Former UFC heavyweight champion Mark Kerr reflects on his career and his future
The southerly 263-mile drive from Rio De Janeiro to Sao Paulo took Fernando Gurgel and Marcelo Alonso almost six hours to complete, giving them plenty of time to mull over the possibilities.
Fernando’s brother, Fabio, was among eight men trained to fight later that evening, Jan. 19, 1997, in the third World Vale Tudo Championship, a single-elimination mixed-style tournament that promoted bare-knuckle brutality as sport. On the ride down, Alonso, dean among Brazilian combat sports reporters, noted that Fabio, the reigning jiu-jitsu world champion at 94 kilograms, expected to confront an American wrestler in the finals.
Following the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic games, a new breed—big, mean, very likely chemically enhanced—made its presence known in the mixed-fight world.
A couple years after Royce Gracie broke ground and triangle-choked super heavyweight Greco-Roman stylist Dan Severn in the Octagon at UFC 4, jiu-jitsu’s superiority was again being challenged by the longest tenured grappling form known to man.
Depending on who was talking, Mark Kerr stacked up as either the crest of this wrestlers tidal wave or, if Fabio had the chance and did his job, Exhibit A in defense of Brazilian jiu-jitsu as the pre-eminent martial art on the planet.
After arriving at the Maksoud Plaza Hotel, situated on Sao Paulo’s highest plateau, Alonso heard murmurs that Kerr was more ordinary than impressive. Talk backstage painted the 28-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, as a run-of-the-mill college wrestler. People speculated Kerr might revolt against the violence of the anything-goes format. That the sight of blood would make him quit. That despite an imposing physique and pedigree, in truth, he didn’t even want to be there.
Many wrestlers told Kerr he would make a dominant fighter. He never truly believed them. Yet here he was peering over a cliff’s edge. Richard Hamilton, Kerr’s trainer and manager at the time, generally exercised positive reinforcement around his fighters. When it came to Kerr, making threats was the only way he thought to coax the “6-foot-1, 265-pound gorilla” into the ring.
“Ten minutes before we fought in Brazil he starts whining to me that he can't fight,” said Hamilton, who yelled at Kerr that they weren’t in America and if he no-showed the Brazilian crowd might storm into the locker room and kill them.
Ticket holders waded underneath the Maksoud Plaza Hotel’s shimmering silver-leafed Grand Ballroom acoustic ceiling. Only one bout in and already the event was wild. Brazil’s Mestre Hulk advanced to the semifinals when UFC 1 veteran Zane Frazier fell though the sloppily constructed ring’s loose ropes and couldn’t continue after hitting his head on the ground.
Kerr’s debut was up next.
you’re willing, clench your dominant hand into a fist. Heed the meaty part opposite the thumb, not the knuckles—this is where you’ll want to connect. From half a foot away, at, say, two-thirds power, uncork a clubbing strike into your free palm.
Did the hit feel like it could smash an eye socket or mangle a nose?
Try again from the same distance and add some muscle.
As bludgeons go, “hammerfists” function around Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion. Generating hurt force in close quarters is the idea, a quite useful and organic tool for big, strong wrestlers like Kerr. Sitting on camera in October 2014 between the breakfast nook and living room of his ex-wife's two bedroom apartment in a Phoenix suburb, Mark Kerr's THUMP!! was jarring and memorable in the way blunt force trauma always is. Watching from a yard away, Kerr, 46, mashed nowhere near his potential. Yet: THUMP!!!
Chances are his impact was more notable than yours. It belittled mine. If any of this is new it’s because you’re likely unaware that from January 1997 to May 2000, Mark (The Smashing Machine) Kerr excelled at making men bleed and quit in mixed-style prizefights, cursed by being great at a degenerative job he wouldn’t have done were it not for the money.
“I don't think Mark liked hurting people but he was very good at it,” said John Hyams, director of the critically acclaimed documentary ‘The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Extreme Fighter Mark Kerr.’ “I think that was part of what his internal struggle was.”
Incredibly gifted. Enabled. Troubled. Conflicted. In more than a few ways Kerr was Jon Jones before Jon Jones.
sweat and appeared agitated. The only bit of stagecraft from World Vale Tudo Championship promoters Frederico Lapenda and Sergio Batarelli was a medieval castle/pyramid-like cardboard structure that may as well have been lifted from the set of a bad sci-fi flick. Crossing a makeshift drawbridge that lowered when fighters entered the ballroom, Kerr stepped into his new and violent world. He wasn’t confronted by fear, as Hamilton thought. Adrenaline made him gag backstage and uneasy anticipation felt more like excitement as 900 intense Brazilians got their first glimpse of Kerr striding to the ring.
The English language production, packaged and sold on VHS to underserved fight watchers in the U.S., rolled a quick introduction from the well-spoken, mild-mannered wrestler: “Hi, I’m Mark Kerr. I’m representing American freestyle wrestling. I’m here at the World Vale Tudo 3 to prove it’s the best fighting style.” From Sunnyvale, Calif., to Sao Paulo, Brazil, 27-year-old, 6-8, 340-pound UFC veteran Paul (The Polar Bear) Varelans stepped over the top rope to indoctrinate Kerr and prove him wrong.
Whatever was about to happen had been set in motion years ago.
They started fast. Kerr landed a couple strikes in the clinch then drove Varelans to the canvas with a strong double-leg takedown that made people near the ring standup. It was a slaughter, all 126 seconds. Knees and punches crackled Varelans’ face. Kerr’s virgin knuckles bled too. More than a minute after Kerr politely stood up off of him, Varelans stumbled back to his corner. In front of a taken aback crowd familiar with all manner of viciousness, Varelans received an uneasy round of applause and help standing.
Less than an hour later, Kerr knocked teeth loose from the mouth of Mestre Hulk, a capoeira champion hailing from one of the hardest favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Rather than get pummeled, Hulk escaped underneath the bottom rope. He was disqualified in less than two and a half minutes.
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: MARK KERR IN HIS OWN WORDS, VIA MOZAK
“My objective wasn't to go out there to smash his face in,” said the aggressive American. “But there were methods to try to facilitate a will being forfeited.
“It's a weird psychology.”
With some controversy and a bit more difficulty, Fabio Gurgel found his way into the finals, setting up the expected showdown. Jiu-jitsu man versus wrestler in the heat of the Brazilian summer made for a tense crowd.
“The audience could feel the power of Kerr in his impressive wins,” said Alonso, who took photos and notes all night next to the action. “They were worried about Gurgel.”
heads confirmed it. Director Bobby Razak, sound mixer Dan Davaney, cameraman Mark Morris and myself stiffened up at Kerr’s last nasty THUMP!!!!, which echoed around the two bedroom unit he shares with his ex, Dawn Staples, and their 10-year-old son, Bryce.
Six years have passed since Kerr stopped fighting. Still, even his halfhearted bolts create an impression of harm—a reminder that when calendars transitioned to the year 2000, a significant amount of money would have been placed on him to throttle nearly any person on the planet.
"He was a brick,” said former UFC heavyweight champion Bas Rutten, Kerr’s famed trainer during the wrestler’s best fighting days. To prove his point, the Dutchman enjoyed telling people to grab Kerr’s forearms. “The same as a piece of stone. For real. Every time I would say, feel, for fun. It's the craziest thing you've ever felt.”
“He was such an animal inside the ring and a total gentleman outside,” Rutten continued. “We knew he had that quality that once he went in the cage or the ring he would just go ballistic.”
