Democracy, Pop Tarts and Jason High

It will be 3 a.m. in two minutes by my watch. Through the phone receiver, Jason High waxes philosophical on what makes a proper piece of walkout music.

“That Big Daddy Kane song -- like, it’s good, but that’s not a walkout track,” he says, scoffing at my contention that seminal hip-hop classic “Young, Gifted and Black” would make a great entrance tune. “People aren’t listening to the lyrics of a walkout song, and the beat just isn’t right for a walkout. You need a strong intro.”

“That’s one of the most classic beats of all time,” I retort in my most incredulous whine.

“Nah,” he says flatly, denying my elitist overtures. “Not a walkout track at all.”

I have been talking to High for almost two hours at this point. My head and neck are uncomfortable from cradling my phone, now warm and clammy from an intimate physical encounter with the side of my face. That’s not to say I mind. Usually the interview part of a written feature is far too much work, an exhausting cat-and-mouse game filled with military-level stratagems to get a subject to open up and give honest, interesting answers. It’s so easy to get sidetracked in tangential discussion; the only effort needed in this case is to remember what I had actually wanted to ask in the first place.

It was nearly 15 minutes into our conversation before I got to my first planned question. I wanted to know what the past week had been like for him, only days removed from a night in Saitama, Japan, during which he simultaneously notched the biggest triumph of his career -- a split decision win over previously unbeaten Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Andre Galvao -- and was dealt his most deflating loss -- a gruesome head kick knockout courtesy of Marius Zaromskis in the final of Dream’s welterweight grand prix.

“Um, nothing really,” he says in his characteristically laid back voice. “I dunno; it’s always like this. I just hang out for a week or so. The first few days, I was up all hours of the night, sleeping ’til three in the afternoon.”

“Was that just the jetlag?” I ask, disappointedly expecting an answer that would not reveal anything deeply emotional or psychological.

“Yeah,” he replies.

I follow by asking him if he had replayed the Galvao and Zaromskis fights in his head and if he had actually rewatched them, hoping to get some sort of visceral response.

“Pretty much all the time,” he tells me. “I rewatched the Galvao fight when we got back to the hotel, then both of them when I got home.”

I probe him further and ask him what his reactions were upon rewatching the fights. He stated very clinically that the Zaromskis fight was a reminder that he needs to keep his left hand up, a technical error that also led to his being put on Jay Hieron’s highlight reel in January. We talk about the innate submission defense he showed against Galvao, who threatened to submit him repeatedly. However, he becomes more animated when we stop talking technique and Xs and Os.

“But really, what pisses me off most is that people don’t think that I won the Galvao fight,” he says.

“I thought Galvao won,” I remark.

“Well,” he replies, dragging out the word for comedic effect, “I think you’re just a Galvao nuthugger. You’ve got a thing for him.”

I laugh and continue on with the questions: whether he felt the toughest part of the tournament was over after beating Galvao, if he felt he was fully in control once he got a takedown on Zaromskis -- and similar queries. It’s not that his answers are dull. In fact, there was something very genuine about the way High answers questions. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully and often says, “I dunno,” not to plead ignorance but rather to show he’s actively thinking about what you’ve asked him. He pauses long after he finishes sentences, but if you don’t interrupt, he’ll go right on talking and thinking.

Instead, what is striking about High’s answers is how detached he seems from a week-old event that would be so emotionally evocative for others in his profession in the same position. The rollercoaster of going from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a matter of hours on such a high-profile stage tends to have a more visibly pronounced effect on prizefighters.

“I used to take winning and losing really personally in college,” he tells me when I asked about his seeming detachment. “One of the reasons I got into MMA was that I didn’t think I was as successful as I could’ve, maybe should’ve, been when I wrestled in college. So now I try to not to look at it so personally.”

This is not to say High doesn’t have personal attachment to the sport. He has carved out a niche for himself as one of MMA’s greatest ambassadors of the Twitter generation. He follows more people than he has followers of his own. He makes a startling amount of @ replies to fans who, beyond the Twitter world, would be total strangers. Better still, he seems like he has a real rapport with anyone to whom he responds. There is no hint of the fighter-to-fan -- or in my case, fighter-to-media -- hierarchy which always seems to dictate interaction. You feel like high school friends if you’ve talked to him for more than five minutes. He is eminently likable in the purest sense.

