Canadian media is a small world, and an increasingly fragile one, so when the news of yet another wave of layoffs in the industry starts to circulate, it hits all of us on a number of levels. There’s the existential dread for our entire institution, because it’s dying and we’re all fucked. There’s a bit of selfish panic, because it’s yet another reminder of how few full-time media jobs there are in this country, how potentially desperate most of our futures are, and how we’re now fighting against even more wonderful and talented people for what opportunities are left.
The Fight Network became the latest source of this complicated mourning yesterday when they significantly scaled back their original programming, leaving a number of colleagues, friends, and just generally good people without a job. One of those people was their beloved analyst (and recent World MMA Award nominee for Analyst of the Year) Robin Black.
Now, I see no need to eulogize Robin’s career just yet. I have no doubt that he will, as he promised in his Facebook post on the subject yesterday, continue to produce his famed breakdowns and I doubt it will be long before another outlet makes the wise decision to pick him up. But now does seem like a good time to reflect on the knowledge, enthusiasm and je ne sais qois that he brings to the MMA community, and to remind everyone of why we need more Black in the future.
The first time I encountered Robin in a martial arts context was in my third Brazilian jiu jitsu class. As someone who had been listening to his music—both in The Ballroom Zombies and Robin Black and the Intergalactic Rock Stars—and occasionally interacting with him in the music industry for more than a decade, it was a truly shocking experience. The bright blue hair and brighter red Atama gi were definitely the affectations of a glam rocker. But the bluster that usually came with that look, on stage and in bars, was gone. In its place was some of the geekiest, most keener teacher’s pet behavior I’d ever seen. And I say this as someone who spent years in self-contained “gifted” classes.
Robin, one of the mouthiest men in Canadian music, the man who almost got into a fight with Jared Leto’s brother because he said mean things about 30 Seconds To Mars, was the perfect student, deferentially asking our instructor about everything that we did. Everything. He clarified the finer points of warm-up drills. He made sure that his backwards somersaults were on point. There wasn’t a single moment in that class that didn’t fascinate him. There wasn’t a single answer that didn’t immediately make him ask ten more questions.
A few months later, when I was the only student to show up for class, our instructor decided to test Robin’s teaching skills and gave the two of us the run of the mats. I was really struggling with my BJJ at the time. My complete lack of physical coordination, my perfectionism, and my somewhat linear thinking were all conspiring to stand in the way of any meaningful progress on my part, and I couldn’t figure out how to change that. Part way through the technique part of the lesson, Robin stopped and talked to me about it. Then he launched into his own vision of BJJ, drawing invisible calculations and flowcharts all over the yellow tatamis with his fingers. It was all of the same information that I’d been wrestling with all along, but something about the way it was presented was nothing short of a breakthrough for me. At the time, I chalked it up to his background as a musician. I’d spent my entire adult life interviewing them and transcribing their conversations. I figured his explanation made sense to me because it followed those same looping, lyrical thought patterns that most musicians have. In retrospect, I realize that was just Robin being Robin, though. He took in everything the rest of us did, but he processed it just a little differently. And then he probably went and did even more research on the side.
Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Robin as a coach (I figure I owe 70% of my modest success at NAGA Worlds 2008 to him), an interview subject (I covered his first MMA fight for the first and only good incarnation of ChartAttack and he waxed philosophically about the meaning of fighting, the housing prospects of Theory of a Deadman, and his desire to face Kanye West in a cage), and a colleague. Throughout those nine years, he’s never failed to be anything less than educated, curious, passionate, thoughtful, unique, and incredibly supportive of all of the people from the MMA community that he believes in. At every level.
He’s also always been pragmatic about setbacks, which is part of why I know he’ll be fine now. “It sucks to lose. It really does. But it’s also a part of it,” he told me in the weeks leading up to his first pro fight, which he did end up losing. “Imagine, psychologically, you lost and you know that lots of people want to see you lose and even to take another one means that now you've put yourself in a situation where you could be a guy who's lost two. Or you could be that guy who's had three fights and never won.
“Putting yourself at the level of risk is part of the adventure. A lot of people don't do anything in their life because the idea of failing is worse to them than the idea of not doing it at all. I would rather take huge risks and fail and fail publicly, but have done it, rather than not tried things at all.
“That's a personality trait that I'm really proud of, 'cause that's something that prevents a lot of people from doing anything. A lot of people never asked out that girl that they were crazy about or pursued something like that because they thought they would say no. I would feel horrible going through life wishing I had done things. Living an adventure is a lot better than living safely, to me.
“Certain people in their lives find true happiness in playing it safe, and that's good for them. I think they're doing the right thing. But for me to try to experience being a rock star and try to experience being a cage fighter and one day experience being a stunt man or having 10 kids or whatever, doing things.
“I have this ridiculous, romantic view of the world that you should be able to will things to be good. I don't know... but I'm happy.”
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