Ultimate Fighting Championship
Mixed martial arts has become the defining sport of the 21st century, and with it comes a new style of fighter—smart, athletic, and more often than not, covered in ink. Here, a look behind the scenes of the sports’ largest promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Punching someone in the face just doesn’t cut it anymore. Where boxers only use their fists, the dominant fighters of the 21st century also kick, knee, trip, and wrestle—anything legal to secure victory. Mixed mar tial arts and its most popular promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, are undergoing a furious ascent into the mainstream. The gloves are smaller, and the action is faster and harder-hitting, but beneath the brutal veneer, the sport, its fighters (and their tattoos) are surprisingly complex.
The UFC came into being in the early ’90s as a way to answer the ques tions that had been percolating ever since the American public became aware of Bruce Lee and martial arts: “Can a boxer beat a karate master?” “Can wrestling beat judo?” The early events were bloody, brutal affairs, often with one of the two fighters so overmatched it was difficult to watch. In re sponse to political and economic pressures, however, the sport has evolved into a legitimate affair, with gloves, weight classes, sanctioning by state ath letic boards, and—most importantly—well-matched combatants who train in all fighting styles instead of just one.
In the past few years, the sport’s popularity has exploded. Partially driv en by the Spike TV reality show The Ultimate Fighter, which matches up young fighters trying to win a UFC contract, and is watched by millions of viewers per episode, the UFC earned more pay-per-view money than box ing in 2006. Measured by online interest, the UFC is now the sixth most popular professional sports league in the United States, ahead of both the PGAand Major League Soccer, and nipping at the NHL’s heels.
This actually makes a lot of sense, as mixed martial arts is the logical fighting sport for the 21st century. Its creation is both a product and case study of globalization, as once isolated and tradition-bound martial arts dis ciplines have been forced to evolve in response to international challenges. Boxing is a struggle between two athletes that is in the end symbolic, given the sport’s restrictive rules. And it fit well in the culture of social restraint that dominated the first half of the 20th century. But in this century, as models and celebrities show more and more skin, and entertainment is con strained by fewer and fewer boundaries, our desire to see two men in a private war is no longer satisfied by a sport where only two of the body’s numerous natural weapons can be used—and those even covered in pillow-like gloves. Boxing may symbolize a real fight, but mixed martial arts is a real fight. And modern culture no longer accepts substitutes. The personalities in this new sport are surprisingly diverse. Where once they might have been all white wrestlers from the
Midwest, now fighters are emerging from the inner city, college campuses, and all races and classes. And while mixed martial arts may seem mindless and brutal to some, in reality it’s a subtle, technical sport that attracts smart, thoughtful combatants—who happen to be covered in ink. Though fighters rarely let down their guard, their tattoos—as seen in the following portraits taken at the UFC 79: Nemesis event held in Las Vegas—show what’s really under their skin.
Jason “The Punisher” Lambert
Hometown: Long Beach, CA
Fighting Style: Freestyle, with an emphasis on ground and pound
On Jason Lambert’s powerful frame, the dark ink covering his left shoulder is what first catches your eye. It’s a tattoo of a drag on, flying through a vortex of flames. Lam bert had a tough childhood, and the dragon is his way of putting his demons, quite literally, outside himself. That single-minded focus will be necessary for Lambert to suc ceed in the stacked UFC Light Heavyweight division against some of the UFC ’s biggest names, like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. The tat is by Big Ed, of Tattoo Image in Victorville, CA, who also did a ’50s-style pin-up on Lam bert’s leg. While some regret the tattoos of their youth, Lambert thinks all ink, even mis takes, have value: “It’s just a history thing. There’s a time period for each of them, the present, the past, or the future.”
Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell
Hometown: San Luis Obispo, CA
Fighting Style: Karate, kickboxing, wrestling
Chuck Liddell is easily the most visible fighter in mixed martial arts. He’s done advertisements for the computer maker Dell, has been spon sored by the war movie 300, and is occasionally a top search term on Google. Known for his devastating, accurate strikes and the ability to knock his opponents out while backtracking, Liddell has some ideas about what has helped to raise his profile. “For one, the recognizable look. Two, my style of fighting.” That recognizable look includes the characters of his karate school tattooed on his head beside his trademark, close-cropped Mohawk. As for his fighting style, Liddell likes to throw punches from unorthodox angles and is virtually impossible to take down to the ground—a style known as “sprawl and brawl.” A“sprawl” is a way of spreading your legs to defend against a takedown; the “brawl” part needs no explanation. From his first win at UFC 17, in 1998, to his latest in the recent UFC 79 over the once-unbeatable Wanderlei Silva, Liddell is one of the main guys responsible for making televised fights exciting again.
Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia
Hometown: Eastbrook, ME
Fighting Style: Karate and wrestling; prefers stand-up fighting
Atwo-time UFC heavyweight cham pion, Tim Sylvia is one of the sport’s most recognizable stars. That’s partially for his exciting, brawling style, but also because at 6’8”, he’s easy to pick out in a crowd. Sylvia grew up idolizing Superman, and at 18 he got the trademark “S” as his first tattoo on the inside of his left arm. After he broke his arm in a fight and had to get it repaired with a tita nium plate, Sylvia built on the Superman tat, making it look like the skin around it was being torn away. Underneath the image of ripping skin, pistons and gears are visible. “Iwas the man of steel,” says Sylvia. “So Imade it look like Iactually had steel in my body.” His stardom is beginning to influence his choice of tattoo parlors as well; Tim plans for his next piece, “The Maine-iac” in script between his shoulder blades, to be done at the Miami Ink shop.
Soa “The Hulk” Palelei
Hometown: Perth, Australia
Fighting Style: Freestyle
This big Australian made his debut on the UFC ’s highly touted December card and lost. But he might have just been unready, spiritually speaking. Palelei is of Tongan ancestry, with a tat too on his right arm that symbolizes his roots. But Palelei’s tattoo is unfinished; eventually he plans for it to come around and cover half his chest, like the Gladiator armor in Roman times. Finishing it will give Palelei honor and respect within his own family, but more importantly, it will symbolically mean he is ready to go to war. That means the next time he fights in the UFC the result should be different. “It does give [me] encouragement to actually get the thing done,” says Palelei.
Josh “The People’s Warrior” Burkman
Hometown: Salt Like City, UT
Fighting Style: Wrestling; “American Whu-hit-u”
Josh Burkman is a former street fighter who fought almost 200 times (unsanctioned, of course) in high school and college alone. When he beat somebody up and they asked, “What was that?” Burkman, unable to claim a connection with tradition-laced sports like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, would respond “American Whu-hit-u.” Burkman’s first tattoo was his name on his calf, but he went in for his second tattoo at a turbulent period in his life when his parents got divorced. He took a Japanese house, representing peace at home, started drawing crazy designs around it to symbolize his lifestyle at that point, and had an artist tattoo it on his back. “I put it on my back because I knew my life was going to be hectic,” explains Burkman. “But I knew one day I’d be able to put that stuff behind me.”
Rich “No Love” Clementi
Hometown: Slidell, LA
Fighting Style: Freestyle; was a high school wrestler
“No Love” is tattooed across Rich Clementi’s back, and while that may represent his “mean-type fighting style,” it doesn’t sum up his life. Since being on the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Clementi has had a lot to love. With his 13-month-old baby boy, his new wife, and several growing businesses—including “No Love Entertainment” and a tanning salon—Clementi is getting the most out of fighting. He’s also happy about his recent victory over rival Melvin Guil lard, a fighter with whom no love is lost. After he locked Guillard in a chokehold, forcing his op ponent to tap out, Clementi delivered a message in the post fight interview: “Go practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” referencing the grappling technique he used to end the fight. The “No Love” nickname dates back to when Clementi was on a military tour in Spain, when he left his first wife and began fighting—“[Back then] it represented my personality and my fighting style.”
JAMES “THES ANDMAN” IRVIN
Hometown: Sacramento, CA
Fighting Style: Freestyle
At least one of James Irvin’s tattoos speaks for itself: On the back of his calf is the Japanese character for kamikaze. Some of the others re quire more explanation. He has a fallen angel on his forearm for his father who recently passed away, and another of “MBK,” which stands for “My Brother’s Keeper,” the role he was left to play for his younger brother in the absence of their father. “My pop passed away so Ihad to watch out for him,” Irvin says. There’s also a lion with the words “Only the Strong Survive.” “That one is pretty fitting for my job,” explains Irvin. “Anormal day for me is getting a fat lip and a black eye.” Irvin won his last fight by disqualification—he was knocked out cold when his opponent hit him with a knee while he was down. “When Iwatched the replay, Ifound out how all the sore spots on my face happened,” he says.
