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Interview: SB Nation’s Jon Bois on recent documentary, MMA culture, and the world at large

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Jon Bois has been a name that some of you may not be familiar with, but should.

As an SB Nation contributor, he’s provided some colorful, insightful, and downright bizarre pieces regarding the intersection of sports and culture. Recently, he teamed up with the internet’s infamous Felix Biederman in a wide-ranging and mesmerizing documentary titled Fighting in the Age of Loneliness.

While initially just a bystander, Bois became immersed in the sport and became greatly invested in making this project a reality. After the release of the documentary, Bois agreed to discuss the process of making the piece, as well as the motivations and rationale behind it and some of the choices they made.

Victor Rodriguez: What prompted you to get into this project? Did you approach Felix (Biederman), Did he approach you? How did this whole thing start?

Jon Bois: Well, Felix and I have been friends for several years. And I had always — for a really long time — have been a like, very casual fan of MMA. I always thought it was cool, but I was never a dedicated fan. And like, about 3 years ago I was hanging out with Felix and some other people, and they were all MMA fans. Like, hardcore fans. And of course, the conversation turned to MMA and I was like, “oh god, here we go… I don’t know shit about this. I’m bored“ (laughs).

And then I went from, pretty quickly, 15 minutes later, “wow, this is actually interesting!“, because they were talking about Fedor, and they were talking about the old PRIDE days. By the time they were a half hour into it, I was like, “I wanna do something on this. I don’t know what.” That led to me and Felix just talking and saying “hey, do you want to do something together?“ Even though there’s been a lot of great MMA journalism for a long time, and there have been a few really good MMA documentaries, it was still sort of niche as far as — most of my friends and family and people I know, don’t know a thing about MMA and have never really been exposed to it. This project was sort of my effort to bring that to them. All the weird spectacle and all the fascinating stories of MMA to those people.

VR: And how long did this project take? Because it very clearly shows there was a lot of effort put into it.

JB: Yeah, I remember I called him and asked him “do you wanna do this project?“ He said “sure, yeah, let’s do it.“ Then about 3 hours after we hung up the phone, Donald Trump was elected president. (Laughs) We’re talking about — it was approximately two years from when we started writing the script, it was all the way done.

VR: In those two years, clearly a lot of things changed within the landscape of the sport, and a lot of things changed along the landscape of the country. So what kind of challenges does that present for someone that is dealing with something that is a work in progress, and that is as labor intensive as this? You guys were working on multiple levels and multiple fronts, what’s that like for you and how does it differ from other projects you’ve worked on in the past?

JB: Well, it’s definitely — I’ve spent so long working on a single thing. Of course, in two years a lot of things change. But between 2016 and 2018, decidedly a whole hell of a lot has changed like you said, both in the sport, and in the world. It was a challenge, because when you start a project like this you don’t know exactly what it’s going to be until you get close to finishing it. There were some narratives that we wanted to explore that didn’t pop up until a little later on. Like, as far as Jon Jones and the last time he got busted by USADA happened while we were in the middle of writing this. Obviously, McGregor/Khabib didn’t occur until about a month and change before we released the project. But it fit so well with our narrative that we couldn’t leave it out. So we have to be willing to change and adapt. Conor vs Khabib happened about six weeks before we released the project, so at the last minute we decided this was consistent with the message and tone of the project, and we wanted to make sure to include it.

VR: From the vantage point of someone who didn’t exactly follow the sport very closely and started to work on this deep dive into the origins, culture and parallels to the rest of reality when it comes to the sport, what was that process like for you? What kind of challenges did that present?

JB: Well, it was really nice working with Felix because he is a die-hard MMA fan and he’s written a good bit about MMA, being a fan for the longest time. So it was nice to rely on his expertise. Whenever he talked about a story, I would chase that thread and learn about it that way. It was really extraordinarily fun for me, not to just tell these stories but to hear these stories for the first time. I obviously knew who (Mauricio) Shogun Rua was, but I did not know about his 2005 tournament run in PRIDE. One of my favorite MMA stories ever. I kind of got to have it both ways. I had the thrill of learning the whole history of this sport and then turn around and tell it.

JB: During that whole process, what was one of the things — or maybe there’s more than just one — that stood out to you the most as the most shocking thing you found.

JB: Let’s see… There was a lot about the early UFC that I was not all that aware of. I knew who Royce Gracie was, but did not know about Shamrock vs Severn, you know?

VR: Yeah…

JB: Worst fight of all time. And I went back and watched the entire fight for the first time and was like “god, how did this sport survive this?“ And then there were a lot of little odds and ends. I did not know about Chael Sonnen’s history in Republican politics, just tons of little odds and ends that I had no clue about and that this sport just has no shortage of.

JB: With all these things that you covered that went on and trying to encapsulate so much, that in and of itself is a tall order. But when you use the history of MMA to draw the comparisons with what was going on in America and pretty much for the world at large, what where the commonalities that stood out the most to you, and did that affect the rest of the work later on?

