It’s rare that you see an interview stray into the disquieting realm of an intervention, but that’s (essentially) what happened when Joe Rogan visited The Fighter and the Kid podcast this week. If you haven’t seen it, check it out here. Start around the 14-minute mark.
One of its hosts happens to be Brendan Schaub (The Fighter), who lost this week via TKO to Travis Browne at UFC 181. Schaub sat idly as Rogan broke through the barriers of polite conversation and told him -- using the Browne fight as his opening example -- that his ceiling was far lower than his delusions allowed him to see.
It was all very sober.
And the podcast is now viral because people like the feeling of their stomach dropping at the onramp of real talk. Rogan was keeping it real -- more real that Schaub was bargaining for going in. In fact, Rogan used the word "reality" throughout, like a man fighting through the spell of all the fight game’s seductive whisperings to remember (and remind everyone) that brains are getting kicked down the gutter. That there are very few happy endings for prizefighters.
That damage -- like the sport itself -- is as real as it gets.
In other words, all the things Rogan enthusiastically looks past in UFC promos to see the fights, which made it all the more compelling -- here was Rogan grappling with his own inner-feelings towards the sport he’s always loved, and articulating that conflict (pretty convincingly) the whole way. It wasn’t hypercritical; it was just behind the doors talk made public. It had as many conflicting layers as a cage fight itself.
How to describe this sort of thing, because it didn’t start so much a soapbox sermon as it was a sincere expression of concern for a friend…a concern that, by the end, morphed Schaub into an abstract object for a deeper-rooted guilt towards the fight game in general.
Everybody who watches this sport long enough knows the underlying guilt that Rogan strayed into. One might even say that the guilt, with the consent of the fighters, is the swig’s burn we've grown to love. We shouldn’t be enjoying ourselves while somebody is twitching on a canvas groping their way back to consciousness after a brutal blow.
But we do! We do. Our DNA is full of microsadism! The fighters know damn well what they’ve signed on for. That goes ditto for Schaub.
And though Schaub wasn’t knocked unconscious by Browne, he was mounted and taking big deliberate anvils to whichever temple he couldn’t cover fast enough. He didn't get out of the first round. Rogan, like he is for most pay-per-views, was the color commentator for the fight in Las Vegas. And Rogan has a seasoned eye for it.
That’s why he started by breaking down Schaub’s flaws, pointing out that he wasn’t at the level of the elite guys in his division, such as Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. He talked about the fight technically, saying that Schaub was lunging with his punches, that he looked stiff, that he lacked fluidity. "You just didn’t look good, you didn’t look like you were well-prepared," he said right upfront. "Your movement didn’t look like an elite fighter’s movement. Just very stiff. It was like there was a lot of apprehension in your movement."
Then he questioned Schaub’s commitment, raising a red flag for any fighter whose "foot is half out the door." That led to a critique of Schaub’s general ability, with Rogan pointing out that he didn't think Schaub could compete with the behemoths at the top, cautioning him as to where all this leads and the looming onset of irreversible damage.
Preempting the damage, dude, that was the thing.
"I don’t like saying this, man," Rogan said. "I would rather say, 'Hey man, better luck next time', I love you, I’m in your corner no matter what, and that is a true thing. But as an analyst, and someone who’s watched…way over a thousand fights, I’ve seen a lot of sh*t. I know what I’m looking at."
As those assessments soaked in, Rogan used an analogy of the red line on a car speedometer being there for a reason. He pointed out that if you stay there revving high in the red, that the car breaks down.
"That’s your knees, that’s your back, that’s your brain," he said. "And the brain’s the big one. The brain you can’t fix. You can break your hand, they can put pins in it, put it in a cast…and eventually it’ll get better. Your brain doesn’t get better. And that’s what I worry about with you more than anything."
He went on to talk about brain damage (skip to the 40-minute mark to hear about the moose and the cotton candy revelation), and with the center of the conversation falling to Schaub, it turned into an intervention. Even Schaub’s co-host Bryan Callen (The Kid) chimed in with his areas of concern. In fact, it was later revealed it was partially Callen's idea…the whole thing was strategic.
Schaub, quiet for the most part, took it all on the chin. He did offer up his own points later, defended himself and his decision to keep fighting, but it was fascinating because, well, Rogan was talking to more than Schaub.
"I always wonder how long I’m going to do this anyway," he said. "The one thing I’m conflicted about, it’s a hard thing to say, but the one thing I’m conflicted about when it comes to fighting as I get older, and the more I understand about the damage that people take…I still love the sport. I still love watching it, I still love all the complexities and the battle and the struggle and guys rising above and people getting better and the discipline and focus required to reach a true excellent state. But it disturbs the sh*t out of me. What I’m saying to you today is not just for you. What I’m saying to you today is to put it in the heads of a lot of people that don’t want to hear [it]."
That might go for Rogan himself. The conflict that aired in real time seemed to have many complicated layers. Uncomfortable, maybe, but also as it should be. The fight game is just that: Complicated. If you aren’t asking yourself tough questions, whether you’re a diehard fan or a "casual," a fighter, an analyst, a trainer or a member of the media, you aren’t getting its full nutritional value. The fight game is all about conflicts on every level, and its in the confrontation of these conflicts -- both inside and out -- that this sport stands ten inches taller than all others.
It may have been uncomfortable, but that’s a pretty damn good episode of The Fighter and the Kid, to contain all that.