In his first interview ever, the ‘Just Bleed Guy’ reveals the gory truth about his path to UFC 15, prison, and eventual peace.
“I was just caught in the moment,” says James Ladner; referring to the the evening of October 17th, 1997, the night he morphed from a random fight fan into mixed martial arts’ most recognizable meme. The transformation took place during the live broadcast of UFC 15: Collision Course, in pop-up arena on the banks of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Mark Kerr – a.k.a ‘The Smashing Machine’ – was standing opposite Gregg ‘The Ranger’ Stott, about to compete in the semi-finals of a one-night heavyweight tournament.
The UFC’s camera stuck on Stott as Bruce Buffer introduced him to the crowd. As Buffer ended the segment, with typical flourish, Stott waved to the audience. They mostly booed. The director then asked the vision-mixer to switch things up; to cut to one of the cameras prowling the bleachers. The director was after a typical crowd reaction shot; filler before they went back to Buffer. Folks clapping, raising their cups, or giving a thumbs-up would have been just fine. But, on this night – and on this cutaway – they found something that was completely unexpected.
They found Ladner.
A man mid-clench in a twisted display of awesome machismo. Painted on his naked chest, the words: ‘JUST BLEED’. And across his sweating brow, three letters: ‘U-F-C’. As the camera stood its ground, Ladner continued to contort; veins bulged out of his neck and his wrists wrenched in on themselves. His face was wild – jaw locked and teeth clenched – his eyes closed so tight they might have dripped blood. The camera zoomed in, as if challenging Ladner to carry on. The young man vibrated. Suddenly, his eyes flashed grossly and a primal scream gurgled forth. Mid-cry, the camera cut back to the cage.
When the bell rang, Kerr stepped to Stott. They clinched and Kerr threw a knee that toppled his doughy opponent. Big John McCarthy waved off the fight and another clash from the UFC’s dark ages was signed into history. The 17-second ‘fight’ lasted about as long as it would be remembered. But no-one forgot what came before. Ladner’s war dance was seen on pay-per-view, VHS tapes, and promo packages. After the true dawning of digital ‘the Just Bleed guy’ was shared thousands of times until he became famous within the MMA community. Reactions to the gif are mixed. Some fans pump their fists in admiration, others roll their eyes. Either way, we’re all forced to wonder; who is this person?
James Ladner was born in 1971 and raised in Picayune, Mississippi, under an hour’s drive from New Orleans. After high school, he and his fiancee left Mississippi for the suburbs of Chicago. Four years later, after the passing of his father, he returned to the south. He attended the University of Southern Mississippi, graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelors of Science. He later earned an MBA, also at Southern Miss. In the late nineties, when the Ultimate Fighting Championships came crashing into his life, Ladner was settled in Hattiesburg, MS.
“I’m not very indicative of the population here. I’m probably a lot more liberal and progressive than most people here are,” says Ladner. Even though his philosophical leanings aren’t typical of Dixie, the way he speaks certainly is. His refined and songful southern accent, paired with a powerful vocabulary, conjures visions of seersucker and cotillions. But the charm of his cadence can’t sweeten the ugly tale of how he got to UFC 15.
“It all really started with cockfighting,” he says, matter-of-fact.
Ladner vividly remembers finding his way to abandoned movie theaters across the Louisiana border. In them were blood soaked fighting floors ringed with apple boxes and particleboard. There he watched roosters — with razors fastened to their ankles — fight to the death, while men whistled and zydeco music dripped out of rusted radios.
“When my father passed away I started going quite regularly,” he claims. “I just liked the betting atmosphere. It’s kind of like what you would see in the movies of old, where people are just throwing in money and saying, ‘I want to bet on this!’ It’s just manic.” In the nineties cockfighting was illegal in Mississippi, but not in Louisiana, which banned the blood sport in 2008.
Ladner would bet minimal amounts on fighting birds that came from as far away as Hawaii and Singapore. The events would last entire days. During one of these blood-fests, instead of roosters entering the gore stained ring, a pair of dogs were brought before the baying crowd. Just as he was with cockfighting, Ladner was entranced. The barbaric practice of forcing dogs to fight has been outlawed in the entire United States since 1976.
