OUR RECREATIONAL VEHICLE lumbers down Denver’s snow-slicked streets, but we travel the zeigeist as if it were a jet stream. Riding shotgun is one Tank Abbott, thirty years old, six feet, 250 pounds, a bar brawler extraordinaire from Huntington Beach, California, the sudden celebrity around whom we’ve gathered, each of us in some way an acolyte in his entourage as we careen toward a real-life comic book: a bare-knuckle pay-per-view event known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Tank’s fighting Saturday night. A purveyor of pain, he plays perfectly: His skill is nothing less than an American preoccupation. People just love to see the bad guy kick ass.
One of the boys–or would that be boyz?–is talking about “fucking dudes up,” like “that hippie motherfucker Tank tapped out in Park City, Utah.”
Shoulda seen it. Blood everywhere. We haddaa take off before the cops got there.
Drinks are served in the main cabin now: Coors Light and Cuervo Gold. For smokes, there are Marlboros and a reach of the good green, which helps one to visualize the blow-by-blow in superlative superhero exclamations–Pow! Bam! Bang! Since he is in training, though, Tank does not partake.
“Sobriety is making me very angry,” he says.
But the boyz are feeling no pain. Scarface is playing on the VCR, and we all have gat-busting renditions of the homicidal coke trafficker, Pacino’s Tony Montana. Deliverance is next on the double bill.
Tank’s cult is such that an Aussie camera crew trails the Tankmobile, which is on course for a gay bar. “We’re not gay,” he says. “We just don’t give a shit.”
There’s this feeling that wherever we go becomes an instant capital of lowbrow culture. The gay bar is closed. But there’s a strip joint next door. And strip joints, like gay bars, bring Tank as close as he ever gets to pacifism. “I hang out in titty bars because no one wants to fight,” he says.
The strippers flutter and fuss about him. Even now, in the infancy of his celebrity, these girls can spot a rising star With eager Aussies on either side, Tank takes his seat.
Various members of the entourage attempt to explain themselves and their leader: We all like w hurt people. It’s only natural, if you think about it. See him? He’s my brother. But that don’t mean I don’t want to fuck him up We’re all a little crazy, I guess, but Tank, man, he’s the craziest. I remember once in high school, we were at a party. This guy starts slapping around one of our buddies. Tank gets him on the ground, bites his ear off.
The scene that comes to mind is equal parts Fast Times at Ridgemont High and A Clockwork Orange.
He beef-jerkied a guy’s lips once.
Bit a dude’s lips off. The claim is punctuated with a slurpy sound effect.
You saw that?
No, that I only heard about
They speak of Huntington Beach as if it were Caucasian Compton. The evening changes as they mix their drinks, cocktails of beer, adrenaline, and testosterone.
Hey, if we fuck somebody up, you gonna write about it?
The boyz look like rambunctious gorgoyles now, but their leader seems almost serene. At the cusp of fame and fortune, Tank Abbott inspects his silicone angels like a Buddha of badass Zen.
He knows what’s up, one of the boyz says admiringly. He’s gonna be huge.
DAVID LEE ABBOTT is more than a street fighter. He’s the first villain of the Ultimate Fighting Championship an event entering its third year, and a resounding success by every measure except good taste.
The UFC matches men representing various martial arts in an octagonal cage. As for rules, the only concessions to that dead Scottish fop, the Marquess Of Queesberry are prohibitions against eye gouging nd biting. Other than that, anything goes. Elbows and knees and head butts, and, yes, feel free to kick the other guy in the nuts.
Ultimate fighting was designed to look very much like that most stupendous American farce, professional wrestling. The difference, of course, is that it’s real, as is the blood. And that’s the biggest part of the sell. There’s a lot of fighting on pay-per-view, everything from World Championship Wrestling to sanctioned professional boxing. But UFC promoters envisioned a production to change forever the consumers of stage-managed violence. They considered it like pornography, the theory being, once you’ve seen X, you’re not going back to R.
More than a few critics–most notably, U.S. Senator John McCain (a Republican from Arizona) and State Senator Roy Goodman (a Republican from New York)–have called for the abolition of such no-holds-barred fighting. Prosecutors have threatened assault charges. The press releases rail against “human cockfighting.”
