Josh Gross: 'The Law' Lindland taking fighting skills to political arena - Sports Illustrated

'The Law' Lindland taking fighting skills to political arena

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Close decisions and ugly fights are comfort foods for Matt Lindland. It's no surprise then that the gritty 38-year-old mixed martial artist, a 2000 Olympic silver-medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, is serious about his politics.

Following months of campaigning that brought a resounding victory during the Republican primary, Lindland will know Tuesday evening if voters in Oregon's mostly rural 52nd House District want the no-nonsense, chaw-loving fighter nicknamed "The Law" to represent them in the state's capital.

When Republican Patti Smith decided against seeking re-election in the 52nd District after eight years in Salem, Lindland took the chance to enter a race in which his positions -- limited government, reduced taxes and cultural conservatism -- weren't represented the way he felt they should be.

Early on, Lindland struggled to be seen as something other than a novelty. Athletes have a long history in politics, but they've generally waited until their playing days were over. Lindland, however, fought as recently as July (Affliction: Banned) in a sport some politicians, including the Republican nominee for president, John McCain, once derided as "human cockfighting."

"A lot of these people will look at you and think you don't know what you're talking about, you're just some fighter," said the top-10 ranked middleweight. "They think you're some jock who's trying politics. And that's really not what it's about. It's about stepping up and doing what I think is right."

If politicians are to be judged, at least in part, by the courage of their convictions, Lindland, it should be noted, has not been timid in the face of entrenched power. Wronged during the U.S. Olympic trials prior to the Sydney Games, Lindland took the United States Olympic Committee to federal court. He won after an arbitrator ruled an illegal maneuver was used to defeat him in the trials. Lindland made the most of his second chance and was reinstated to the team before taking silver at 167 pounds.

Lindland has also been an outspoken critic of MMA's top promoter, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which released him in 2005 after he was said to have violated the terms of his deal. For his part, Lindland said he was dropped because the UFC did not want to give him an opportunity to fight for the company's middleweight title belt.

As he's done throughout his sporting life, Lindland faced political competition "with a really clear head," said his campaign manager, Tootie Smith. "He's caught on to the issues. He's caught on to the strategy. And I think he likes it. I think he likes debating. I think he likes speaking."

Vying for a traditionally Republican district that stretches from the suburbs of Portland east towards the Columbia River Gorge, Lindland, like every politician with an "R" next to his or her name this turn, faces a tidal wave favoring Democrats.

His opponent, Suzanne VanOrman, is "really plugged into the community in Hood River," said Jeff Mapes, a political reporter for The Oregonian. "Legislative and House Democrats have lots of money in this cycle. She's probably the favorite, but I think it's a pretty tough race. It's one people will be watching on election night."

Control over the Oregon State House -- currently 31-29 in favor of the Democrats -- hangs in the balance, said Geoff Sugerman, spokesperson for FuturePac, the political arm of Oregon House Democrats. The 52nd District seat is one of 10 seats targeted by Democrats in an effort to deliver a supermajority of 36 state legislators.

Throughout the campaign, VanOrman, a veteran of Oregon politics who fell short in a previous bid for the seat in HD-52, has tried to make an issue of Lindland's status as a mixed martial artist capable of making hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight. But Lindland has laughed off the criticism, going so far as the post VanOrman's ads against him on his personal, campaign and gym web sites.

"When I first got into this, I didn't really look at it as a fight," said Lindland, who finds himself slightly behind heading into Election Day. "Once I realized this is a fight, I started slipping and moving and ducking and firing back, because that's what you have to do. Nobody is really going to punch you in the face, but yeah, you do feel similar emotions, especially when you're getting up in front of an audience. You know you're going to have to sell yourself and debate some issues. There's a bit of that adrenaline where you're getting excited to do what you do."

Over the course of the campaign, Lindland has learned to defend himself, and in recent weeks he has fought back through mailers and television ads. But more than anything VanOrman has thrown his way, said Lindland, his chances of winning Tuesday are largely determined by the political climate.

"It's been an uphill battle," he said. "The Obama factor and all the newly registered Democratic voters have had a big impact all across the country, not just here in my race."

Democrats in the state don't appear concerned about "The Law" shaking things up in the Oregon House.

Lindland's "no Jesse Ventura," said Sugerman.

Should he fall short, Lindland hasn't decided if political office would be worth pursuing again. The prospect of people peering into his personal life is entirely unappealing, and there are the obvious questions about the job's impact on his fighting career, which should get busy again in late January at Affliction: Day of Reckoning (perhaps against Renato "Babalu" Sobral).

However, if Lindland had his druthers, he'd prefer to battle a state Democrat or two.