Words

Phoenix Jones: Portrait of a Superhero

Fightland Blog

By Nick Wong

Photos by Nick Wong

If comic books, Japanese anime and professional wrestling gathered together in a room and became a person, that person would be Ben Fodor. Fodor is a Northwest-based MMA fighter who recently signed with the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) and will be making his promotional debut on April 10th. He is also a full-grown man who wears an elaborate superhero costume and fights crime on the street using the name Phoenix Jones. When I first landed this piece, I thought that he had to be one of two things: someone with an enormous self-serving ego, or a crazy person. I found him to be neither.

Well, maybe a little bit of the latter.

After a series of failed meetings, I finally meet Fodor late in the evening at a 24-hour fitness gym. He walks in wearing a neon-green Under Armour base layer that has none other than the Superman logo embossed across his chest. Sporting a chin curtain beard and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, he looks exactly like the type to be too into comic books, and if he were skinny or overweight, he’d probably be given a hard time, but Fodor has muscles bulging through his shirt, so nobody really messes with him.

Fodor working on his ground game for his fight against Emanuel Walo on April 10th.

Fodor also has freakish endurance. Given the limited schedule since his promotional signing, we’re forced to do the interview while he’s working out, and he huffs his answers to me doing sprint-jogs intervals on the treadmill. Tonight’s workout is the fourth of the day.

“Vegeta man, always gotta train. Doesn’t matter where you come from, you can go Super Saiyan. Look at those guys, it was never about being lucky. It was always about training and getting what you deserved.”

Speaking with Fodor is like speaking to my childhood. Almost everything he says involves references to either Dragon Ball Z, Marvel/DC superheroes or wrestlers from the WCW. It’s both troubling and awesome at the same time.

For years Fodor has been well recognized in the Seattle area for his superhero persona, but has only recently caught national attention since a segment about his life and fighting career aired on ESPN’s Sports Center. A number of fight contracts cascaded in soon afterwards and Fodor publicly stated that he had offers from nearly every fight company in existence. He based his final decision on protecting the persona he spent years creating. Captain America was also a huge inspiration.

“Captain America couldn’t be bought. He had a moral compass and that’s how I took my fight contracts. I took considerably less money to keep Phoenix Jones alive, but I kept my dignity,” Fodor tells me in describing the decision-making process. “Phoenix Jones is not a parlor trick, or a gag, or the next interesting story; it’s what I chose to do with my life. If the people I work for are going to make money off that, I feel like they should care too. The way [the WSOF] talked to me, they didn’t try to take anything from me. They didn’t want my Phoenix Jones likeness, or the rights, none of that stuff. They wanted me to be a fighter. They signed me for me.”

Fitting to profile, Fodor began his fighting pursuits in professional wrestling, but after being told he was “too small” for the industry, sought out other competitive challenges and eventually stumbled upon an amateur MMA show. He ended up fighting the same night. 

“I came across this MMA show and I thought ‘I could beat those guys up.’ I was sitting next to a promoter and the promoter says, ‘Hey would you like to give it a shot young man? You got really cool hair!’ I said, ‘Absolutely, let’s go.’ So I put on gloves and walked in there and fought. It was real bad. I won, but it was horrible. All haymakers.”

Fodor using the battle ropes during a late-night workout. Moments earlier he recorded a social media response to his opponent, Emmanuel Walo. 

Fodor went on to compile an impressive 15-2 amateur record fighting under the moniker “Flattop”, a reference to his signature hairstyle that he’s had since his teens. He tells me his actual record is closer to 25-2 since a number of his fights took place on unsanctioned tribal grounds, and was advancing his way into the sport until a car incident a few years later sent him in a different direction.

The origin story of Phoenix Jones has been covered many times over in the media. One night Fodor found his car window smashed, belongings stolen, and his son cut his knee on the shattered glass. Questions about the world would soon come after.

“What am I going to say? Oh sorry son, I trained my whole life to be a martial artist, I watched comic books and movies, and I told you to believe in all the things the world stands for, and now I’m going to let people break into our car and take our things? It just gets to a point where you have to say ‘No'” Fodor tells me.