It is no surprise then that his most knee-jerk responses stem not from what happens in the ring but rather the people who are watching outside of it. About an hour into our conversation, I ask him what he thought about the fact that he had been the victim of two pantheon-level highlight reel knockouts in a span of six months. His response was revealing and slightly schizophrenic.

“Well, I don’t want to see myself gettin’ knocked out every time I’m watching HDNet,” he light-heartedly replies. “Now they’ve got double the KOs to use, but maybe that’ll remind me to keep my left hand up.”

The actual fact that Hieron and Zaromskis so brutally turned his lights out is something High jokes about freely. He is willing to accept it as a post-it note for stand-up self-improvement. I point out how strange it was to be able to be so unaffected by such personal, stirring bits of video.

“It’s [expletive] embarrassing, dude,” he suddenly exclaims, by far the most animated he’s been in our conversation. “The Hieron fight, I got knocked out in front of my mom, in front of my girlfriend.”

He ponders for a minute before finishing.

“I’m still gonna watch ‘Inside MMA,’ but … man,” he continues. “I’m going home soon, and my grandma’s already hacking on me to retire. She was basically saying I should retire after the Hieron fight. Now I’m basically working on a speech to explain to her why I should keep fighting, how good I can be if I just change a few things.”

Our conversation is refreshing. There’s something charming about a 27-year-old grown man whose trip home to Kansas City to show off his newborn daughter, 10-week-old Jaelyn Leslie, turns into an intervention in which he must defend his fighting career to his family. Likewise, there’s something sober and intelligent about a still-developing prospect that not only recognizes he’s flawed but vividly sees those flaws and wants to improve them. There’s also something unsettling about it all. “Nice guys finish last” is an aphorism or a reason.

One of the most frustrating parts about interviewing athletes, especially MMA fighters, is that often the focus of the world is painfully narrow and boring. It can be excruciating to extract the interesting nuggets of fighters’ personalities, if they even exist. Though there are some exceptions, most of MMA’s “personalities” are either gimmicky self-promoters or simply those unafraid to say what’s on their mind.

It’s a trade-off. What many elite fighters lose in terms of being interesting people is often made up for in the fact that their obsessive single-minded focus on MMA makes them great fighters. It is a sport that is both delicate and brutal, where the smallest mistakes -- like dropping your left hand -- are the differences between the greats and the also-rans. While it would be novel to hear Georges St. Pierre talk as if he were Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World,” he is likely the fighter he is because of the level of asceticism he observes. Many fighters develop holes in their personal lives almost as a rite of passage to become elite, owing to the sacrifices they make.

So I wonder about Jason High. I wonder as he tells me about the time he was kicked off a campsite in Kelowna, British Columbia, for wielding a wiffle ball bat. I wonder when we talk about the technology of breast pumps and when he explains his love of the History Channel. I wonder if -- for his relative youth, his skills, his athletic upside -- he’s just too swell of a guy to capitalize on his potential.

I may be overanalyzing. Maybe the stark separation of his fighting life and personal life is exactly the arrangement that will rouse the best out of High and allow him to look at the last six months as strictly formative. Certainly, it would make the sport seem far more democratic if it played out that way for one of MMA’s Twitter all-stars.

At 3 a.m. on the dot, I ask him if there’s anything else interesting that happened this last week, anything that would be interesting in this story. I jokingly reference a post he made on Twitter in which he claimed his girlfriend, Ann Gaffigan -- incidentally, the 2004 United States steeplechase champion -- ate all the Pop Tarts and Oreos he had bought and ask if anything similarly quaint has happened.

“Ohh, the Pop Tarts and Oreos,” he muses. His significant other begins to make significant noise in the background.

“I ate all the Pop Tarts and Oreos,” High says, laughing wildly. “That’s right. I actually ate all her pregnant food, too. She didn’t even like Pop Tarts before me, just like she knew about rap music way before me.”

On the other end, I can hear them break out into the loud couple-esque banter, as if I were the studio audience for their sitcom. The raucous laughter goes on for nearly a full minute. I struggle to think of other notable fighters who would punctuate a two-hour discursive interview by amusingly antagonizing their better half about snack food and hip-hop. That should be a good thing, and I hope it is.
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