I was maybe 5 years old when my mom opened me up to the fight game. She gave me gloves and taught me about Ali, how important he was. And as the years moved, names like Sugar Ray Leonard and Boom Boom Mancini filtered through my impressionable mind.
I’ve been in love with the very idea of combat ever since. I knew I always wanted to fight and was, at one time, fairly decent at it – mostly because I had little regard for my own health and was always willing to take a chance.
As I grew, so did my love for throwing bungalows. All aspects.
Sandlots and playgrounds turned to classrooms and psychologists offices. Soon, the question came: Was I going to use my affinities to better myself and the people around me? Or as an aide to destruction?
There were dozens of opportunities for me to go either way, but an early teenage rejection on "Pill Hill" sealed it.
I was never really sure why the street was nicknamed Pill Hill. Maybe it referred to all of the doctors that lived on the street? Or perhaps it was in reference the plethora of meds being consumed by the over-fortunate residents?
The houses were the biggest I had ever seen. Free of all apparent care.
But there was a party that night on Pill Hill. And I had found a way to get invited.
The happy faces, the sparkly blue eyes, the loud confidence. The kids that lived on the street were always one step ahead of me.
Who they were and what they wanted were acceptable, and they somehow knew it.
Me? I didn’t care much for football. Or boat rides to Summerfest. I liked to fight; I was 13 years old and everything that they were not. Unsure of who I was, embarrassed as to how I looked, triple-guessing myself before I ever made a move. Trying with all my might to impress who I thought could make or break me.
Trying to find some way to keep myself intact, while meeting social adequacy.
It was the end of the summer. School was about to kick in, and I had one girl on my mind. Let’s call her Sarah.
Sarah wasn’t THE girl, but she did hang out with THE crowd, and I figured this was going to be the night I would solidify my standing with her and by extension her peers.
I made my way up Pill Hill and found myself standing in front of two large oak doors. I can remember how heavy the knocker was.
After an hour or so of minor party pleasantries, I finally drew up enough courage to ask Sarah out.
The conversation started off easy enough. I asked her if she was having fun and if she had her school schedule figured out yet. She rolled her eyes, mentioned that she was bored, tilted her head and looked me straight in the eye, placing hair around her ear.
My heart fluttered.
"What’s that on top of your lip, Kevin?"
"On top of your lip. What is that? It’s like black. You have a blackhead."
"A blackhead. Um, ew, it’s like … you should really look in the mirror."
I knew I had acne; I knew what pimples were. I started off puberty early, well aware of my skin issues. But this was the first time someone my age had ever brought it to my attention.
My heart sank.
I backed myself away from the conversation to the nearest bathroom and locked the door. I could feel the blood rushing to my face.
Looking at myself ashamed, I began to dig. And press. And squeeze. And dig, press, squeeze. I didn’t get much out, but the irritation created a massive swollen lump on top of my lip.
Waiting another 5 minutes, it seemed as if the party had begun to move itself to the basement of the house.
I peeked my head out of the bathroom, the coast was clear. From the basement, I heard a dog growling while kids laughed. I knew they were teasing the dog with a chew toy. And I had seen that chew toy earlier. It was designed to look like a piece of pizza.
I heard Sarah call out to the rest.
"You know that that is? It’s Kevin’s face!"
I didn’t even bother at that point. I just walked out. And left Pill Hill behind.
As I reflect today, I know this was just kids being kids. And there was no real intent to hurt me. We were all looking for attention, to be noticed. And I hold no ill will.
At the time, though, all I thought was that she and the rest of them thought they were better than me. That they thought they were above me.
They had clean faces, two parents in their house and multiple out-of-state vacations every year.
I had boxing gloves and a desire to use them, and it was incidents like this that pushed me to use violence in the most destructive ways I allow myself to be a part of.
Those kids weren’t trying to be my enemies. They were just as confused as I was. But the perceived arrogance, the finger pointing, the lack of empathy. Any hope I could have had to use my talents for good was washed away by frustration and a raging inferiority complex.
It stayed with me for a long, long time.
Decades later, blessed with a wonderful wife and a fantastic academy, I am now slowly learning how to use my aggression in positive ways.
So when I hear Meryl Streep use the platform she has to extoll the lack of "arts" in mixed martial arts a few weeks ago, it cut personal. Not because I am in fear that the sport will be banned. Not because I believe everyone should be a fan or even accept it as a sport.
It’s that, I’m on her side and the way she talks is completely counter-productive to what we should be doing.
There simply is not a sport more culturally diverse than mixed martial arts. We have embraced the gay and lesbian community. Women are promoted as equals, and the sport provides competitors from every single area of the globe, regardless of color or religion.
And then I look at the crowd at the SAG awards. Anyone remember #OscarsSoWhite?
C’mon Meryl. Try harder. You can do better.
It’s just so important to note that when one even perceives being spoken down to, as I was on Pill Hill, the ramifications … well, they can be brutal.
Hollywood, the "Left," remain so vastly out of touch. So unwilling to learn from the past few years.
So, while Streep insults and infers stupidity, Bannon empathizes and fights for the downtrodden. If I didn’t know better ...
That, my friends, is how we find ourselves in the position we are today – and judging from the last few weeks, I fear, no closer to coming together.
News & notes
It is fight week, and come Saturday, we will have had a 43-day break between UFC pay-per-view shows, by far the largest stretch of PPV inactivity in years.
This weekend features plenty of action, including the return of Rousey-killer Holly Holm. Arguably the greatest of all time, Anderson Silva, now ranked seventh, will step to sixth-ranked Derek Brunson. Jacare Souza will risk his No. 3 ranking against No. 13 Tim Boatsch, and locally trained featherweight Rick "the Gladiator" Glenn will be looking for his first UFC win. Most assuredly an enjoyable evening of violence.