Fodor changing for his fourth workout of the day at Gold’s Gym with his friend and training partner Alex Reese, who is in the middle of preparing for the fireman’s exam. The two of them work out together as motivation for their respective goals.​

In response to the incident, Fodor created the character Phoenix Jones (“Phoenix” being the middle name of his son and “Jones” being the most common last name the year he was born). This year will mark the 6th year that he’s adopted the persona, though he discovered early on that pursuing both patrolling and competitive fighting would either make him good at one and bad at the other, or just mediocre at both. Fodor has the personality to aspire to be the best at whatever he does, so he was forced to abandon one of them. Phoenix Jones was the one to stay.

“It’s kind of like how Sting left for a long time and the NWO took over and they were just breaking stuff up and flipping people off and I think Kevin Nash slapped a girl. Then Sting came back, acting like the Crow, hitting people with a baseball bat. No matter what happened, you just had the feeling that he had it taken care of, like he was our last chance,” Fodor says. “That’s kind of how I feel like Phoenix Jones is. It’s sort of like in a weird way my last chance to prove to the people I’m dealing with that there’s no ulterior motive, that there’s a person out there that has your back ‘just because’. I don’t have to have a selfish motivation. I can just have your back ‘just because’.”

The reception of Phoenix Jones is mixed. Some consider him a pseudo-cop that goes around pepper spraying people at his own discretion. Others report that he’s stopped plenty of street fights and armed muggings, and generally say that they feel safer with his presence on the streets. I accompany him for one of his patrols to see for myself.

Fodor patrolling as Phoenix Jones on a Friday night in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. Pictured behind him is teammate Midnight Jack.

We meet half-past midnight to patrol through the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which according to Fodor’s research of online crime statistics has the highest crime rate in Seattle on a Friday night. We’re accompanied by Fodor’s girlfriend Amber and another team member who goes by the name Midnight Jack. Fodor is not wearing his signature mask and is instead donning a large black motorcycle helmet with a pull-down visor that when in place, kind of makes him look like Robocop. He tells me that hecklers started throwing things at his head ever since the ESPN piece aired, and wanted to use more protection with the date of the fight being so close. The fight is exactly one week out.

Walking through the streets with Fodor and his crew almost makes me feel like I’m part of the entourage for a high-profile celebrity. People scream upon seeing him. Everyone is giving high-fives and asking for selfies. One guy dressed in a banana suit stops to thank him for breaking up a fight outside a bar last month. Another drunk guy walks by and says to his friend, “Oh shit, it’s like Richard Sherman or whatever.” Then there’s the skateboarder who cruises by, spits on the ground and mutters, “Fucking snitch.”

A Phoenix Jones fan stops Fodor to thank him for stopping a fight last month.

About forty minutes into our patrol, we come across a guy laid facedown on the concrete bleeding from the mouth. We soon learn that he was thrown through the glass door of a venue he was patronizing earlier. Fodor and company call 9-11 and watch over the victim while waiting for the police to arrive. In the meantime, Fodor gets a suspect description from witnesses and security guards. He seems to hold a fairly professional relationship with security in the area, addressing everyone by first-name and they all appear more than willing to provide Fodor with pertinent information.

“When he shows up, his presence alone will diffuse a lot of situations. It’s also nice to have that medium between the security we do for individual venues and the police. He’s kind of that middle ground, and I think he does what a lot of guys wish they had the balls to do,” says a security guard from a bar called “Neumos”. “I think that especially because we’re a generation raised on comic books, we understand what that means when you see a guy walking down the street in a full body suit of armor that’s willing to go to the hospital, willing to put his life on the line to protect complete strangers.”

The police show up and Fodor chats briefly with them before beginning his search for the culprit. One of the officers gives him a nod as he leaves. Fodor thinks he sees someone matching the description and begins sprinting down the street. The armor plating on his legs begin to slide off and he stops to adjust them. He tells me the uniform is no longer fitting correctly due to the weight he’s been cutting for the fight, about 20lbs under his normal ‘walk-around’ weight.

Fodor responds to a call on his cell phone about a fight breaking out between two groups of people outside of a local nightclub/bar.​

We pass by a couple more security guards and Fodor fills them in, telling them it’s an open case so they’re free to handcuff the perpetrator upon sight. The message goes through a radio network that all security guards in the area are plugged into. We stop in front of another bar to ask if they’ve seen anyone matching the perp’s description, and the police are there responding to a mugging that happened a few moments earlier. Earlier on the way, we saw another guy in cuffs after he left someone knocked-out unconscious on the ground. A lot more crime happens in Seattle than I thought.

