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Feature: How ‘Face The Pain’ became the sound of the UFC

Love it or hate it, there is one song that defines the UFC. This is the story of how that song came to be.

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1998. Presidential politics were rocked by a sex scandal, civil war raged in what was Yugoslavia, and the US launched airstrikes over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In the entertainment world, James Cameron’s Titanic became the first movie to gross a billion dollars. Michael Jordan, Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa, and Ronaldo at France ‘98 were the stories in sports. Atop the charts, bubblegum pop reigned supreme represented by acts like Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and Will Smith. And while the realms of sports and music were still dominated by these glossy icons... at the edges something alternative was stirring.

On sparsely purchased pay-per-views and passed-along VHS tapes mixed-martial-arts was taking root in the United States. Despite being branded as ‘Human Cockfighting’ just two years prior - and unsanctioned in many states across the country - the weird hybrid of prize-fighting, martial arts, and pro-wrestling was finding its audience. It called out to people who wanted something different, even if others called that something ‘bad’ and possibly ‘dangerous.’

At the same time, another strange hybrid was emerging. One that also met the needs of those who were turning away from mainstream. At the intersection of metal and hip-hop a new (or nu) genre of music began creeping out of basements and garages en route to radio, MTV, and - for a brief moment in time - the top of the charts.

By 1998 Korn, Slipknot, and Limp Bizkit had announced themselves on the American music scene. Those acts were on a collision course with pop culture relevance and a slew of bands with a similar sound were on the way to joining them. In Lewiston, New York, a small town wedged up against Niagara Falls - Joe Cafarella was listening to the sound of things to come.

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At the time Cafarella was twenty-something and playing death metal and hardcore in bands around Buffalo, as were a handful of his high school buddies. But Cafarella - a guitarist and singer - and his friends were getting bored. “We were just spinning our wheels,” said Cafarella with a deep, thick voice that has survived decades of torment. “We just really liked the style of bands like Korn, Rage Against The Machine, Incubus, and Slipknot, so we kind of decided to go after that genre,” he continued.

STEMM in 2008, (left to right) Steve Crowl, Danny Halligan, Alex Scouten, Joe Cafarella.
Stan Cody / STEMM

That June, Cafarella - along with Russ Martin and Jimi and Louis Penque - formed STEMM. The new outfit quickly began playing the usual haunts in upstate New York and slowly expanded their touring around the East Coast. Despite fostering a strong local following, the band went unsigned. Undeterred, Cafarella and his band set up Catch 22 Records. The next year they released their first EP, titled Further Efforts. The locals loved it and snapped up all the copies the band could make. This spurred them on to create and release Dead To Me, their debut full-length album, in 2000.

This all happened despite front-man Cafarella being a self-described “weekend warrior.” From day one of his music career, Cafarella - along with the rest of STEMM - held a steady job, ensuring that the band had enough money to play, record, and tour their music. During the early years, Cafarella was driving a truck, delivering food to restaurants around Niagara Falls, for a small family-run business.

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A year after STEMM’s first album dropped and thousands of miles away - in the desert - the nu metal of sports was about to change forever. In January, 2001 the newly minted ZUFFA LLC acquired the UFC for a song and placed Dana White as CEO and President. Together they went about refining MMA some, but not too much.

Rules, logos, advertising, sponsors, personnel - the external brand was changing. Eventually the makeover of the Ultimate Fighting Championships - from no holds barred to mixed martial arts - got to music. The ZUFFA brain-trust decided that the new UFC needed a new sound. But where would they get it?

“It was a fluke,” said Cafarella. “Right place, right time.”

That place was a rock show in Niagara Falls. The time was 2002. It was there that Cafarella bumped into Klear band member and friend Bruce Wojick. Wojick had a connection with a Vegas-based music producer who had been working with the UFC. The producer reached out to Wojick, hoping he had some tracks the UFC could use both in the arena and on-air; for pay-per-views and television content.

“The producer asked Bruce for his demo, so he sent it and they told him it wasn’t heavy enough,” remembered Cafarella. “So Bruce said, ‘Well wait a minute, I know a band you guys might like.’” Wojick filled Cafarella in on the details and encouraged his friend to send a promo-package to Las Vegas. Fortunately for STEMM, the band had a bevvy of new tracks they were demoing so the package came together quickly.

