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.
Q: There's a quote from former UFC competitor Jon Fitch in the book where you and he are talking about fighting and he says it is "the clearest mirror you'll ever stand in front of."
A: It's true. I can't speak as a UFC fighter, but in a sport like this it is just you. There is no one to blame. Did you prepare mentally? Did you prepare emotionally? Did you prepare physically? No matter what the outcome is, if you prepared and executed to the best of your ability you shouldn't be disappointed. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The disappointment comes when you lack in preparation from one of those areas.
Q: What is it that has made MMA so popular? Former UFC fighter Tank Abbott says in the book that fans live vicariously through the fighters. Is that it?
A: I think we do live vicariously through sports archetypes. It's an important part of understanding not just MMA, but any sport. We're living through these people and they're providing a release. It's just like ancient mythology. There's a reason that we continually recycle our heroes again and again. Another reason the fight game is so great is that you see these individuals from different backgrounds sacrificing and overcoming hardships to achieve their goals. Or maybe they fail, but they pick themselves up and go again.
Q: Dana is so unlike the head of every other major sports organization in the world – blunt, profane and easily accessible at the events and on social media. You've been close with him for a very long time. What's something even the biggest UFC fan might be surprised to know about him?
A: He's a great dad. Something that I love the most about him is how close he is with his kids. He's a great father and a great human being. The UFC thing is his job, but that's completely separate from the real person that he is. People love him because his life is a continuation of that fighter overcoming story. I knew Dana when we were kids and neither of us came from anything. I know in his life a lot of people told him he'd never amount to anything, so he's got a very inspiring story that not a lot of people are aware of.
Q: At the end of the chapter on UFC announcer Joe Rogan you say fans will look back at this era "all dew eyed" as the golden age of MMA and that 15 or 20 years from now a UFC broadcast might look a lot more like an NFL broadcast does now.
A: I think that's exactly where it is going to be. They will never be able to replace Dana and they will never be able to replace Joe. You see the new announcers, and I love them, they're great, but everyone is already wearing suits and ties. You're already seeing it happen. To me, the two most fascinating people in the UFC are Joe Rogan and Dana White because they are so outside the norm of what you'd expect. Joe personifies what the UFC is – the merging of sports and entertainment. With Dana, where have we ever seen anyone as the president of sports organization who is just so real? The book covers the period from the Ultimate Fighter reality show taking off up to the deal with Fox. That Fox deal was the start of the real mainstreaming of MMA. We'll see the effects of that over the next few years. It seems to me, as a fan, that they're moving it towards that NFL-type model. That was always the plan – to move it to the mainstream and Fox is a mainstream network.
Q: The book closes with your thought that MMA is the most misunderstood sport on the planet. We're not an MMA publication, so plenty of people will see this who don't buy pay per views or think the sport is too violent. What would you like those people to understand about the sport?
A: This book is the story of me coming from the outside to try to understand what this sport is about. The lesson I drew about MMA is that it is a very disciplined sport these guys are dedicating their lives to and it is evolving as we watch. That is what's so fascinating. There's a whole human ancestry thing too. The first thing in cave drawings we saw, in terms of sports, was organized combat. The guys are protected, they're wearing gloves and there are referees. I just don't look at it as fighting. It's hand-to-hand combat.
This interview has been condensed and edited