At approximately twelve noon on the 25th of last month, I posted an article about Chuck Liddell. Six hours later, I found out that one of my best friends on the planet, the man solely responsible for exposing me to MMA, had died. He was 30 years old.
I’ve probably told bits and pieces of this narrative before in this space, so I apologize if I get repetitive in spots.
We were driving. It was (I’m guessing) sometime in February of 2005. 2005 is the year most fans will point to as the jumping off point for MMA popularity in the US. The Ultimate Fighter reality program, Chuck Liddell, Dana White still flirting with the idea of attempting to publicly have hair. Lots going on.
I wasn’t aware of any of that. All I knew at that point was what my friend brought up, seemingly at random. He said "Yeah, I watched this thing the other day. These guys fight each other. There’s this little guy with a thousand yard stare. There’s also one guy I know you’re going to love, and one guy I know you’re going to fucking HATE."
Was I interested? Oh, yeah. But I was only interested because of the person that was relaying me this information. Some people carry with them an unspoken, mysterious credibility. Taste is obviously subjective, but there’s something profound about realizing that a friend of yours seems to have the same favorite subjects as you.
(The "guy I was going to fucking hate" was Steve Jennum. I didn’t necessarily hate him, but he did seem like the kind of person who would plant cocaine on a black dude. Plus, he did seem a bit corny. The "guy I was going to love" was Keith Hackney, who remains one of my all time favorites. Keith Hackney could throw tiger strikes with the best of them. And the guy with the thousand yard stare was Royce Gracie. When I watched him triangle Dan Severn that day after being smothered for 16 plus minutes, I was forever changed. I just didn’t know it yet.)
We started watching MMA. A lot. The local video store chain had a whole bunch of old UFC’s on VHS, and we watched every one of those we could find before we even knew who Dana White or Chuck Liddell was.
We heard about PRIDE next, and before long we were singing the praises of Fedor Emelianenko, Kazushi Sakuraba and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. My friend gravitated towards Fedor in particular, and we spoke about him in reverential tones. In reality, he was the first truly great fighter we ever watched. To go from watching those early PRIDE’s and UFC’s (where guys were fighting in their pajamas and steel toed work boots) to seeing Fedor steal souls is roughly equivalent to watching Andrew Dice Clay and following that up with Louis CK.
We never understood Fedor haters, the types of people who doubted that he was ever great, the kinds of guys who honestly thought Brock Lesnar would have trounced him. The most common criticisms of him now that he’s long retired are that he padded his record by fighting alot of doofuses, and that he chickened out when it became time to make the transition into the UFC. These criticisms are 100% valid.
But watching him in his prime was unlike any other mixed martial arts viewing experience. He was great while Anderson Silva was still mediocre, and he was an all time great before Jon Jones could legally drink. Sherdog mainstay Jordan Breen once said (I’m paraphrasing) "You watch Jon Jones, and you think ‘Wow! This guy is so talented. The sky is the limit for this kid.’ You watch Anderson Silva, and you think ‘Geez, he makes these guys he’s fighting, who have so clearly earned their right to fight him, look like amateurs’." I thought that was a beautiful way to describe the difference between those two all time great fighters, but Fedor remains unique. There was a specific vibe you felt when Fedor stepped into the ring, like you were about to watch something that was so much more advanced and intense than anything else up to that point that it almost seemed silly that anyone would even fight him at all. Nobody understood what he was watching more than my friend. I remember flying overseas with him in 2005, with a laptop full of MMA highlights and a busted up iPod as our only entertainment. We watched the same highlights over and over again. The Fedor ones never got old.
Watching fights with my friend is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Just sitting there, with the drinks and smoke flowing, laughing maniacally at the cut on Marvin Eastman’s head, or the mean-spirited guffaws we’d utter as the late Justin Eilers made the "Which way did he go, George?" face … those are memories that will never go away.
He kindled a lifelong passion of mine that has all but replaced stick and ball sports. His energy, enthusiasm, and humor were contagious in all aspects of our friendship, but MMA was the thing we probably talked about more than anything else. Especially in the last months of his life. We had reconnected after a long radio silence, and it was mostly MMA talk. Do I wish it hadn’t been? Do I wish we had talked about more macro issues, like our children, relationships, politics, and religion? Kind of. Then again, not really. MMA talk was just fine.
It’s going to be difficult for me to watch Jon Jones fight Glover Teixeira on Saturday, because that fight was the subject of our last real, high-spirited MMA debate. He loved Teixeira to pull off the upset, and I didn’t. But there isn’t a curveball on the planet that would make me root for Jon Jones now. I don’t care if it comes out that Glover Teixeira is implicated in a worldwide baby seal clubbing ring. War Glover.
Rest in peace, Matt.