Backstage, a grizzled older man is standing on a foldout table saying, “Listen up, here are the rules!” The young, sweatsuited fighters look up politely from their massages and hand-taping. They are surprisingly small—mostly five-foot-five to five-foot-nine—and lithe rather than bulky.
“No body fluids as defensive weapons! For example, if your nose is bleeding and you drain it intentionally into your opponent’s eyes, nose, or mouth, we’re gonna call you on it. Any questions?”
“Kicks to the face allowed?”
“Kicks to the face—standing—yes.”
And that was it. Time for me to go take my seat and for these nice young men to take off their sweatshirts and shoes and hurt each other.
I got interested in MMA (mixed martial arts) because I was always hearing about this guy some friends of mine work with: “Brent came into work with a piece of glass sticking out of his face today.” “Brent’s one good eye got busted over the weekend.” “We all went to go see Brent fight, and he got knocked out in six seconds.”
Brent’s broken body began to grow a life of its own in my mind—a fountain of ache. I wanted to get him to tell the story of every injury he ever got, starting from his toes up, and then we’d photograph the scars. I wasn’t going to ask him why he did it, because it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one could know the why of. I just wanted to inspect the evidence. I arranged to meet him on the night of a big fight, but the day before he dislocated his arm so he couldn’t fight, and I interviewed three of Brent’s buddies instead.
I figure I’ve done more than a thousand interviews in my life. Musicians, doctors, the homeless, whoever. In every one of those interviews, I felt that our positions were adversarial. I could feel my subjects framing themselves, imagining the article in finished form as they picked their words, while I tried to trick some other words out from under what they’d decided to say. Over the years, I’ve tried to anger or frighten or bedrunken or flirt some secret out. It was different with these guys. The amateur street fighters I met backstage were easy, calm, polite, and serious, waiting their turn to go out into a cage and hit and strangle each other until the one with less stamina passed out. They seemed solid, of one piece. Truth is always simple, I guess. I’m used to much more complex and deceitful people. If these guys didn’t know, they said, “I don’t know.” Mostly, though, they did know. Because when you get right down to bare living, whether you’re wrestling, fucking, raising a kid, closing a deal, or fighting a war, there comes a point where there are only one or two things to know: what you’re made of, and what the other guy staring you down is made of. And it doesn’t take a whole lot of words to describe that, if any. You just kind of know. At least, these guys do.
Vice: I don’t know anything about fighting, so I asked my Facebook friends—my fake friends—for questions to ask you. So John Russel wants to know... oh God... “Why are you all so sexy, and do you mind that you are basically gay porn?”
Justin Clough: Really? He wants to know that?
Tony Giarrusso: You don’t really think about that when you’re in the cage.
Do you think about it out of the cage?
Tony: Nah. No. That’s the last thought in my head.
Seth Boursier: Is that a real question?
Seth: I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t know how to answer that question.
You’re a coach?
Seth: Yes. Muay Thai. Kickboxing. I trained out of Virginia and Thailand, and now Plaistow, New Hampshire.
Do you still fight?
Seth: The last fight I had was nine months ago.
Seth: I just got into training. It’s a better way of life. You don’t take as many punches.
Cynthia Canepa Buchen wants to know, “Are you anxious or calm before a fight? Do you have any rituals?”
Justin: Very calm. Just listen to my music, listen to my trainers, and relax.
You look reeeally mellow. Have you been smoking?
Justin: [laughs] No.
Tony—out of the cage, in the cage—a different guy!
In your other life, you’re a debt collector. Are you this calm when you’re doing that?
Justin: Yeah. You gotta be. If they yell at you when you’re collecting, you can’t do anything back, so you just gotta relax. The nicer people get the money.
Seth: I tell my fighters: Get there early, get the lay of the land, then shut everything out. Stay calm. Don’t burn your energy.
Tony: This is my first fight, but I’ve been pretty relaxed, just living my regular day. Just waiting till I step in the cage. I thought nerves would come by now, but no.
Do you think you’re going to get hurt?
Somebody else is going to get hurt?
Everyone in this room is going to be punching and choking each other in another hour or two, but everyone is really calm.
Seth: That’s the way it usually is. Until you get in that ring. And you’re best friends afterward.
