Wednesday, November 26, 2008

UFC Comes to Chicago

This was the true beginning of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Dana White was hanging out in the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Las Vegas. Next to White stood his close friend Frank Fertitta III, a casino magnate. Across the room they recognized a UFC fighter named John Lewis. At the time White was a diehard boxing fan; he had boxed his whole life and was then a boxing trainer who “lived for boxing.” On a lark, White and Fertitta began talking to Lewis and asking him about how he uses jiu-jitsu to fight on the ground. Intrigued, White invited Lewis to his gym for jiu-jitsu lessons a couple days later. Fertitta brought his brother Lorenzo to this jiu-jitsu training session as well.

Anderson Silva (left) and Patrick Cote (right) bow to each other while UFC President Dana White looks on. This photo is at the UFC 90 weigh-ins on the stage inside the Chicago Theatre.

As White recalls his introduction to jiu-jitsu a decade ago, “We were fucking blown away. Oh, blown away by it. And it actually scared me. I said, ‘How have I walked around for 30 years and not known this? This is scary.’”

White and the Fertitta brothers then trained jiu-jitsu three or four days a week. They soon saw their first live UFC fight at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena. Leaving the arena White wanted the masses to know about this sport, mixed martial arts, which had “literally changed my whole life and the way I looked at fighting.” A few years later, in 2001, White did just that. He convinced the Fertitta brothers to purchase the UFC for $2 million. As the new president, White added many rules to the sport while attracting world-class athletes who were experts in different martial arts rather than one-dimensional fighters of the past UFC. In doing so, the UFC lifted its barbaric reputation while becoming the fastest growing sport in America.

At around the same time White began taking jiu-jitsu classes, a young man named Anderson Silva quit his job working at McDonald’s in Brazil so he could be a pro mixed martial arts fighter. Silva had begun working at McDonald’s at age 17. He worked there for six years before fighting professionally.

“I feel the experience I had working at McDonald’s was an excellent one,” Silva said. “I feel that the discipline, the responsibility, and dealing with various situations in my life and as a professional fighter, McDonald’s was a big part in helping me get there.”

Since Silva joined the UFC in April 2006, he has won respect from fans and the fighting community thanks to his humble personality and devastating fighting style that earned him the UFC middleweight title. A lethal striker with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Silva has been called the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, most emphatically by White. Silva, however, deflects this notion, saying there is no best fighter and that he is beatable.

Wins and losses aside, people are getting to know Silva and other fighters thanks to the dramatic popular rise in mixed martial arts with its pay-per-view events, replays on Spike TV, and the reality show The Ultimate Fighter. On the internet you can watch a documentary where Silva is playing paintball with his friends or soccer with his family in his backyard in Curitiba, Brazil.

“One of the cool things of the UFC is that everyone has their own personality, everybody has a different background,” White says. “The old thing they always say about boxing was, ‘Listen, if it wasn’t for boxing I’d be dead or in jail. I came from the mean streets of such and such. That was every guy’s story. All these (UFC) guys have completely different stories…. This thing is so multi-national. We got Georges St.-Pierre from Canada. He’ll come down here, and the Americans will cheer him over the American he’s fighting. Nogueira comes from Brazil fighting Tim Sylvia. They’re cheering Nogueira and not Tim Sylvia, the American. You don’t see that in any other sport. It’s because people invest in character, who they are, their personality, or their fighting style.”

Despite its popularity, no UFC event had been held in Illinois until last month. A few months prior, on July 1 to be exact, the state of Illinois officially lifted its ban on mixed martial arts, opening White’s promotion for UFC 90, held on October 25 at All State Arena in Rosemont, IL (near O’Hare Airport). Mixed martial arts is now viewed as a sanctioned event that has cleaned up its act with its 31 fighting rules as well as huge draw for Chicago fight fans. The near sell-out crowd of 15,359 at All State Arena last month set a record live gate of $2.85 million with tickets ranging from $50 to $600.

