The career of mixed martial artist Phil Baroni peaked on September 27, 2002, the night the “New York Bad Ass”—he of the comically large sunglasses, the gelled hair, the bedazzled vests, the Long Island narcissism—knocked out Dave Menne in the first 20 seconds of their fight at UFC 39 and then leaped to the top of the Octagon and, in his theatrically thick New York accent, shouted over and over at the crowd, “I’m the best evah!” What the moment lacked in poetry it made up for in proto-Jersey Shore attitude, and Phil Baroni, for a moment at least, was an icon in a sport generally lacking in them.
Last week, almost 10 years later to the day, the Bad Ass pulled off a near repeat of the Menne fight, though on a decidedly smaller stage. Fighting for the new, Singapore-based ONE Fighting Championship promotion at the Smart Araneta Coliseum in Manila, Philippines, the Bad Ass smashed Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist Rodrigo Ribeiro with punches and soccer kicks to the head—now illegal in One FC, as well as in UFC—ending the fight in one minute, after which he strutted and smirked and shook his hips and grabbed his crotch like the toughest guy at a Massapequa night club—like it was still 2002. Something was different this time, though. Baroni’s attitude was still there but it felt like he was only playing the Bad Ass, like he was a man who knows his time is winding down, who has doubts. After the obligatory climb to the top of the cage, he didn’t shout, “I’m the best evah!” because, at 35 years old, even the Bad Ass knew he couldn’t say that anymore.
These days, ten years into a downward slide through disappointment and constantly lowering expectations (Baroni followed his beating of Menne with four straight losses and an ejection from the UFC), the Bad Ass is humbled. He is so much of a cautionary tale you would think his life had been scripted: a former top ten fighter who chose fame, self-regard, and self-indulgence over discipline and improvement, leading to a decline that took him from the heights of the UFC to a positive steroid test to the lowly Ring of Fire promotion to an arena in Manila. Still, the Bad Ass keeps fighting.
All of which makes him the revelation of the new MMA reality show Fight Factory on nuvoTV. The Bad Ass is the heart of the show, the perpetual outsider at the famous American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, an aging has-been on a team full of UFC contenders and hungry comers. Nearly everyone else in the cast is inaccessible, even interchangeable—hidden behind PR veils, strategically bland: Former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is a UFC executive’s dream, all quiet work ethic and measured calm; welterweight Josh Koscheck is your garden-variety reality TV villain, the hothead who burns bridges with self-righteous glee; and the comers are a collection of aspirational clichés and promises to take care of their families. “I’m not as young as I used to be,” one says in a particularly reflective moment.
But the Bad Ass. Oh, the Bad Ass. Blessed with the old thunderous fists, but cursed now with a sense of his own mortality, the Bad Ass is a revelation in disappointment, a living monument to cruel time and humanizing loss. When he first arrives at AKA, he’s just weeks out from shoulder surgery. His body is starting to give way, but the pressures brought on by misspent youth (that being all the money he spent in his youth) are demanding he get back in a cage, any cage, as soon as possible. The gym’s physical therapist asks the Bad Ass if he’s ever considered hanging it up. AKA coach Javier Mendez wonders the same. Even the fighter’s teammates split their time between mocking the Bad Ass and ignoring him. Ten years ago, they wouldn’t have dared. The one-time “best evah” has become a joke.
No one believes in the Bad Ass but the Bad Ass.
Trumped-up anger and staged indignation can be found anytime by anyone with a remote control these days, but true self-awareness after years of self-delusion is rare on television. The Bad Ass is an oasis of uncontainable honesty in a desert of “reality.” When you’ve got pain like the Bad Ass everything is on the surface, beyond the reach of self-censorship. He’s a fount of contradictions and internal struggle, an identity in crisis and wraparound shades. His desperation to prove himself in the cage against younger men in better shape threatens to overwhelm his good sense, not to mention his crumbling body. His newfound modesty clashes with his lifelong notions about what manhood is and what a man possesses—strength, resolve, and bizarre totems like a wife with no fat on her body and a dog that still has its balls.
Even the cliché of the long-suffering Italian mother who can’t bear to watch her son fight, whose heart positively breaks at the thought, is a minefield in this new, humbled world of the Bad Ass: the suffocating mother-love of the ethnic ghetto, all that nagging and guilt crushing the child with caring. The Bad Ass’ protestations that he fights out of love for his mother are the cry of filial terror raging just under the surface of every disappointed Jewish/Italian/Greek mother joke ever told: Fine, go ahead and fight; I’ll just sit here in the dark.