Erik Swanson wants to know, “Does it bother you that the matches are fake?”
Tony: They’re not fake.
Justin: This is all real stuff.
Seth: Erik Swanson, is it? I don’t know what Erik Swanson is watching, something different than what I’m watching, because MMA is certainly not fake.
Do you want Erik Swanson to come here and ask you that himself?
Cynthia wants to know, “MMA overtook boxing as the number one combative sport in the world. How do you prevent the corruption and fixed matches that infiltrated boxing when money got big?”
Tony: I don’t think it’ll get caught up. People just love it for the one-on-one sport that it is, the competition. No one else can decide your destiny—it’s only you. Nobody else can do it for me. I’m the only person who can decide if I’m going to win or not. If I’m tired, I have to just push through it. Not one other person is gonna do anything for me.
Justin, do you make a lot of money at this?
Justin: I’m only an amateur. At this stage, you’re only promoting yourself. Once you get to the pro stage, that’s where you start making the money.
So you actually pay to get hit.
Justin: Yeah, exactly.
If you got to the pros and someone offered you a lot of money to throw a fight, would you?
Justin: Nah, there’s no way.
You wouldn’t throw a fight for $10,000?
Justin: No. Why throw a fight?
You wouldn’t throw a fight for a million?
Justin: There’s no point in throwing a fight.
Seth. If you think MMA is fake, take a look at this guy’s face. Stitches scar over his eye, recovering black eye, broken nose, cauliflower ear, split lip…
How old are you?
Justin: I’m 20.
Tony: I’m 22.
Seth: I’m 23.
Eric Swensen—not Erik Swanson—wants to know what your diet regimen is.
Tony: I lost 18 pounds for this fight. They offered it to me at 125. I was 143. I knew I could get there. High-protein, no-carb diet. The last six pounds came off in the sauna yesterday.
Justin: Fight time comes, it’s down calories, carbs. Low sodium. Basically oatmeal in the morning, egg whites, tuna, chicken, greens.
Eric also wants to know if you have any advice for children.
Tony: Yeah—it’s a good thing. Everyone makes it out to be this violent, brutal sport, and it’s not. It’s pure. It’s just you. I think kids should be taught that—that you gotta do things for yourself, rely on yourself.
How old do you have to be to get into an MMA school?
Seth: Any age.
Seth: Yeah. Even younger than that.
But isn’t MMA supposed to be street fighting?
Seth: No. That’s a common misconception. It’s very skillful. It’s about being calm on the ground, relaxed.
So there aren’t less rules?
Seth: There are less rules, but in my mind mixed martial arts is less brutal than boxing. In MMA, if you get knocked out, if your eyes glaze over—it’s over. In boxing, if your eyes glaze over, you get a chance to stand back up. And it’s constant shots to the head. Commonly MMA is three rounds; boxing is 12 rounds.
He also wants to know, are you religious?
Justin: Yeah. Catholic.
Seth: I was raised Catholic, but in Thailand I got more into meditation.
And he wants to know what’s your IQ.
Tony: I have no clue.
Seth: I have no idea.
Justin: I never tested my IQ.
Tony teaching me some moves.
Are you worried about brain damage?
Tony: Maybe in 15 years.
You don’t care about “maybe in 15 years” when you’re 22.
That’s like how I used to sunbathe. I wasn’t worried about cancer. Melissa Saunders says: “Show me some moves! Can you teach me how to squeeze someone between my thighs?”
Tony: Yes. I could teach her if she needed me to.
Will you show me a move?
Tony: You want to grab this hand and go over and around the arm back to your own wrist.
OK, I have no idea what you want from me. I’m just going for it. OK, Tony, I got you, now beg for my mercy. What’s this move called?
Tony: The Kimura.
Seth: I don’t know any jujitsu, so I can’t teach you the squeeze-between-the-thighs move, but punches and kicks I certainly could. Regular roundhouse kick—step out on the kick, put your hand like this to block your face.
And why am I doing it like this? What is this particular move to accomplish?
Seth: Just to cause damage. The reason why you step out on your kick is you get all your power from the rotation of your hips; you lock your leg and kick with your shin.