Nine of Kerr’s first 11 contests lasted 184 seconds or fewer. He needed just over five minutes to win four bouts in the UFC. His reputation grew as he fought in Japan for the Pride Fighting Championships, which was home to many top-shelf mixed martial artists while the sport dug in stateside against politicians and cable companies.
Kerr estimates he made $1.8 million fighting for the Japanese, big money in MMA at the time. He lived lavishly when he could, adding an “unbelievably expensive” place in Santa Monica, Calif., to go with his home in Phoenix. He claimed four cars, two at each location.
"I needed at least three fights a year to sustain the lifestyle,” Kerr said. “I slowed down to one fight a year and wasn't trying to get aggressive with renegotiating with Pride. I reached the point of burnout and didn't feel like fighting as much. The money goes. If it was $100 million, eh, it's a different story. I would joke with people if Mike Tyson can run through $300 million, I can sure run through $1 million."
As for his moneymaking success in MMA, this was as good as it got. Then things went sideways, and after HBO aired “The Smashing Machine” in 2003, the world scored an unvarnished look inside his dramatic, dependent existence.
"Once you turn that invisible line, there's no going back,” Kerr said. “The prescription narcotics mixed with alcohol turns into a sloppy existence. When a bottle of alcohol takes your will it's a little bit harder because I'm fighting myself.”
in his mid-40s, behind sunken dark eyes, Kerr is nicked up the way a large territorial great white shark might be.
Decades of wrestling and fighting calcified his knuckles into purplish massifs. He begins his day sore, moving about on a rebuilt left knee, a left ankle that lacks ligaments, and a right ankle featuring a permanent and “literally disgusting” partial dislocation. “That’s not normal,” Kerr said, twisting it at a grimacing angle.
There were surgeries to elbows, hands and biceps. At some point a swath of muscle was farmed to determine if he suffered from autoimmune diseases, which in the end caused an assortment of ailments, including a frustrating bout with folliculitis.
He put on weight. Well, Kerr weighs the same, in the 270 range, he just wears it differently.
Poundage around the waist makes the thick scar across his lower back seem to stand in relief. That one he earned fighting himself.
For a few years Jack Daniels was his drink of choice, and during certain stretches he made a habit of downing a gallon a day. One sloppy late night inside the home of a friend who let him stay in the guest house, Kerr picked up a glass vase. He didn’t notice water on the marble floor, stepped, slipped and crashed to the ground. Kerr, loaded, again lost footing and fell back-first onto a large triangular shard that fractured off at the vase’s thick base. His lower back was filleted, his big butt appearing to dangle. A scene ripped from a horror movie. He bled all over the house, leaving red hand prints on walls until his friend’s wife found him around 2 in the morning. She pleaded with him to go to the hospital. Kerr repeatedly refused. Instead he wrangled duct tape and gauze and persuaded her to pack and wrap the gaping wound. He rolled over and passed out, too tough, doped up and drunk for his own good.
"Sometimes the machismo helps,” said Kerr, who offered the caveat that three times in 10 it usually led to something stupid. “But as I'm getting older, I'm understanding there's a balance between the two."
found Kerr quick.
When Mark was 12 his parents were so fed up with the youngest of their seven kids that they shipped him off to live with their eldest, Michael, in Davenport, Iowa. The only instruction, a directive from mom Mary, was that Mark keep busy with sports. His two years in the Quad Cities passed like this: football, wrestling, track, baseball; football, wrestling, track, baseball.
Puberty, peddling a bike everywhere, and 24/7 access to a pantry stocked with protein shakes also helped Kerr fabricate pistons from his legs.
At Bettendorf High, the same Iowa wrestling powerhouse where former UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich served as Big Man on Campus during Kerr’s freshman year, he went from competing at 135 pounds to cutting to make 175 as a sophomore. When football rolled around, Kerr weighed 210. Kerr struggled academically, just like he had back home in Toledo, Ohio, but beyond the classroom this new physicality forged an identity that helped him “blossom as a person.”
"When I showed back up to school in Toledo no one knew who I was,” he said. “I changed so dramatically. I went away this puny little punk kid and came back a relatively mature kid who had grown into this man's body."
As a junior, and out of nowhere, Kerr won the 1986 Ohio Division I championship at 175 pounds, marking the only time a wrestler from Toledo Waite took home a state title. Entering injured with no expectation of claiming the crown, Kerr called the triumph a “huge deal” on his road to becoming a world class competitor. On the other hand, pushing as hard as he did so early in life required a toll, so injuries were always tied to Kerr’s story. By 9 he received regular chiropractic treatments, first from his brother’s brother-in law and then his brother.
This is how Kerr became fascinated with body mechanics and the ways in which his machine worked.
“I was always interested enough to seek explanations for what they were doing,” he said. "I needed to have that information to be able to understand what I'm trying to accomplish to either heal, or know what my body is doing."
Mark Kerr at 20 losing an athletic scholarship and hearing from Syracuse University that he needed to take a year off from school.
Loose in the wilderness, the wrestler landed a summer gig pulling cables at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. The first name musician to come through the storied venue was Eddie Money, the New York City police officer turned rocker who strung together hits in the '70s and '80s. Off went the roller coaster. A friend with a car asked Kerr if he would take a two-and-a-half-hour ride to setup for Bon Jovi in Saratoga, N.Y. Two tickets to paradise? Check, please.
Kerr’s aptitude for lifting and moving heavy things led to better roadie assignments. He worked the Grateful Dead at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Starting in Raleigh, N.C., he toured during the hottest part of the summer with The Who. Hitched rides brought him to Kansas City, then Boulder and, lastly, Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego.
As he progressed and the bands grew bigger, Kerr experimented with narcotics.
“Taking cocaine for the first time, the sense of euphoria and alertness, it almost feels like you have Spider-Man senses,” he said, smiling. “I could hear an ant walk across the floor from 30 feet away, and I could smell you two blocks away.”
The longer he worked the more money he made. If someone went, ‘Hey take a little of this or a little of that,’ so he could pump out an all-day shift at $12 to $13 an hour, he would.
The Who closed at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, but Kerr’s trip ended a couple weeks earlier in Southern California, when, after tucking tale and making a phone call, he returned to Toledo. His father, Thomas Kerr, was a Korean war veteran who made things sound important when he spoke. Thomas drank into his mid 50s and was six years sober when his youngest son came home that summer. Mark’s father didn’t touch alcohol again before passing away from congenital heart failure in 2007 at the age of 77. Mary Kerr never drank, said her son.
In a familiar bed, Mark slept for what felt like three straight days. Then he fiended for the road.
Kerr dialed United Production Services, which won the contract to set up the Rolling Stones’ mammoth North American Steel Wheels tour. Sixty dates in 33 cities in just over four months. He negotiated the going rate ($800 a week plus $210 per diem) and the next day flew from Detroit to Philadelphia. Before Kerr was handed schematics for the downstage right staircase, the crew boss at Veterans Stadium explained the youngest would-be roadie on the tour had three shows to prove himself.
“Philadelphia is all union,” Kerr said. “All of a sudden I’ve got 20 guys behind me. I’m 20 years old and I’m trying to build something I’ve never seen before.”
On opening night, Aug. 31, 1989, Mick Jagger stepped into “Shattered,” the Stones’ third song of the set, and a generator blew. Jagger kept The Vet calm by speaking to the crowd. Behind the scenes it “was absolutely crazy,” Kerr said. “The Rolling Stones with 40,000 fans and no power? Everyone was pointing fingers.” He made the cut and from August to December joined a massive production that crisscrossed multiple sets around North America’s largest arenas.
Because it was football season, Saturday night concerts often had to be Sunday morning memories. Condensed-ins and condensed-outs, essentially rush jobs, were particularly intense.
