Like a ghost ship in an old Scooby Doo, one day Nick the Tooth just sort of appeared out of the ether. It happened when Dana White decided to make him part of his fight week vlog series at UFC 155. The only thing we knew about the Tooth at that moment was what Dana told us — that he had some old friend who had got himself into a mess with Joe Lauzon after a good session with Jack Daniels, and now it was time to make a delusion become a form of reality.
And just like that, Nick the Tooth — a scarf-wearing, bohemian-looking fellow, whose real name is Nick Gullo — became a fun-loving martyr that came off like the kooky long lost uncle of MMA. Dana gave him the nickname. And as it suggests, Nick was conspicuously without one of his front teeth, which gave him a hobo warmth. He entered the MMA world with miles of untold back-story.
The Tooth grappled with Lauzon in a UFC octagon in that initial vlog, and proceeded to lose via every submission possible. He presented zero resistance against the professional fighter, who gamely took whatever limb was offered and semi-crushed Gullo’s windpipe. All the while there was White cackling in the background. It was a funny thing to watch, but one question kept sort of popping up: Who was this sudden character from Dana’s mysterious past?
Since then we’ve gotten to know more about The Tooth — namely that he’s a bit of a renaissance man, cut in the mold of a Blaise Cendrars. He has penned pieces for Vice, wrote a book called Into The Cage: The Rise of UFC Nation, and we know now he surfs religiously. He’s a photographer whose images appear in the opening sequence of the television show Kingdom, a guitar player, a jiu-jitsu practitioner and at some distant point in life, he worked as a lawyer. He’s currently writing a book of fiction; style-wise he considers himself a devout minimalist of "the Gordon Lish camp." We know damn well he can get drunk with the Irish. And these days he’s been showing back up on the vlog circuit more and more with a show called Motus V.
Why all the different hats?
"I learned at a very young age that life is fragile and time is short," Gullo says. "Blink and a decades passes. Blink again and it’s over. So I’ve followed my curiosity wherever it leads, and I don’t pay attention to critics. People either get your trip or they don’t.
"As far as changing lanes every few years, I get off on learning and acquiring skills. That’s why I picked up the guitar, and later picked up the camera. Why I went to law school and also got an MBA. Why I surf, skate pools, and train jiu jitsu. The clock is ticking down for all of us. You either embrace the sound, or cover your ears and try your damnedest to ignore it."
How did he lose his tooth? Like Paul Stastny, the hockey player, it turns out he’s got a good story ready for every occasion. One of the iterations that Gullo likes to dish out was that it was a bull-riding accident in Mexico. He’s a good yarn-spinner — which is beneficial, because Gullo says the pen is his primary passion. He likes contributing to the Great Conversation. He’s been working on his recent book off and on for the last couple of years, he says, and through many airport hangars with Dana White.
"The one constant throughout my life is writing," he says. "But ironically, I’ve focused Motus V on video and podcast formats, as opposed to a blog, so that I’m only writing on my next book. I found that writing about MMA and jiu jitsu, on top of writing for my own projects, was just too taxing on the writing muscles."
Gullo is a purple belt who trains jiu-jitsu with Rafael and Gui Mendes at the Art of Jiu Jitsu in Costa Mesa, California. He has been there from the beginning, trains roughly six days a week, and considers them family. And part of what his current "trip" consists of is documenting not only his travels, but those of the people he’s met along the way in the mixed techniques.
His Motus V, which is a video series-cum-podcast, is his foray into grappling culture, in both MMA and jiu-jitsu.
"Southern California is now the epicenter for both sports, especially jiu jitsu," he says. "It’s the new Brazil, and 90 percent of the best academies are within 30 miles of my pad. Because I know most of the players, I feel compelled to document the culture. Same reason I wrote the book [Into the Cage]. Any writer who finds themselves at ground zero of an exploding subculture — whether it’s the punk rock scene or motorcycle gangs — would do the same."
As for how he knows Dana, it does go back to Las Vegas before the boom.
"I was born in New Orleans, but raised in Vegas," Gullo says. "In the ’70s and ’80s, Vegas was a very different town — rural, transient. My family lived a few miles off the strip, but even that was in the middle of the vacant desert. We lived near a farm, and every morning I’d wake to roosters cawing, or whatever roosters do. The place had stables of horses, goats, chickens. Back then the town was a surreal mix of cowboys, casino dealers, and wise guys.
"Anyhow, you knew just about everyone your age, especially if they played sports. For me, from ages eight to 18, I wrestled and played football. There were only a few gyms in town, and at this hole-in-the-wall on Sahara Avenue called Camelot, I first met Lorenzo [Fertitta], which was probably in seventh or eighth grade. I met Dana a few years after that, through mutual friends.
"Dana and I bonded because we shared similar temperaments and backgrounds. Coming from broken homes, we’d both been kicked out of school — in fact, I spent my junior year at a reform school in East Las Vegas — an Opportunity school. It was all the outcasts — gang members, pregnant girls, this one kid even set fire to his teacher’s desk! So rad. But they were all really chill, or else they hit the road. Luckily, I had a great English teacher that prodded me to pull it together."
Now The Tooth has reemerged on a new Fight Pass vehicle called Looking for a Fight, in which he and Dana — along with Matt Serra, who adds the yuks — fly all over the country looking for fight talent. Their first discovery happened to be Sage Northcutt, who arrived on the scene at UFC 192 as suddenly — if slightly more auspiciously — than the Tooth himself.
It’s a busy life. And he’s happy it’s the kind of busy that suits him, rather than the kind of busy that Dana White deals in every single day.
"In the pilot episode of Looking for a Fight, Dana said that Serra and I aren’t used to traveling on the road," he says. "That’s not true. I’ve joined the circus for months at a time, and I can’t stand it. The road is grueling and wears on your health. The job stress and travel stress are insane. I’ve seen behind the curtain, and I wouldn’t want Dana’s job for any amount of money. Not that I even possess that skill set, because I don’t.
"Many people look to capitalist icons like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Oprah, and say, ‘if I had even a tenth that much money I’d retire to a tropical beach’ Well, that’s why they’ll never face that dilemma."
Gullo says the man who introduced him at UFC 155 as Nick the Tooth, who laughed heartily as Joe Lauzon ripped him apart limb for limb, is cut from a different cloth.
"The few who achieve that level of success are different," he says. "Luck aside — and luck is always a major component of great wealth — they also work and work and work and work. Dana is on the job from 7am to midnight every single day. Planning, putting out fire after fire. I don’t think it’s healthy, and I’ve told him that a million times. But no chance he’ll ever stop, it’s in his DNA."
What about Nick the Tooth?
"My mantra is balance," he says. "Not that writing is the healthiest endeavor, but at least it requires long stretches of silent contemplation."