The response from ZUFFA was just as quick.

“Five days later, after we sent in the package, they called and wanted to talk,” said Cafarella. Over the phone Cafarella was introduced to both Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta. White and Fertitta explained to him that they were, “looking for independent music to start changing the shape and sound of the UFC.”

“They just asked if they could use our music!” said Cafarella. “And of course we allowed it, we were really excited.” On June 22nd, 2002, after the deal was signed, Cafarella sat back and watched UFC 37.5: As Real As It Gets, headlined by Chuck Liddell versus Vitor Belfort. Along with the cheers, and commentary from the debuting Joe Rogan, Cafarella got to hear STEMM pumping out of his TV.

“I remember sitting there just watching it, blown away that our music was being played over a TV broadcast,” remembered Cafarella. He and the band weren’t the only ones pleased. “They really enjoyed it,” said Cafarella of the UFC’s reaction to their early STEMM experiment. “They just kept calling every other week, saying they’d like to use some more music, and then some more, and that they love working with us because we were easy to work with.”

The STEMM songs that featured on these shows in 2002 can still be heard today; during weigh-ins, commercial break bumpers, and countless promo packages. A number of these tracks would later be released on STEMM records. Among these tracks were ‘Fallen’, ‘Image’, ‘Til I Die’, and ‘Out of Context.’ A sample of the highly recognizable ‘Out of Context’ here. That song and many others from STEMM can be previewed and purchased on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

Cafarella estimates that before ‘Face The Pain’ was even written, the UFC were using roughly twelve STEMM songs throughout their live events and television productions. “To this day, if I sat with you and we watched a UFC fight, I’d be able to say ‘that’s us’, ‘that’s us’, ‘that’s us’,” laughed Cafarella. “It’s just a lot of clips that they use that people don’t really know about that.”

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UFC 40 Poster

The UFC, new soundtrack in hand, continued to grow and ZUFFA’s tactics seemed to be paying off. Late in 2002, the corporation announced plans which they hoped would push the company over the top, and finally make the kind of impact on the sporting mainstream that they were desperate for. Their centerpiece for this plan was UFC 40: Vendetta.

UFC 40 - scheduled for the MGM Grand Arena on November 22nd, 2002 - was built around what was billed as “the biggest fight in UFC history,” Tito Ortiz versus Ken Shamrock. It was new blood against old in a contest that represented ZUFFA’s intention to test the past against their burgeoning new era of combat sports. Along with that light heavyweight title fight, the card also boasted Chuck Liddell versus Renato Sobral, welterweight champ Matt Hughes versus Gil Castillo, Carlos Newton versus Pete Spratt, and Robbie Lawler versus Tiki Ghosn.

This was big. ZUFFA invested all their energy, and most of their funds, in UFC 40 and a disappointing buy-rate could have forced the company to cut their losses and end their MMA adventure for good. White and Fertitta wanted to make this one special, and they wanted something special musically, as well.

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About a week after UFC 40 was announced Cafarella came home from work to see a message on his answering machine. It was the Las Vegas producer. There was a “big meeting going down” and Cafarella needed to call in. Cafarella rushed to make the call. The producer answered instantly and told Cafarella he was putting him on speaker phone, and that Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta were in the room. “And then the producer said, ‘They want to talk to you about this upcoming fight...’, and then Dana started talking about how much he loved the music and working with us. He said, ‘This is a really big moment for the UFC with Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz going up against each other for the first time and I would just like to have a song to set the tone for the event.’”

Cafarella was surprised, but also excited by the prospect as he continued listening to White, Fertitta, and the producer. And it soon became clear that this was White’s passion-project. According to Cafarella, White told him, “I don’t want to tell you how to write the song, or what I want to hear, but overall I would just like to have something that is about the mindset of a fighter, something that lyrically explains what they go through when they step into the ring.”

Cafarella said “ok”, and immediately thought the task didn’t seem “too hard of a concept to figure out.” The project was made that much easier, given that STEMM already had some unreleased tracks, which would be a good fit to the lyrics he now had to come up with.

