Sherdog/Ben Duffy illustration
Drawing on over two decades as the global authority on mixed martial arts, “From the Vault” features current Sherdog contributors presenting noteworthy articles from yesteryear, adding hindsight, critique and personal reflections.
To me, sports have always been about the people stories. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the small triumphs and tragedies lurking behind the big headlines.
Like many red-blooded American kids, I spent my formative years awaiting the weekly arrival of Sports Illustrated; and like many, I read each new issue cover to cover, usually more than once. In my parents’ home, where reading material was never thrown out, there was more than a decade’s worth of back issues—minus the swimsuit issues; to this day, I have no idea how my folks intercepted those or what they did with them—organized chronologically and shelved neatly, right above a similarly extensive and well-worn collection of National Geographic and directly below the thick volumes of the 1982 World Book Encyclopedia.
What always stood out to me were the smaller stories. Tucked away behind the splashy front-cover pieces about Shaquille O’Neal, Eric Lindros or Evander Holyfield, and the usual beat reports about whichever major league sport was currently in season, most issues contained one or more takeout features that zoomed in much more closely on their subject. Whether that subject was a future NBA All-Star toiling away in obscurity or a forgotten Jazz Age decathlete I would never have heard of otherwise, those were the stories that always drew my interest and fired my imagination. As a kid, I resolved that if I ever became a sportswriter, those were the kind of stories I would try to write.
By the time the article I’m presenting here was published in August 2011, I was an adult, making my living primarily through writing, and had been an obsessive MMA fan for seven or eight years. Nonetheless, it had never once occurred to me to try my hand at writing about the fight game. In hindsight, I attribute that to a strange mix of self-doubt and snobbery. On one hand, it was unthinkable that I could write about mixed martial arts—the people who wrote for my favorite MMA outlets obviously must know far more about the sport than I did, and anyway they were Professional Sportswriters, capital-P, capital-S. On the other hand, some unacknowledged part of my brain whispered that there was no place in combat sports media for the kind of stories I would have wanted to write, anyway. Subconsciously, I must have taken the relative lack of deep-dive storytelling features to mean that either there was a shortage of people in the MMA media space with the drive or talent to write them, or that there was no outlet willing to publish them. (Note that I say relative lack; I met Chuck Mindenhall a few months ago, and I was more nervous to shake his hand, and more inclined to brag about it afterwards, than any fighter or other industry figure I’ve encountered.)
I was of course no stranger to the work of Jordan Breen, either. He had arrived at Sherdog a couple of years after I started reading the site and quickly became my favorite contributor, a teenage wunderkind with a broad base of cultural references and an eye towards sub-Pride Japanese MMA and women’s fights, which were two criminally underreported subsets of the sport at the time. By August 2011, I was an avid reader as well as a regular listener, occasional email correspondent and very occasional caller to his various radio shows.
Nonetheless, nothing in my experience with Sherdog, online MMA media in general or Breen in particular did much to prepare me for the long-form feature that came out on Aug. 9, 2011. I read the article as a matter of course, since I was a McCall fan and in any event a Sherdog completist, and was stunned. It was long. With the benefit of hindsight and access to Sherdog’s website back-end, I now know it’s over 5,000 words, more than four times the length of a standard interview feature. Beyond simple word count, it was ambitious to the point of being self-important; jumping from the starting point of McCall’s “Capulet” chest tattoo, the article was built as a conscious homage to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” all the way down to the title.
That kind of literary aspiration often spells doom for a piece about popular culture, whether it’s dealing with sports, film or modern music, but somehow “Ian McCall’s Violent Delights” managed to walk the tightrope between ambition and pretention. What coulda, shoulda been an exercise in cringe-worthy, unreadable dreck instead read like the real-life Shakespearean tragedy it was. That is partly due to the subject matter: McCall’s personal and professional life practically beg for a classical theater treatment.
It is due in larger part, however, to Breen’s surprisingly sensitive and light-handed work. While the article has its share of thesaurus vocabulary—a trademark of early-20s Breen that elicited reader complaints even if I found it charming—he handled his overarching Shakespearean framework with an ease that implied he was familiar with his source material beyond the 1996 Baz Luhrmann version. More importantly, he treated his human subject matter with a velvet glove. Embedded in California for long enough to cover multiple McCall fights, Breen got his subject at ease, then simply depicted McCall’s words and actions with honesty, kindness and a minimum of editorializing, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To the extent he had to insert himself into the story, Breen acted capably as a proxy for the reader, asking the questions or raising the objections that likely occurred to many of us. The result was an almost voyeuristic thrill, that elusive feeling of getting to know a stranger just a little bit thanks to the third-party facilitation of a skilled storyteller.
For this reader, at least, it was a revelation. After so many years of MMA fandom, after reading hundreds if not thousands of articles, here at last was a piece that made me mad because I wished I’d written it. Hot on the heels of my amazement at the article was amazement at the fact of its existence, that a major MMA outlet—my favorite, in fact—had published this lengthy, ambitious feature on a fighter who was toiling on the fringes of mainstream attention. It reminded me of the things I’d fallen in love with about sports writing as a kid, and for the first time, it occurred to me that I might like to write about mixed martial arts.
Tonight, I raise a glass to “The Mastermind”—even though I think he hates that nickname—who unknowingly set one fan on the path that led to you reading this article right now. If you’ve enjoyed it at all, please raise one with me and revisit the original.