The fans had paid top dollar to see 10 fights, but the final fight and main event of the evening, Anderson Silva versus Patrick Cote, was the real draw. Unfortunately, the fight wasn’t what the fans hoped for. Silva danced around the ring for round 1 and 2, while Cote hardly grazed him. Other than a routine head kick and flying knee that didn’t faze Cote, it was a lackluster fight. Silva didn’t seem to be the same fighter who attacked opponents with ruthless efficiency. At one point he offered to help Cote off the ground, a gesture Cote refused. In the beginning of round 3, Cote fell to the ground in pain due to a freakish injury, a torn meniscus that didn’t seem to be caused by Silva. After the fight Silva apologized to the fans and told them not to boo Cote.

“You never want to walk out of an arena like that,” White said at the post-fight press conference. “But strange things happen sometimes. We have a pretty good track record of putting on big fights and delivering. Sometimes weird stuff happens. Tonight was a weird night.”

History of MMA and the UFC

Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, is a full-contact sport combining many different martial arts and techniques. In 648 B.C. the Greeks brought a sport called Pankration to the Olympics, which combined an aggressive blend of boxing and wrestling. This style of fighting gained popularity in Rome, too, and lasted for about 1000 years at Olympic events before being abolished. With the rise of the Roman Empire, boxing and wrestling replaced MMA. Since then traditional martial arts remained popular in Asia.

It wasn’t until 1925 in Rio de Janeiro that MMA made a comeback in the western hemisphere thanks to the Gracie family, who founded a new fighting style called jiu-jitsu. Two Gracie brothers, Carlos and Helio, adapted this new style after learning judo from a family friend who was a Japanese judo master. They opened an academy in Brazil that became immensely popular, along with vale-tudo matches. Vale-tudo means “anything goes.” Many of these matches were fought in soccer stadiums with sell-out crowds. Carlos and Helio beat many champions in other fighting styles from Japan and the United States. Soon vale-tudo fighting became the second-most popular spectator sport in Brazil behind soccer. Leagues and organizations formed all over Brazil, and its ticket sales today are still only second to soccer. The popularity in Brazil attracted fighters of various styles, such as boxing, Muay Thai, and wrestling, to compete against one another.

Carlos and Helio passed on Brazilian jiu-jitsu or Gracie jiu-jitsu onto their sons, who taught this fighting style in the United States. During the last few decades MMA spread throughout Brazil, Europe, and Japan. In the United States, it didn’t gain exposure and popularity until 1993 thanks to the establishment of an organization called the Ultimate Fighting Championships, or UFC. Art Davie, a California advertisement executive who took classes with Royce Gracie, was the brainchild of the UFC. It featured several fights broadcast on pay-per-view. Royce became the first UFC champion and developed a cult following.

In 1997, PRIDE Fighting Championships became the Japanese equivalent of UFC. Just like Brazil, Japan had its own style of MMA fighting called shoot wrestling, which began in the 1970s and gained popularity the following decade. With the establishment of these organizations, fighters had to be world-class athletes with many fighting styles. One can trace this type of all-encompassing fighting philosophy back to Bruce Lee, who believed “the best fighter is not a boxer, karate or judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style.” Some fighting styles, however, have proved more effective, such as boxing and Muay Thai when standing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling when on the ground.

It took a while for Americans to accept MMA. Although admired by some, in particular males between the ages of 18 to 34, many Americans criticized the violence of this new sport. One of the reasons was the fact that UFC had basically no rules for the first six fighting events. There were no weight classes or weight limits, no rounds or time limits, no judges, and no mandatory safety equipment. The only rules were no eye gouging, biting, fish hooking. Fights could end only with a referee’s stoppage, a knockout, or a submission, where one fighter tapped his hand as a signal he is submitted. Fights took place in an octagonal cage called “The Octagon.” In one of these first events, a 200-pound karate fighter beat a 600-pound sumo wrestler. Senator John McCain was one of the biggest opponents of MMA, calling it “human cockfighting.” As the political and public outcry grew in the late ‘90s, states began outlawing MMA. This caused the UFC to lose its pay-per-view providers.