But the pols are way out of their weight class. They’re up against a behemoth–a culture that’s long been primed to accept the likes of Tank Abbott as both sports and entertainment.
In little more than two years, have been more than seventy UFC bouts. Fighters are examined before and after each bout. There’s usually some blood, but no broken bones, no aneurysms. The only fighter admitted overnight to a hospital was a kickboxer named Pat Smith. And he wasn’t hurt in a bout. He was jumped as he got off an elevator in Casper, Wyoming. At least one witness says Tank and the boyz did it. Still compare this with boxing, a confederacy of dunces and pimps that routinely allows the most grievous of mismatches. Boxing deaths average five a year, to say nothing of those it leaves with punchy neurology.
So for all the talk of “human cockfighting,” ultimate fighting is not the most dangerous sport, just the most enthusiastically grotesque. By its very design, ultimate fighting peddles some awfully unsettling images: The very first fight featured a savate champion literally kicking the teeth out of a sumo wrestler Then there was the American ninja pounded silly with a hailt of fists and elbows, a twenty-second beating good for thirty-four stitches to the face. And don’t forget that other sumo wrestler, this one a 616-pounder from Rahway, New Jersey, down on all fours, his tits jiggling while a low-budget Chuck Norris stood over him, delivering thirty-five consecutive right hands to the head. As for our man Tank: There was the moment he was born as a bad guy to the world, his knee like a vise on the opponent’s head as he mugged for the crowd.
But the man whose head that was, a three-hundred-plus-pound former football player named Paul Varelans, is not nearly so offended. “What about when Lawrence Taylor snapped Joe Theismann’s leg? They didn’t stop showing that on TV, did they? This kind of fighting is a lot safer than football. What’s the first thing a football fan reads in the Sunday sports section? The injury report.”
“Why do people go to auto races?” asks Bob Meyrowitz, whose company, Semaphore Entertainment, produces UFC. “To see the car cross the finish line? Or to see the car crash? Everyone knows about violence in hockey and how the announcers put the fights on the evening highlight package. And why does the NFL put out a video called Greatest Hits?”
To bear Meyrowitz tell it, his event only eases the hypocrisy. He doesn’t have to pretend the violence he’s selling is coincidental. And if nothing else, Meyrowitz understands what sells. TWO decades ago, in the aftermath of Altamont, he came up with the feel-good King Biscuit Flower Hour, rock radio’s first syndicated show. Eventually, he got into pay-per-view. He did the first pay-per-view concert, with Ozzy Osbourne, the former Black Sabbath singer who occasionally bit the heads off live bats; then later, and most profitably, he scored big with New Kids on the Block. That concert still boasts the biggest buy rate of any pay-per-view entertainment event–though it would’ve been dwarfed by Meyrowitz’s ill-fated attempt to put on O. J. Simpson days after his acquittal. Ultimate fighting is just another well-calculated anticipation of popular taste. Tank Abbott happens in a video dimension where Marshall McLuhan meets Vince McMahon. The pay-per-view audience–what Meyrowitz calls a “hall with twenty-six million seats”–has been weaned on vulgarity and violence. We keep getting our dosage upped until we have the attention spans of chimps, until Hulk Hogan and Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal seem as benign as Sleepy and Sneezy and Grumpy. Tony Montana now qualifies as a “classic,” and compared with, say, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Pacino’s rendition comes off like Jimmy Stewart. The UFC is perfect for kiddies raised on video games like Mortal Kombat. After all, what is ultimate fighting but Mortal Kombat come to life? Real blood, not virtual, that’s where we’re headed. It’s only a matter of time before what we know as “sports” looks suspiciously like that old James Caan flick Rollerball.
Campbell McLaren, an executive vice-president at Semaphore Entertainment who studied film and video at Berkeley and MIT, qualifies as the brains of this undertaking. His conception drew from all sorts of high kitsch. The logo was inspired by “the comic-book superhero milieu.” The stage was designed by John Milius, director of Conan the Barbarian. A mere ring would not do, so Milius introduced the Octagon, thirty feet across, enclosed with chain-link fencing and wired for sound. The effects–smoke, strobes, and icon lights–come “straight out of a rock ‘n’ roll show,” he says.
