February 16, 2009.
It’s 58 degrees in Orange County. The parking lot of the Market Place Mall is a little damp, and the man playing with the yo-yo is wearing a jumpsuit. The suit has police patches and badges—some kind of Long Beach Police Department issue—but the man isn’t a police officer. He’s unshaven, and he’s wearing flip-flops.
Tustin, California, is an affluent area, but the man, 6’ 3” and 250 pounds, looks strangely at home for someone so out of place. Orange County has a methamphetamine problem, and the man has that pale, grisly look like maybe he’s brushed off a few incursions of black spiders, but as big as he is, his presence is bigger, like maybe he’s one of the many petty-celebrities lurking the auto parks of Southern California. Also, there's something in his face, some stony regret.
A couple of cops drift by in their patrol car, and they don’t like the jumpsuit. They talk to the man about it, and he doesn’t like that. He can’t explain where he got the jumpsuit, which is a police disaster suit that dates back 10, 15 years. It’s against the law to wear it, the policemen inform him. The man gets annoyed, and they search his car. They find a “small amount” of methamphetamine and a glass pipe to smoke it.
The cops call in their prize; they’ve arrested Kimo Leopoldo, UFC legend, for drug possession and impersonating a police officer. Kimo goes quietly. The next day, he’s released on $20,000 bail. Three weeks before, Kimo had announced his application to head the California State Athletic Commission: "My 14 years of international kickboxing and MMA experience has allowed me to the ability to work directly with professional associations, referees, judges, attorneys , peers, consumers, commission members, promoters, managers, members of the media, and various legislative rule makers."
Kimo had been competing in Mixed Martial Arts since 1994, having first appeared in the third Ultimate Fighting Championship, where he faced Royce Gracie in what became an unexpected thriller—and a breakthrough in the evolution of MMA. His fighting record--10 wins, 7 losses and 1 draw--probably doesn’t reflect the fighter he was; he fought some awfully tough guys and got a few questionable decisions. But his other records reflect the man he was outside the cage: He tested positive for the illegal anabolic steroid Stanozolol, or “Winstrol,” in 2004 and 2006, barring him from scheduled bouts; in 1993, he was arrested for assault and battery and in 2007 for domestic violence.
* * * * * *
Art Jimmerson, the 1983 National Golden Gloves Middleweight Champion, was the first fighter to face Royce Gracie in the UFC. Not knowing what to expect, Jimmerson had showed up wearing his boxing gloves—he wanted to hit hard. But after watching the first few fights of UFC 1 that night, Jimmerson understood the implications of the fight going to the ground. Unlike in boxing, if one or both fighters got knocked down or taken down, the referee wouldn’t stand them up. The fight had the potential to turn into some kind of wrestling match. With gloves on, Jimmerson would be helpless in such a contest, so he opted for one glove—an experiment destined for ridicule.
For a fight that went for two minutes, eighteen seconds, amazingly little happened. Gracie feinted with four kicks, then shot on Jimmerson with a “double leg,” a takedown common to wrestling, judo, and a host of other martial arts. Gracie mounted Jimmerson, and Jimmerson, knowing he couldn't stop the punches from coming to his face, tapped out.
Jimmerson hadn’t known what to expect, and neither had the 7,800 spectators at the Denver arena, and neither had the 80,000 watching on pay-per-view, and neither would the countless viewers who watched the event on videotape. And after that first fight, it was still pretty hard to know what to make of the UFC. Announcer Jim Brown scoffed, “C’mon,” when it was suggested that any of these guys had any semblance of technique. But by the third UFC, Brown was enamored. A competitor, he said, “is here for one reason and one reason alone—to destroy the great Royce Gracie.”
Gracie, after defeating Jimmerson, went on to beat five fighters in a row. Two more that night, to win the first UFC, and three more on March 11 of the next year, 1994, to win the second. Among those Gracie vanquished: Ken Shamrock, a scowling, 225-pound American hero and a legend on the Japanese wrestling circuit, and Patrick Smith, the #1 ranked kickboxer in the United States, who, like Shamrock, was 225 pounds of muscle.