This was the reason the UFC was sold to Zuffa LLC for a mere $2 million in January 2001. Zuffa LLC is a Las Vegas media and casino management company owned by two brothers, Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo. Boston native Dana White, who has a boxing and jiu-jitsu background, is a long-time friend of the Fertitta brothers. So after White convinced them to buy the UFC, he became the president. This trio made drastic changes that have led to the extreme popularity of the UFC and MMA in America. Some of the changes included rounds, time limits, five different weight classes, protective gloves, and judges. Most importantly, 31 fouls were instituted in the official rule book, such as no “groin attacks of any kind.” With the promotion of martial arts rather than no-holds-barred events, the UFC returned to pay-per-view in 2001. More and more state athletic commissions began lifting the bans on MMA. The UFC fighters were now not just well-rounded, but some of the best conditioned athletes in the world, training six or more hours per day, everyday. Most of them seem brighter, too, than the original UFC fighters. (According to Sports Illustrated, “Around 80% of the fighters have college degrees.”) Meanwhile, White has become as well-known as any UFC fighter and for good reason. White is bald, wears tight shirts over his chiseled torso, has a vast knowledge of the sport, and adamantly speaks the gospel of MMA while habitually dropping the F-word.

More than 600 fighters registered for an open tryout at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, IL for Season 9 of the television series, "The Ultimate Fighter."

Capitalizing on UFC’s popularity, the Fertitta brothers partnered with Spike TV to create a MMA reality show called The Ultimate Fighter. Now in its 8th season, this show features up-and-coming MMA fighters who are coached by a current UFC fighter. The losers are eliminated from the competition with the final winner earning a six-figure contract to fight with the UFC. There is no faster and easier way to get into the UFC than to win this reality show. The tryouts for the 8th season were in a Chicago suburb. A record 600-plus fighters signed up for the tryouts which began at 9 a.m. and finished the next morning at 3 a.m. It’s obvious the UFC is here to stay. In 2007, Zuffa LLC, the owners of the UFC, bought PRIDE, merging contracted fighters from both promotional organizations.

More than 600 fighters registered for an open tryout at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, IL for Season 9 of the television series, "The Ultimate Fighter," setting a record attendance. "At the end of the day it is a television show that's looking for great fighters," said Brian Diamond, Spike TV senior vice president of sports and specials. "And for it to be entertaining to the audience overall, you have to have a little personality."

The popularity of UFC has helped smaller organizations and promoters host fights in bars, gyms, and arenas across the country. More states are legalizing MMA events. Illinois just lifted its ban this year, and the Chicago area has hosted big events in the last few weeks like UFC 90 and the IronHeart Crown XII. “Because there is no universal sanctioning body for the mixed martial arts, the rules vary slightly between different promotions,” according to the IronHeart Crown, a top Chicago MMA promoter. “Dangerous or excessively brutal techniques are universally banned.” But how safe is MMA compared to other combat sports such as boxing? According to a recent study by John Hopkins University School of Medicine: “The overall injury rate in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing. Knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in boxing. This suggests a reduced risk of traumatic brain injury in MMA competitions when compared to other events involving striking.”

Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, but in the sporting world, MMA is here to stay.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Busy Life of MMA Fighters

From October 7 until November 8, I was fortunate to document the lives of two local mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, Ricardo Lamas and Chris Martins. During this month I gained a new appreciation for MMA, which is the fastest growing sport in America among young males.

From the outside the gym looks like a garage. Inside, perched near the rafters sits Macario “Mac” Ramos behind his computer. With a couple clicks of his mouse, hip-hop music is pumping from the speakers and a Ricardo Lamas fight video is playing on his screen. Mac is the director of this old school gym called Top Notch, located in Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb. Lamas, of Cuban and Mexican heritage, is perhaps Mac’s top mixed martial arts fighter. Mac, born in the Philippines, has more than a dozen different flags hanging high on the gym’s walls and representing the backgrounds of the fighters who train there. This gym is the fruit of many years saving money and dedicating himself to mixed martial arts (MMA), in particular Muay Thai. Top Notch has attracted some of the best trainers and coaches in the Elmhurst area due to its open and honest atmosphere. While fighters train around lunchtime, Mac and other coaches have paying students in the afternoons and evenings, which include women and homemakers.

