Among the tens of thousands of fight fans at the UFC Fan Expo, it's safe to assume I'm the only one carrying a non-allergenic foam pillow inside (well, mostly inside; slightly protruding at the top of) my backpack.
You laugh, but I can't sleep without that pillow. I used to feel okay leaving it in my hotel room while going out and about, but one time housekeeping took it away ("mistakenly"). Plus hotel pillows are so mushy and malleable that I'm up half the night trying to arrange them just so—always with the lingering revulsion that they might've been fluid-soaked by a wannabe porn star who stayed there before me. So, yes, my own pillow goes with me at all times. Even if I can't quite close my backpack around it.
I'm there with a friend who is—how to put this charitably?—the Homer Simpson to my Ned Flanders. In high school he was the kid who, in defiance of our suburban, middle-class upbringing, smoked and wore mechanic's boots and said "fuck" in front of grownups. The kind of friend who, depending on his mood and his medication, is equally likely to listen to your stories and laugh at your jokes or tell you to shut up and stop being such a pussy.
There are at least twenty fighters whose autographs and photos I'm hoping to score, but I didn't anticipate such massive crowds and endlessly snaking lines, and it quickly becomes apparent that we'll need to be strategic about this. While I consult the expo guidebook and begin mapping which autograph stations to hit, in which particular order, my buddy says, "Screw this noise, we'll just cut," and proceeds—muscled and tatted and oozing confidence—to wade right in. I, skinny and gangly and about as intimidating as Michael Cera, go to the back of the line.
Which I'm perfectly content to do, seeing as I've got a backlog of reading that I want to catch up on anyway. I notice I'm getting a sore throat from all this recirculated air—plane, hotel, convention center—but luckily I packed some herbal lozenges. Unwrap one. That's better. Read for a while. Look around. Jeez, I've hardly moved in twenty minutes. Where's my friend? I'm bored. I show the guy in front of me Atul Gawande's latest article in The New Yorker, which is fascinating. "A tool, what?" he asks. I don't offer him a lozenge.
Two hours later (no joke) I've finally made it, and I'm standing face-to-face with Jon Jones, a man I've watched savagely punch, kick, knee, elbow and choke some of the toughest fighters in the world into meek submission. Outside the Octagon, though, "Bones" is genuinely, palpably warm and charismatic, and he's all smiles as he signs my expo badge and poses for a picture. "What's the deal with the pillow?" he wants to know, and I mumble something lame about anti-microbial this and memory contours that.
It's an odd form of dual citizenship—I earn a living by writing and organizing conferences around touchy-feely themes like community and creativity and making the world a better place, and I avidly follow a sport in which two men or women try to beat each other unconscious (or at least semiconscious, long enough to sink in a vicious rear naked choke). Somehow, though, I don't find these to be incompatible.
Maybe I'm living vicariously through people who are facing down fears that scare the piss out of me. (My one and only fight was in second grade, consisting of a lot of girly shoving and no punches actually landing.) Or maybe, in our culture of coddling and self-esteem and the banning of dodgeball, where every kid gets a trophy just for showing up, having a channel for controlled aggression—after which the fighters invariably hug and praise each other's toughness and heart—is a welcome return to something primal. It's competition stripped to its purest form, and I, one of the most non-confrontational worms you'll ever meet, find it intensely, viscerally gratifying to watch.
I confess I was initially drawn in, voyeur-like, by morbid curiosity and the sensationalism of violence. But I grew immediately intrigued by the intricacy, complexity and—strange as it sounds—gracefulness of the combat. And I was hooked when I began to see and appreciate the poise, dignity and even humility exhibited by so many of the fighters who compete.
After the Fan Expo closes for the day, I meet up with my friend at the bar in the hotel lobby, which—tip for future expo-goers—is the happening place for running into fighters. Forrest Griffin is there, as are Donald Cerrone, Daniel Cormier, Anthony Johnson, Miesha Tate, Amir Sadollah and Sam Stout. Mike Goldberg makes an appearance, and we approach to buy him a beer, but another group of guys beats us to it.
In the midst of this scene is a Midwestern-looking couple who could easily have been extras in Cedar Rapids. The husband, chubby and dressed in Dockers and a tucked-in polo shirt, is working the room asking, "Are any of you guys fighters? My wife wants to have her picture taken with a fighter." Now, granted, puffing myself up by comparison to this guy might amount to being, in the words of Anthony Michael Hall, "the king of the dipshits." But all I can think is, At least I'm not that nimrod.
Determined to not look like an overeager fanboy, I'm checking email on my phone, trying to effect a bored, I-drink-in-bars-with-UFC-fighters-all-the-time vibe. And, hey, here's a reply about an article I've been pitching.
I say to my friend, more giddily than I intend to, "One of my articles is going to be pub—"
"Dude, I got my picture taken with the Octagon girls today," he interrupts. "And I got to meet Joe Rogan and the guys who founded Tapout. You should have cut in line with me. You're such a fuckin' pansy."
And there it is: the paradox of loving a friend (sport) while abhorring his (its) prevailing behavior (culture). In moments like this, you wonder if the association is even worth it—if the thing you find so appealing and the thing you find so repelling are, in fact, inseparable.
I'm debating whether to call him on this when—hey, holy shit, there's Rashad Evans in the lobby!!!
I can do this. I can be the guy with swagger.
Walk right over to "Suga." Reach out for a fist bump. "What's up, Rashad?"
The look on his face is friendly, in a bemused sort of way.
"Yo, why are you carrying a pillow in your backpack?"
Note: A version of this article was previously posted on an SBNation site that's no longer active. I revised and expanded it specifically for the BE community, who strike me (no pun intended) as the enlightened souls of MMA fandom.