To equate Gracie with the biblical David was fitting enough—some of his foes had been Goliaths—but Gracie was more than that. His heroic stature was messianic. Which is why it was such a shock when “Kimo”—Gracie’s Goliath du jour at UFC 3—came out to their fight dragging a ten-foot cross on his back. This Bluto, this overblown bicep, this muscle-bound sucker: He just didn’t get it. He was the loser, the dead meat, the fat on the pyre—and he thought he was the chosen one.
* * * * * *
In 1987, Kimo’s high school wrestling team had taken the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Championship. Hawaii and Waianee High School might not be the center of the wrestling universe, but the students are athletic, and the culture, with its diverse and active heritage, has produced many skilled athletes. To limit the conversation to MMA, Hawaii has produced former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion B.J. Penn, winner of The Ultimate Fighter 3 Kendall Grove, and heavyweight contender Travis Browne, among others. The NFL so heavily scours Hawaiian prospects that five players were drafted from the 2007 lineup of the University of Hawaii Warriors.
Kimo was in the Hawaiin genome: He was monstrous but had the flickering speed of a lightweight. He couldn’t sustain that speed for a whole fight, but it was always there and with power behind it. By his senior year of high school, Kimo was, according to one teammate, throwing around the competition as if they were “baby kittens.” In wrestling he found stability in a teen life of upheaval.
But football, with its network broadcasts and superstars and college scouts, offered far finer prospects than wrestling and given Kimo’s build, was a better choice. Football requires lots of players and lots of body types, and you don't have to be an Olympic gold medalist to get paid; Kimo would certainly find a place in college ball, maybe even the NFL.
But Kimo’s big personality and lack of academic interest blew his scholarship to the University of Washington, and following a severe surfing injury to his face, which required extensive reconstructive surgery that he had to get his father to pay for, Kimo was angry enough at life, and determined enough to pay his own way, to enter the “collection” business for a drug dealer in Huntington Beach, California. Clubs and drugs. And Kimo liked both. For three and a half years, anyway; then he tried to return to college football. When he blew out both his knees, however, he was back in the collection and bouncing business. Dispirited and searching, he roamed the used bookstores of Southern California, scouring the religion stacks for some old tome with the answer to it all.
By the time he met Joe Son, a member of a fanatical Christian group, Kimo was ready for a change. Never tentative, he swore his life to God. The joke is that Joe Son’s denomination doubled when Kimo joined. But Son, who had a middling to meager background in martial arts, was right to see an opportunity—a fighting champion for Jesus. The historical term: “muscular christianity.” The trinity—muscles, messiah, and MMA—may seem crazy, but it’s borne out. Ken Shamrock, Matt Hughes, Tim Silvia, Randy Couture, Diego Sanchez, Rich Franklin, Rampage Jackson, Fedor Emelianenko, Pat Militech were all champions, and all muscular christians.
So Son had this guy, a football player with a little wrestling and some other, less legitimate, fighting skills, whom he suspected could compete in the UFC. He also had his convertible Porche, which he could afford because he still lived at home, and a favorite outfit: shirtless. He was an ugly little ogre—five feet, four inches, and 230 pounds—and he made an immediate impression.
* * * * * *
Art Davie was in charge of the fightcard for UFC 3. Davie had started the UFC with the Gracies and SEG, a pay-per-view outlet that didn't understand what was going on, but believed Davie when he talked. Davie had been working on a beer campaign when he came across a story in Playboy about the Gracie Challenge—Rorion Gracie (the eldest son of Brazilian jiu-jitsu founder Helio Gracie) would take on any challenger and back it with a $100,000 wager. And Rorion--and the Gracies going back 60 years, so the story went--never lost. So Davie found Rorion and together they started the UFC.
The Playboy, the beer, the boxing as a kid, the Vietnam War (a sergeant), the fedora: Art Davie gave off a vibe that Son could relate to. Davie was an adman who looked like an adman. Plus he was maybe a little psychopathic.