Fodor splits the patrol into two groups and sends me with Midnight Jack. I’m a bit confused at first, but then realize that Fodor is making me part of the patrol. Midnight Jack is wearing an armored black outfit, ski mask and has two batons sticks crossed diagonally on his back. This causes people yell out things like, “It’s Ninja Turtle Spiderman!” as we march by. To make the situation less awkward, I try and start a conversation. Both his outfit and personality kind of remind me of Deadpool, so I ask if the Marvel character had any influence on his attire. He tells me he was going for kind of a “Dark Robin” look, but just ended up with what he has when he started focusing on functionality over aesthetics. I ask him what it’s like patrolling with Fodor.

“I tried to start my own crew before, but it didn’t work. In Seattle, you’re either with Phoenix Jones or you’re not doing it all. He’s the best at what he does,” he tells me.

Fodor and his team stand on top of a local QFC to gain a better vantage point of the city. The man on the right goes by the name “El Chango Blanco” and joined Fodor after finishing his shift as a security guard at a local bar.​

We meet with Fodor and Amber around the corner and none of us has spotted a matching description. Fodor’s phone rings and he puts it on speaker. The security guard from Neumos is yelling frantically on the other end, saying that a large fight is about to break out. We start sprinting again. At this point, we’ve been walking and sprinting through the neighborhood for a good hour and a half. My legs are beginning to ache. While it’s probably a lot easier for a professional athlete, I’m sure it has to get at least a little bit tiring for Fodor.

The fight is between two groups, maybe around twelve guys in total. While we’re walking up, one of the guys involved says while pointing at us, “I’m not going to kick your ass, but those guys might.” The leader of the other group turns around to see Fodor and Midnight Jack, then gets a bit shaken. I have to admit, the timing of the whole thing felt pretty cool. Fodor gives a greeting, but doesn’t say anything much beyond that. He stays at a healthy distance to let the situation play out on its own. Threats are tossed back and forth between the two of them, but the groups eventually disperse into their own directions. Fodor has me accompany him to follow one group while Amber and Midnight Jack follow the other.

We walk around for about another hour. The entire time Fodor is eyeing drunken bar patrons filter out onto the street, putting special attention on the loud ones. People continue to ask for photos and Fodor complies. A car cruises by and the driver flicks him off and yells a number of obscenities. The varied reactions reflect the split I had predicted earlier, but I’d say by the end of the night it’s at about an 80/20 ratio to those who like and dislike the crime-fighter. Most people yell out things that are straight out of a comic book, things like, “Thank you for protecting our city!” I’m unsure on whether or not they’re being said facetiously, but that is what they’re saying.

Fans stop to take a picture of Phoenix Jones. During our patrol, there were hundreds of photo requests, most which were granted by Fodor.

It’s 3 AM and we return to our original meeting point to reassess the night. Nothing major beyond a few bar fights happened and Fodor is a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to catch any “real” bad guys. He recounts more risky incidents in the past to assure me that his work actually makes a difference. I ask if there was ever anything he experienced that made him consider quitting.

“There was an incident in Pioneer Square [a Seattle neighborhood] where I failed to save somebody,” Fodor starts. He pauses and clears his throat a few times. “It was just kind of a random shooting in the area I was in. I went after the gunman and I didn’t catch him and a woman was struck in the neck with a bullet. We were there and we really couldn’t do anything about it. You just kind of had to watch her bleed out on the road. I kind of wanted to quit after that. Fighting and dressing up in all the outfits, all the colorful bullshit, doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t do your job, you know?”

The event that he is referring to is the shooting of Nicole Westbrook, a murder case from 2012 that is still open and unsolved. Fodor asked me to include the case in the article for anyone with information to contact authorities.

Incidents like the shooting complicate mental issues that are usually already present in many real-life superheroes. For Fodor, I’d argue that the trauma began early. Fodor’s biological parents sent him to a foster home in Washington State at the age of 11, and at times, it feels like as though much of the Phoenix Jones persona is being driven by a neglected inner-child that’s trying to prove his worth to the world.

“When I was a kid, my whole biological family for some reason or another decided that I wasn’t worth anything, so they sent me far away to live with people they don’t know, assuming that my life would be better. Then I got here and I had 5, 6, up to 10 brothers and sisters depending on the time,” Fodor recalls. “I just always wanted my piece of something. When it’s all over, I want there to be an account of the things that I’ve done and for people to look at me and say, ‘He succeeded. I don’t care if people didn’t want him. He made it himself.’”

