Let me start by saying something my friends and family already know: I'm generally awful at being sentimental. But in trying to sort through a decade of covering mixed martial arts -- April 2010 marks my 10-year anniversary reporting on this rags-to-riches tale -- it occurred to me, if there was ever a period worth getting reflective about, it's this one.
From "human cockfighting" to the fastest-growing sport in the world. That actually happened.
This was mixed martial arts before it was MMA. The sport didn't really have a name when I started. Depending on the circle you were in, it was "no holds barred" or "extreme fighting" or
After storming into the public consciousness in the mid-'90s, when basically anything
A local Japanese video store provided a window to Shooto and Pancrase events. I soaked in everything and quickly knew this wasn't at all what critics made it out to be. There was skill and heart and effort -- everything that compelled my education via the
I went to my first live card as a fan in May 1999. It was promoted by a group known as Neutral Grounds at the Hollywood Athletic Club under open-hand pancrase rules.
Tensions ran high. I felt comfortable there.
It became my mission to seek out events. The sport, an easy target for politicians, was effectively outlawed across the U.S. In California no legal measures existed for it to fall under the purview of the state athletic commission. That meant it had to go underground, which it did exceedingly well. I recall long drives to the middle of nowhere, like that freezing November night in 1999 to a baseball diamond on the Barona Indian Reservation in North San Diego County, where
Five months later, I wrote the first story I was ever paid for, a cool $50 for a poorly-worded piece in
That September I made the first of what would be many interesting trips to Atlantic City to cover New Jersey's entree into MMA regulation, an IFC event promoted by
Two months later, the UFC's first regulated card took place in Atlantic City.
Millions of dollars from
I covered my share of UFC events from 2001 through '05, until Zuffa decided to deny access to a growing contingent of MMA media prior to UFC 55 at the Mohegan Sun. Never regaining my seat hasn't done anything to suppress memories of sitting within arm's reach of the cage at Royal Albert Hall on that emotional night when
Prior to 2006, the sport's big-money epicenter was Tokyo, and I was fortunate enough to document that first-hand, traveling a ridiculous 12 times in 18 months to Japan while I was enrolled at San Diego State. It didn't take a lot to drop out of school, choosing instead to learn through doing. Not much has changed there.
The memories are flooding back now.
This one is something I haven't shared before because it makes me look stupid. Standing on the floor of the Tokyo Dome as 67,000 people went crazy while
MMA, says my passport, is global. Rutten's home country of Holland was stamped several times. In fact, it's there that I met many of the same people in charge of the European MMA scene today:
Still, the one figure I remember most from that trip is Nyqvist, a co-founder of Golden Glory who today helps run the fighter management and promotional company even as he sits in prison. In a previous life, Nyqvist was regarded as one of the largest exporters of ecstasy from Holland to the United States. Friends say, ironically enough, he cleaned up his act by the time he entered fight promotion in 1999. Nyqvist, now 41, has one year remaining on his sentence for killing two business partners, unrelated to MMA, before they killed him -- which they tried three times, including once by car bomb.
As for Rutten, I once saw a mini-van knock him 30 feet into the air at 4 a.m. in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. But that's a story for another time.
For a reporter covering an outlaw sport, it doesn't get much better.