The pressure to build and disassemble stages prompted the tour’s senior management to use drugs to amp up the crew’s work rate, Kerr said.
"You'd have a production trailer and you'd get a boss calling you on the mic, time for lunch,” Kerr said. “You'd come in, they'd pull a drawer open, there'd be a pile of cocaine. I was told to take what I need, but I had to have a job done by this hour."
He once pushed through 36 straight hours. The last drug-fueled show brought him within an hour of home, to Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome. Eleven days later, Dec. 21, Kerr turned legal in Toledo, meaning, among other things, he wouldn’t need his 32-year-old brother Michael’s ID to con his way into bars across the country. Mr. Kerr, an Irish pipefitter, and Mrs. Kerr, a Puerto Rican bilingual mother from Hell’s Kitchen, struggled to handle Mark as a kid. The rampaging young man? Good luck. It wasn’t as if they could ship him off to Iowa again.
"Cocaine was my primary thing at that time,” Kerr said. “It all culminated on my twenty-first birthday. My mom didn't buy me a cake. My parents didn't celebrate my birthday. They said they didn't know what to do with me. So I said I don't know what to do with myself either. I ended up going back where I thought I needed to be, which was Syracuse.”
Returning to upstate New York really meant a reconnection with wrestling. An assistant coach, the great Gene Mills (a.k.a. Mean Gene The Pinning Machine Mills), quartered Kerr in his basement. Kerr took classes at Onondaga Community College to get his credits right so he could reclaim a spot on the team. Working the graveyard shift for United Parcel Service also meant living odd roadie hours without the rock-and-roll lifestyle. When he found the time, and when the sump pump in Mills’ flooded basement didn’t wake him, Kerr rested on a small mattress.
all his potential, Kerr wasn’t the winner he could have been. Not as a wrestler and certainly not as a mixed martial artist.
Over the course of his competitive years, Kerr believes substance abuse caused him to operate at less than his best. He says he gravitated towards cocaine because of its availability and sensation. As his athletic career elevated to world-class competition, partying became less attractive. His body didn’t want to be high so much as pain free. He found prescribed narcotics like Vicodin. He met junkie doctors happy to dip their hands in the cookie jar, who, so long as they got some back, eagerly wrote scripts for hundreds of pills.
“It became prescription abuse,” Kerr said. “And from abuse it became addiction."
Kerr stepped onto mats with pills in his system to “damper down the pain” but he claimed never to ingest anything other than caffeine pills and energy drinks for a boost when he wrestled.
“Up to the age of 27 I didn't touch any performance-enhancing drugs at all,” Kerr declared. “I went through all my Olympic and NCAA stuff taking no chemicals whatsoever.”
Among his finest God-given days, trumping Oklahoma State’s Randy Couture in Oklahoma City to win the 1992 NCAA championship at 190 pounds ranks near the top. Before the title run, Kerr won a meandering three-quarters of the matches he entered for the then Orangemen. To his credit that includes Big East championships in 1990, '91 and '92. That made his 30-3 senior season and No. 4 seed in the tournament feel tremendous and overdue.
Kerr was in top form: tactical, aware, rangy and sinewy-strong. He dispatched Ohio State’s top-seeded Rex Holman 10-6 to advance to the finals against the previous year’s runner-up at 190, whom many predicted would rebound and win it all. The 28-year-old Couture also happened to be among the three wrestlers who defeated Kerr in the regular season.
Revenge nearly came quick.
Transitioning to a cradle off a low single-leg takedown, Kerr got behind and almost pinned Couture, a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army Greco-Roman wrestling team who went on to set records as a champion in the UFC.
Kerr flopped in previous attempts at winning a national title, washing out of three tournaments without so much as a win. He put it together in 1992, he said, thanks to his mentor, Chris Campbell. Twelve years earlier Campbell was favored to take Olympic gold in Moscow at 82 kilograms. He wouldn’t have the chance because President Jimmy Carter boycotted the games following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Three Olympic cycles later, after earning a law degree from Cornell and overcoming serious injury, Campbell engineered an improbable return to elite competition.
Jumping ahead to a five-point lead and easily toppling the 2-seed, 12-4, Kerr capped a championship season at Syracuse that foreshadowed Campbell’s success. Speaking to the New York Daily News ahead of Campbell’s Olympic tournament in Barcelona, Kerr highlighted the veteran’s ability to concentrate and willingness to work. “He takes it to a level that most people don't even think about,” Kerr said. “And he's like that with everything in his life.”
A month from his 38th birthday, Campbell became the oldest American wrestler to win an Olympic medal when he took bronze in Spain.
accomplished what he set out to do, Kerr left school seven credits shy of a degree in consumer affairs.
Were there such a thing as a doctorate in wrestling he maintains he would have earned one. Kerr’s attention shifted towards winning a spot on the 1996 U.S. Olympic freestyle team, which eventually captured three gold medals in Atlanta, including at his weight.
Two-time NCAA champion Kurt Angle was Kerr’s chief rival at 220 pounds. They also happened to be training partners until John du Pont killed Dave Shultz on the Foxcatcher Farm estate near Valley Forge, Pa.
Namesake of the fourth largest chemical company in the world, which from its inception was a prolific explosives manufacturer, innovator and discoverer of many incredible things, John Eleuthere du Pont used a fraction of his family’s wealth to support Olympic hopefuls in swimming, pentathlon and most especially wrestling.
Prior to the ‘92 Olympics, on grounds where the manor house resembled Montpelier (the Virginia plantation estate of President James Madison’s family), du Pont, a great-great grandson of French industrialist E.I. du Pont, erected the 14,000-square-foot, $600,000 Foxcatcher National Training Center.
When Angle edged Kerr in overtime during the finals of the 1995 FILA Wrestling World Championships in Atlanta, the pair stood among a cadre of stud wrestlers representing Team Foxcatcher.
By then du Pont was disturbed enough to walk around in public wearing an orange jumpsuit asking to be called the Dalai Lama of the United States. Sonny Greenhalgh, wrestling chairman of the celebrated New York Athletic Club, told the Baltimore Sun in 1991 that the sport “would be better of without him. He’s turning these guys into professionals.” The multimillionaire’s status as wrestling’s savior/sponsor prompted members of the community, including the man he murdered, to overlook eccentricities and delusions. Their mission was in line with du Pont’s: dominate and field an Olympic team solely comprised of Foxcatcher wrestlers.
and a half months after Shultz was shot in front of his wife with hallow-point bullets from a .44 caliber Magnum revolver, any wrestler representing Foxcatcher would have stood out as a pariah at the Olympic trials in Spokane, Wash.
Most of the couple dozen wrestlers that trained and lived on the property refused to take more of du Pont’s stipend and sponsorship money. About half of them transitioned to the posthumously formed Dave Shultz Wrestling Club.
Kerr, ranked No. 1 at 220 pounds, took the unpopular course and continued to wrestle for Foxcatcher on du Pont’s dime. Two weeks before the slaying, Kerr said he spoke with Schultz about securing du Pont’s funding through the trials. Despite the tragedy, Kerr would not give up on his dream.
“It was extremely difficult,” Kerr said. “I spoke with the people who I respected and they all said f--- du Pont, take all his money. I had worked too hard for too long to say f--- it four months before the Olympic trials.”
Chris Campbell, Kerr’s mentor, called du Pont’s arrangements with wrestlers “blood money.” He declined though to condemn Kerr or anyone else. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1996, Campbell suggested Kerr had bills to pay.