The first UFC aired November 12, 1993. At a price of $14.95, there were eighty thousand buys. Now Semaphore asks $24.95 and routinely draws more than three hundred thousand buys. And it’s spawned a host of imitators: contests called Global Heat, World Combat, and Extreme Fighting, the last being hyped by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. The UFC has its own Web site and goo number, its own line of logo-bearing merchandise. The champion’s purse has risen from $50,000 to $150,000. The videos are on sale at Blockbuster. And the odds are posted in Vegas.
Welcome to the future, where sports are produced as entertainment, where merit melds with schlock and athletes are marketed as action heroes. First, there’s the class of professional fighters: Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and Oleg Taktarov. Gracie is a scion of a Brazilian jujitsu dynasty who defeats men twice his size with an assortment of choke and submission holds, all for the family’s honor. Shamrock, a troubled kid who became what sportscasters call a “well-adjusted individual,” is a Good Guy. In Japan, where UFC-type fighting is the rage, you can buy Ken Shamrock dolls. Taktarov is from the former Red Army, trained in sambo, Soviet jujitsu. The Russian Bear, as his T-shirts advertise him, bleeds like a stuck pig. But he never gives up. A couple of years ago, Taktarov couldn’t pay for a meal. Now he’s got a green card, $53,500 custom-made suits, and star-spangled ambitions.
“To play in movies,” he says.
Most of the fighters are gentlemen, exactly unlike some of the prima donnas you’ll find in most major sports. A good many of them actually have to work for a living: a cop from Nebraska, a paramedic from Ontario who heads his union local. Then there are bar bouncers, refugees from the kickboxing circuit, and an assortment of flakes. Like Fang, a wrestler who had an oral surgeon implant a pair of wolf canines in his mouth. And how about Kimo? A tae kwon do black belt from Hawaii, Kimo was collecting money for drug dealers and smoking crystal mediamphetamine when he found the Lord Jesus Christ. Now Kimo fights for the greater glory, his theology as subtle as his tattoos–elaborate crucifixion across his broad back and the word JESUS spanning his stomach. Freckle-faced kids clamor for autographs he signs: “All things are possible through Jesus Christ, Aloha.”
Of all the fighters, though, my favorite would be Paul Varelans, the former lineman at San Jose State who makes computer chips for a living. Varelans can tell you all about plasmic beams and silicon wafers. He’s just finished the collected works of Kafka and can’t wait to get started on Howard Stern’s Miss America At six eight and more than three hundred pounds, he’s the Baby Huey of the bunch; there’s something endearing, even awkward about him. Then again, in his first UFC bout, he knocked an ex-marine cold with a single elbow to the back of the head. Lately, he’s taken to dyeing his spiky tuft of hair midnight blue and promoting his persona, the Polar Bear. “Hey,” he says, shrugging, “I’m positioning myself in the public eye.”
They’re all marketing themselves. One of them could be the next Mr. T.
“We’re in the star business,” says Meyrowitz. And there’s no question who among his cast possesses the star’s gifts in their purest form: the Tank. “Tank is a natural.” Meyrowitz pauses, producing a Cohiba cigar. “You know who he reminds me of?” The promoter begins to puff, making a show of his Cuban while waiting to answer his own question. “Tank reminds me of Roseanne.”
TANK ABBOTT is not what you’d call a classical beauty, though he does possess that je ne sais quoi, in sufficient abundance for the action-adventure circuit: bushy goatee, blue eyes so hauntingly pale as to suggest that old blind dude from Kung Fu, and a row of removable teeth, which he disengages as we sit down at a diner, just me, him, and the boyz.
He shakes his head with mock regret, trying to make some sense of his new vocation. “My modeling career just wasn’t going anywhere.”
Actually, for this job, Tank’s is practically a perfect portfolio. He has the look, that hint of blood and menace. He’s a Henry Rollins lyric, a House of Pain video, a field marshal in the war on William Bennett. He’s the white guy in the holding cell, that badass, that bar fighter, but brighter than the rest of the boyz.
