge sandy hills five times, then for the final time, you put another fighter on your back and carry him up. Before we begin, Greg had cautioned that we’d all be struggling to walk up it by the second time up. Then he added ominously that we’d “end up crawling, scratching, getting up any way you can. That’s the point. Having the will to make it through. ” The fighters who had been at the dunes before nod in grim agreement. “Only two rules– stay positive and keep moving forward,” says Greg as he trots up to his Zen-like perch atop the hill.

Continue reading “Motorcyle Hill”

After the Fall

Luzh­niki

A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion stands in the court­yard of the mas­sive Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow. The statue gazes out across the black Moscova River and onto the city it names. The sta­dium, which was orig­i­nally dubbed the Cen­tral Lenin Sta­dium when it was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, is in the old Soviet tra­di­tion: util­i­tar­ian, colos­sal, unin­spired. The name was changed in the Nineties when the Com­mu­nists fell out of power after their 80 year choke hold on the nation and today the city is still in tran­si­tion between the chaotic ener­gies of the Russ­ian brand of “any­thing goes”capitalism and the bag­gage left to it from so many years strug­gling under the failed Com­mu­nist system.

On bill­boards all over the city, famil­iar west­ern brands stand out amidst the strange Cyril­lic writ­ing and ubiq­ui­tous Madi­son Avenue-inspired images of impos­si­bly rich and beau­ti­ful peo­ple liv­ing the good life. The bill­boards are every­where punc­tu­at­ing the oth­er­wise drab indus­trial build­ings that com­prise most of the city. Years ago, there might have been pro­pa­ganda posters espous­ing the dream of a worker’s par­adise, but today there are skate­board parks with posters tout­ing the lat­est NBA stars and Adi­das shoes.

Old Soviet era junkers pop­u­late the streets along­side expen­sive sports cars and the chauf­feured sedans of the country’s new elite. Oli­garchs and made rich by gov­ern­ment con­nec­tions and the country’s min­eral wealth, have made Moscow, a city where the aver­age per­son makes about $8,000 dol­lars a year, more expen­sive than New York, Lon­don or Paris to live in. As a cau­tious ges­ture of healthy respect to the pow­er­ful Russ­ian Mafia in the city, the real big­wigs cruise around in armored Mer­cedes flanked by SUVs filled with secu­rity teams of heav­ily armed men.

Continue reading “After the Fall”