“He is like a lot of other guys,” Campbell said, “caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Du Pont died in bed in 2010 at the Laurel Highlands, a Pennsylvania state correctional facility about 70 miles outside Pittsburgh, where he could have served 30 years for the third-degree murder of a gold medal wrestler on Jan. 26, 1996. In accordance with his will, du Pont, who passed away from acute aspiration pneumonia at 72, was laid to rest in his red Foxcatcher singlet. Odd to the end.
After the Academy Award-nominated “Foxcatcher” portrayed events leading up to Shultz’s tragic death, Kerr no longer minded sharing stories he accumulated from his time on the estate. On back to back days, for example, Kerr said du Point had a riot driving a representative from FILA, wrestling’s global sanctioning body into one of the 800-acre, horse-grazed property’s many ponds.
The Foxcatcher arrangement did not produce an Olympic championship for Kerr, who fell short to Angle. Following his final match in Spokane, Kerr made the symbolic gesture wrestlers do when they retire. He placed his shoes in the center of the mat. With limited potential for financially supporting himself, Kerr’s desire—what wrestling is primarily about—diminished to the point that competing at a world-class level wasn’t realistic. A month later Kerr watched Angle win an Olympic championship. When the soon-to-be professional wrestling star stood on the tallest podium, Kerr, an alternate on the ’96 team, felt crushed.
“Yeah,” he sighed, “I used to kick the crap out of an Olympic champ.”
The murder at Foxcatcher Farm. His mother’s cancer diagnosis. Missing the Olympics. The strain of his parents' 40th anniversary. Watching from the sidelines while Angle won gold. Combined they set in motion an intense emotional decline.
ordained minister out of Phoenix, Ariz., Richard Hamilton, the self-described “father of ground and pound,” claimed to invent mixed martial arts in New Jersey in 1975. This is the man who held the contract to find Kerr his first fight.
If Hamilton had his way, the powerful freestyle wrestler would have stepped into the Octagon at UFC 10, a month after the Olympic trials, with a mission to disassemble the not-yet legendary Don Frye. Many times in Kerr’s life he heard he was perfect for this task, but he wasn’t ready to find out, not while his mother struggled with cancer. Kerr knew that as long as she lived, he wouldn’t fight.
Mary Kerr, a fervid supporter who died in September 1996, placed tremendous pressure on her youngest son to excel in sports. Her passion for Mark and the Toledo Waite wrestling program led to the annual Mary E. Kerr Memorial Tournament upon her passing at 67. That intense connection between wrestling and his mother is part of the reason Kerr assigns a love/hate relationship to the sport.
"The only reason I did something was to be the best at it,” Kerr said. “My mom always put an expectation on what I was capable of. I won an NCAA championship and my mom said, ‘See, now don't you think you could've won two?’ It was nothing that was done that was mean. My mom loved me to death, but she had very high expectations of what she saw in me and what I was capable of."
With Kerr unwilling to fight at UFC 10, Hamilton scouted for talent at the 1996 Olympic wrestling trials in Spokane. Hamilton looked for overconfidence and found Tom Erikson, a 6-4, 280-pound super heavyweight nicknamed “The Big Cat,” and Mark Coleman, a hard grinding NCAA champion for Ohio State and Olympian in 1992.
Hamilton picked Coleman to fight Frye, not that he said that out loud. Thirty days later, Hamilton had Coleman thinking Frye was evil. For one fight night Hamilton managed Frye, a good wrestler out of Arizona State who became an iconic mixed martial artist and successful actor. A falling out turned the relationship extremely hostile. Frye said the issue was about money. Hamilton said Frye was the only fighter who ever paid him what they agreed. Instead, Hamilton said he threw Frye out of his gym because “The Predator” smashed a training partner’s nose with an elbow and refused to apologize. Frye said publicly that he regretted the incident, though never directly to Hamilton. Regardless, Hamilton was furious with Frye, the first of several wrestlers who parted ways with him on bad terms.
Free to attack how he wished, Coleman displayed the ruthless capability of a thoroughbred wrestler. Hamilton loved every second of it, spitting fire at Frye while screaming “make him suffer” through the cage. The MMA minister’s new guy, “The Hammer,” stopped his old guy in the 12th minute in a classic early UFC confrontation.
When Mary Kerr succumbed to cancer, Mark withdrew to his brother’s couch for a month. By Halloween ’96, he collected himself and checked in with Hamilton at the North Phoenix Baptist Church. Combatants like Dan Severn, the first wrestler to enter the UFC, joined children aged 5 to 13 in receiving instruction in full contact fighting at the church’s Family Life Center. The kids took to calling the program “Rosy Cheeks,” Severn told New York Magazine in 1996, “because they’ve all got red cheeks from slapping. They have the cutest little girl, she’s 6, they call her ‘Mad Dog.’”
Hamilton claimed he walked away from Severn. Small hands, Hamilton said, made the wrestler a weak ground-and-pounder. “The Beast” apparently wasn’t vicious enough for Hamilton, who is proud of his record with fighters, including four UFC tournament winners and a vale tudo champion.
The New York Magazine piece noted that the North Phoenix Baptist Church’s leading congregant was Senator John McCain, who claimed he knew his church well enough “to know it just wouldn’t have any connection” to Rosy Cheeks. Soon after, McCain exercised his influence in Washington, D.C., to get UFC banned in 36 states and knocked off cable pay-per-view. By early 1997, reacting to mounting government prohibition, the UFC instituted a variety of rules and weight classes. Coleman’s brutal domination helped expedite the shift and by UFC 15 the struggling sport’s most aggressive tactics—kicking a grounded opponent in the head, grabbing and twisting fingers, groin strikes, fish hooking, headbutts, and hits to the neck and back of the head—were outlawed.
Unlike the U.S., in Brazil, which is where Hamilton sent Kerr for his prizefighting debut, nearly every savage tool remained an option.
Bustamante and Fabio Gurgel are considered among the most technical Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts to emerge following the Rickson Gracie generation of the 1980s.
Jiu-jitsu was widely taught among a richer class of Brazilian folk, while poor favela kids who couldn’t afford the uniform founded a hybrid style composed of grappling and striking arts called Luta Livre (free fighting). Confrontations between the two factions were vital in shaping modern MMA and produced some of the sport’s best rivalries, fighters and fights.
The roles played by Bustamante and Gurgel, along with fellow Carlson Gracie student Wallid Ismael, spearheaded an important triumph for jiu-jitsu over Luta Livre in 1991 secured their status as the first line of defense when wrestlers came pounding the door.
Giant Tom Erikson was agile, vicious and on top of the short list of men no one wanted to fight. Erikson’s 40-minute draw with Bustamante in the finals of a one-night tournament in Birmingham, Ala., raised doubt in the jiu-jitsu community. So deep was the conviction for their art that this kind of outcome, a jiu-jitsu man merely surviving an 80-pound disadvantage against a top shelf wrestler, made practitioners nervous.
Gurgel was 14 when he began teaching jiu-jitsu, a Japanese martial adapted in Brazil for grappling-based self-defense. Five years later Gurgel was a black belt with a reputation as one of the sport’s best grapplers, a legacy cemented by four BJJ world championship trophies.
“After Bustamante’s fight against Erikson it was in Fabio Gurgel’s hands to beat another top wrestler and defend Gracie history,” Marcelo Alonso said. “Thanks to that, the atmosphere in the Maksoud Plaza hotel ballroom was on edge.”
Both Gurgel and Kerr looked fresh ahead of the finals. Their faces showed no sign of the earlier bouts. Kerr’s right hand was swollen, particularly around his knuckles, but not broken. Outweighed by 60 pounds, Gurgel somehow came off calm and eager.
