FightTicker.com: Interview With Blood in the Cage Author L. Jon Wertheim

A while ago, I posted my review of L. Jon Wertheim's Blood in the Cage. I was also fortunate enough to speak with Wertheim about a number of topics in the MMA world. What follows are the highlights from our interview. Wertheim really does a great job of putting things in perspective - in spite of how much we've all seen the sport grow, the difference in the popularity and marketability of the sport has changed a lot even in just the last few years. You can find Wertheim's first article on MMA, the one he speaks of giving him the idea to write the book, on SI.com.

FightTicker: First, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

L. Jon Wertheim: I write for Sports Illustrated, and have been for a while, and the story with this is that a couple years ago is that I told my editors I wanted to look into this MMA phenomenon and it was a whole lot of fun to work on and I came back and just sort of thought to myself, “There’s just so much material here – why not spin this into a book?” That’s pretty much how the book got started.

FT: Was there a defining moment or a particular fight that really made you say to yourself you wanted to take a look into MMA?

Wertheim: I didn’t really know much about this sport at all. I went to a UFC event in Houston, I went out to Bettendorf, Iowa to the Militech camp and I went to some amateur shows and Renzo Gracie’s gym – I don’t know if there was one defining moment. One of the first fights I saw was Roger Huerta vs. Leonard Garcia, and it was just an insane fight. It was so gripping and I told someone afterwards that I don’t think I’ve ever felt that alive. I enjoyed talking to the guys, and Dana was a trip, and this gave me eighteen or nineteen pages of material to work with and even after that I just sort of said to myself that I could just keep going and going with this stuff.

FT: Why Pat Militech?

Wertheim: We sort of hit it off to begin with and I sort of wanted to talk about who had gotten in there to help it [MMA] get where it was. The other thing is that these characters change so fast. I would tell the story where I asked someone – at this point exactly two years ago, who were the biggest names, who were the five biggest fighters? The answer I got was, Chuck [Liddell], Randy [Couture], Tito [Ortiz], Rich Franklin and Matt Hughes. And if you look at the scene right now, Randy may have fought for the last time, Tito is out of the organization, Chuck is kind of off the radar a bit. I wanted to pick a guy to base this on who I knew would still have some relevance when the book came out, so I figured with Pat, he’s working, he’s in there training guys and I didn’t have to worry that he’d be hot at the time, lose two UFC fights and suddenly get cut.

FT: The first image you throw at readers is of an offer made to you that I don’t think many people would want to take – Jens Pulver offered to break your nose to help you better understand what the fighters go through – what was the first thought that went through your mind when he offered to do that?

Wertheim: I wanted to be sure he was kidding [Laughs]. He sort of had a smile on his face, but these guys are a little different from me and you. Broken bones and lumps and bruises – they have a different approach to them than I have [Laughs].

FT: Why did you choose to start with that image?

Wertheim: I wanted to start with a bang, and you know, I knew he was sort of half-kidding, but he would’ve done it. Part of the book was just to explain the sport, but I also wanted to give people a chance – one question that always came up was “Who would do this, what kind of guy would be a cage fighter for a living?” I wanted to explain what breed of cat we were dealing with here.

FT: In the book you highlighted the fact that a number of the UFC fighters are highly educated or had various jobs one might not associate with fighters (i.e. Rich Franklin being a former math teacher), and I know these facts often surprise people – what are some of the things that surprised you when you were doing your research?

Wertheim: That was one thing – that people in the general public think a guy who fights in a cage for a living must be in there wearing an ankle monitor with his parole officer there waiting for him to get done – but the quality of guys overall, it’s probably higher than any other sport I’ve dealt with. Something else that struck me is these are some badass guys, but a lot of them were really sort of sensitive and fragile. There’s a real sort of fragile nature to a lot of these guys. Just physically they’re on a completely different level, and then you talk to them and a lot of them are kind of emotionally damaged. As strong as some of these guys were physically, a lot of them were insecure almost, a completely different person when they weren’t fighting.

FT: You interacted with a lot of different people in the industry. Besides a love for the fight game, did you see any other common denominator between the people involved with the sport?