Chris Martins blocks a kick from Ricardo Lamas during their fight on Nov. 8 at UIC Pavilion.

Meanwhile, in the downtown Chicago area, Chris Martins trains at the Valko Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy. This gym, located on the fourth floor of one of the city’s largest personal training buildings. Jay Valko, a jiu-jitsu black belt, is the director of this academy situated in a modern gym with a view of the Sear’s Tower outside the window. Like Mac, he is well-respected in the mixed martial arts community. Gyms like these provide fighters like Lamas and Martins with the proper structure and guidance for mixed martial arts fights. Time management is a necessity for any MMA fighter, but is even more essential for Lamas and Martin.

Lamas, 25, is nicknamed “The Bully” due to his dominant fighting style and the fact that he owns a 3-year-old English Bullterrier named Chico. Yet he doesn’t have as much time as he’d like to spend with Chico. His mornings are spent working as a personal trainer. Then he boxes, kicks, runs and lifts at Top Notch. He then drives to wrestling practice at Elmhurst College, where he is an assistant coach. During the evening he works on his jiu-jitsu with Jeff Neal in Naperville. He returns home at 10 p.m. He trains six or seven day per week, totaling about 25 hours. His biggest challenge is finding time to eat, so he takes protein shakes and vitamins and supplements.

Ricardo Lamas with his 3-year-old English Bull Terrier named Chico sitting outside the gym where he trains called Top Notch in Elmhurst, IL.

Martins, 23, says taking the time to eat is his biggest challenge as well. To makes matters more challenging, it disrupts his studies. Martins is in his second year at DePaul Law School, and never seems to have more than an hour or so to study before he has to eat, workout, or go to class.

So why put yourself through this grueling schedule, which includes getting punched and kicked in the face for very little pay if any?

“As humans, we’re animals, and you have this primal instinct to fight,” Martins says. “Look at every male animal. They are always fighting. When you know you’re in a fight and you’re not going to get jumped by a bunch of guys, cops aren’t going to come arrest you, nothing is going to happen. You’re here and you’re supposed to fight. It’s like the fight or flight instinct. But for me it’s almost like fight or fight. That’s it. No flight instinct for me. I get this … feeling that overcomes my body that I completely run off instinct and it’s such a liberating feeling.”

For people like Martins, who grew up watching the movie Bloodsport with his uncle, the possibility of fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a dream. Just fighting Lamas at the IronHeart Crown XII, one of Chicago’s premier MMA events, a couple weeks ago was a huge honor and great way to get noticed by sponsors and fight promoters. For Martins it has meant serious sacrifice since he began at age 16 in Boca Raton, Florida. He stopped going to the bars with his fake ID, and alienated many of his friends, practicing jiu-jitsu rather than partying. He competed in every jiu-jitsu tournament he could and won many medals. Martins also began getting in many street fights. Normally, a non-confrontational, small kid, he had a new way of dealing with people who “disrespected” him. For an entire year, at age 17, he constantly got in street fights. He then matured and hasn’t gotten in a street fight since he was 18. By then he had already begun training to be a mixed martial artist, practicing Muay Thai, boxing, and wrestling. After graduating from a small private university in Florida, Martins moved to Chicago to pursue his plan B. Plan A is still the desire to be a big-time fighter. But his mother, a single Brazilian woman who raised Chris and his younger brother and sister, always drilled into his head the importance of having a plan B, or in this case, DePaul Law School. Coincidentally, one of the guys practicing jiu-jitsu at his gym in Florida was a partner at one of the largest class-action law firms in America. He offered Martins a job in the file room, and it was there that Martins developed an interest in the law. Because his first year of law school was so demanding he only had time to train for one MMA fight, over Christmas break, in which he won. This year he began training with Jay Valko, who says he has made dramatic strides in his overall fight game.