Ladner says he no longer supports or patronizes animal fighting. And that he understands how grotesque the idea of watching birds and dogs attempt to kill each other is to most people nowadays. Especially, he says, if they weren’t raised in a culture where such acts were commonplace and bound to a romanticized local identity. “It’s cruel,” he admits. “It’s not something I would endorse.” Ladner says this despite professing a fascination for the effort and finance that goes into conditioning an animal to kill.
“I don’t pass judgement on them,” Ladner remarks, regarding those who supplied the animals he watched get torn to shreds. “It was part and parcel of the entertainment here at the time. It’s not something that I’ve ever done. I am really a dog lover and if something happened to my dog, I would be very upset… It’s just a horrific sound – hearing dogs fight. It’s something that stays with you. The same with the roosters. They put these big razors on them and, if they get hit in the head a couple of times, they bleed like you wouldn’t believe. You can’t forget seeing that.”
While he was an active spectator of animal cruelty, Ladner’s curiosity for violence began to shift. Instead of just wanting to see cocks and dogs fight, he now thirsted to watch human beings pitted against each other. With this brand of ‘entertainment’ not readily available to him, he decided to create some.
“I would say, ‘I’m going to put up $10,000 and we’re going to fight to the last man. Whoever is the last person who can continue to fight will win the money,’” says Ladner, who began promoting backyard brawls across his hometown in the mid-nineties.
“I would promote, I would fight, I would pay the money. It wouldn’t matter to me, I just really liked it,” he exclaims. “I was pretty flamboyant and outgoing back then, so people would be drawn to me. So I would hype it up and try and get people to attend and come out. I would dedicate myself to getting people to turn out. Maybe we’d fight a couple of birds beforehand, or whatever combination, just trying to get people to come together that appreciated that kind of blood sport.”
Ladner states that these events were very well attended and bore an uncanny resemblance to the UFC’s early shows. “There was no eye-gouging and no biting, and no hitting in the groin,” he explains. “We just wanted people to fight as decently, and as efficiently, as you could without cheating. And obviously biting, eye-gouging, pulling hair, hitting the groin, those kind of things limit the other fighter’s effectiveness – so we would try and referee those type of things. Things that might change the course and direction of a fight, and tilt the scales in favor of the dirty fighter from the fighter who was being decent and upright.”
The brawls had referees and would end if a fighter was unresponsive, injured, or had submitted. “We didn’t want to see somebody maimed and that was made clear from the start. The same way that cockfighting was regulated, or the dogs,” he says, drawing a straight line between consenting adults and the distressed animals he watched fight in abandoned movie theaters. “If you plainly see that your dog is unresponsive, you’ll step in,” he continues, casually. “Reason dictates that the fight is over. And we tried to do the same thing, just let reason dictate who the best fighter is. And if the referee agreed, we would move on.”
Ladner says his passion for grass-roots bare-knuckle fighting was at its zenith when he discovered something similar going on up north, in an eight-sided cage. “The atmosphere that came from those backyard brawls was pulsing through my veins when I saw the first UFC.”
UFC 1 took place on November 12th, 1993 in Denver, Colorado. Though the event was broadcast live on pay-per-view, Ladner – like many others – first witnessed the Ultimate Fighting Championships on a rented VHS tape. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of what we do here,’” says Ladner. “So I could relate to it.”
More than just reflecting what he and his friends were getting up to in the backwoods of Mississippi, the UFC represented – for Ladner – a potential answer to a question that had plagued him throughout his years of blood sport patronage. “It was always in the back of mind: does size matter?” he asks. “Does technique matter? And when the UFC started out, it came the closest – I think – we’ve ever come to answering some of these questions. Because you would see really light and fast men prevail over people who were a whole lot bigger and stronger. That’s what intrigued me and what had me following the sport.”
Geography was another driving factor behind the original UFC product finding a fan in Ladner. “You look back at around UFC 10 or 11, to 20, the fights had a southern bent, for whatever reason. It wasn’t mainstream yet. It was still bloodthirsty. It was still too violent for pay-per-view, but it found a home in the South. Senator John McCain called it ‘Human Cockfighting’, right? Well, that’s what was going on down here.”