So Son got Davie’s address from the yellow pages, put Kimo in the passenger seat of the Porche, and tossed the shirt. Unannounced, the pair showed up at Davie’s office—Son revved the engine, attracting the attention of the UFC founder. Son and Kimo—who glared, maniacal and mute—got Davie to let them into his office, and Davie couldn’t curtail his curiousity. He had to know their real agenda was the religious message, but he was in the market for meatheads for Royce to beat down—and Kimo was perfect.
Son drove back to his house and ordered the full series of Gracie jiu-jitsu instructional tapes. In a garage not too different from the one-time home of the Gracie jiu-jitsu academy, Kimo and Son reviewed the lesson plan. A basic tenet of Gracie jiu-jitsu was that size doesn’t matter. But Kimo and Son put together the more accurate forecast, which Jim Brown would articulate at UFC 5: “Size doesn’t matter, but once the big guy knows as much as the small guy, it does.”
* * * * * *
Dry ice exhales from a darkened hallway as Kimo’s train enters the arena. With spotlights whirling in the vapor and the crowd staring in near-silent confusion, a few clapping politely, a tan, muscular guy with long bleach-blond hair and a white T-shirt with rolled up short sleeves elevates a banner over his head.
The pennant-bearer is heralding the coming of Kimo—with scripture. Matthew, 16: 24: “And if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Davie is as surprised as the crowd—they’re not sure they’re supposed to like this. Are they? Kimo is hauling the giant cross on his back, and even though it’s made of balsa wood, it looks really heavy. Words span the middle beam: “Jesus loves you.” Kimo wears a long ponytail, either side of his head shaved, his beard shaped into a multi-bar goatee, and both his ears are pierced. His black satin cape is lined in red—the hood entirely encloses his face. He’s humped under the burden of the cross, the “Jesus” tattoo hovering in the shadow of his hulking torso.
At ringside, when Kimo frees himself of the sacral stage prop, we see the other Jesus tattoo, the one on his back: Christ, hanging from the cross, bears a close resemblance to a sailor’s pin-up girl.
Through the gate of the Octagon and onto the mat, Kimo drops to his knees and issues entreaties to heaven.
Royce Gracie is already in the ring—he’d been led there by the train of Gracies, hands on shoulders one to the next, an entrance that had come to define what it meant to be from a school, to be surrounded by a family of fellow martial artists. The train is an old boxing tradition, but the entrance is new to the martial arts world, and the sentiment runs deep. For the Gracies, much of the team was true family—Helio Gracie, the patriarch of the style, took a place behind his son Royce in the procession.
At the sight of Kimo—and all this heartfelt, religious shenanigans—Royce is as impassive and limp-armed as ever. He weighed in at 176 pounds; Kimo, 250.
The ring announcer introduces the fighters; Davie didn’t have the heart to manufacture a professional record for Kimo, and the announcer skips that part. Royce’s record is set at 58 wins and one loss—by what count unknown, but Royce has been fighting for his family for 10 years, so the numbers, maybe biased, maybe an estimate, aren’t entirely made up.
The fighters take their corners and the referee, “Big” John McCarthy, asks if they’re ready. They nod. The UFC hasn’t yet adopted the formality of a stare down, but Gracie and Kimo approximate the effect across the ring. Royce betrays no expression—total deadpan. His shoulders are raised up slightly; he injured his neck two weeks before, and had to taper off his training. He still looks stiff, not as feline and boneless as he’s looked at the outset of previous fights. Kimo is looking right back at Royce, blinking but holding steady.
“Let’s get it on!” calls out McCarthy, who’s already hoarse from the night. McCarthy picked up the line—which would become synonymous with the UFC and a trademarked property of the organization—from Mills Lane, a popular boxing referee. “Big John" has now been given the power to stop fights; there’s an air of respect about him, and the concession to safety resonates over the next 280 seconds, which are about to remake the UFC into a sport.
The fighters hurry out of their corners and meet on Royce’s side of the ring. No feeling-out period—they’re mixing it up before anyone expected. Royce wants no part of getting hit by Kimo, and Kimo wants to hit him. Royce is prepared, he’s seen the pre-recorded Kimo clips; he knows Kimo is quick for his size and can snap kicks to the head. If Kimo thinks to kick low, he’ll kick hard and fast, and Royce doesn’t want to give a guy with a 75-pound weight advantage the chance to puzzle things out.
