When mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championships first gained popularity around a decade ago, Jon Wertheim might have seemed an unlikely choice to be the one who wrote about them for Sports Illustrated. After all, Wertheim was a graduate of Yale and the University of Pennsylvania Law School whose primary beat was tennis. But Wertheim has always been willing to explore the lesser-known sides of sports, so when the magazine decided, in the spring of 2007, that it was time to assess the rise of MMA, Wertheim suddenly found himself at UFC 69 to watch Matt Serra face Georges St. Pierre.
"Nobody at the magazine knew about [MMA]. I didn't even know what it was, but I just knew everyone was talking about it and I sort of read the same stories about its growth that everybody else did," says Wertheim, now an executive editor at the magazine. "I went to a fight in Houston and they sat me next to Randy Couture and I didn't know who he was. But It was the most exhilarating sporting event I've ever been to. It didn't disgust me. Quite the contrary. It was sports distilled to its essence, and the fighters were fantastic. I was hooked."
The result of that initial trip became "The New Main Event," which ran as the cover of the May 28, 2007 issue. That early coverage of a sport that was seeking publicity proved especially valuable when Wertheim got tipped off about a UFC connection to what at the time was the biggest bank heist in British history: the robbery of the Securitas depot in February 2006, which was masterminded by a one-time UFC fighter named Lee Murray. Wertheim turned it into "Breaking The Bank," which ran in the April 14, 2008 issue of SI. I spoke to Wertheim for the SI 60 series about the story, the man behind it and what happened when Hollywood came calling.
SI: Where did you hear about this robbery?
WERTHEIM: This was in that period when UFC was just trying to pierce the public consciousness, so [former light heavyweight champion] Chuck Liddell was in New York and some publicist asked if we’d like to meet. They said Chuck would come to wherever I was, so I met him at my local bar, the Half King, in Chelsea.
I had spoken to him before – I think I was in the process of finishing up a book on UFC – and there was this leaked story about Lee Murray beating up Tito Ortiz on the streets of London after a UFC card. So I said to Chuck Liddell, “Whatever happened to Lee Murray anyway?”
And his response was, “You’ve got to look it up yourself, I won’t tell it to you. It’s an amazing story and I won’t do it justice.” So I looked it up and sure enough it appeared as if he had single-handedly masterminded the biggest heist in British history.
SI: How good a fighter was he?
WERTHEIM: This was a guy who lost on points to Anderson Silva. This guy was good. So after he was stabbed in that street fight he could no longer fight professionally and it appears as though he enriched himself by masterminding what at the time anyway was the single biggest heist in the history of Britain.
SI: It seems like the lack of publicity for the UFC actually worked in your favor on this one.
WERTHEIM: Yeah, there were a lot of write-ups and very few of them had made the connection that here was this guy who had been this “former cage fighter.” It was this unbelievable story – he had escaped to Morocco because they didn’t have extradition and he was living large there and other conspirators were on trial and he was living it up.
It turned out that when he finally went to jail it had nothing to do with the nine-figure bank heist. He was actually in jail there at the time because he had gotten into a fight with a mall security guard. This was one of those stories were every phone call I made it got more and more rollicking.
SI: How were you able to get the info you needed for this story if you couldn't talk to Murray and had what I'd imagine were some legal hurdles to clear?
WERTHEIM: There was a British journalist who was writing a book about the heist but he was a very helpful source The one advantage I had was I had all these MMA contacts, guys I knew that had sparred with him. He couldn’t give an interview, per his lawyers’ advice, but we had sort of connected through third parties.
I mostly traveled to Iowa for it, which is where he was when he was in the U.S. Here’s this guy who nobody had pegged as a mastermind, and yet he had a brilliant criminal mind.
SI: What did you know about him before writing the story?
WERTHEIM: He was a good fighter but he was also a legend for this street brawl that was basically 10-on-10. So Murray, in UFC circles, already had a certain cult appeal. He was thought of by people as, “He’s crazy. Even by UFC standards.”
SI: How long did it take you to do the story?
WERTHEIM: This took a few months and it was great fun. Great fun. Sometimes you’re not sure what you have, and other times you can’t wait to start writing because you know you’ve got something. It took me a couple days but it kind of wrote itself. It was one of those where you stand back and let the facts speak for themselves.
SI: Was it hard to get it into the magazine?
WERTHEIM: It was one of those that you do on your own time and then just turn it in. This was a time when people didn’t really know what UFC was. I think once the story came in the editors were like, “We’ve got to get this in the magazine.”
SI: What was the reaction to the story?
WERTHEIM: It might have been the high point of UFC fans buying single issues of Sports Illustrated. It’s funny because everybody knew bits and pieces of the story and there was lots of message board chatter. People knew Lee Murray and people vaguely knew that something had happened but for a lot of people that was the first time they had read it start to finish.
The day after it came out we had all these calls from studios and production companies that wanted to option the story. Literally like before it hit the newsstands. It was like a Time Inc. thing, so we ended up selling it to Darren Aronofsky in conjunction with this other book. He had just directed The Wrestler, I think. Jason Statham was going to star in it. The project sort of bounced around and now it’s with Universal in Hollywood.
SI: What do you think of the story now?
WERTHEIM: It was a lot of fun. Sometimes you think you have something promising and then there’s a hitch. This was the opposite. It started as a random tip from Chuck Liddell and every phone call I made enriched it. I appreciate that Chuck Liddell had the dramatic flair to know that doing the research myself would have made for more of a “holy crap” moment.
SI: So we really owe a former UFC champion for this story making it in SI.
WERTHEIM: Yeah. I did thank him, but I definitely I owe him a beer.