The son of a football coach, Tank grew up in Huntington Beach, Orange County. He played football and wrestled in high school. He’s done some boxing and some back-alley brawling for bucks. Built like a monster truck, Tank can bench-press 625 pounds–steroid-free, he says–and binge-”blackouts,” the boyz call them–guzzling vodka by the bottle. But mostly, Tank’s preoccupation has been fucking dudes up. Mostly in bars. And mostly, except for run-ins with. ass-hole cops, it it was a blast.
Abbott has been arrested a bunch, but the most time he ever did was six months for an assault and battery he committed while on probation for public intoxication and fighting. He got out of the Orange County jail in January 1995 and six months later received his bachelor’s degree in history at Cal State-Long Beach. “I’m very into wars,” he says. “You know, ‘Nam . . .”
Hanoi, Huntington Beach, who cares? Long as there’s blood and guts. “I been fighting all my life, not like these other guys,” he says, referring to the other conspicuously well-mannered ultimate fighters. “They’re just poseurs, especially these jujitsu guys. I mean, in a bar fight, I’d rip their eyes but. You can’t lay on your back like a bitch in a bar fight. You get hit with a bottle.”
He pauses, almost wistful. “I wish bar fighting was legal.”
Yes, what a wonderful world this would be.
Tank’s been talking about snapping guys’ necks and such. He’ll go so far as to describe that special moment when he’s got the other guy down and is “punting his face” as ecstasy. Like coming,” he says.
But make no mistake. This is no simple sadist. By way of clarification, Tank declares, “I’m not homophobic. And I’m not into that white-supremacist shit. It’s just that I’d rather fight than fuck.”
He’s a man for the times, a man for the media, intuitively gifted. He can sell even his ugliest utterances with humor, intelligence, presence, and an absolute fluency in the lexicon of popular culture. He calls himself a cross between Frank Booth–the homicidal, ear-slicing, gas-sucking sicko played by Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet–and Tony Montana. He quotes from Barfly and from Raging Bull. Each chuckle is amplified with a double chuckle from the boyz. Heh… heh, heh. Sounds like Beavis and Butt-head on steroids.
After a while, you understand why they want Tank as a guest on KROQ’s Loveline or as a “celebrity spokesman” endorsing a line of surfing wear. To spend quality time with Tank is to comprehend the comparison to Roseanne. He has that capacity for stardom, a great talent, an American talent, accessible, exploitable, as cunning as it is crass, vulgar by purpose and predilection, a singular, superlative knack for shock value; in all, those gifts that quicken the blood and the breath of producers and promoters. As Shakespeare would put it, he so offends to make offense a skill. Tank’s madness is blessed with method; attempts to locate the source of his pathology are immediately undone.
“You want me to tell you my mother burned me with cigarettes, right?” A measure of satisfaction scurries across his toothless smile. “That’s what you want me to say, isn’t it?”
Of course, it is.
“Nope. It’s just in here,” he says, tapping his temple with an index finger. “I’m the all-American boy.”
The other fighters, they’re into martial arts, the disciplines–karate, judo, jujitsu, Muay Thai, kung fu, tang soo do, tae kwon do.
“Me?” says Tank. “My discipline is Bar Can Do.”
The boyz chuckle.
“I’m the Grand Master.”
And there you have it, Tank Abbott, a B movie waiting to happen.
LIVE, FROM DENVER, it’s Saturday night. Tonight’s champion will be undefeated, though probably not unbloodied, the survivor three single-elimination brawls–eight fighters in four brackets, and all but one a previous champion or finalist. Ultimate Fighting Championship VIII, billed with typical subtlety as “the Ultimate Ultimate,” was originally scheduled for one of those municipal convention centers. But after the politicians started bleating about human cockfighting; Meyrowitz moved the show to the Mammoth Gardens, which is as dark and dank as a beer hall an erstwhile roller rink. The new site seems entirely apropos, not just as a venue but as a destination. Mammoth Gardens is situated on a strip where contemporary sensibilities breed like germs in a petri dish, right there with 7-Eleven, Wendy’s, the Gold Nugget. Country Disco, and Kitty’s Adult Entertainment.
