The following is an excerpt from Beast by Doug Merlino. © Doug Merlino 2015. Published by Bloomsbury USA, reprinted with permission.
Jeff Monson merged his Dodge RAM onto the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, heading south from West Palm Beach toward his gym, American Top Team. Years of fighting had not only debilitated his hip, but reduced to rubble several vertebrae in his back. The most comfortable he could get while driving was to lean the seat as far back as it would go. He steered with his left hand while operating his iPhone with his right as the truck drifted between lanes. Van Halen's "Beautiful Girls" played on the radio.
Within a sport that tolerated divergent personalities, Jeff Monson diverged more than most. The most obvious outward manifestation was the tattoos that adorned his five-foot-nine, 240-pound body. They included the political—a hammer and sickle on his left calf; across his back, a teenage girl inspired by Les Miserables propping her right foot on a prone Uncle Sam lying in a pool of blood; on his stomach, the anarchist slogan "NO MASTERS." The personal—the hand of his daughter, Michaela, on his left side. And the whimsical—a "Hello Kitty" tattoo on the top of his right foot.
For years, Monson had been a guaranteed lively interview for MMA websites. When asked what books influenced him, he cited Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You, a late work in which the author advocated personal revolution through living a life according to the example of Jesus. Queried about steroids, he replied that he had used them at times and thought they should be allowed within the sport as long as everyone had access, making the point that athletes were already pumping so many supplements into their systems it was impossible to keep track, anyway. When asked if there was something in life he thought everyone should try, he suggested magic mushrooms.
When Monson tweeted his support of the establishment of a Palestinian State, Pat Miletich, a legendary UFC fighter known for his conservative views, responded by calling him "Pathetic."
The argument escalated:
Monson: Supporting the right for the Palestinians to be recognized is in no way supporting terrorist organizations. Our government is responsible for more oppression, global poverty, and deaths than any other 'terror' organization could ever hope to accomplish.
Miletich: Listen, asshole. If you don't like your country, take a hike. Simple, bud.
Monson: Don't you read any more? US corporations and banks, the IMF, and the World Bank run economies, impoverish countries, and dictate government policy. Maybe when Uncle Sam is done fucking the Palestinians at the UN he can come over to your place so you can suck his dick.
Miletich: You're dead to me.
One image, taken in September 2008, when Monson was in St. Paul, Minnesota to protest at the Republican National Convention, had done more than anything to seal his image. Monson and a group of anarchists were on the streets downtown, heading to the convention hall with the hope of blocking the delegates' access, when they were confronted by a group of riot police in full gear.
The photograph was taken from behind Monson, his anti-capitalism tattoo in full view. It shows him facing off with six cops, one of whom has his face shield lowered and a hand on his Taser. (A moment later, the cops were told that all the delegates were inside the hall, and the riot squad stood down.)
The photo was the best branding tool Monson could have wished for. It accompanied nearly every story written about him and was posted and reposted in anarchist forums. Monson liked it so much he had it printed on his business card.
At forty-one, Monson had been fighting since 1997. He had fought for the UFC heavyweight title in 2006, but lost. Other fights had taken him to Japan, Israel, Ireland, Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, France and the Philippines. His record was 43-13. Nearly everyone from his generation of fighters had retired, but Monson still took whatever fights came his way, a recognized name promoters used to draw fans to the gate.
In November 2011, just as Monson seemed to be in twilight, he got the fight he had craved for years—against Fedor Emelianenko, the Russian heavyweight considered one of the greatest MMA fighters ever.
From April 2001 to June 2010, Fedor, fighting mostly in Japan, won twenty-eight fights in a row. He was a complete fighter, equally strong on the ground and his feet, with a face that rarely expressed anything more than a Mona Lisa smile.
But time had caught up with Fedor, too. He had lost three in a row starting in 2010. He retreated to his homeland and signed with a Russian promotion, looking for a turnaround. The promoters needed a respectable but beatable opponent. Jeff Monson fit the bill.
For years, Monson had been public with his desire to fight Fedor. A win over the Russian, he felt, would be the career-capping achievement that had eluded him. The offer was even more appealing because not only would the pay be good, but he had always wanted to go to Russia, the cradle of Communism and anarchism.
The fight took place in front of a capacity crowd of 22,000 at the Moscow Sports Arena and was broadcast to millions more on Russian national television. Vladimir Putin sat in the front row. Monson emerged from the locker room first, hobbling to his corner. As Fedor came out, the lights dimmed and smoke gushed onto a platform. A group of men and women in Cossack outfits whirled around as the legend materialized in their midst.
The fight was never close. Fedor stayed outside of Monson's reach, stinging him with punches and leg kicks. Every time Monson tried to get his hands on the Russian to take him to the mat, he grasped at air.
In the second round, the Russian broke Monson's lower right leg with a kick. Monson pressed on, and the punishment continued.
By the third round, Monson was a mess. His lower lip had been cleaved in two and blood ran down his chin. Still, he came forward to receive more beating.
After the bell rang to finish the fight, Monson's corner men rushed in to prop him up. He draped his arms over their shoulders as they dragged him back to the locker room.
Putin climbed into the ring and took the microphone to congratulate Fedor, but the fired-up crowd seemed to take offense to the politician grabbing the spotlight. Boos and hisses rained down. It was reported around the world as the first time the Russian president had been jeered in public.
Monson was taken to a hospital, where doctors put a cast on his leg and stitched his lip. In the meantime, a Kremlin spokesman claimed the fans were not actually booing Putin, but Monson for leaving the ring before the decision was announced. This prompted an angry reaction from thousands of Russians, who took to Monson's public Facebook page to express their support:
Jeff, I respect you!
You are strong, hard fighter.
Putin - the coward and the liar who tries to be covered with you. He is - a country shame.
Yours faithfully, Martin.
St. Petersburg, Russia
Mr. Monson, respect from all russian anarchists. Your intentions are honourable, you are admirable. No one can live without defeats, but you are a real man, and this one will make you even stronger. Don`t give up!
Jeff, you're a great fighter and a very kind person. You fight with a lot of respect, and Russians will never disrespect a great sportsman who lost. We boo the one who has no respect and fight for our freedom.
The day after the fight, Monson laid in bed in his Moscow hotel room, his face swollen, leg broken, feeling sick that he had blown the biggest fight of his life. The phone rang but he let it go. A hotel security guard knocked at the door. Pick it up next time, he said.
It was Putin. He told Monson it was a good fight and he should be proud of his performance. Furthermore, he was always welcome in Russia. Repeating the phase Monson would hear over and over in the country, Putin told him: "You are a real man."