The next day, Cafarella began writing lyrics - just like he always did, at work, in his truck. With his notepad drawn, Cafarella first thought of a name. “My drummer at the time, he used to be a in a real big hardcore band out of Buffalo, New York called Zero Tolerance, and they had a song that was called ‘Face The Panic’,” recalled Cafarella. “I always liked that title, and I remember just writing, for some reason, Face The Panic on my notebook and after I did that, I just started penning lyrics and instead of Face The Panic I just switched it out to Face The Pain.”

“Sometimes when you get inspired by something as subtle as that, it just becomes an outpouring of inspiration, lyrics just start coming,” continued Cafarella. Quickly, thanks to the simplicity of ZUFFA’s brief and that spark of inspiration, Cafarella had his song. But, there was another element that helped Cafarella bring it all together; the life of a musician, and the similarities Cafarella sees between that and the life of an athlete/fighter.

“Being in a band isn’t all glitz and glamour like people seem to think it is,” said Cafarella. “There’s a lot of behind the scenes things, a lot of hard work that goes on, a lot of sacrifices with family and friends and your jobs, there’s a lot of turmoil and then there’s always drama with other bands and stuff going on within the scene, there’s a lot of pressure sometimes to keep your head up.

“I grew up playing sports, grew up playing hockey and baseball and football, it’s the same mentality, when you step out on stage and whether you’re playing in front of 25 or 25,000 people, you can’t show anybody that you’re nervous, or that you’re afraid. Because there’s a million things going on in your head, am I gonna mess up, am I gonna sing out of tune, or trip and fall when I’m running across the stage? You can’t show the crowd that you’re feeling vulnerable or nervous or scared. It was just real easy to try and convey that as a fighter, since they too want to be the best at what they’re doing, and really can’t show any fear to anybody while they’re doing it.”

With the lyrics complete Cafarella and the rest of STEMM demoed the song and FedEx-ed it off to Las Vegas. A few days later the producer told them the ZUFFA team loved what they’d sent. What’s more, he said he was coming to Buffalo to record the final version with them. A few days after that, the song was finished.

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Next came the licensing agreement which, according to Cafarella, was a pain-free process. “It wasn’t like there were no lawyers involved. The UFC had lawyers to issue contracts for them to have permission to use the songs, but it wasn’t a long drawn out thing. I think it was a matter of a few phone calls back and forth and then they faxed over what they needed to be able to broadcast on national TV and we signed it and sent it back and that was it, they were using our music. It was easy.”

ZUFFA had the song they wanted. Some weeks later, they got the event they wanted too. UFC 40 was an incredible success, with a then record-breaking 99,000 buys and a total gate of $1,540,000. The main event saw Ortiz beat Shamrock by TKO (corner stoppage) after a thrilling three rounds. Liddell, Hughes, Newton, and Lawler all scored stoppages that night too.

Speaking to Stephie Haynes from Bloody Elbow, in 2011, ‘Big’ John McCarthy - who reffed the main event - reinforced what UFC 40 meant for the UFC, and MMA in general.

“It was at UFC 40. When that show happened, I honestly felt like it was going to make it. Throughout the years, things were happening, and everything always looked bleak. It always looked like, this is it, this is going to be the last time. This is going to be the last year. But, when I was standing in the Octagon at UFC 40, I remember standing there before the Ortiz/Shamrock fight and looking around. The energy of that fight, it was phenomenal, and it was the first time I honestly said, it’s going to make it.”

After that - for both STEMM and the UFC - was UFC 41: Onslaught, which took place on February 28th, 2003 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Cafarella and his band-mates attended the event, as honoured gusts of White and the Fertittas. There Cafarella watched Tim Sylvia knockout Ricco Rodriguez to win the heavyweight title, Frank Mir tap David Abbott with a toe hold, and BJ Penn battle Caol Uno to a draw.

Around this event Cafarella also enjoyed dinner and drinks with both White and Lorenzo Fertitta (and Chuck Liddell who turned up at the bar). For the first time, in person, Cafarella was able to hear White on what he likes to listen to, and why he was such a big fan of STEMM and especially ‘Face The Pain.’