The fans arrive early and in droves, their brains blurry but eager. The line gets a little testy; you have to get through these cops at the door before you can get your seat or your beer or your twenty-eight-dollar sweatshirt. What a pain in the ass, these cops, patting everyone down for weapons. Gimme a break, man. The way these cops are, messing with everyone’s buzz, it’s easy to understand why the crowd pulls for a guy like Tank.
The homemade banners are already up: WACO, TX. SAYS SIC ‘EM TANK. The chanting cheer–Tank! Tank! Tank!–has already begun. They’re wearing Tank sweatshirts and Tank caps and Tank tank tops. Like delegates at a political convention, each fighter has his frantic patches of support. But Tank’s got a whole goddamned section. He’s got the biggest, baddest dudes. And the best-looking chicks, too.
Check out the redhead with the black boots and the leopard-print blouse. She says she’s an actress. But little else. She’s more than cute, though; she’s the pure drug. Once, her name was tattooed on Tank’s calf. Then he tattooed over it. Hey, love stinks, dude. They’ve known each other since high school. Sweet hearts. Of course, I think, it had to be this one. Either her or Camille Paglia.
“He’s always been the same–1,000 percent psychotic,” she says. “I think it’s pretty sexy.”
At that moment, one of the boyz stumbles in disheveled, high on adrenaline, his chest still heaving, fresh blood on his shirt. Just fucked up some dude outside.
The vibe is spreading though our strange assembly, this heavy-metal pep rally Kimo, the tattooed tenor who gave up crystal meth for Christ, says, “Remember in high school when somebody yelled, ‘Fight!’ and, like, everybody went, ‘Where? Who? Then they all ran to the cafeteria, or the parking lot. Well that’s still how it is. Nothing’s changed. This is just high school all grown up.”
The chant–Tank!–grows more fervent and frequent. He’s got the first match of the evening, and he’ll be the first into the Octagon. Soon, the boyz are backstage, warming up their Grand Master, hassling the black-shirted security guards and the cops trying to keep order, hassling the opponent’s entourage and, of course, the still photographer. Smacking cameras qualifies as the first prerogative of American celebrityhood. The second would be blue smoke and flashing lights, through which Tank and the boyz pass amid great cheers on their way to the Octagon. Tank loves the chance to “hurt people without going to jail,” while his opponent, Steve Jennum, is here for “the competition.” No, really. “It keeps me sharp,” he says.
Tank’s boyz are California’s version of soccer hooligans, but Jennum makes good with a few guys from back home, Omaha, Nebraska. They don’t even curse. Not that Jennum can’t fight. He’s 2-0 in UFC matches, a third-degree black belt in ninjitsu, and one helluva nice guy. “I always got along with everybody real well,” he says.
But more than that, much more, he’s a cop. The fans appreciate such deliberate brilliance in the matchmaking, such yin and yang. They boo Jennum when he’s introduced.
The fight will be quick but not nearly as violent as, say, Tank’s very first UFC fight, when he opened up this big four-hundred-pound Samoan dude’s face, knocking him unconscious and sending him into convulsions in twenty-one seconds. This match will take all of seventy-four seconds, as the cop endures a brief clutch at his Adam’s apple and a couple of shots to the body. Omaha’s finest signals submission with Tank on top, trying to push the cop’s head through the chain-link as if it were Play-Doh. No blood. Still, a murmur of satisfaction wafts over the crowd, even as Tank refuses to shake hands, as the fans reach out to touch him.
Didja see? Didja see him kick the cop’s ass?
The next three fights go fast, too. Paul Varelans, the Polar Bear, is bloodied and choked out by Dan Severn, a wrestler from Coldwater, Michigan. Varelans is slow in getting up. Later, in the triage room, he tries to tell the doctor he’s okay. But he’s not. The Polar Bear has become a teddy bear; he’s trying to hold back the tears.
Next up, the Russian, Oleg Taktarov, catches Dave Beneteau, a paramedic from Ontario, with a leg lock. On the way out, a big bald guy from Beneteau’s crew smacks a catcalling fan. Finally, a Brazilian bare-knuckle champ beats on our lowbudget Chuck Norris before choking him out. Now it’s Tank time again.