1996’s UFC 10 was held in Birmingham, Alabama. Of the fourteen UFC events that followed; four more took place in Alabama, and two each were held in Georgia, Louisiana, and Ladner’s home state of Mississippi.
Ultimately though, the main reason behind his youthful blood-lust was something Ladner finds almost indescribable. “It may not be something that people who meet me — I’m an accountant by day — would identify me with, but for whatever reason I was drawn to that kind of stuff. I was fascinated with, I guess, the way people spent their time; the effort they put into developing their birds or their dogs, or training people to be the best athlete, the best fighter they could. And it was just amazing to me. I’ve always had a profound fascination for people who dedicate themselves to a cause so fully.”
In 1997 — with Ladner as hooked on the UFC as he would ever be — he discovered that the big show was about to land in his backyard. While working in the construction industry, he got wind of plans to build an aluminum dome outside of a casino in close-by Bay St. Louis. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that the dome would host UFC 15. Once he knew for sure, he snapped up tickets and began scheming; hoping to seize upon an opportunity to show the traveling MMA outfit that they had ardent support in his neck of the woods.
On the night of the fights, Ladner had his gang over to his house so they could put his plan into action. “Before the event there was no extreme partying or anything like that going on,” he recalls. “We were just sitting back generating ideas, because we wanted to represent and to show that we were really into this sport, so that hopefully the UFC would come back and do a bunch of events here. But we weren’t going to be able to secure anything if we didn’t show that we have some serious fans in this area. So that’s what was going through my mind.”
It was Ladner’s idea to use body paint to get his point across. The simple idea to put ‘UFC’ on his forehead was quickly conceived and accepted. His group also decided that three of them should have a single letter on their torso, so they could spell out ‘U-F-C’, as well. As the man left out of that composition, it was up to Ladner to come up with something special for his own canvas.
“At that time, Phillip Knight had come out with the Just Do It campaign for Nike,” he remembers. “So I said, ‘let’s do Just Bleed with a Nike swoosh on me.’” The idea was a hit and those two words were daubed onto Ladner’s chest by his fiancee, as she had an “artistic flair.” She did the work outside, with the paint drying in the warm sunlight.
Painted, and with a couple of beers already in their systems, Ladner’s group made their way to the newly constructed casino in Bay St. Louis (casino gaming had been reintroduced to the South only seven years prior). After forty minutes of driving, drinking, and placing side bets, he and his friends arrived at what he describes as something resembling Mad Max’s ‘Thunderdome’. The temporary aluminum dome could fit maybe 6,000 people inside and it was covered with a stretched out piece of vinyl. He and his entourage arrived shirtless and would remain that way for the evening.
Inside the Thunderdome, Ladner and his buddies made their way to their seats, ten or twelve rows up; right above the fighters’ entrance. Once there, they drank more beer and continued to make bets with each other on the fights to come. UFC 15 offered Randy Couture versus Vitor Belfort in a heavyweight super-fight, a four-man tournament comprised of Kerr, Stott, Dave Beneteau, and Carlos Barreto, and a heavyweight championship bout between incumbent Maurice Smith and late replacement Tank Abbott.
Abbott, who was subbed in for Dan Severn, was especially interesting to Ladner. “They said Abbott had been ‘yanked off a bar stool’ that night,” he recalls. “And that resonated with me because that was the kind of man we wanted to see fight.”
It was during the fourth fight of the night that the camera found Ladner and immortalized his rabid desire for people to just bleed.
“It was a spontaneous moment,” he chuckles. As the UFC’s camera operator was making their way up to row ten, Ladner was returning from getting yet more beer. Before he noticed the camera, he was occupied with his bare-chested companions, making sure they were stood in the right place to spell out ‘UFC’ and not “something belligerent,” as he puts it.
With his crew in order Ladner turned back to the action. “I was just energized by the crowd,” he says. “It was really just an electrifying atmosphere and so the cameraman just happened to come out at the right time.” When he saw the lens he improvised his squinting and dribbling tableau, completely unaware that this frenzied performance would become more notorious than anything that happened in the cage that night.