Wertheim: A lot of these guys have similar sensibilities, but I think that something else that surprises people is there is a real diversity to the sport. The guy who came up through brazilian jiu jitsu is completely different than Randy Couture who came up an All-American wrestler who is different than GSP who is French-Canadian. A lot of these guys came from damaged homes, but not all of them. A lot of these guys wrestled in college, but not all of them. I think it’s [the diversity] is something that really helps the sport. Like with NBA players or boxing, it seems like the fighters have the same story over and over. But a guy like Roger Huerta is a guy that has a completely different story from a guy like Rampage. They’re black, white, American, foreign, and that’s something that helps the sport, it’s pretty diverse.

FT: You spent some time on the book on the history of the UFC and the rise of the UFC, and you acknowledged that during the “dark” days, it was the hardcore fans prowling the internet who did more than anyone to keep the sport alive and the UFC alive – in these days, as someone who has written about the sport – what percentage of MMA news do you think is on the internet versus the print media?

Wertheim: By and large, I still think it’s a sport that – it’s not a sport that the New York Times has a section on. I don’t think any newspapers do [have a section devoted entirely to MMA]. This is a sport that lives and breathes on the internet.

FT: Having made that statement, do you think it’s odd the UFC won’t credential websites for press passes at events?

Wertheim: Yeah, and I wrote about that in the book, about how the internet is really what saved this sport, and then I went to some of these fights and there were even very few [print media] guys [covering the event a few years ago] and that’s a little strange. I guess the UFC figures the websites are going to cover it anyway, but it’s still a little hard to figure out.

FT: You wrote about how, as the UFC has grown, they’ve signed some bigger name sponsors. However, a lot of people still refer to the sport of MMA as being in its infancy – how do you think the sponsor scene is going to change as the sport continues to grow?

Wertheim: That’s a good question. It’s going to keep growing. It’s going to be interesting to see what’s going on with whether the fighters are going to start demanding extra things [from sponsors] but it’s only going to keep growing. Even in the few years I’ve really been following it closely, in the beginning there wasn’t Harley-Davidson and sponsors like that a few years ago. Even though the sport is being de-mystified, there are still people that say, “Oh, mixed martial arts, isn’t that the sport where people die in the cage?” or “Is that real?” But I think gradually people are going to take to the sport even more.

FT: Given that, do you think that even with the expanded growth and more sponsorships and more televised fights and network deals, do you think MMA as a whole will ever get to the point where you don’t see shows hosted in these back rooms and strip clubs anymore? Do you think all the shows are going to take on a more professional appearance like the UFC does?

Wertheim: There’s always a buck to me made, and you still need a feeder system. Like if you go to an NBA minor league game, that’s really the equivalent of one of the MMA strip club shows. I think those are always going to be there. As long as there is a buck to be made, I think that’s only going to continue, to be honest.

FT: Over the last couple seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, there has been some criticism that in spite of what it does for the athletes’ exposure and the chance to get in the UFC, that the show has taken a downturn when it comes to actual content. Do you think that TUF is still more a positive than a negative for the sport?

Wertheim: There are only so many variations of the show you can do. But I think it’s good to kind of pump the pay-per-views and the fighters. Everybody knows who Josh Koscheck is now. I think maybe they need to figure out a way to spice up the show a little bit, but I think the show has done a lot for the sport.

FT: Do you still watch TUF?

Wertheim: I don’t [Laughs]. Once you realize what’s going on – everybody has seen Dana swear – I don’t know how much more they can do with it.

FightTicker: You've written books on various sports like basketball, tennis, and pool. What kind of different challenges did you face writing a book on MMA?

Wertheim: That’s a good question, because in some ways it’s hard because I wrote a book about tennis, and that’s a sport I’ve covered, so with this, I was really trying to get up to speed on a lot of this stuff. But something that was easy [with mma] was that everybody was cool to deal with. If you want to talk to Randy [Couture], you talk to Randy [laughs]. Everybody was so easy to deal with, so open and honest, you’re not running through agents and that junk. It was a little tricky just because I didn’t initially know that much about the sport. Somebody would mention Gary Goodridge and I had to google him to figure out what it was, but it was very nice to work on a project where everybody was pretty accessible.