Kerr’s first takedown came in the second minute of the fight, leading to an initial skirmish inside Gurgel’s guard. The Brazilian played it tight, boxing up Kerr’s ears and cutting the American on his cheek. They stood and went down to the ground several times as Gurgel held his own through five minutes.
Then Kerr remembered how strong he was.
The first time Kerr slammed his forehead into the meaty part of Gurgel’s face it made sense to him. Kerr took in what it was like to hurt a man this way. Two breaths later he postured up and thrust the crown of his head twice more at the soft tissue around Gurgel’s face. Soon the Brazilian’s left eye was swollen shut from head butts.
“There was just something about fighting another guy and you get him to smell or taste his own blood,” said Kerr, sweat glistening at the brow, his right hand balled into a fist. “Once you smell it, for me, it's like a predator or shark in the water. Once you taste that blood it's a feeding frenzy. You want to take this guy's will. I'm making you bleed. I'm going to punch you until you choke on your own blood. I just want you to give.”
Kerr added hits from his right hand, which bled from the knuckles. Gurgel refused to give, saying afterwards that he would have preferred death. Over half an hour of grueling fighting the Brazilian found some moments, making the crowd roar when he flirted, albeit briefly, with a triangle choke. Mostly he survived on guts and jiu-jitsu. The promoters opted against instituting a 10-minute overtime period, humanely announcing Kerr the winner by unanimous decision.
“The power Kerr displayed with takedowns and ground-and-pound was absolutely impressive and totally intimidated all opponents,” Alonso said. “It is hard to explain to the new generation of fans and media what Kerr meant to the MMA world from 1997 to 2000. Those of us that saw or covered the Mark Kerr era will always respect him among the five best heavyweights of all time.”
Whether Kerr earned such a status is worth debating, a tribute to his successes and failures.
Alonso wrote that Kerr, Coleman and Erikson proved to Brazilian jiu-jitsu devotees that the moment to defend Gracie theory had passed. This spectacle, he suggested, required weight classes before someone died. Encapsulating what he witnessed for Brazil’s Tatame Magazine, which he edited at the time, Alonso splashed MAQUINA DE BATER in capital red letters on the cover.
THE SMASHING MACHINE.
"What I did to Fabio Gurgel, it was just like a machine. I was on autopilot,” said Kerr, who earned a belt, $20,000, a reputation and a nickname that night.
The next day Kerr and Hamilton visited Gurgel’s home for a barbecue. There they laughed and celebrated the war.
Gurgel never fought again.
the months between the Olympic wrestling trials and Kerr’s introduction to the anything-goes fight world, he began using performance enhancing drugs.
His rationale was based on two things: fear and reality.
"Part of what nobody understood when MMA first started was what it took to do it,” Kerr explained. “I didn't know what I was getting into, but I was going to make myself as big and as strong as I possibly could. My body was mature enough. I had consulted with enough people and came up with a program.
“My first fights down in Brazil I was on a very small dose of anabolic steroids. When I went into the UFC, I thought it was stepping it up a whole other gear. I was probably 275 pounds with 5 percent body fat. I could bench press a small car. I could squat a small house. It was totally overkill.”
The climate and culture around fighting was antithetical to amateur wrestling, where PED policing was constant and repercussions for failure were devastating. Over the years Kerr complained to wrestling authorities about competitors he thought were juiced. That mostly led to extra scrutiny placed on him, and frustration.
When Kerr transitioned to fighting he took whatever he wanted because, as with the life of a roadie, it was enmeshed in the culture. After rampaging in Brazil, Hamilton said Kerr returned to the States gambling against arrest. The 3-0 fighter apparently transported home a suitcase full of drugs that were illegal in America yet available in any Sao Paulo farmácia.
"I knew he was on steroids when I recruited him,” Hamilton said. “All the pill popping, I didn't know that until the World Vale Tudo Championship. He was worse than all the other fighters.”
Hamilton called the first fighter he ever signed a “junkie.”
Kerr was incredibly open regarding a wide range of hard topics until he was asked to respond to Hamilton. Several scheduled follow up chats never happened, and Kerr stopped responding to texts. When Kerr was in tune, he put fear into dangerous men. When things turned bad, he showed little resolve. That was Hamilton’s experience, at least.
Hamilton described Kerr as “very strong, very fast, and exceptionally smart” but “lazy.” It was just a matter of how much he wanted to work. At Kerr’s competitive peak the big man’s “skills superseded his heart,” said Hamilton. To be fair, the bar is high on that one because Kerr was so impressive and well suited for the cause. Rare flexibility for a man his size translated to impressive kicking and kneeing ability.
Kerr tried to be light on his feet. As it was, he moved around better than most hulking wrestlers. Bas Rutten said Kerr was the first smart one to decide not to rely on grappling alone, essentially melding multiple elements of what became MMA.
While Kerr could envision and make wise choices when it came to competition, he struggled to pull that off in other areas of his life. Three months late on rent for an apartment owned by Hamilton’s brother, Kerr apparently left town in middle of the night. He never returned to the gym where a heavyweight kickboxer knocked him out the last time he showed his face there. Again, this is Hamilton’s account. Considering Kerr’s reaction in the gym, he could tell the fighter was gone.
What the trainer didn’t know then he learned a few weeks later. Without saying anything Kerr had been preparing for a UFC heavyweight tournament in July 1997. When Hamilton saw Kerr hulking around the Octagon at UFC 14 in Birmingham, Ala., he was stunned.
were fully ingrained in the culture of the UFC by the time Kerr arrived.
Randy (The Natural) Couture, who debuted in the Octagon one event before Kerr, dismissed UFC’s testing protocol at the time as illegitimate.
“Everyone knew it was a joke,” Couture said. “They basically tossed you a cup and sent you to the bathroom, but I don't know why they even did it. I think it was to cross off a box.”
Wrestling was highly scrutinized. Collectors showed up at your doorstep, at your house. Competitors received FedEx letters and had to report to testing facilities within three days. There was no throwing cups, Couture said. They were going to watch you go right in that cup.
Kerr said doctors conducting pre-fight medicals ignored obvious warning signs of his steroid use.
"I remember sitting across the table from the doctor, and the doctor looking at my liver enzymes,” Kerr said. “When you do anabolics in high amounts it messes with your liver enzymes. The doctor was looking at me and looking at the liver enzymes and looking at me. He said, 'Do you realize this is eight times the normal amount you're supposed to have?' I said, ‘Yeah,' and that was it. They allowed me to fight."
The first time a UFC fighter was caught and held accountable for using performance enhancing drugs came in Nevada in March 2002. Josh Barnett was then stripped by Zuffa of the UFC heavyweight championship, which he won by grounding-and-pounding Couture for a late second-round stoppage.
"I can go back and look at the film and point out pretty much everyone that was doing it,” Kerr said. “I think just because of the level of brutality sometimes the sport has, the level of conditioning the sport requires, means the level of training you have to put your body through is incredibly intensive. And because you have to do that intensive training, if you have the ability to aid your recovery by doing anabolics or androgenics you're probably going to lean towards it because it allows you to train harder longer. If you can train harder longer you can be in better shape, and then it comes down to the big deal, which is money."
UFC co-founder Campbell McLaren had his hands in every aspect of the show during the promotion's first 12 events. He said SEG, which owned the UFC, did not test for performance-enhancing drugs because it wasn’t feasible for an upstart fight company. McLaren also said PED use in sports had not risen to a level of scrutiny that would have pressured the UFC to start a program in the mid-1990s.
