Behind the scenes with an MMA author
Kelly Crigger is the author of the new MMA book, Title Shot: Into the Shark Tank of Mixed Martial Arts. He’s doing the first guest post for this blog and has a great “behind the scenes story” from the writing of his book. Crigger is a freelance writer for several MMA magazines, including Real Fighter. Crigger is an officer in the U.S. Army and was deployed in Afghanistan with the 3rd Special Forces out of Fort Bragg. He has orchestrated seminars for the troops with some of the top mixed martial arts fighters.
It’s a great story for your weekend so enjoy and get ready for an extremely hectic July in the MMA world.
By Kelly Crigger
I needed insurance. I needed a way to get an interview with a man known to shun the media. After all [UFC president] Dana White is a pretty popular guy, so for an unknown writer to get a couple hours of his time was a long shot at best. My solution -- start a petition. There’s nothing like the voice of the people to institute change, unless you’re nineteenth century France and then it just leads to technological advances in human execution, a la the guillotine.
It was January 2007 and I was about to embark on a journey through the world of MMA, armed only with a sketchy vision of what I wanted to accomplish. I knew I wanted to find out the true reason that men fought for sport and to explore the relationship between the fighter, the fan, and the media, but that was about it at the time. I knew the adventure would end at UFC 79 in Las Vegas in December and by that time I would have spent months in MMA training camps living with fighters. It seemed only fair to balance that knowledge with an introspective from the uppermost level of MMA. I put “Dana-Please give Kelly and interview” across a piece of paper in big letters and hoped I could get a bunch of his fighters and trainers to sign it. At least then I’d have a chance, although it was as likely as Brittany Spears landing on the cover of “Responsible Parenting” magazine.
Ivan Salaverry was the first to sign. I spent an afternoon with him in his Seattle gym discussing unions and whether or not one was feasible in MMA. The chasm between the money made by promoters versus the amount they paid their fighters was at its widest point, prompting frustration in one of the classiest guys in the sport. “They’re not the ones getting punched and kicked,” he said. “If you get this interview take it to him. Don’t let him off the hook, bro.”
Matt Lindland was second. I hung out at Team Quest for ten days in February listening to Chris Wilson and Matt Horwich justify how they balanced MMA and religion, hearing Chris Leben complain about everything, watching Ed Herman be Ed Herman, discussing the medical burdens Josh Haynes gladly bore for his son, and watching the funniest moments in MMA -- fighters filming a commercial. Matt gladly signed the petition, but added a warning. “I’m not sure if it will do you any good to have my name on there. Dana doesn’t like me much.” Noted.
I couldn’t get anyone at Cesar Gracie’s Jiu Jitsu in California to sign it because I could never catch up with them. Nick and Nate Diaz drove hundreds of miles a day to train in between three cities. They boxed in Sacramento, grappled in Concord, and lived in Stockton. They even drove to San Francisco one night for a viewing party when Nathan was on The Ultimate Fighter Season 5 while I waited patiently for them back in Concord. It was a frustrating ballet of miscommunication and highway convenience stores.
Greg Jackson’s guys were more than willing to hook a brother up, though Keith Jardine was wary. “Is this going to get me in trouble?” he asked before he put pen to paper. During the week I grappled with Nate Marquardt, lounged in the inner sanctum with Rashad Evans, had snot blown onto my leg by Diego Sanchez, shared Army stories with Mike Van Arsdale, and ran the dunes with Damacio Page, Leonard Garcia, and Julie Kedzie. Jackson’s crew was tight, even if their gym was located on the seedy side of Albuquerque where car theft was an accepted risk to train MMA. I left New Mexico with some UFC name recognition on my petition and a little hope that it might just accomplish what I wanted it to.
They called their instructor “Kru Mark” and wai’d to each other in the gym. Sityodtong was a small slice of Thailand in so many ways. If I hadn’t emerged from the basement it called home to Cutter Street every day, I would have gotten lost in Thai culture down there. DellaGrotte didn’t hesitate to sign the petition, as did Kenny Florian. The page was starting to fill up and I formulated a multitude of questions that I wanted to ask the most powerful man in MMA. I could see the interview now ... ”Answer me dammit!” I would yell like a courtroom barrister at the man many felt was the Great Satan of MMA. I left Boston with one name on the petition that no one would recognize -- Johnny McDonough. Big Johnny was an instructor at Sityodtong and he signed it as a joke to see if Dana would ask, “Who the [expletive deleted] is that?” I laughed when he did it, but days later I was sick to my stomach at the notion that it might not be found funny by the Patron Saint of Public Relations.