After he had unwound from his pose Ladner continued to enjoy the event, amidst plenty of positive attention from other fans in the Thunderdome. After Smith had defeated Abbott — who submitted due to exhaustion — and the crowd began making for the exits, he and his friends were allowed into the Octagon to take pictures. While standing on the sweat and bloodstained canvas, still high from the night’s ambiance, Ladner would never have believed that his love for in the UFC was on borrowed time.
UFC 15 was a major turning point in the mild gentrification of American mixed martial arts. The event featured a slew of rule changes, which included the outlawing of headbutts, hair-pulling, groin strikes, small joint manipulations, strikes to the back of the neck/head, and kicks to the head a downed opponent. Over the next three years, the UFC desperately attempted to further sanitize their product in order to satisfy sanctioning bodies across the United States.
However, many territories — in the wake of Senator McCain’s ‘human cockfighting’ remarks — kept their doors closed to MMA. In 1999, UFC 21 became the first event with five minute rounds and the 10-point must scoring system. By this time the promotion had four weight divisions. But these reforms were still not enough to secure meaningful distribution to mass markets. With the millennium drawing near, the UFC’s owners (Semaphore Entertainment Group) were on the brink of bankruptcy. Cue the Fertittas.
After acquiring the UFC, the Fertitta brothers, and their cohort Dana White, gave the promotion a major face-lift. Their hope was to make the sport appear more professional and thus palatable to a new generation of combat sports fans. The ZUFFA-era’s changes were widely accepted by sanctioning bodies, and MMA in the US began creeping towards the mainstream.
Yet, for all the UFC gained, they lost Ladner. “When the UFC said they were going to start instituting ten weight divisions and adopt the unified rules of mixed martial arts, it kind of lost my interest. Because then it was like any other sport. It was more regulated. I guess, I liked the more unregulated aspect. And I understand from a business perspective that someone’s not going broadcast or sign an agreement with you if you’re too extreme or violent, so I get that they had to make some changes, but it made it lose its appeal with me.”
Ladner stopped watching the UFC and never found a sport — blood-based or otherwise — to take its place. As he receded from MMA fandom, he had no idea that his face (and chest) were still very much a part of the scene. It was around 2006 that he found out just how connected he still was with MMA. Though, at the time he was unconnected from pretty much everything else.
“It was brought to my attention a few years ago, when I was incarcerated,” reveals Ladner.
Once his fascination with the UFC was over, Ladner began working in sales. Around this time he also began to hit the party scene, hard. It was this partying that eventually landed him in a federal penitentiary.
“Basically, at the time, I liked taking ecstasy,” explains Ladner. “And I would go to Dallas and go party. And I would leave here and people would say, ‘Hey pick me up some weed, pick me up some cocaine or whatever.’”
Ladner was pulled over by police while traveling back from a party in Texas. He had thirty ecstasy pills with him at the time. He was charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics. This meant a minimum sentence of ten years in prison. He claims he was asked by prosecutors to name his friends from home, who had requested the drugs, in exchange for a lighter sentence. Ladner says he rejected the offer. “Some people make that choice,” he says. “But I wanted to walk away and hold my head up and say, ‘I did this on my end. I’m not dragging anybody else down.’”
Ladner entered prison in September, 2006. He served the majority of his sentence at a medium-security Federal Correctional Institution known as Coleman, outside of Orlando, Florida. He also spent time in a low-security prison camp in Pensacola before being released in August, 2014. Also at Coleman was former newspaper publisher Conrad Black and notorious crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger — who was in the complex’s neighboring high-security facility.
While there he remembers being approached by a young guard, who scrutinized his face before asking, “Are you James Ladner?”
“Yes sir,” said Ladner. The guard then smiled and told the inmate that he was, without a doubt, the biggest celebrity that they had in the entire prison. Ladner was baffled, until the guard repeated the two words that were painted on his chest the night of October 17th, 1997: “Just Bleed.”
Later he was able to access a computer and see the 10-year-old video spreading like wildfire over the internet. “That was so much fun for me,” he laughs.