Three seconds into the fight, Royce drops for a double-leg takedown; Kimo defends. They clinch up. Royce drives Kimo across the ring, trying to lock up for another takedown attempt, but Kimo does not want to go down. And he isn’t going down. The announcers are amazed, and so is the crowd. Kimo gets off an uppercut. The crowd is churning. At the 22-second mark, Royce pushes Kimo through the Octagon gate. Kimo will later say he expected McCarthy to reset them in the center of the ring, as McCarthy had reset Keith Hackney and Emmanuel Yarborough when they went out of the ring in the first fight of the night. But Yarborough and Hackney hadn’t been clinched up, and McCarthy just pulls Kimo and Royce back into play. Kimo wil claim that Royce took advantage of the positioning to get a better grip (it looks true) but Royce still doesn’t take Kimo down until 1:39.
But that takedown founders, and Kimo jumps onto Royce’s back. Kimo has a mug like the gears are grinding. Back in Joe Son’s garage, the Gracie jiu-jitsu instructional tapes had broken down the fundamental strategy of Gracie groundfighting: Get your opponent to the ground and either take the mount (sit on the guy’s chest) and punch him in the face, or take his back and choke him from behind. Kimo is in place for the choke.
The crowd knows what’s going on and they’re all for it. Kimo is an American, and watching a hero fall to a new hero, that’s better than watching a hero win again. Kimo is a big stupid guy who ordered the tapes and figured out the sport. The crowd is thinking: He’s one of us. That he arrived at the arena with a cross on his back—that just proves he has enough Elvis in him to love the fans.
Still, Kimo is inexperienced with the position, and Royce manages to roll him off at 2:19. Royce is on top now, and Kimo doesn’t stop Royce from scooting into the mount, and it looks like it’s all over.
But Kimo bridges—plants his feet and the top of his head on the canvas and arches his back—and the pair overturn. Now Royce is on the bottom. Kimo is in Gracie's guard, a position we’ve seen Royce win from before. A grappler versed in armbars and chokes has plenty of offense from the bottom, and Gracie immediately sets about taking an armbar; Kimo’s arms are as wide-around as a terrier’s chest, but his elbow will still hyper-extend.
But once again, Kimo demonstrates that he’s been watching the tapes. Kimo, a seasoned athlete, adheres to the cardinal rule of sports: Whatever your opponent wants to do, don’t let him do it.
Kimo pulls his arm out. The fighters scramble, and Kimo falls back into Gracie’s guard. Then Kimo has a wise instinct—why not back away? Why not stand up? It’s 3:07 into the fight, and both fighters are rubbery. A stand-up fight could favor Kimo; it takes a lot of energy to take someone down, and Kimo has already shown he isn’t cooperating. If Kimo gets a few punches off—well, it doesn’t look like getting hit by Kimo would work out for anyone.
But suddenly Kimo's bad haircut comes into play. A bad haircut can hurt any career, but it could very well be the defining fashion faux-pas of Kimo’s life. Royce clings to the ponytail for 53 seconds, until a tangled clump of it comes out in his hand and settles like a perished squirrel on the mat.
By the time Kimo shakes his head out of Royce’s right hand, he’s exhausted. The fighters are back on their feet, but Kimo, the sprinter, has run his race.
Royce stays in close and, miraculously, Kimo again comes up with the back, and again, he doesn’t know enough to assert the position. Royce attempts an armcoil submission that returns the fighters to the canvas; from the guard, Royce makes another go of the straight armbar, and Kimo, spent, succumbs at 4:40. Royce Gracie wins by submission.