Hometown: Cleveland, OH
Fighting Style: Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing
Mac Danzig hates reality TV shows. He chastises his girlfriend for watching chefs and designer wannabes compete before a national audience. “I’m just like, man, I can’t believe people even watch that. And then it dawns on me. … Dude, you were just on one.” He even won one. A newcomer to the UFC and winner of the sixth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Danzig has paid his dues. He’s trained for seven years and fought for six, driving to Midwest amateur tournaments before moving to Los Angeles in 2002. He was the amateur U.S. MMA National Champ in 2001, had a 12-fight winning-streak from 2004 to 2006, and became King of the Cage champ in 2007, yet he still didn’t make the UFC. Danzig has a tattoo of a Scandinavian-knot work Viking dragon around his left thigh, thanks to Scott Riddle, of Pennsylvania’s Mark of Thor Tattoo. Danzig, who is half Scotch-Irish and half German-Scandinavian, says the tattoo is meaningful, “even though it’s a small part of my background.”
Melvin “The Young Assassin” Guillard
Hometown: New Orleans, LA
Fighting Style: Wrestling, Muay Thai
Melvin Guillard came to the UFC stage in the second season of the wildly popular Ulti mate Fighter reality show. Although only 24, he already has 45 fights (37-4-4), as many as fighters twice his age. In the UFC , though, he is 3-3, including a devastating loss recently to Rich Clementi in an authentic grudge match (the two are training partners turned enemies). As for his ink, Guillard has a cross inscribed with the name of his father that passed away, the symbol of his Zodiac sign (Aries) on his chest, and a Superman crest inscribed with “MG” instead of the “S.” And, of course, there are his spider webs. “I have a thing for spiders,” says Guillard. “They’re small but very dominant, like me as a fighter.”
Hometown: Temecula, CA
Fighting Style: Wrestling; likes to strike
Dan Henderson is a champion without a league. When the UFC absorbed Japan’s PRIDE Champi onships last year, they matched Henderson up against Quinton Jackson, the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, and Henderson lost. Don’t feel bad for him though; he’s the PRIDEMiddleweight Champion and is getting a UFC middleweight title shot in March. Henderson’s lone tattoo is of two men wrestling above the Olympic rings on the inside of his left ankle. He got the ink as a show of solidarity with mem bers of the United States Olympic Wrestling Team (he was a member in 1992 and 1996, and placed 10th and 12th respectively). As an indication of the growth of MMA, when asked whether he is prouder of his PRIDEChampionships or his two-time Olympian status, Henderson replies, “It’s a toss-up.”
Roger “El Matador” Huerta
Hometown: St. Paul, MN
Fighting Style: Greco-Roman wrestling
Owner of a gaudy 22-1-1 record and a win over Clay Guida in one of 2007’s most exciting fights, Roger Huerta is a rising star in the UFC ’s Lightweight division. Although he’s only 24, his road to this point has been long; he’s gone back and forth between Texas and Mexico with unstable parents, and even worked as a child, selling Mexican souvenirs to American tourists. Huerta credits his big heart with getting him through everything, and it’s symbolized by the sacred heart on his left shoulder. He also has an Alcoholics Anonymous prayer on his right forearm (although he is not a member) and a Latin phrase on his rib cage that honors his adopted mother. Debi at Mom’s Tattoos in Austin did all his work, and he thinks it’s important for anyone who gets a tat too to have a relationship with his artist. “When somebody touches you like that, there’s gotta be meaning behind it,” he says.
Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva
Hometown: Curitiba, Brazil
Fighting Style: Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu
Wanderlei Silva, pronounced vun-der-LAY, is perhaps most famous for an 18-fight PRIDEwinning streak from 1999 through 2004. ABrazilian native, his Portuguese nickname “Ca chorro Louco” translates to “Crazy Dog,” for the wild aggression in his eyes when facing off before a fight. One of his tattoos wraps across the lower half of the back of his skull, a curling stretch of jagged tribal lines pointing outward. In December’s UFC 79: Nemesis event, Silva faced off against former UFC Light Heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell in a fight MMAfans have demanded for five years. The match-up was to settle the score between the two major MMAorganizations—UFC versus PRIDE. Unfortunate ly for Silva, the UFC came out on top.