Writer/photographer Nick Gullo knew his childhood friend Dana White was working in the world of mixed martial arts. But living without cable television in a small Florida coastal town left him with no clue about the empire White was building in Las Vegas as president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Hurricane Katrina forced Gullo and his family to pack up their things and head west, where he would catch up with White and have his eyes opened to the past, present and future of the UFC.
Knowing the president gets you unparalleled access and Gullo took his notepad and camera behind the curtain at mixed martial arts events around the globe for a rare look at the athletes and personalities behind one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
The result of that journey is his new book, Into The Cage: The Rise of UFC Nation. Gullo sat down with Globesports.com editor Darren Yourk this week to discuss the book.
Q: One of the central themes in the book is finding beauty in the brutality of MMA. What beauty did you find?
A: I found beauty in the sacrifice and the hard work that these guys put in. During the eight-to-10 week camp before a fight everything is blocked out and all they do is completely focus on that fight. I found it so fascinating that they would sacrifice whole chunks of their lives in the pursuit of really testing themselves. To me, that’s what martial arts is all about. (UFC middleweight) Lyoto Machida said this journey into the cage is about life. To watch another person strive for something that maybe you don’t understand, but that you can respect, to me, is beautiful.
Q: There are some great backstage photos in the book taken on fight night. I imagine guys weren’t crazy about having a camera stuck in their face in that charged atmosphere. How did you manage to get those shots?
A: One of the first photos I took was of (UFC featherweight) Cody McKenzie after he got choked out in New Orleans. Cody was like “Get that camera out of my face!” and I decided in the moment to lean in closer and keep shooting him. I realized that he’s going to win a fight in the future and he’ll want the photo from the loss to show that low so he can contrast it with his high. This is history, and with the wins come the losses. Before fights I tried to stay as a fly on the wall, but these are also professional athletes. You’re fighting to write your name in history and I’m part of that. I’m chronicling this for you. Most of the guys didn’t even think about it. They are so locked in and so focused in those hours before they fight that they don’t even notice.
Q: I think people have a very easy time seeing the physical side of the sport because watching a fight is such a visceral experience – you see blood, you hear the smack of a stiff leg kick, you see a head snap back. I’m not sure the average person understands the mental part of preparing to fight.
A: The mental side is everything. You almost win your fight before you enter the arena. During a training camp you have to be 100 per cent mentally present. Your progress and effectiveness is dependent on it. A fight is only one night and your confidence as you step into the octagon that night is dependent on your preparation. If you can’t be mentally present day after day after day you’re not going to succeed. You don’t have a team to pick up the slack in the octagon. It’s just you.
Q: I’ve never been in a fight or thrown a serious punch in my life. I don’t understand the mentality of a fighter.
A: As human beings we all seek opportunities to test ourselves, no matter what it is. Do you want to be a great basket weaver? I think we all want to be the best we can be at something and fighters are no different. I’m in my forties and I compete in jiu-jitsu tournaments because I want to test my abilities that I work on day in and day out. I’m not winning money, I don’t have anything at stake, but the only to truly test that is in competition. Training doesn’t give you the real world feedback. I think it’s the same thing for the fighters in the UFC. There’s a lot of hype talk before a fight about beating each other up before, but after the bout they’re hugging each other and have nothing but pure respect for each other. That’s indicative of the true mindset: Let’s go in there together and test our abilities.