Chris Martins taking notes during an intellectual property class. Martins is in his second year at DePaul Law School.

Martins’s opponent, Ricardo Lamas, has more fight experience with a record of 9-0 since turning pro in November 2006. His passion for the sport, like Martins, is a coach’s dream, according to everyone who trains him. Unlike Martins, however, Lamas was a troublemaker as a child. Maybe it was the fact his five older brothers picked on him. Lamas says his parents got him involved in sports because he was so hyperactive. Nevertheless, Lamas loved to fight, and after watching a bunch of Bruce Lee movies, he began taking taekwondo classes. When he watched the UFC he liked the idea of one-on-one competition with no one to help you. Lamas wrestled throughout high school in Oak Brook, but it wasn’t until he attended Elmhurst College that he became a dominant wrestler at 157 pounds. During his senior year, he couldn’t practice for two weeks before the national tournament because he had a dislocated shoulder. Despite basically wrestling with one arm, Lamas wrestled his way into the All-American round. This competitive spirit helped him advance at such a rapid rate since his first MMA fight in January 2007.

This month Lamas and Martins, fighting at 155 pounds, had perhaps the best fight at the IronHeart Crown XII, which was the first officially sanctioned MMA event in Chicago, held at the UIC Pavilion. Knowing Martins was a jiu-jitsu specialist, Lamas tried to win with his striking ability.

“There’s always a game plan,” says Lamas, who likes to remain calm as possible before fights in order to not expend extra energy. “But when you get in there, there’s a million things that could go wrong, so you kind of got to be ready for anything…. During the actual fight, there really isn’t too much thinking that takes place. It’s more reacting. At my training camp, that’s why we do all those drills and all that work so that when you step in the ring it’s a reaction. You don’t have to think about anything.”

Ricardo Lamas trying to punch Chris Martins during their fight on Nov. 8 at UIC Pavilion. Lamas won by unanimous decision. It was the first mixed martial arts event in Chicago since the state athletic commission lifted its ban on July 1, 2008.

Both fighters exchanged blows to the applause from the crowd. In the end, Lamas’s experience helped beat Martins in a unanimous three-round decision. These two young fighters are two examples of where the sport is and where it is heading. Yet, many people choose MMA for reasons beyond the pro fight scene.

“If Superman wasn’t Superman, if he didn’t have super powers, this is what he’d be doing,” says Jerry Stewart, a boxing specialist who trains Lamas. “And this is the closest you’re going to get to being a superhero. This is it. If you don’t have superpowers, you better know how to fight with your hands, fight on the ground, fight with your knees, your elbows, the whole bit. Otherwise, you’re looking at getting an ass beating if trouble comes to town.”

The ironic part is that good fighters such as Lamas and Martins have very little time to look for trouble because they are always training. They also have learned to have a respect for others that mixed martial arts teaches.

This story appeared in the Chicago Sports Review magazine.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Power of a Photo

This photo, shot by Pablo Martinez Monsivais of the Associated Press, appeared today on the cover of USA Today. Barack Obama hugged Tammy Duckworth yesterday morning in Chicago after a wreath laying ceremony at Bronze Soldiers Memorial in honor of Veteran's Day. Duckworth, 40, is an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient who lost both of her legs in 2004 when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by a grenade. She chose to fly helicopters because it was one of the few combat jobs open to women. Duckworth is also the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She is on the short list of people to replace Obama in the U.S. Senate.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An Obamanomenon

In case you were living in a cave, yesterday Barack Obama became the first black man elected president. It was a clear, abnormally warm day in Chicago, and I took advantage of it by photographing some of the day’s events, which included a rally at Grant Park where Obama spoke to the thousands of supporters. It felt like New Year’s Eve night. People were dancing together in the street and celebrating this Obamanomenon. Below are photos I took of Election Day in Chicago:

Patricia Palden sits in silence as her husband, Lama Lobsang Palden, conducts a puja, or prayer, for Barack Obama at the Blue Beryl Dharma Center in the Rogers Park neighborhood. "I've really been waiting for this my whole life," said Patricia, who believes Obama is the best candidate for world peace and a cleaner environment. Five years ago Lama Lobsang moved to Chicago from Tibet. He has been a lama his entire life.