Fodor and his team stand by as an argument goes on between two groups. The tension eventually dissipates and the groups go their separate ways.

During the day, Fodor teaches basic life skills to kids with autism, saying the work attracted him because he understood what it felt like to be neglected and ignored. While the position earned him a livable wage, the demands of being a superhero proved to be costly. Apart from the erratic time schedule and multiple visits to the hospital, his superhero outfit is representative of a seven-month journey of acquiring materials from manufacturer after manufacturer, piecing together a final product that totaled over $10,000. Regular repairs and maintenance costs is what eventually motivated his return to the cage.

“I was broke. My suit was broken. I didn’t have stuff to patrol and I needed money. Guy called me and offered me a fight. He asked me how much it would take to get me in the ring and I told him. He wrote a check for that amount and I was back,” says Fodor.

What is peculiar about Fodor (apart from everything else) is his motivation to fight. Unlike how most fighters who work a job to support their career as a fighter, Fodor reverses the recipe and fights to support his work as Phoenix Jones. In fact, he worries that his fighting career will interfere with his work patrolling, not the other way around. The other stipulation in the WSOF contract that attracted Fodor was that they would not stop him from doing his night patrols, and the weekend before our patrol, he supposedly stopped a knife fight during his trip in Connecticut. But unlike his previous stint in the amateurs, Fodor says he has the patrol procedures down to a workable routine, and has so far managed to balance his life between fighting and patrolling. Back when we met at the gym, I asked Fodor if winning titles in the cage mattered to him at all and he responded in fitting superhero fashion:

“It’s kind of weird, but a superhero is only as good as his villain in the comic books. Batman wouldn’t be nearly as good without his Rogue’s Gallery. It’s like Spiderman vs. the Killer Croc and you’re like, ‘What? The Killer Croc, that’s crazy.’ But you have to realize it’s because Spiderman is that good, they had to make the Killer Croc because Spiderman is that good. Fighting is the same way. There’s gotta be a challenge, there’s gotta be a reason to do it, there’s a gotta be a reason to get up in the morning. Right now it’s Emmanuel Walo, talking crap about me on Instagram, being a dickbag.”

Fodor’s opponent on April 10th is Emmanuel Walo, a 7-2-1 fighter who served a tour in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. According to Fodor, Walo has been making comments about the Phoenix Jones persona being a publicity stunt and that war vets are the actual superheroes in the world. Fodor responds by making a video of himself going absolutely bonkers while working out on battle ropes.

Fodor undoing his gear and calling it a night.

While Phoenix Jones is the highlight of the card, Walo is actually the favorite in the fight. Walo has more wins, more experience, and in some departments, more skills. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about Fodor, it’s that if you tell him he can’t do something, he’ll do it. Compared to all the other things Fodor claims to have seen on the street, he’s not worried about what he’s facing on April 10th.

“This is my life. There’s a lot for me on the table. He’s just gonna have to kill me. People say shit like that. They say, ‘Oh if they’re gonna beat me they have to kill me,’ but they don’t mean it.  I’ve stood next to gunmen, in the face, and I’ve said that if you’re gonna take this block, and sell drugs here, then you’re gonna have to kill me. And they’ve tried and they failed. Now we’re going to get into a cage with refs and rules and gloves? I’m not afraid of anything. There’s nothing in this cage that can hurt me like I’ve been hurt. There’s nothing left anymore. There’s no danger for me.”

It’s debatable on whether or not Phoenix Jones is a real superhero, but what I can say is that Fodor has suffered through plenty of consequences in trying to be one. He’s been stabbed, shot at, and spent plenty of nights in county holding cells for being Phoenix Jones, and if it’s really just been a media stunt all along, that’s a hell of risk to take for some publicity.

What I conclude about Fodor is this:

Phoenix Jones is no Batman. He doesn’t fly through the air using complex gadgetry nor does he thwart demented super-villains from obliterating the city. He isn’t like the superheroes that we read about in the comic books. But given all the realities of the real world, he’s probably the closest thing we got. 

 

Check out these related stories:

An Actual Superhero Is Fighting in WSOF next Month

Fallon Fox, MMA's First Openly Transgender Fighter, Is a Super Hero

 

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