“Dana, he was a really big fan of our style of music. He still is, he likes bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn, but he just said he liked our sound, he liked our attitude, the way our lyrics were cut, it had like a... never-give-up fighting style edge and attitude, and that was something that he really liked about us,” said Cafarella. “He just liked the heaviness, the groove, most of all he just said he loves the way it sounds in the arena.”

Cafarella got to hear ‘Face The Pain’ in the arena once more, again as White’s guest. This time it was at the MGM Grand Arena for UFC 49 on August 21st, 2004. This trip involved walking into the octagon and seeing some behind-the-scenes action. “They treated us like rockstars,” laughed Caferalla. That night Randy Couture beat Vitor Belfort for the light heavyweight crown and Chuck Liddell knocked out Vernon White.

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A year later STEMM released the album Songs for the Incurable Heart. Their third full-length album, Blood Scent, came in 2008. In 2011 they released Cross Roads. After a number of line-up changes the band eventually broke up in 2012.

“We were together for 14 years and we weren’t really ready to adapt to the new music industry, with technology and how things stand now, we weren’t ready to adapt to that,” admitted Cafarella. “We were frustrated, and we just decided to end it before we started fighting with each other.”

Today Joe Cafarella is enjoying family life (shortly after our interview his wife gave birth to their third child, Wyatt), living in Lewiston, and earning an honest wage behind the wheel of a tractor trailer. He hasn’t quit music entirely though, Cafarella still writes and sells songs and this summer he and former STEMM drummer Dan Nelligan began working together on a new project.

Despite ‘Face The Pain’ - and the dozen other STEMM songs acquired by ZUFFA - being played thousands of times at events, as well as being used in TV shows, video games and movies, Cafarella never made any ‘life-changing’ money from his association with the UFC.

“We didn’t really sign the greatest deal for ‘Face The Pain’,” laughed Cafarella, heartily. “But they came back at us with other music and helped us out, to make up for that, which goes to show how classy they are.”

“I think we were all learning at the time, how it worked, to be honest with you,” remarked Cafarella. “I could be naïve saying that but, you know, it really doesn’t matter. At the time, all we cared about was exposure and getting our name out there, and they were a massive vehicle to do that.” Cafarella stated that ZUFFA also helped him pull off a separate publishing deal later, outside of the UFC, for a different song he had written.

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Cafarella is not sure what the future holds for his ties to ZUFFA and how much longer ‘Face The Pain’ will last as the UFC’s theme tune. “Admittedly – it’s a dated song now, and I know it’s dated,” said Cafarella before another big laugh. “The UFC know it’s dated, and rap-core and nu metal really isn’t exactly the big thing right now and we did give them two [newer] versions, but Dana always says he likes the original.”

Cafarella actually thought his most famous song’s time had come to an end in 2011, after the UFC signed a seven-year broadcast deal with FOX sports. Thinking the UFC now had enough money to pay for a Metallica song, or something similar, to open the show Cafarella felt sure he would receive a phone call letting him that the royalty checks would stop coming, but that call never came. “I actually read an article with Dana after they signed with FOX and he said ‘Face The Pain’ stays, ‘you don’t like it turn down your TV’, and I just couldn’t believe it.”

On reading this Cafarella reached out and expressed his gratitude to White, who Cafarella still holds in extremely high regard. “It’s nice to know that if something was going on in the area, and I said, ‘Hey can I grab tickets’ or something like that, he’d accommodate me, but I don’t like to take advantage of stuff like that, so I’m just thankful and appreciative that they’ve kept us on board through all of this. We never thought it was gonna last this long, we just thought it was a short lived thing, and it’s well over a decade now for us.”

“Dana is a class act all the way around,” continued Cafarella. “He could have easily just dropped this little band STEMM but he stuck by us the entire time, and I don’t know what to say, it’s really mind blowing to me, to think that they would do something like that, it’s been quite the ride.”

Bands like STEMM came and went. The same might have happened to the UFC. But unlike nu metal, the UFC has evolved, adapted, and improved so much that a $2 million investment turned into a $4 billion sale. They've moved from Spike TV to FOX, from 99,000 PPV buys to over 1 million, from Mickey's malt liquor to Monster energy drinks. And yet, no matter how far the UFC has come - or where it ends up - a part of it may always sound the same.

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