Justin, let’s say I’m walking down an alley and I see a suspicious-looking guy. What do I do? Any favorite moves?
Justin: I don’t know, you either hit him or kick him. Punch him. Kick him. Do it hard.
This guy got knocked out or tapped out or strangled unconscious, and the medic came into the cage and was doing things to him for a long time until he finally stood up, and this is what he looked like.
Here’s another horrible one from the troublemaker Erik Swanson: “Why did you have to make the air so putrid with creatine protein triple-stacked excrement that made me wretch eight goddamn times?” I think he’s talking about that protein supplement, and in the bathroom at his gym it may have caused some problems...
Tony: I don’t take supplements or anything. Maybe a Red Bull once in a while. That wasn’t me, Erik.
Justin: I take protein because if you don’t, you don’t recover much, your muscles don’t recover. I don’t do creatine, though. Creatine keeps water in your muscles to make you look bigger.
Jesse Shust wants to know, “What do you do when you know your opponent is better than you?”
Justin: You can’t go in there thinking he’s better than you. You gotta always train harder than your opponent and go in there knowing you’re the best, you gotta be the best.
Well, did you ever go into the cage and look at him and think, “Crap!”?
Justin: Nah. Size doesn’t really matter in this sport.
But what if you see a look in his eye?
Justin: Nah. No looks. I’m always giving the meaner look.
Tony: You just gotta hang in there, focus on his weaknesses. If he’s stronger than you in one suit, you gotta stay away from that. If he wants to stand up, I’m gonna take him to the ground. If he wants to keep it to the ground, I’m gonna make him stand up. Keep him out of his element and try to stay in your element.
Can you apply these tips to any other area of life?
Tony: No. MMA is in the cage and in the gym. You can’t step it outside into the regular world because you’d beat people up.
Justin: “I’m nice.”
David Goolkasian wants to know, “Why are you so mean?”
Tony: I’m not mean. I’m a nice kid. Until that door closes.
Justin, when I asked for a mean one earlier, they all pointed to you.
Justin: I don’t know why. I’m pretty much the nicest. Outside the cage. Inside is where I let everything out. I train real hard for everything so I come in wanting to win every time.
We’re backstage on the red side. On the other side of that curtain are all the blue guys. How do you feel about them?
Justin: They’re all pretty nice.
But you’re about to hurt them.
Justin: Yup. That’s the way it’s gonna be.
And so it was! Justin and Tony both won after long struggles with their blue opponents. It was my first fight ever and I was surprised how little action there was. No theatrics at all. The majority of the time, these guys were locked into a pretzel, trying to squeeze the life out of the other guy while conserving their own oxygen as much as possible. We had front-row seats, and I could see every drop of sweat. They all had faraway eyes. You could tell time had stopped for them. Long after I would have given up, they were still going. Their skin was rubbed raw from scraping against the floor. They’d been punched and kicked in the face, back, all over. Blood ran down, they were panting. There was one guy whose head was pinned to the floor with another guy’s whole body weight for what seemed like forever, and he just kept hitting up at him, not even able to see, moving slow as if underwater. Then this surge of life hit him, this can’t-lose burst, and the flailing arms built up speed and power. Even with a trapped head, blind, he was landing hard blows on his oppressor! One punch really connected and knocked Blue Shorts right off his head onto the floor. He got up slow like a golem and started waling on Blue, slow and then faster, harder, punching and punching. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone was screaming. And the ref called it! He’d knocked the other guy out! The medic rushed in and moved his finger back and forth in front of the eyes of the fellow who’d been out, who was now slumped against the cage, looking confused.
Backstage, guys were lying on the ground and other guys were rubbing them. A couple of them had black eyes. One fellow had been taken away by an ambulance for, of all things, dehydration. There was a weird smell. “This is a freaky scene,” remarked the photographer, who is male and is not used to men being nice to other men. “It reminds me of when a baby is born and the mother nuzzles it, or if her baby is hurt and she cleans its wounds.” I thought, “But why does it have to be the mother? Why not the father?” It’s so uncommon for a male to caretake a male. It’s supposedly a major event worthy of a comedy routine if a man changes his own infant’s diaper. I’ve read that soldiers in combat will call out for their mothers, but never their fathers. From birth till death, we expect comfort from women and not men. I suppose men have to beat each other up before they can allow themselves to be loving. Well, I thought it was really nice. I thought the whole thing was beautiful. I love masculinity. I love the body.
