Veteran MMA journalist Chuck Mindenhall takes us behind the scenes and into the shadows of the professional-fighting world.
One of the pleasures of the new UFC media day format—a two-hour free-for-all for reporters and fighters to come together—is it leaves some of the more interesting fellows lurking about unattended. At the UFC 160 gathering in Las Vegas, one of those happened to be John Hackleman, the Hawaiian Kempo master who helped Chuck Liddell to such great heights through the mid-aughts. He was on hand as a cornerman/mentor to the latest 205-pound intrigue, Glover Teixeira, who was about to fight James Te Huna.
Naturally, we fell into a conversation about nail polish.
Hackleman’s toes are not by any means dainty, but they are always gussied up for occasions such as these. On that day, he had them painted a cool lavender, which accentuated their length. He was wearing flip-flops, the better to keep all 10 toes on display. Hackleman’s been doing the “badasses with pedicures” thing for years, or rather decades, going back to his early Pit gym days in the mid-1980s, all the way back to when he was still boxing for Don King. He reminded me that he was the one who convinced the “Iceman” to begin painting his toes in the days when the “Iceman” was the scariest man on the planet.
“Chuck took to it,” he said. “But I can’t get Glover to do it, or Court McGee. He won’t. Ramsey Nijem likes to paint his toes.”
All of this got me thinking about an article that ESPN the Magazine’s Allison Glock wrote back in 2007, near the end of Liddell’s Hun-like plundering of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. In the story’s opening scene, he’s dancing at the Hard Rock Hotel. His toenails, Glock wrote, were an “implausible neon pink.” That’s when a WEC fighter, a promotion that dealt in lightweights compared to a power keg like Liddell, took notice: “‘Look at that gayness,’ [the WEC fighter] says, cocking his head. Liddell just smiles and keeps grooving. He is a tolerant man. He can afford to be.”
That always stuck with me—He can afford to be. Who is going to tell Liddell otherwise? It’s a confident man who paints his toes neon pink—a confident man with a girthy mohawk and Asian characters tattooed down the side of his head.
Hackleman taught Liddell about nail polish back when Liddell was crashing on his couch in the pre-Zuffa Wild West UFC. In later days, when I visited Liddell at his house in San Luis Obispo long after he’d lost the belt and much of his mystique, he showed me, among other things, his stripper pole upstairs. He walked me through his memorabilia room, which was filled with gifts from stars from other sports. He showed me his collection of hot sauces and tilted a skinny, ominously labeled habanero bottle over his mouth to show me that his eyes would water. “This one is fucking hot,” he said in that Liddell voice, which always sounds like he’s speaking through a mouth full of gauze.
And in his bathroom, there was nail polish. His toes were painted black that day.
It was Hackleman who added that touch of Claire’s-style glamour to the endless brutality of the fight game. Hackleman was the defiant barrier-crosser. Liddell made it popular, so today it’s become a thing. Now you can find Josh Koscheck rolling around the streets of Fresno in his Ferrari with his toes painted a shiny silver. Plenty of others, too.
But it’s not for everybody, Hackleman says. He points to Teixeira, who has half a dozen voice recorders under his nose and is talking about “game plans” or some other banality. Meanwhile, Hackleman is only rewriting the entire concept of virility.
“I thought I’d go with purple this time,” he says. “I’m kind of liking the purple.”
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