FT: When you told your colleagues you were going to write a book about mma, how did they react to that?

Wertheim: It was two years ago, and it [mma] has come a long way since then, but a reaction I got a lot was, “You’re writing a book about what?” And the people asking me this are mainstream sports journalists. It kind of gave me the sense that despite what Dana says, the sport still has a way to go. There were people from major TV networks asking if they [the fighters] used props. I think mma has come a long way, but there are still an awful lot of people who don’t differentiate it from something like a Toughman Competition.

FT: Along the way, did you have any doubts that this book was something you’d be able to parlay into a success or were you more concerned with doing it for your own edification, to inform yourself and others?

Wertheim: I think the publisher knew there was a market there, and it may not be what the 55 year old reader would like, but there was a demographic [for it]. It was hard, because I wanted to kind of write a mainstream book, and write it so the average sports fan could get a feel for what the sport was about. But I also didn’t want it to be all John McCain, human cockfighting – I wanted to make it so your readers could get something out of it. But I didn’t want it to be so specific, just talking about who triangle’d whom in UFC 11. It was sort of a balance between writing a mainstream book and also making it interesting enough so that the guy who had just been watching UFC could still get it.

FT: You used a lot of different quotations to open the chapters in the book, from Hemingway to Lao Tzu, Bruce Lee, Dana White, Sugar Ray Leonard – why did you want to start each chapter of the book with a quotation?

Wertheim: It was really a device to show different aspects of combat and fighting and competition. One thing I wanted to do with the book was just kind of clear up some of the misconceptions [about MMA]. You can like it or you can hate it, but I wanted to make the point that it’s legitimate competition. It’s not as barbaric as people might think it is.

FT: One of the topics that has been big in MMA news as of late is the fight to pass MMA legislation in New York. One of its biggest opponents, Assemblyman Bob Reilly has made some statements that MMA is more dangerous than boxing and football. Taking a sport like boxing versus MMA – do you think one is necessarily more violent than the other?

Wertheim: I think you can’t sanction boxing and not sanction MMA. I think boxing is so much worse. I think the promoters are more abusive, the fighters have harder lives afterward. Say what you will about the guys in MMA, but they’re not taking 30 minutes of non-stop headshots. They can take each other down and grapple, and with boxing you just stand there and eat leather. If you don’t like and you don’t want to see it sanctioned, that’s fine, but you can’t sanction boxing and not sanction MMA.

FT: A logistical question – the book was mainly about Militech – why the picture of Liddell in the front?

Wertheim: The author doesn’t always pick the cover [Laughs]. They [the editors] thought it [the picture of Liddell] was an arresting image.

FT: In the press packet I read through for Blood in the Cage, David Mamet is quoted as saying “As Voltaire said, ‘That’s why they invented the squeegee’”. What do you think Mamet was trying to convey with that?

Wertheim: He’s a big MMA guy, and I think he was thinking, “People bleed, it’s a part of life.”

FT: Do you have any other plans to write another book on MMA?

Wertheim: I just finished a tennis book, actually, going back to my roots a little bit. I don’t have any immediate plans to do it, but I wouldn’t be adverse to that.

FT: If people could only take away one thing from Blood in the Cage, what would you want it to be?

Wertheim: I think it depends on who the reader is. My big thing is, not everyone is going to like it [MMA], I understand that. But at least have the facts. At least understand what it is, and that’s what I was trying to do with the book. It’s [MMA] not for everyone and it’s always going to be controversial and have its critics, but I just wanted to clear up some misconceptions, what it is, what it isn’t, and you see where I stand on this. It’s here to stay, it’s not a fad, it’s not the XFL, it’s not something that we’re not going to know what it is in two years. If you don’t like it, fine, but at least know what you’re talking about.


Wertheim was a great guy to talk to, and I really enjoyed Blood in the Cage. For a guy who claimed to have only picked up the sport a few years ago, I think he gave readers a fair and honest portrayal of the sport and one of its legends.


(Originally posted on FightTicker.com)

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