There’s some confusion in the cage. Relson is looking at Royce like he’s a baby brother who just got bullied by someone worth being afraid of. Kimo lies on the mat, staring into the lights that shine down on the Octagon. He’s breathing hard and cut over his eye—Royce had connected with dozens of rabbit punches from the bottom. The strikes looked pesky at best, but one of them must have caught the edge of Kimo’s eye socket. John McCarthy kneels, sets his hand against the side of Kimo’s face, and asks the fighter if he’s okay. Kimo nods that he is and McCarthy believes him, pats his ribs, and tells him to get up when he’s ready.
Joe Son, now shirtless, helps his fighter up, looking out at the crowd with a sense of giant self-importance. In four years, Son’s clownish persona will land him a role in Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. The joke is that Son is the original Mini-Me, and it gets funnier when you look at Joe Son’s MMA career—no wins and four losses—which crescendoed with the forfeiture of his leopard print thong in a Japanese wrestling match. Of course, Son won't seem so funny in 2011 when DNA evidence links him to a Christmas Eve gang rape and he's sentenced to life in prision.
“Big John" chases Son and a few other intruders out of the Octagon. “Outta the ring!” he bellows, as Kimo stands with his hands on his hips, huffing but not mourning his loss. Kimo and Son will hurry back into the cage after Gracie throws in the towel right before his next fight; Gracie is too battered to continue, but Kimo wants in. Everyone knows Kimo v. Gracie was a big deal, but what they don't know is that the fight set off a chain of events that would transform no-holds-barred fighting into MMA. It became clear that the tournament ladder didn't work. Guys got beat up, guys dropped out, and schmucks came in as alternates and won the whole thing, schmucks like Steve Jennum, who hadn't fought a single fight before the finals. That meant fightcards were needed, like boxing—one guy versus another guy, no alternates or surprises. And when you have guys who know each other's style, you risk boring fights, so you have to encourage excitement, and that means striking, which you could have, everyone realized, because Kimo had blocked out the basic strategy for fighting a grappler—takedown defense, wrestling style. And what do you need for strikers? You need gloves and you need rounds. And that's MMA.
Fifteen years later, while Kimo was getting handcuffed in the parking lot of the Market Place Mall, about 20 miles away, in Long Beach, Royce Gracie was leading a very different life. With his brothers, Royce operated the the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, still in Torrance but now located in a 6,000 square-foot training complex. He'd lent his name to approximately 70 jiu-jitsu schools worldwide. He and his family, in details undisclosed, remained shareholders in the UFC, which generated approximately $500 million in 2012. In 2003, Royce was the first man inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Like Kimo, Royce had returned to the cage for a few farewell fights. Like Kimo, who was one year younger than Gracie, age and conditioning were a factor, and Gracie, in 2007, tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolene. Like Kimo, Gracie took to YouTube to defend himself, but Gracie showed a little class and didn’t break a stack of bricks with his head. Still, Royce didn’t speak to steroids at all, prefering instead to pontificate about his name being "on the history books in gold letters," and anyone tuning in was unlikely to come away with much more than a suspicion that the old adage is true: All heroes eventually become bores.
And Kimo? Kimo got a cop tracksuit, a yo-yo, and a little meth. But Kimo still has a dream. On March 29, 2009, Kimo spoke to a reporter and a live audience on ESPN Radio, addressing his methamphetamine arrest and stumping for his latest unlikely venture, New Era Fighting. He explained that the new MMA league would be the only one of its kind, offering a platform that’s financially favorable to fighters. As Kimo spoke, a quarter-size gnarl marbled on his forehead. He'd tried to win the crowd by cracking a stack of long cement fingers—one might cling to the term “bricks”—with the shining scalp of his receding hairline.
“I wanna show what kind of damage I can do with my head,” he quipped, alluding to the headbutts he said were banned in his fight against Royce Gracie. But for all his posturing and grievances, Kimo is still naïve, child-like in his faith, and something of an inspiration to the jaded disposition of the fight fan. In 1994, after only three UFCs, we were already grizzled old men with press hats and cigars. We’d seen it all before. But Kimo, with his cartoon proportions and charisma, turned us into children again. Youth and hope returned to us, and now we could offer it to the world. The ultimate American lesson. The lesson of Rocky Marciano and Rocky Balboa. The loser we all feel weeping in the depths of our passions—he had a chance.
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