JB: It was really interesting because drawing the parallels between MMA and the larger political world was basically Felix’s idea from the outset. I thought he executed that really well, but as it went on there were a couple of things that really resonated with me personally. We talk about how the UFC blew up with The Ultimate Fighter and everything else around 2005. 2005, I remember as just a really rotten time to be in this country between the Iraq War, and (Hurricane) Katrina and like, me working some crappy retail job and everything else. It was like that coincidentally was the year I saw my first UFC event, so it did have that personal connection with me. We knew that this was not going to be the definitive, all-encompassing telling of MMA. Even though Fedor is a huge figure, we actually barely discussed Fedor. We were chasing that theme than trying to tell the Ken Burns history of MMA.

VR: This is going to be a two-pronged question: What were the things that gave you the greatest amount of pause, looking at the parallels between these two things? And is there anything that gave you a degree of optimism, as difficult as that may be? Because, and this isn’t a criticism of the piece, but it reflects the dour reality that a lot of us are living right now. Was there anything that you were able to take solace in?

JB: I guess the first part, yeah, it’s tough because I don’t usually like to make projects that get people down. This definitely, this project is a bummer. there is not much of a happy ending to be had. And it was, obviously we’ve lived through the last couple of years in the Trump administration. To see that happen with the UFC and to see it degrade, and see it lose the magic and energy it still had — even though it’s still fun, I still love the UFC — it’s just not quite what it was. That kind of reflects a lot of other things in our culture. Movies, video games, music. Other things that get monetized into becoming something less special. Seeing that happen with this sport as well really, really hurts. But if there is some kind of happiness I can take away from this, it’s something Felix wanted to add at the end, which was the fight between (Donald) Cerrone and Nate Diaz. The message is sort of, not even a happy one but it is… it’s like the onus is on us to keep fighting no matter how bad it is or how much we’re losing. There’s a certain nobility in just continuing to fight even if it seems hopeless, just keep on going. I think that’s as close as we can get to an uplifting message at the end there.

VR: Alright, I need you to take my hand because I’m gonna take you on a kind of long walk with me here for a second. I’ve been saying for a while that, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the election of Donald Trump, but America’s image abroad has been really in decline in the last few years. I’ve kind of noted that there’s a parallel with that in MMA, where the UFC was seen as the end all, be all, but now popularity is somewhat waning, their image has not been great in recent years and we’re seeing more organizations and groups outside of the UFC flourishing. It’s not entirely different from what we’re seeing internationally in the real world, if you wanna call it that. We have other countries deciding “look, we’re just gonna do things our own way“ because they feel they can’t rely on American support for certain things. I wanna know if that perhaps informed your work or if that ever popped up in any of the stuff you encountered?

JB: Yeah. If I’m hearing you right, you’re asking about the need to retreat into MMA?

VR: Well, using this as a metaphor with the UFC being the United States and other countries being other organizations.

JB: Not in those particular terms, I think in slightly broader terms the parallel of America as the Empire and the UFC as the Empire, both wildly successful for a time, the last superpower remaining. Now the still are but it’s starting to deteriorate and crumble. It might happen very slowly, but it feels like — I don’t know if I should borrow this term — but it feels in a way like the end of history. This is the end, this is the finished product and there’s no sunrises on the horizon.

VR: Is there anything else you would have wanted to include that didn’t make it into the final product?

JB: Not particualrly as far as… there was one. I will say there was one story that I was hoping to fit in there and that was the story of UFC 1. The very first fight, I can’t remember how to pronounce his name. Teila Tuli?

VR: Yes.

JB: It was him vs Gerard Gordeau, and I remember thinking “ah, this is going to be a boring fight.“ And it’s just, it might be among the most violent fights I’ve ever seen in the UFC. And the fact that Tuli’s tooth got stuck in Gordeau’s foot, apparently…

VR: The one that didn’t go flying…

JB: Right, exactly. They told him “you have two choices: we can take the tooth out and there will be blood everywhere and you can’t fight again tonight, or we can tape it up and just leave the tooth in your foot.“ (Laughs) And I was like ”that’s so cartoonishly disgusting.” I kind of wish I had found a way to leave it in there, but Felix and I were so busy talking about Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock and everything that it didn’t really fit. That was a special one.

VR: His streak of being dirty didn’t end there. He actually blinded a guy in Japan in one eye.

JB: Yeah! I heard.

VR: But not long ago he was actually training with Royce.

JB: Oh, wow. OK. One funny thing about that was that we talked about Gordeau biting Gracie in the ear and all this notoriously dirty stuff. And of course our script went to our legal team to give it a defamation read to make sure that we weren’t defaming anyone legally. Our lawyer was like “I dunno, can we call him ‘dirty‘? Do we have confirmation that he bit Gracie’s ear?“ I was like “I bet I can find something“, and I look up Gordeau and he has a video up on YouTube with of him saying “yeah, I bit him and this is why I did it“ (laughs). That made it really easy on us, for sure.

VR: Is there any follow up to this in your mind, or any other project you already have your eye on?

JB: I would love to work with Felix again in some way. Probably wouldn’t be for a while, if at all. But I do know that regardless of whether or not it’s done by us or someone else, there’s so much more ground to cover. The stuff that Karim Zidan has written about alone, the way the sport is being used to prop up nationalism and for sportswashing for corrupt leaders and stuff. It’s more rife with political consequence than any other sport right now. So I don’t know if I’m the one to do that, but someone should definitely do something along those lines.

Jon Bois is an associate editor for SB Nation, and more of his work can be found here. You can also check out his YouTube channel and follow his misadventures and musings on Twitter.

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