A few days after the fight, I finally caught up with Brent Bergeron, the one with all the injuries who had sparked my interest in MMA. We met at a Chinese restaurant. He’d just come from getting a physical.
So you’re 28 years old, five-foot-nine, used to be 245 pounds and now you’re 155. And how many beats per minute?
Brent: On average, 57. After 20 pushups it went up to 63 beats. Blood pressure, all that, is perfect. I thought at least one thing would be wrong—glucose, cholesterol. No. All those years of beating myself up, and it’s perfect.
How did you beat yourself up?
Huh? Just lived the good life, you know what I mean?
Are you going to get married and all that?
Ahhhhhhhhrg. That’s a... great question. Um...
Fifty percent end in divorce. Are you and [the photographer] engaged?
I guess. I don’t know. We already have three divorces between us, so we’ve got 150 percent of the failure out of the way already. What was your blood pressure?
Something around 125 over 70. I was amazed. It’s good news to hear that you’re not dying, you know what I mean? Always good news. Like when you get your HIV results back, you’re all, “Wooo!”
I’m always hearing about your injuries. Do you get in fights outside of MMA?
Not really. Not since I started in MMA. Now I have a different sense of mind. I used to all the time. That’s why I thought I could fight in MMA with no training. I got beat pretty badly. I had to lose 13 pounds in five days, and I had never been near a cage or a training facility. All I’d done was fighting in alleys, stupid stuff. The kid I fought, he was a black belt in karate, and here I was walking in off the street, rapid weight loss. He came out with a flying heel to my forehead, knocked me out in the first five seconds. I did take two Percocets and a couple of shots before the fight. Jägermeister.
Wouldn’t Percocets slow you down?
Uh... they got me up off the floor after that kick to the face.
What would you get in fights about before?
Oh, you know, boys will be boys. And when you live in downtown Haverhill [Massachusetts]... stuff happens.
A lot of rowdy pedestrians here.
Peeing on your front steps. You got to get them away from your front steps. They live under the bridge right down the street. My dog knows them, they know my dog.
You get in fights with homeless people?
Only the ones that pee on my steps, yeah.
What happened the time you walked into work with glass coming out of your eye?
I tripped over my dog. I fell back first through my glass coffee table. I was cleaning it all up and a shard of glass got stuck on my finger and somehow it ended up in my eyeball. Seven cornea scratches. They pried my eye open, put some sticky stuff on a cotton swab, and pulled it out. They had to push the shard deeper in first, to get it stuck on the cotton swab. They asked me if I wanted anesthesia. I said no, just get it out. I’d just gotten over a huge spider bite. I still have the fang holes—wanna see? Right after that, I got my elbow dislocated. The spider bite, though, was painful and bad and pretty gross. Right on the kneecap—that was the problem. He’s bitten me before. He lives with me. I can’t find him, obviously, or he’d be gone, you know what I mean? In the summer, there are bugs here and there and the spider finds stuff to eat. In the winter, though, there are no bugs, but he still has to feed. He gets me when I’m sleeping.
He sounds like the worst roommate in the world.
I understand, he has to feed. Plus all summer he keeps the bugs away. So we kind of have an understanding. Usually he’ll get me here or there, on the side, the arm. No big deal—put some Bacitracin on it, it goes away. But then he got me on the kneecap. You bend it all day long, every time you move. So the swelling and infection kept getting worse.
Can you give me a history of your injuries, starting with your feet and moving your way up? Say, in the last two years?
Two years? That time frame is too much. I got a lot of blows to the head. You’re asking me for two years of injuries? They go on and on. I could let you feel my shin. My shin goes like this [makes in-and-out wave motions with hand]. From all the kicks, you know?
Why are you getting hurt so much?
I guess I’m just injury-prone. But you work through it. It’s what fighters do. You never quit, don’t quit, no matter what happens. [To the waitress:] Can we have a couple of fortune cookies? I love fortune cookies. My favorite is: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”