A young resident reads a newspaper and drinks coffee outside a polling station in Rogers Park, where his girlfriend was working. Many people voted before going to work.

Obama supporters make phone calls at Loyola University reminding people to vote and inform them of their nearest polling station.

It was an abnormally warm November day as people looked inside the Tribune Tower windows on Michigan Avenue.

Woo-Woo posed for photos with the first arriving Obama supporters for the night time rally at Grant Park. Woo-Woo, who has gone to virtually every Cubs home game since 1969, wore an Obama Jersey with the number 08.

An Obama speech ticketholder waiting early in line for the Grant Park rally. Only 70,000 tickets were given out. Non-ticketholders watched CNN and Obama's speech on a jumbotron.

I heard the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering an inspirational speech as I walked down Michigan Avenue near Grant Park. The voice was coming from this Volvo. As it slowed down the guys inside waved peace.

On a street corner in the South Loop a man holds a drawing of Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Vendors sold T-shirts and Obama apparel around Grant Park throughout the afternoon and night.

Obama supporters took photos in front of signs like this while waiting to enter the Grant Park rally.

Obama supporters demonstrating their freedom of speech on the bridge crossing to Grant Park.

A view of the Chicago skyline from Grant Park as the rally began.

People watched the CNN election updates on a jumbotron in Grant Park.

People watched the CNN election updates on a jumbotron in Grant Park.

Just after it is announced that Obama won the presidential election, people cheered and clapped while this supporter took a photo on his camera phone.

Obama delivers his victory speech at Grant Park.

An artist poses for photos with his Obama portrait as he hugs supporters.

Two girls pose for photos of a life-size Obama they brought to the rally.

Congress Parkway was flooded with thousands of Obama supporters after the Grant Park rally. The trains and buses ran all night to make sure people got home safely. Thank you CTA.

People celebrated Obama's victory on Michigan Avenue.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

His First Love

Today is the most anticipated presidential election in my lifetime, so naturally I am going to be running around Chicago photographing voters and events and whatever else I run into. The biggest event will be this evening at Grant Park, where up to a million people are expected to see Barack Obama speak. In anticipation of a huge crowd, the Obama campaign emailed tickets to the first 70,000 people that signed up for this event. Only people with these electronic tickets can apparently enter an area roped off to see Obama speak. Everyone else will supposedly have a blocked view. Either way, it is sure to be a madhouse. Mayor Richard Daley and other officials have left everyone in the dark as to the details of the event. Daley said he was confident letting the Obama campaign run this event. The Obama campaign is footing the bill, which comes to about $2 million. However, they are charging media for tickets near the front, with better positions costing more money. As a journalist I find this appalling. The demand, however, is high. People are already scalping these free electronic tickets for lucrative amounts on Since moving back to Chicago this summer I haven’t seen a single McCain sign or T-shirt. In my neighborhood people are now wearing Obama T-shirts and hats as often as they do Michael Jordan apparel. (It is kind of weird thinking I have met both Obama and Jordan.)

Today while I am taking photos, Obama will be playing basketball, a ritual and superstition he acquired early in the primary race against Hillary Clinton. One of his stops along the way, back in April, was at my alma mater UNC-Chapel Hill, where he played pick-up basketball with Carolina’s Final Four team. Like Obama, my first love was basketball, and seeing what he has done with his life provides validation that is sometimes lacking in my own life.

“I can’t imagine more fun than having a good pick-up basketball game when everything is going right and people are passing the ball and you are actually hitting some shots,” says Obama. “I watch a good basketball game or I play in a good basketball game, it makes me feel good.”

It is likely he will be feeling something even better tonight. I think I will, too.