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Ultimate Fighting’s Norman Mailer

It all started with the Ultimate Fighting Championships in 1993. Promoters brought together some of the baddest dudes on the planet—boxers, kickboxers, sumo wrestlers, jujitsu masters, and karate black belts—and paid them to pound each other in the balls, kick … Read More

By / December 28, 2006

It all started with the Ultimate Fighting Championships in 1993. Promoters brought together some of the baddest dudes on the planet—boxers, kickboxers, sumo wrestlers, jujitsu masters, and karate black belts—and paid them to pound each other in the balls, kick each other in the face, and choke each other to unconsciousness. The prize? The title of World’s Best Fighter. As the new sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) caught on in America, the only journalists covering it were wild-eyed, monosyllabic wingnuts who’d defected from professional wrestling journalism.

Enter Josh Gross, a mayhem-loving Jewish twentysomething from Beverly Hills. Josh decided the world’s most brutal sport deserved serious, thoughtful journalism, and before long he'd become MMA’s Bert Sugar and Norman Mailer rolled into one. Today he’s the editor-in-chief of Sherdog.com, the web’s most highly trafficked MMA site. We talked to Josh as he prepared to cover the December 30 “fight of the century” between UFC superstars Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, widely regarded as the Ali and Frazier of the UFC.

So you’re a Jew from Beverly Hills who spends all his time with enormous, muscle-bound rednecks who make their living beating the shit out of people. Can they conceal their disgust when they’re talking to you?

You think I tell these people I grew up eating at the Peach Pit? No, seriously, for the most part we share the usual athlete-to-media relationship. Even the guys I’ve been highly critical of deal with me on a professional level. Why? I’m not sure.

How the hell did you get into this?

Combine an unhealthy passion for sports with my distaste for all things scholastic, and there you have it. Didn’t hurt that I started training with Bas Rutten in 1998, which was around the time he made his U.S. fighting debut. For those of you unfamiliar with Bas: he’s half crazy Dutchman and 100 percent grade-A badass. If you’re not good at math that equals one sweet dude. (After a night of drinking in Roppongi I once saw him get plowed by a minivan. Turned out he was fine, and just minutes after flying 30 feet through the air he was kind enough to tell me he was free of internal injuries. Like I said, one sweet dude.)

What’s the worst ass-kicking you’ve ever seen?

Well, there’s that towel-whipping thing from the seventh grade I’m still trying to repress. Thanks. But as far as pro fights go… I once saw a Ukrainian killer named Igor Vovchanchyn punch a Japanese man named Enson Inoue so many times it looked as if Sloth from The Goonies had somehow sw
itched places with him.

Could Bruce Lee beat up these MMA guys, or would they tear him apart?

Who the hell knows? Many people credit Lee with being a forefather to modern MMA. I have my doubts. He’d probably fight at lightweight (155 pounds); if Lee couldn’t figure out how to stay on his feet or fight from his back he’d be toast.

Why do I love MMA? Am I a bad person because I enjoy watching people knee each other in the face?

Yes. But thankfully the world’s full of people like you, so nothing to feel too bad about.

Tens of thousands of men screaming themselves hoarse as they watch two sweaty guys hold each other close and squirm around on the floor. Is this a sport, or a new form of collective homoerotic hysteria?

Having grown up a mile from West Hollywood I consider myself a reluctant authority on “collective homoerotic hysteria.” Let’s just say it’s my well-schooled opinion that the author of this question is projecting.

Along those lines, isn’t The Guard basically just the missionary position? Every fight seems to end up in The Guard. And the guy on the bottom is in the dominant position? There’s got to be some kind of postmodern sex theory angle there, no?

Wait until you get a load of the North-South position. Or how about the rear-naked choke? Let the imagination wander.

How are the Krav Maga guys? I bet they beat everybody, huh?

I’ve never seen a Krav Maga practitioner in MMA, but that probably has to do with the fact that RPGs and small-arms fire are frowned upon. (FYI, I studied Krav Maga for three-plus years and really enjoyed it.)

What are MMA groupies like? Are they scary?

Alas, goofy-looking Jews aren’t their target demo. So, yes, they’re scary.

All the biggest MMA events are in Japan. Doesn’t it piss off the Japanese that all the best martial artists turn out to be big smelly honkeys?

I’ll never understand this about the Japanese but for some reason they love watching their countrymen get beaten to a fine pulp. Ever hear of Bob Sapp? Imagine Shaquille O’Neil on steroids. Anyhow, what did he get for continually pummeling these people? The cover of Time Asia.

Jewish men get a bad rap when it comes to physical toughness, and I’d be delighted to hear that there’s a good Jewish MMA fighter out there somewhere. Do you have good news for me?

Used to be a boatload of good Jewish boxers. In fact, at one point it was cool to pretend to be a good Jewish boxer. A bit of bad news when it comes to MMA, I’m afraid. Perhaps the best-known Jewish fighter is Rory Singer, who has fought in the UFC with mixed results. Oh, and even though he was born in New York he resides in Georgia, so I’m not sure he really counts. Sorry.

So you don’t tell these guys you used to hang out at the Peach Pit, but what about the Jewish thing? I mean, the last time most American Jews ran into tough, Middle American gentiles was when they were singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well” with Borat. Does your being Jewish ever come up, and if so, how have the guys reacted?

I’ve never experienced any sort of antisemitism in mixed martial arts. Once in a while someone asks me about being Jewish, and like I tell everyone, I don’t know jack about it except I was born to a Jewish mother and love matzah ball soup. I’ve always separated being Jewish from being religious. All the guilt, none of the funny hats.

In the early days of boxing there was tons of corruption and fight-fixing. As a competitive sport, MMA is still just getting off the ground. Are all the fights legit? I saw Bob Sapp get knocked out by Mirko Cro Cop, and it looked like a total fix. Before the fight Sapp was huffing and puffing with his eyes opened extra wide, very theatrical, basically screaming, “I’m about to try REAL hard!” Then in the first round he gets knocked out by some kind of “phantom punch,” and as he lay on the ground he had this silly “Oh, that REALLY hurt!” look on his face, which never happens when someone gets knocked out. Was that legit, or did someone pay Sapp to take a dive?

In its first years, particularly in Japan, there were documented incidents of fixed fights, which in MMA have been dubbed “works,” an expression straight out of the WWE. Thankfully MMA in Japan has cleaned up its act and grown out of that nonsense. Today news of a “work” would be major scandal material.

In the fight you’re talking about “Cro Cop” (so named for being an anti-terrorism officer in Croatia) socked Sapp square in the eye. Yeah, Sapp was doing his best big, bad wolf impersonation, but that’s part of his shtick. Here’s the problem with that though: You can be 6'6'' and 375 pounds of bulging triceps, but if your orbital bone is smashed, you’re gonna fall to the ground like someone just Krav Maga’d you.

So we've got this titanic clash between Chuck Lidell and Tito Ortiz this Saturday in Las Vegas. Who's going to win?

Liddell has made a career out of dropping grapplers that were forced to strike with him. Unfortunately for Tito, he's tailor made for Chuck's style and will likely go down early.

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