PED use was less pronounced but nonetheless pervasive when Kerr departed the U.S. for fight ascendent Japan. Pride Fighting Championship made itself a dominant promotional player in the late 1990s, mixing UFC, K-1 kickboxing and pro wrestling stars with magnificent staging to create a spectacle. Kerr was among the promotion’s earliest prized possessions. The first time he traveled to Japan to promote a one-off fight with Royce Gracie he agreed to take $145,000 for the contest. Shortly thereafter Gracie injured his back and couldn’t fulfill the bout agreement for their March 1998 date.
UFC’s original boss, Bob Meyrowitz, went after Kerr for breach of contract, claiming the wrestler was obligated to participate in one more tournament and the promotion planned to offer him a fight in December 1998 in Japan.
Pride wanted to be the brand that introduced Kerr to a growing horde of Japanese MMA fans. If it went the other way, he would be far less valuable. Almost useless. Kerr was Japanese property and in the changing landscape of MMA that meant something.
Kerr and the UFC battled for six months. Bleeding money, Kerr claimed he once had 48 hours notice to get to New York to participate in a deposition and was asked only two questions. He caught a break because the UFC wasn’t interested in a protracted legal fight either. Facing the decline of his company, Meyrowitz eventually agreed to part ways with Kerr for a buyout of $25,000. The money was wired from Japan and Kerr moved onto the biggest stage in the sport.
Kerr said by the close of business 1999, after establishing himself overseas, he eased off performance enhancing drugs because Pride’s uniquely taxing 10-minute first round separated the “wheat from the chaff.”
“It’s incredibly difficult to condition and train your body to sustain a very high effort for 10 minutes,” Kerr said. “If I was going to succeed or fail it was going to be because I was fit, but not bulky and big and strong. Still strong, but I didn't need to be anabolically strong. Being on steroids robs you of any kind of cardiovascular conditioning, because you've added all this muscle that requires way more oxygen than your body can produce. As I progressed in the sport I realized it wasn't necessary to be 275 pounds of muscle that had the lung capacity of a hamster.”
The same wasn’t true for pain pills, which he used more than ever. With expectations ramped up to make good on the money Pride, flanked by the Japanese underworld, agreed to invest in him, Kerr grew uncomfortable with the pressure, expectations and scrutiny. Above all else he knew he had to fight, no matter what kind of condition he was in.
“I fought with my blood pressure so high that when I mentioned it to my American doctor, he said, 'You're kidding me, right?' I've walked out to the ring with the doctor's blessing when my blood pressure was 170 over 135. My doctor asked if I bled from my eyes or from my ears because my body had built up so much pressure that it had to relieve itself. Looking back on it, holy s---, my eyes were totally blood shot.”
saw “The Specimen” for the first time at a rented screening room in Los Angeles.
John Hyams, the documentary’s director, sat behind him. So did producers Neil Fazzari and Jon Greenhalgh, a teammate of Kerr’s at Syracuse whose dad ran the wrestling program at the New York Athletic Club.
"We all knew this guy, who was Jon’s teammate, had gotten into this thing that we now call mixed martial arts,” Hyams said. “Back then it was under a lot of names. No holds barred fighting. Ultimate Fighting. Extreme Fighting. Take your pick. So I had met Mark a couple times. Jon presented to me saying, look, Mark has a fight coming up in Japan. Let's go film it. We'll raise money and we'll make a little documentary about the process of fighting.”
Production began in August 1999, the crest of Kerr’s career. A month later Kerr had to fight Ukraine’s Igor (Ice Cold) Vovchanchyn, a powerful bare knuckle tournament champion riding a 31-fight win streak. Vovchanchyn easily represented Kerr’s hardest test yet. Four wins into his Pride tenure, the American was 11-0 and vying to be known as the sport’s best heavyweight.
Hyams planned to film Kerr-Vovchanchyn at Pride 7 then document the American’s three-month recovery and preparation for Pride 8. The tale turned out to be much more involved than that.
"I think the essence of that one-year experience and the balance between the good and the bad, the light and the dark,” Hyams said. “That was what we tried to represent in the edit and I think we did represent it pretty well."
There was an agreement that anything Kerr wasn’t OK with wouldn’t be included in the film. Hyams stood firm that Kerr couldn’t see any footage during production, creating the narrative he wanted. HBO made an initial offer that was turned down because the network wanted to recut the film with its own producers and editors. When the network came back it agreed that Hyams’s story would stand but the name of the film had to change.
“They wanted a title that jumped off the TV Guide more than ‘The Specimen,’” Hyams noted. “It sounded scientific to them. So they wanted a little more blood and guts. There was some really bad titles thrown around that are too embarrassing to put out there. But eventually we told them he did have another nickname. It was ‘The Smashing Machine’ and they accepted that one.”
The piece Kerr saw with friends in L.A. was nearly identical to the cut the public watched at the 2002 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. By the end Kerr was in a healthy place, Hyams said, capable at least of processing what unfolded onscreen. The men Kerr shared the room with were emotional. They consoled him afterwards, resting hands on his broad shoulders.
"The first thing he said was, 'I love it,’” Hyams recalled. “Now whatever he meant by that, who knows. Whatever it was, it was such a heavy thing for him to take in. His first words to us were he understood what we were doing. He went outside, we took a walk. We walked with him a little bit and went separate ways after that day."
Kerr remembered taking 24 hours to decide whether the public should see him do things like plunge a syringe into his body.
"When ‘The Smashing Machine’ came out, it was a huge risk on my part,” Kerr said. “I think at a certain point I looked at it like, not that I didn't care, I hoped it would effect who it needed to effect. There was more heartfelt stories that came from that than there was just about anything else."
Hyams didn’t recall much discussion about the drugs or the tempestuous relationship between Kerr and his future ex-wife, Dawn Staples, who declined to participate in this story.
In the film, Kerr’s trainer, Bas Rutten, was very critical of Staples. Kerr was “a god,” said Rutten, “but his biggest downfall was his wife.” Informed that Kerr, sober and hopeful for the first time in years, recently moved back in with Staples, Rutten called his former charge “an idiot.”
As Kerr sat with us on camera he reasoned Rutten always had his best interest at heart, and wished he would have been better financially to one of the sport’s top personalities.
"I don't hold anything against Mark,” Rutten said. “I was just very sorry. I have another friend who goes through the same thing with a girlfriend. For some reason, these powerful guys don't see that it's their weakness. You should stay away from it. That's the only thing hard for me."
Kerr’s son, Bryce, played video games in his room some of the time we conducted seven hours worth of interviews with his dad. He liked “Red Dead Redemption,” an open world title on the PlayStation3 set in the old west. Think Grand Theft Auto on horseback. Dawn said she didn’t want Bryce playing the game, but as dads sometimes do Mark let him anyway. At the end of our second day she returned home from work clearly displeased to see us still milling about. Worse yet was Bryce playing the game. We packed up after the game’s DVD was broken into pieces and left on the kitchen counter.
"There was a time in that movie where that relationship was a very toxic situation, and was standing in the way of Mark's sobriety and career,” Hyams said. “Which isn't just about if he's going to sell a bunch of cars. It's if he's going to get into a ring prepared or get seriously injured because he's not prepared."
drama with Staples (four- and five-hour phone calls, Rutten remembered) wasn’t why he lacked fitness to fight Igor Vovchanchyn.
Physical withdrawals from prescription pain pills kept him in treatment for a month leading up to the September 1999 bout. He endured hot and cold sweats. He was overtaken by fever and diarrhea. His thick legs cramped. Energy sapped. You name it. Kerr wasn’t in condition to beat someone the caliber of “Ice Cold.” A sense of obligation to Pride kept him from backing out and taking time for himself.
