Doug Merlino, Jeff Monson, Paul Gavoni, Fedor Emelianenko, and Aurelie Mateus
Fightland alum Doug Merlino is dropping a new book today called "Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts". The 236-page memoir follows Merlino on a two-year journey training with elite athletes of the renowned American Top Team academy, and offers an inside look at the industry of MMA and the humanity of its fighters. Thorough and well-researched, "Beast" is a great supplement to any fight library, or for fans looking to start reading up on the sport, this is a great place to start. We caught up with Merlino to discuss the book and his experience writing it.
Fightland: Let's start from the beginning. How did you get started? What got you interested in this project?
Doug Merlino: Five years ago my neighbor here was into fighting, so we went out and watched UFC 114, and man, I don't know, I just got kind of fascinated with it. This was like super intense and exciting, and I guess as a journalist I wanted to know more. As I got more into it, someone hooked me up with Jeff Monson who trained at American Top Team. I kept having these plans to meet up, and Monson was coming to New York but it always fell through so finally I was like, "Alright, dude. I'm coming down to Florida to meet you."
Was there a noticeable change or a switch when you started training with the fighters?
I don't want to overblow it by saying I was training with them; I was training beside them (laughs). I was definitely not training with them because I don't want to downplay the strenuousness of their training, but I was there in the gym working with Rich Attonito and then had my sparring sessions with [Kami] Barzini. But I think by that point I was already friendly with the guys, so I don't think there was a huge shift, but where I think it helped was that I was understanding more of what they were going through, so I think it helped me understand the appeal of the sport and some of the mental challenges that you go through when you're trying to face off against another human being in a cage. One of the best pieces of advice before I started this project was from this MMA journalist named Jim Genia, and he was like "Look, it's a physical sport and you gotta get on the mat and at least hold the pads for these guys or do something, and they'll respect you a lot more." I think that was true.
Given all you've experienced and saw, all these interviews you've done and all these fights that you've gone to, what do you think it is about the sport of MMA that is most overlooked or misunderstood by the public?
I think it's a very simple thing. I think for fighters that do it, it is a really beneficial thing as far as confidence and feeling accomplished and disciplined and challenging oneself. I think that's overlooked, but I think the reason is because it's a sport and entertainment business. There are different aspects that a promotion might show. They show really violent knockouts, which is part of the sport, but if you look at a montage, a 20-second montage of people getting knocked out, obviously you're gonna assume it's all about very expertly applied violence. And that is part of the sport for sure, but also it's much more for the guys who do it, and I think it's also why that there are jiu jitsu and MMA and Muay Thai gyms in strip malls around the country because there's also something that appeals to regular people. One thing I say in the book is that forty years ago people went bowling and did bowling leagues, but I think it was somewhat of a kinder, gentler time. I mean it's a very competitive economic environment now, and people feel stressed and I feel like various disciplines of MMA give people feeling of community, but also of improving themselves and toughening themselves up. Think of the Robbie Lawler-Rory McDonald fight, I mean the massive amount of courage that these guys show is inspiring. So I think that there is this whole other side to the sport.
What about the fighters?
I think the thing that surprises people is the vast majority of these guys are like mellow, super chill guys. They're more super chill than the average New York office worker. Trust me, there's more aggression on the subway than in this gym and people are shocked. People think these guys will be like psychopaths, so I think that's by far the biggest misconception; that you have to be a psychopath to do this and it's like no, it would be very difficult to be a total psychopath and get into the higher level of the sport because you need so much discipline. So I think that's a huge, huge misconception.
With as much authority that you have, given what you saw and experienced, what are some of things that you saw that you thought could maybe be changed in MMA?
Fortunately I think some of the worst aspects are being addressed by the UFC. I started in 2012 in the TRT era, which was crazy. I don't know if the average fan realized that you just get a therapeutic use exemption and could take TRT, HGH and EPO weren't showing up in the urine test, so that was carte blanche. It was crazy and I thought it was very unfair to the fighters because the ones that wanted to stay clean were obviously at a massive disadvantage, and that was really screwed up. So thank God that they're changing that approach. At least for the UFC, you have to credit the UFC, because I don't think Bellator is doing that as of yet.
I notice somewhere in the latter half of the book, you wrote that the fighters weren't really beasts at all, that it was all about "sticking with it".
Well I think overall "beast" is such a common word now, not just in MMA. It's really more of a new usage now of calling someone a "beast". You hear it all the time, and it's kind of like from a video game: you just power up and just "beast" your way through. It's a big part of the sport and I think you begin to see that it's not really true. It's not like some guy just powered up and powered his way through, it's like I watched this guy train six days a week for years, doing this over and over and over again. I mean it takes a massive amount of willpower and determination, but it's not just someone "beasting" his way through. This is someone who worked his ass off and is like a highly, highly trained individual, and it's not necessarily to chance; it's that they've been doing this for so long. It's kind of like the whole idea of being a "beast" is kind of bogus, you know? It kind of hides the reality of what's going on. It's kind of sexy and cool, but it's not necessarily true.
What did you take away from the two years that you spent training with these elite fighters?
Massive changes. I've lost like 30lbs at least. I'm a million times healthier. It's been huge changes that came from being in this community of guys that in some senses do something very unhealthy, such as fighting in a cage (laughs), but in all other ways are very healthy guys and that really had a massive influence on me, especially being a writer because a lot of my peer group is like serious alcoholics (laughs).
But I think the main thing is that [fighting] is very powerful thing. Besides the four main guys in the book, I interviewed all these guys at ATT, Robbie Lawler, Dean Thomas, Dustin Poirier, etc., etc., and it was interesting because we talked about getting into fighting and how these guys were not confident kids, and how they gained a sense of confidence through this sport and discipline and facing fear. And I find it very powerful. When I started sparring I was flipping out. I was so scared and having adrenaline dumps, but after a while you learn to keep calm and someone is coming in to punch you or kick you, and you know how to defend yourself and you stay calm, and you work through it. I find that's an amazing feeling.
"Beast" will be available on October 13th, 2015, and is released by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Check out an excerpt here.