Book Discussion: MMA Special – John McCarthy and Uriah Faber

This week as a fan of the UFC and mixed martial arts, I read two books from MMA insiders.

Yes, these are ghost-written moneymakers destined mostly for bargain bins but damn, I just wrote about Solzhenitsyn – do I really need to prove my cred? Yep, this is a pretty trashy genre but it is a well established genre nevertheless. MMA is a young sport and certainly full of interesting characters with stories to tell. What’s more is that the dominant force in the sport, the UFC, often likes to write history as the victor in a way that smooths over anything that they don’t like, making the books that the prominent figures write a rare glimpse into the reality of an often airbrushed world.

Here are my brief thoughts.

 

John McCarthy is the original UFC referee, a pioneer of the ruleset that lead to the unified rules and probably still the best MMA referee around. The book is ghostwritten by respected MMA journalist Loretta Hunt – a longstanding outlaw of martial arts media since the UFC has a tendency to deny media reporting credentials and to publically insult any journalists who write even one word of fair negative criticism of their business practises. As such, my expectations for this were pretty good.

The UFC so utterly dominates coverage of the sport that its own version of MMA history is utterly dominant and contradicting voices are rarely heard. The is no impartial history of the UFC out there, so my prime interest in the book revolved around an honest insight that is not usually heard from two sources who aren’t afraid to give a partisan view and have nothing to lose by giving it. The book is written at the time when McCarthy was rarely selected for either UFC events or MMA events in Nevada period. This is a fact that gives the book a rather odd ending (McCarthy once again is a common sight in the UFC) but means that it is written during a period most likely to lead to a tell-all version of events.

For the most part, the book does not dissappoint. McCarthy’s version of events is fair and even-handed and he gives credit to the UFC parent company Zuffa for their generosity in paying him a retainer after buying the company in return for using his catchphrase (replacing a vital source of income as prior to Zuffa seeking atheltic commissions to provide referees, McCarthy was directly employed by the UFC) and for generously thanking and gifting him upon his first (false) retirement from refereeing. At the same time, he sheds light on exactly how Zuffa aquired the company which is not flattering. Lorenzo Fertitta sat in a Nevada Athletic commission that denied the previous UFC administration things that quickly became available once Fertitta was the owner of the UFC himself. It is not known if this was a deliberate strategy to drive down the price but even if it was not, it is a conflict of interest. McCarthy does not highlight this or assign blame but he does present the facts and it is easy for readers to draw their own conclusion. Such facts are rarely reported.

Other key moments are really very interesting – the initial plan and designs for the first UFC, the first fight that McCarthy feels was fixed, refereeing for Pride and Strikeforce as well as some characatures of famous villains and discussions of some refereeing fumbles.

His book offers a history of the UFC from his perspective and the key points of his own life outside martial arts. For a fan it’s well worth a read. McCarthy is responsible for far more of the rules of MMA than any casual glance would suggest (in inventing “intelligent defence” he likely turned something borderline illegal into something that could become a respectable sport). However, it does get across one other point: McCarthy himself is something of spikey individual and personally I’m not sure I would like to be around him for very long. He’s quite honest about his own temper, his former steroid usage and some incidents in the past which cast him in a rather negative light. He is also a study of a man who has struggled with a macho hyper-masculine identity his whole life with a loose cannon father he was both dissappointed by and worked his whole life to impress. McCarthy at one point claimed that he didn’t believe any prospective father who didn’t say that they wanted a boy, something that made me place face in palm. Nevertheless, if I didn’t like McCarthy himself from his own account, he still came across as honest to a fault – the very epitome of an impartial and fair official.

I’m not going to spend as long on Uriah’s book because it’s a much less serious affair. The book is a biography but it masquerades as a self help book. Like so many self help books, many of the lessons are common sense, many make no sense at all and only one or two make you sit up and take notice. Despite the somewhat annoying structure, the book is actually very well written and go into a lot of detail about Faber’s early life and early MMA career.

The section about his brother’s problems with evangelical christianity and mental health is the jewel of the book. In fact, many of the best chapters are not about Faber himself but about members of his management team or “Alpha Male” fight camp. This goes a long way to show that Faber is something special, not because he is some kind of genius businessman (as is often presented) but that he is an incredible team player and really does try to get the best from everyone around him. The result is his success in forming a fight camp that really is something very rare and special in MMA in how supportive it is and his success in business ventures and sponsorships outside of fighting itself. Faber comes across as a genuinely good person and someone who genuinely cares about his friends as family, though he can show a dark side too, allowing a poser to take a fight he never should has been in and having some sharp words for charaters he met along the way that he doesn’t approve of.

In particular, Faber carries across into his book the idea that he is a level above most athletes in MMA. Every competitor thinks his opponents are inferior in order to have the confidence to fight but Faber unlike many freely labels his opponents as inferior in his book even after he has beaten them. It isn’t gentlemanly but it is honest and Faber comes aross much more as a straight shooter who calls MMA exactly how it is than someone with any kind of malice or hubris – he comes across as someone quite humble in fact, which is rare in a former champion.

His humbleness is especially apparent in the respect he shows long time rival Dominick Cruz in the chapter concerning their fights. In press conferences, Faber and Cruz showed real fire and venom for each other at times, though Faber takes a complimentary high road here and paints them more as frenemies than true opposites.

My only real source of dissapointment in the book is that other than Faber’s debut and his fights with Cruz, the book glosses over the rest of his fighting career. While Faber knew he would be a champion from the start, it’s almost unforgiveable to miss out any detail from some of the most interesting points in his career. As such, the book is very missable for the MMA fan, though if there is a man out there in MMA that could write a book mostly on his childhood, debut and friends and still have it mean something and feel like a story worth telling, that man is Uriah Faber.

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