That said, it has been quiet as of late.
Forced to cancel their January PPV show due to injuries, it now seems as if the new ownership group may be looking pull back on how many pay-per-views they’ll be running in 2017 – giving credence to the idea that less may in fact be more.
Couple that with the massive schedule they put together in Q3 and Q4 of 2016, their top stars are simply on the shelf.
Conor McGregor seems to be fine with taking the first part of 2017 off while he plays footsie with Floyd and boxing.
After suffering her first consecutive losing streak, it seems as if Ronda Rousey may in fact be calling it a day or at least a year.
Jon Jones, just below them on the bankable scale, is suspended until July, as is on-again, off-again part-time WWE icon Brock Lesnar.
The legend George St. Pierre seems to be no closer to a comeback.
Even underground kings Nick and Nate Diaz seem content to stay close to home, electing to sharpen their knife-throwing and Snoop Dogg-hanging in the most Stockton, California way possible.
Given that the sport does not really have an offseason, the fights keep coming. And for degenerates like myself, we’ll still dig in.
But for the passerby, there are a handful of fighters that the UFC would do well to start investing in now. Let’s talk about them quickly.
Two Korean fighters are poised to make massive contributions to the game in 2017.
The "Korean Super Boy" Doo Ho Choi is coming off a world-class performance in losing to the savvy veteran Cub Swanson in early December last year. Rarely does one’s stock rise after a loss, but Choi showed the world that he has arrived with unforgiving brutality and technique.
In addition, "the Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung retuned after three years of mandatory military service this past month and did not skip a beat. Jung provided a ferocious first-round KO against the always-game Dennis Bermudez last week, which should immediately place Jung in the top 10 at 145 pounds.
Both Koreans have the style and fortitude to put on incredibly exciting matches in 2017 – and to have an entire country and their marketing disposal. I expect a Seoul show sometime this summer with both featured on the card.
New Jersey’s Lando "Groovy" Vannata had the extremely difficult task of taking on top five lightweight Tony Ferguson in his UFC debut last July. Although the result was a second-round submission loss, he gave Ferguson all kinds of problems and bounced back with a highlight spinning heel kick knock out against John Makdessi last December. Vannata’s diverse mix of striking and scrambling will only continue to improve under the tutelage of the JacksonWink academy. He has a good shot of cracking the top 10 in the 155-pound division by the end of 2017.
Cody Garbrandt’s decision victory over longtime 135-pound king Dominick Cruz solidified what should be a decent title run for the Ohio native. He speaks well on the mic, performs even better in the cage and seems like he could have that "it" factor for the rural or working class UFC fan. His Midwest roots intact, he seems poised to go Hollywood if he can keep that belt strapped around his waist.
For years, the sport has been desperate to find a way to pull Mexican boxing fans into mixed martial arts, and Yair Rodriguez is the man to do that. Winner of the "Ultimate Fighter Latin America" and undefeated in the UFC, the Mexico native has everything he needs to become a bonified star in the sport. Just recently laying waste to Hall of Famer BJ Penn, Yair’s mix of athleticism, Taekwondo and sparkling personality leave me no doubt that, if booked correctly, he could well be Mexico’s biggest combat star. He’s still very green in the grappling department and has yet to face someone with great takedown offense. But that said, he has plenty of time to grow.
It’s not often that fans of the sport can get excited about heavyweight prospects. But the times are a-changing. Not every big guy is going to make an NFL or NBA roster, and we may very well be seeing the future of the division in three potential superstars.
Close to home, Chicago’s Curtis "Razor" Blaydes is starting to show some promise in a division in need of serious talent. With a 7-1 overall record, the former Harper College wrestler has shown much promise in the cage. His only loss being the result of doctor stoppage, I expect him to grow in the very shallow pond he finds himself in.
The man to deliver that only loss to Blaydes was Cameroon-born Francis Ngannou. Ngannou’s life story is a movie script in waiting. Poverty-stricken from an early age, Ngannou moved to Paris in hopes of finding wealth in boxing. While living on the streets in France (where MMA is still illegal), he was invited into an MMA gym to train and live for free. Currently undefeated in the UFC, his potential for growth is staggering. Never mind the marketing opportunities he could have in both Europe and Africa.
Derrick "the Black Beast" Lewis has been cultivating his personality inside the cage and via social media for more than two years, and he truly is one of the division’s greatest gifts. At times coming off as both unaffected and humble, his dominance in the cage over the course of his last five fights may have his competition saying otherwise. Although he seems to forgo technique at times, make no mistake this guy continues to grow his skillset, and I suspect he’ll continue to rise among his peers. A major fight against top-ranked Travis Brown looms soon on the horizon. If he wins, it’s going to be very hard to deny him a top five opponent before the end of the summer.
Blaydes, Ngannou and Lewis are all primed to be forces for years to come. If the UFC was ever going to make a hardcore push into the African American sports consciousness, you could not ask for three better guys to build around. Why I have yet to see them on BET or TV One is mind-boggling. Let me end that with a Spicer, PERIOD.
These winter months are so difficult for many of us. If you aren’t an outdoors person and you crave warmth and light, I feel you. You know who else probably does? Mr. Zack Frame. A certain Zack Frame that can always be trusted to secure his perch upon the warmth and light of the mighty Wurlitzer.
Milwaukee institution Organ Piper Pizza is the perfect remedy for the winter blues. Walking in that place is like curling up in the old afghan blanket that hung on the back of your mom’s couch all throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s a charm, a relic of good times drenched with innocence and laughter. Request the Axel Foley theme song and get patriotic with a Grand Ole Flag. You deserve it, and Zack will deliver!