Dan “the Beast” Severn arrives in the Octagon amid a red-white-and-blue entourage, whose members include a pro wrestler and a professor of martial arts (I kid you not: Grand Canyon University) who preaches as an ordained Baptist minister on the side. They announce their guy while waving a big American flag. A smattering of fans pick up the cheer: “U-S-A! U-S-A!” That’s Severn: the flag-waving patriot, good and God-fearing, the father of four. Outside the ring, he hasn’t had a fight since maybe second grade, when some kid tried to take his milk money. He is thirty-seven, about 240 pounds, and even with those old Bruno Sammartino-style shorts, he looks like G. 1. Joe. Again we have an exaggerated conflict, good and evil, the family man versus the street fighter. Tank’s sneer speaks for him: what a corny motherfucker.
As it happens, Severn is the superior technician. About forty-five seconds into the fight, he pins Tank against the fence and starts beating on him. There’s an eighteen-minute time limit, and this one will go the distance, though nothing much will change. Severn maintains his advantage, dropping these big, crashing elbows to the head, the base of the neck, punching, slapping, ramming his knee into the ribs, adding the occasional head butt, while Tank, facedown, just takes it. The give-and-take develops its own predictably perverse cadence–thud, thud … thud, Tank’s head against the canvas. It’s not what you might expect from watching those kung fu movies. There’s none of the quick, slick choreography, no ballet to this bashing. Rather, they’re like beasts of burden, low mammals fornicating. But the closer you get, what’s graceless becomes grotesque. A member of the production staff can’t bear to watch. And no less a booster than Meyrowitz squirms in his ringside seat, his face grave with concern. Not ten feet away sits Peter McNeeley, a bum who lasted eighty-nine seconds with Mike Tyson. He’s slack-mouthed, shaking his head in awe.
“Holy shit,” he says.
For all its offense, this one-sided stalemate achieves moments of drama and even, in some crazy, pigheaded way, virtue. As the pounding continues, there comes the question, What of Tank? What of his nerve endings? Does he, in fact, have any? For no matter the blow and no matter how many, Tank will not signal submission. Neither will the boyz. They can’t throw in the towel, for they’ve brought no towel to throw.
Rival cheers go up–U-S-A! U-S-A! versus Tank? Tank! Tank! Tank!–as the partisans make themselves known, though Tank’s guys are in greater numbers, telling him, asking him, begging him, to rise.
Tank tries valiantly, pulling himself up by the fence with Severn still at his back, still pounding. He seems unimpressed with the beating, urgent only as he searches the howling crowd with those crazy Kung Fu eyes. Then the object of his attentions becomes clear. Her face yields nothing so much as an expression. The chanting becomes euphoric as he raises himself, but she remains outwardly impassive, almost motionless, tilting her head, finally clasping her hands, as if she were eyeing something entirely familiar, or abstract, a hanging in a museum, perhaps.
With 2:53 left, Tank is upright and bucking, trying some sort of reverse head butt to no great effect. This will all end with his losing by unanimous decision, the first such verdict in the UFC. As Severn is proclaimed the winner, Tank climbs over the fence on the opposite end of the Octagon and just walks away. The crowd lets loose in his honor, and while his damsel will join in none of its fevered favor, the larger point has been proved. As it pertains to endurance, Tank Abbott would draw raves from any of his screen idols–Jake LaMotta, Tony Montana or Frank Booth–as a man to make a freak art of obstinacy.
I’M FINE. JUST WISH IT could’ve kept going,” Tank says, cutting the doctor’s examination short. “There’s no time limit in the street.”
“C’mon, these guys hit like chicks. Cuff me, start kicking me in the face. That hurts.”
Tank smirks at his police escort. “You guys know what I’m talking about.”
Sure they do. But the cops are as enthralled as anyone, asking for autographed T-shirts and hats. Meyrowitz offers congratulations on the way out. So does Jennum, the police officer from Nebraska. The boyz. gather in the parking lot. The high school sweetheart has been waiting for him.