Discovering himself plastered over forums and comment boards was a thrill. It’s just another reason why Ladner calls his prison stint a surprisingly positive period of his life. “It wasn’t that bad at all,” he remarks. “Being removed from the cares and concerns that overwhelm people day-to-day, I was just able to make investments in myself.” Ladner claims that he took every class offered while in prison. The Southern Miss grad says he also taught a couple of classes while behind bars.
“I just took advantage and worked on making myself the best version of myself I could be,” continues Ladner. “I don’t look back on that period as anything that was unfortunate. Obviously, I didn’t want to let down my family and the people that I love, but at the same time, it’s a time when we can either refuse to help others and be bitter and angry, or say, ‘You know what? Let me make the most of this,’ and that’s what I tried to do.”
Ladner served the mandatory 85% of his ten-year-sentence. Once he was released he headed back to Mississippi. Today he runs an accounting practice. And it makes him very happy.
“It’s just fulfilling to me to have people come into my firm and say, ‘Hey, I really appreciate what you do, you’ve done the best job possible, even though I wasn’t the best client,’ I derive great joy from those little simple things now and that’s odd compared to the past, which feels so long ago.”
Ladner smiles when he looks back twenty years to the moment that made him internet famous. “It’s amazing that that kind of stuff lives on in infamy,” he says. “It was just a spontaneous moment, it’s just odd how that comes around and has such a lasting image with people.”
He states that he doesn’t feel any sense of embarrassment or shame looking at that notorious clip. He says the same about his arrest, prison time, and past involvements with blood sports.
“I lived a really good life,” sighs Ladner. Now in his forties, he can’t imagine attending the violent events he once frequented. He adds that he’s “thankful” that both cock and dog fighting have decreased in popularity in the South and that the laws forbidding them have become more robust. He’s also glad that human cage-fighters are a lot more protected than they were twenty years ago. He admits this is quite a turnaround in his perspective and cites growing up as the main reason for it.
“I was young and extreme then,” remembers Ladner. “As we age, we kind of lose that, I guess. The need for that kind of violence. It doesn’t turn you on… you just kind of mellow.”
For over a decade Ladner’s grimacing mug has been used, both genuinely and facetiously, to personify MMA fandoms’ thirst for blood. It’s a badge of honor for some, an uncomfortable association for others. And it’s a useful touchstone for discussing what draws a crowd to combat sports.
Ladner can’t deny that the raw violence promised by ‘human cockfighting’ seduced him to watch and participate in blood sports. But other factors motivated his keenness for stone-age MMA too; such as the dedication of its actors. He was also snared by an argument still being discussed, often by the most erudite of cage-fighting connoisseurs: can skill and technique trump size and athleticism?
Does that mix of motivating factors described by Ladner exist in all MMA fans, balanced differently for each of us? At one extreme: those enslaved by a will to violence, fascinated by the power a fighter can exact over another and the pain that is inflicted along the way. At the other extreme: those who marvel over footwork and the gentle-ways of classic martial arts, but who turn away from knockout blows and torqued limbs. Most fans will fall somewhere in the middle, aware of the confluence of sport and violence and perhaps discomfited by their inability to separate one from the other.
For some, the UFC is making this conflict easier to bear. Today the promotion sits in the portfolio of a Hollywood talent agency turned entertainment conglomerate, sandwiched neatly between Guy Fieri and the Miss Universe Pageant. The sanitation of MMA, which began almost as soon as the sport was born, shows no sign of slowing down. The sport’s Vale Tudo lineage looks set to fade as new fans flock to the shiny, yet still edgy, spectacle of three-dimensional prize-fighting. And as they do, old fans will leave, just like Ladner did when gloves and weight classes became the norm.
But even though MMA has lost some of its violent appeal and dangerous mystique; links to its simple and brutal past will always be readily available. And few will be as stark as that moment in 1997 and the two words at its center — painted on James Ladner’s chest — JUST. BLEED.
If you’d like to read more stories from the strange footnotes of MMA history, see Tim Bissell’s other pieces: How Face The Pain became the sound of the UFC and Working Undercover for the UFC.