Despite all that, had Kerr been allowed to headbutt the way he did against Gurgel in Brazil, he might have smeared Vovchanchyn across the canvas. With the sport trending towards legitimacy and Japanese fans’ general distaste for bloody matches, there weren’t headbutts to be had. Instead the fight produced a series of ups and downs.
A few minutes in the Ukrainian landed a crushing overhand right that connected between Kerr’s forehead and left ear. Kerr somehow remained standing, causing American play-by-play announcer Stephen Quadros to yell “outrageous” into his microphone at ringside.
The increasingly anxious voices of Mark Coleman and Staples bounced around an arena that hosted 10,031 spectators that night. Japanese crowds famously have a penchant for keeping quiet until pivotal moments in a fight. The sudden rumbles that rise out of nothing are unique. Kerr’s supporters were easily drowned out at the end when Vovchanchyn fired off three knees that melted the wrestler. The crowd rose and roared like they witnessed the slaying of a dragon.
Slumped face first to the canvas, seemingly unconscious. That’s how Kerr’s first pro loss went into the books. However, Pride officials determined the finishing knees were illegal and quickly overturned the result, the only no-contest among Kerr’s 27 fights.
Kerr went home without a loss but was forced to confront lingering results of the bout.
"It's amazing that the film crew was just starting the process of 'The Smashing Machine.' All this was going on at the time,” Kerr said. “After the Vovchanchyn fight, the film crew, once we got back to Phoenix, put the camera down and said as your friend you need help. It progressed to me understanding I had a problem. I understood it wasn't going to go away by itself. I needed help. It wasn't a single person fight. I needed people around me, a support team, to help fight this disease.”
Also, his head just wasn’t right. Vovchanchyn dented Kerr. He began doing odd things. Up from the couch and into the kitchen. Ten times he did this. Ten times he forgot why. He angrily wondered what he was doing and couldn’t come up with an answer.
“I've totally forgotten where I live,” he said. “Not high. Not drunk. Just literally I forgot where I live. It's a frightening feeling. That has happened to me.”
enticement of wanting money without the work was something Kerr reconciled in the latter portions of his career.
He resolved to screw it and make as much as possible until his body gave way.
“Towards the end,” Kerr said, “as you sustain more and more of those kinds of brain injuries you can't. Your body won't. It'll shut down."
A stunning decision loss to Kazuyuki Fujita in May 2000 marked the final sequences of “The Smashing Machine.” Kerr froze in the ring and took a sustained beating for 15 minutes, drowning under the sensation of not being able to breathe.
"I tried to knee Fujita in the face as hard as I could,” he said. “I know I connected with at least two of the knees.”
Some night later Kerr met Mike Tyson for dinner in Phoenix. The former heavyweight champion trained out of and lived in the desert city during the early 2000s. Kerr and Tyson commiserated over what it was like to hit someone as hard as possible but not put them away.
“Mike and I are sitting there looking at each other,” Kerr said. “It's a very sobering feeling as a fighter to hit someone with everything you think you've got and they're still standing there. It literally takes you back a step. Oh, s---. Everything from this point forward is going to hurt."
That could very well describe Kerr’s experience the rest of the way.
Following an early, violent outburst against Fujita, the human growth hormone Kerr administered himself propelled him towards hypoglycemia. The fighter was on the tail-end of a brutal five-month schedule. He defeated Enson Inoue to start the year and advance to the Pride Grand Prix Finals. Kerr captured his second Abu Dhabi Combat Club title at 99-kilos and the open-weight crown as well a month before the historic tournament resumed. No small task. Then he had to prepare for up to three fights on May 1, 2000, in front of 38,429 fans in the Tokyo Dome.
Beat up and worn down, Kerr figured human growth hormone would help recover his game. In hindsight he thinks it stole it. Midway through the fight with Fujita he couldn’t lift a hand to block the knees being driven into his ribs. Stuffing himself with candy to maintain his caloric intake (nerves kept Kerr from eating before most fights) didn’t provide the sugar his brain needed. Kerr failed to realize growth hormone has a tendency to rob sugar storage. So the machine shut down.
“Literally, my lips are blue,” Kerr recalled. “It’s the first stages of diabetic coma. I screwed up.”
This was the first of 11 losses in 14 fights to close Kerr’s career.
"When I lost to Fujita, then fought Heath Herring and fought Vovchanchyn again, I pretty much felt in my heart that I was done,” he said. “And I should've been done."
He took extended breaks along the way, including a five-year stretch that featured only one bout: a 40-second embarrassment in 2004 that ended when he knocked himself out while attempting a takedown. Between wrestling, football and fighting, Kerr pegged the number of times he saw stars or felt woozy between 400 to 600.
"You're wrestling on a foam mat that's usually an inch and a half thick,” he said. “Underneath it is usually concrete or a wood floor. The times that I threw somebody it was the impact with the ground that caused it, not the impact with another person. On an impact basis, what you do when you spar in fighting, how your body absorbs all of that, I think takes a very unique toll."
Including four technical knockouts and one stone cold impact with another person, a 25-second knockout loss in 2009 to Mo Lawal, Kerr’s final nine defeats ended before the bell.
"It was the first time I had had enough of a scare,” Kerr said of his result against Lawal, which he recollects in pieces. “It's not that one punch. It's the thousand punches that came before that. Especially with all the stuff going on today with all the concussions. All these brain injuries they don't understand the long-term effect. It's kind of scary when you look at a lot of the athletes that committed suicide. It's scary because of the brain trauma. I think they'll find out eventually that there's correlations between someone's ability to adjust to life after sport and the brain trauma they suffered during their sport. It's just one of those things. In my mind, it was enough.”
Kerr again set about knowing his body.
"The last thing I want to do,” he said, “is grow old and have dementia or Parkinson's and realize that it was a derivative of my participation in athletics.”
He learned about the brain and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He poured over websites and discovered facilities like the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Heath in Las Vegas.
Kerr plans to see specialists, even if modern medicine hasn’t caught up to the issue.
"There is an incredible need for patients,” Kerr said. “The problem is they've only been able to identify postmortem. Because of that one little giddy up that you have to be dead."
February 2014, a month into Kerr’s new sobriety, Dr. Ken Gernick stood at a podium in Washington, D.C., flanked by boxing supporting U.S. Senators Harry Reid and John McCain.
They took the occasion to trumpet Gernick’s baby, a 10-year study, the largest ever of its kind, born April 2011, tracking consequences of head trauma for active and retired fighters. The Nevada Athletic Commission has referred many licensees to the study, including Floyd Mayweather Jr., who said he would consider participating. A year after the D.C. showcase over 500 active participants are signed up. Nearly 50 retired fighters joined as well. Gernick hopes for 100 more.
There have been large gains made in the ability to image a protein called Tau, which is associated with the onset of CTE. Even the powerful 7-tesla MRI scanners in the Cleveland Clinic that provide detail at almost a cellular level can’t identify Tau. But PET imaging tracers can, said Gernick, who hopes monitoring the build up of the protein will inform unknowns about how CTE affects the brain.
Participants undergo an annual evaluation. In addition to MRIs off some of the best machines in the country, fighters face tests of balance, cognition (memory, reaction time, processing, reasoning), behavior (depression, anxiety, poor impulse control) and speech samples are taken for analysis.
"It's one thing to show changes on an MRI scan, but if it doesn't correlate to any clinical symptoms then it's of no value when you think about it,” Gernick said. “A whole component of the annual evaluation is actually looking at symptoms.”
For Kerr, discovering substance abuse might be tied to head trauma was a relief.