English was a second language at American Top Team. Brazilians dominated the gym because they all followed the head instructor, Ricardo Liborio when he left Brazilian Top Team to be like Eddie Murphy and “Come to America.” Thiago Alves, Marcus Aurelio, and Liborio all signed the ragged document that was looking a little fuller. They probably felt guilty after a week of handing my own ass to me on their grappling mats. I left South Florida hating gi-style grappling, awestruck by their incredibly huge gym, reverent at their devotion to each other, and thankful I never had to endure the torture of cutting weight.
I had all the signatures I could get. There were other fighters I’d spent time with, like Jake Shields, Bart Palaszewski, and Tim Kennedy, but since they weren’t UFC fighters I thought their signatures probably wouldn’t help. After all why would the president of the UFC respond to a petition filled with names from his competitors? I had sat ringside at Sportfight, the IFL Finals, and the All-Army Combatives Tournament to learn more about what the athletes went through on fight day and now it was time to head to the mecca of MMA, Las Vegas and UFC 79. Did I have enough signatures? Would the petition be looked upon favorably by the almighty UFC?
Just like the Dana White-Tito Ortiz boxing match that fizzled out, it didn’t matter. After several politely worded and professional emails, I got the interview I wanted without having to resort to the document. Before heading to Sin City I had approached Victory Belt Publishing to back the book. They agreed and with them in my corner, along with a decent resume of MMA writing from Real Fighter magazine, I was in. Those credentials and some nice words got me two hours of shadowing Dana White on fight day, followed by forty-five minutes of one-on-one time in locker room No. 5 just an hour before the preliminary fights. I’d spent almost a year observing MMA from the bottom and middle of the pecking order and finally got my view from the top.
He wasn’t at all what I’d expected. I was sure I’d see him bark at his subordinates, disrespect underlings, and offend peons while a bald mini-me scurried about kicking people in the shins. At 3 p.m. on fight day, I hovered just over his shoulder while he watched and approved every video and highlight reel that was about to be broadcast, both inside the arena and on pay-per-view. I saw him schmooze with Mandy Moore and Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon, next to an empty Octagon. He even grabbed my camera and took my picture with her. I watched him eat a lunch his wife had made and then get a “good luck” pat on the back from his dad. He walked among the fans, avoiding none of them, and confided in me a story from his childhood about being blown off by a local celebrity in Vegas. More than anything I was convinced of how completely dedicated he was to the UFC. It was clearly his passion and the only thing he cared about outside his wife and kids. If he was anything like the bastard I’d heard, there would have been at least a momentary crack in his demeanor during our time together, but there wasn’t.
When a security guard accidentally barged into the locker room he took a few moments to shake his hand and compliment him on his attire. When the public relations director said I only had five minutes left, Dana shook her off like a pitcher getting a bad sign. “No. We’re cool,” he said. “I got time.” Maybe I was asking the right questions because he seemed eager to keep the conversation going. Maybe he just didn’t have anywhere else to be. Maybe he wasn’t the big jerk everyone makes him out to be. Either way he was more than accommodating and I was glad I didn’t have to pull out the petition to goad him into giving me time. He was as sincere as his dislike for Tito Ortiz, which I can assure you is no rumor.
Disagree with Dana White’s business decisions all you want and call me a reed bending in the wind, but none of the terrible things I’d heard about him proved to be true during the nearly three hours I spent with him. I asked him point blank questions about fighter salaries, the death of boxing, the ramifications of his decisions on people’s lives, the disappointment of Pride fighters, the future of the UFC, and the importance of the fans to the sport. Some of his answers I didn’t agree with, but at least I saw the logic of why he does what he does.
I still have the petition. I plan to auction it and give the money to the Ryan Bennet Memorial Fund. The Bennet’s still have massive medical bills to pay.
Read Mark Chalifoux's recent Q&A with Dana White.