“Like a lot of times the behavior and the things that I've done, I'll go, I can't believe I did that,” Kerr said. “Part of what the disease will do, the disease will almost make you believe that's all you are. So I'm not my behavior. There's contributing factors. There's mitigating factors that belong to the circumstances of my life, and part of those factors are I've sustained a lot of head trauma in my life. And part of that has manifested in depression and risky behavior and me not understanding or being self-aware of what's going on. I'm obviously going to medicate myself. Something doesn't feel right.
"You're almost trying to stimulate your brain to feel something. It's almost like you're brain dead at some point.
“The No. 1 thing for me is to figure out what's going on, if there's treatments available out there, and not succumb to the temptation to remove myself from the feeling. Understanding these are just feelings — depression, anxiety. There's a big difference in my life between falling asleep and passing out. Before I didn't know how to fall asleep, I just wanted to pass out. All these different things psychologically, I feel this year is going to be a good year if I can maintain my sobriety and come to some conclusions about what my involvement in athletics over the years has done to me."
Kerr walked away from fighting he had several questions that needed answering. Among them: “What am I going to replace this with, running around the freeway dodging cars?”
In the summer of 2008 Kerr secured his real estate license in Arizona. Then the economy collapsed. The place he expected to work instituted a hiring freeze. Six weeks later the whole office closed. Kerr didn’t have real world job experience and needed to arrange for basic necessities and the care of his 4-year-old son. He tried selling his services as a personal trainer, but disposal income was dried up in the desert. Plus strenuous activity only increased the risk that pain pills would pin Kerr again.
At a pool party, a friend suggested the car business.
"Sometimes I hate the job because, the story I have in my head, some of the customers that come in to talk to me have no clue what I used to do for a living,” Kerr said. “Have no clue that I fought in the UFC or won Abu Dhabi three times. So they talk to me in a manner that, if they had the knowledge that I was this person before, probably half the things that came out of their mouth would not. They wouldn't be as disrespectful or demeaning. I sit there and almost chuckle. I've had bosses and I know if they tried to talk to me in a bar they way they did on the job, they wouldn't. They'd take one look and go back and sit down."
Selling cars isn’t so bad. Kerr made some money and bought a silver 2007 Infiniti G35.
said although he’s better—sober more than a year, a big mile marker—the alternative isn’t distant enough in the rearview mirror to seem less dangerous.
"A lot of times, people don't realize once you have any length of sobriety that to go out and use drugs and alcohol, you put yourself in a very precarious position,” he said. “Sometimes people don't get a chance at sobriety again. Sometimes that opportunity never comes back.”
As with wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing and the like, most students put in their best work with a mentor. Recovery is no different, Kerr said. It works significantly better when someone who knows how it feels, who’s been there before, who made a decision or found a solution that didn’t involve inflicting pain upon someone else, or themselves, or makes the situation worse, or involves alcohol or drugs, is available for counsel.
For Kerr that man was Malachi Patrick Kenney III. Or Mal. Eight years sober when he met Kerr in 2008 at Infiniti of Scottsdale, Kenney lived a full life that included success in business, four children, two grandkids and an addiction to crack. Kenney wasn’t perfect even in the time Kerr got to know him. But their relationship was instructive. When he was 59, Kenney decided to smoke crack and carouse for three years. He eventually reached out for help. Kerr realized the risk of building up a sense of arrogance and complacency, even for someone like Kenney, who at one point was 21 years sober.
“I know that by taking drugs or alcohol I know the result,” Kerr said. “As factual as it is holding this steering wheel right now, I know it leads to nothing good.”
He last drifted away from recovery in 2011, when one beer was made out to be no big deal. “That one turns into 100,” he said. “And it turns into a thousand. And it never ends how you plan it in your head.” For a stretch Kerr enjoyed red wine and Vicodin. He paused Dec. 7, 2013, to reassess life. What was important? What wasn’t? He asked himself if he was willing to give in to addiction.
"Like most times, I don't think there was anything specific that triggered a relapse or anything like that,” Kerr said. “Sometimes boredom does. One of the harder parts to adjust to life now is I've lived the life I've lived. That I've fought in front of 70,000 people. That I've done the Antonio Inoki Bom-Ba-ye in front of 92,000 people. I've won world championships. I've been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it. And now I live a regular life. Sometimes that's hard. Monthly I don't have adrenaline juicing through my veins. I don't have that level of excitement in my life, so sometimes I think the boredom gets to me, the mundaneness of doing what I'm doing day in, day out. That might be a contributor to it as well."
Kerr decided if not now, when? So why not now? He went into treatment for a month, worked at Toyota for a bit longer and focused on getting “things right that needed to be right.”
Five weeks after he referred Kerr to a new mentor, Kenney passed away on Aug. 22, 2014 following a battle with leukemia. He was 67. After Mal’s death Kerr battled to maintain control. He couldn’t afford rent for the halfway house he shared with nine others and the rules were clear. After seven months had to vacate immediately.
Kerr avoided his family. No one needed the stress, especially not his ex-wife, who wasn’t great at shielding emotions from her son.
The fight game “takes a pound of flesh from you,” Kerr confirmed. “It's not an easy sport. It's incredibly hard on your body. It's hard on the people that are around you. You're so consumed with self that it's hard for you to participate in anyone else's life.”
For a couple of weeks Kerr camped out in his car at Walmart or Fry's Electronics parking lots. The first night was confusing. He had to concern himself with security patrols as his heavy legs were propped through a rear window of his Infiniti. There was an offer of a bed from a female friend but he was too embarrassed to accept. He could've called his brothers and asked for a hotel room but didn’t. This wasn’t bloody hand prints on a wall, but it was Kerr deciding to go alone at a time when he could have used help.
“Looking back on it I should've probably been in more contact than less,” he said. “There are people I could've reached out to. It's just not me. I'd rather try to figure it out myself. There was a time, eh, I have a car, it has a backseat, I can sleep on that. I can shower at the gym.”
The gym isn’t a regular stop for Kerr anymore. He hasn’t been on the mat in years. A twinge of pain would be worrying. Better to avoid aches than feel the need to mask anything. Kerr still walks around at 270 pounds. He’s heavyset and pliable, very different from the 5-percent days when people marveled at Bas Rutten’s instruction. Despite remaining aware of his vanity, Kerr is resigned not to caring if his stomach falls out of the bottom of his shirt.
"You see a guy who was an animal, who was cut out of a piece of granite, and then suddenly you see him changing into a complete different guy,” Rutten said. “He got older and stopped training. He didn't have the motivation anymore. I think mentally it really did something to him."
In significant ways Kerr’s body and mind were sacrificed to combat. To being great and profiting from something dangerous he did not enjoy. To hanging around for the paydays and learning what it’s like to go from being the smasher to smashed.
"You're almost thinking how bad it's going to hurt,” Kerr said. “When I got in the ring in 1999, I knew that I was going to deliver enough pain and punishment that it would. The one thing you try to do as a fighter is take a man's will. If I think I'm bigger, badder, and stronger, I'm going to impose my will until you give up. So when I am this out-of-shape should-be-retired fighter stepping in the ring against these young buck fighters, it's humiliating for me.”
"When my mom or dad died, sometimes I feel at those moments that I'm the only person in the world that's experienced those emotions,” Kerr said. “I'm not the only athlete that's retired and gotten fat. But more for me, the one thing for me, the one thing that consciously I'm making more prevalent, is that being healthy doesn't mean I need to look like an Adonis. I just want to be healthy to be around for 30 years so I can see my son graduate from college. So I can see him maybe have his first baby. I think what needs to take place of the vanity is the consciousness that I have someone who depends on me.”