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Interview: Felix Biederman on fighting, politics, and the uncertainty in both

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Chapo Trap House’s Felix Biederman gives his side of the process and mindset behind his recent documentary with SBNation’s Jon Bois, Fighting in the Age of Loneliness. He opens up about the experience, along with regrets, highlights, and love for Sakuraba.

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Felix Biederman has been known online for some time, with his social and political observations as well as his off-beat sense of humor. He’s gained a degree of popularity and notoriety for his observations on our political climate, along with identifying trends about where the world is going and the ineptitude of major media outlets.

Well, that and the occasional porn reference. Maybe a joke or two about the threats to society posed by the knockout game.

Recently, he collaborated with SBNation’s Jon Bois on a five part series you may have seen already, titled Fighting in the Age of Loneliness. If you haven’t, you should probably correct that. Felix sat down with me to discuss how this project came to life, what it was conceived to be and what it eventually became. We moved on from there to look at topics that could have been in the piece, as well as the arduous process of making something like this over two years.

Of course, none of this would be complete without discussing fighter pay, labor relations, and a machete fight featuring Michael Avenatti and Donald Trump Jr. We had to cover that stuff. I don’t make the rules.

Victor Rodriguez: So I spoke to Jon Bois a few days ago, and he discussed what his side of the genesis of this project was like. What was it like for you? How did this idea spring up and how did you approach Jon?

Felix Biederman: Spencer Hall and Jon (Bois) called me prior to the election of 2016 and said that we should do a project together about MMA, and I was doing a ton of things at the time. I was super busy so I was like, obviously with Jon, I was super into doing it. We had talked about doing a big MMA project for years. But so early on, it was like “Let’s talk about it after the election.“

And uh, you know.. (chuckles) what happened after the election. I called them a few days after and asked them “You guys still wanna do this shit?“ and they were like “Uh, yeah.“ But the weird thing for me is that at the time they asked me I was not as in love with MMA as I historically had been. I guess it sort of became about that, it became — I’m not gonna act like I wrote and we produced an objective story of what I think MMA is, because it’s not that. It’s my interpretation of events, my interpretation of the cultural phenomenon it was, the space it occupied and the sort of feeling it had. Like a lot of people like me, as fans, seeing it become less special in a way. And yeah, it’s... I always wanted to address very general topics within it and larger trends, but I never want people to think that I was trying to tell an objective story from this.

VR: So were you a fan from say, like the Tito Ortiz era, the Royce Gracie era, when would you say more or less you really started to be more of a follower of the sport?

FB: Like ‘04, ‘05. When I was like fourteen.

VR: So, the Chuck Liddell sweet spot, I guess.

FB: Yeah, the first stuff I seriously watched was, you know, PRIDE stuff that was on Limewire. Probably ruining my family’s computer at the time, but yeah. The first fighter I really liked a lot was Shogun. That’s why Shogun has such, I spent a special portion of the PRIDE chapter talking about Shogun’s 2005 GP run, because I consider that one of the finest singular year performances of any fighter, but also because he holds so much personal significance. You know, my fandom of it.

VR: What is it like following the sport for close to 15 years and not only seeing how the sport itself has changed, but how it’s permeated mainstream culture to the degree that it has?

FB: I think I was like a lot of people in that I was excited for it to permeate network TV, to become this thing that people watch, this thing that people bought. Millions of, you know, over a million pay-per-view buys, it was exciting to see it penetrate. I think I speak for a lot of people in that there were a lot of times where it’s like I wish more people understood how cool this was. But it also — for me — came to be kind of self defeating, because I felt like that push for being a mainstream thing kind of robbed the sport of a lot of what made it special. And I think it screwed over a ton of people in the process.

VR: Speaking of screwing over — I dunno if maybe this was something that you had planned at some point in terms of including, you did include something regarding the pay scale...

FB: Yes.

VR: ...And trying to, I mean, I feel like it was briefly encapsulated in what I like to refer to as the Wal-Mart model, right? I mean, the only way to keep this thing alive in the mind or eyes of the promoters is to basically pay the fighters what amounts to a pittance, ultimately, and the just sort of keeping them hungry so they can come back for more.

FB: It’s the Uberization of labor, you know? It’s a very Uber model. I mean, I would have to argue that Zuffa kind of beat Uber in doing this, right?

VR: Well it’s similar to what I had explained previously, when people asked Dana White why he was hanging out with Vince McMahon so much, what they would talk about. Well, what do you think it was? It was independent contractors, it was keeping the guys at the top well-fed and making sure the guys at the bottom would have a greater degree of infighting. We recently saw Sage Northcutt leaving (the UFC) and going over to ONE. Right away people were like ”he was making too much money.“ Not “everyone should be making more“, but rather that one guy. And even fighters themselves would have this sort of shark tank or crabs in a bucket mindset in regards to that. I don’t know if you had anything planned that would show a greater focus between that and fighting, and how we see a lot of that in “real life“, you know? People sinking to greater depths to please their overlords, people willing to deliver Teslas for free because they love Elon Musk so much, or people willing to snitch on coworkers to get some kind of brownie points with boss because they see themselves as possibly being bosses someday. You didn’t exactly take it to that degree, but was there anything on that front, any sentiment in that which you felt probably could have been expanded upon, or did you feel that was unnecessary?

FB: I think it’s one of those cases where if we were to do five one-hour things of every era, I think I would have things done more explicitly. I also didn’t want to necessarily beat people over the head with my view of the political economy and wage labor. I think that it’s strongly implied there, but I didn’t necessarily put anything in there that was like, there was an atomization of the American worker where they will overlook how their bosses screw them over because they think they’re going to be a boss someday. But it’s not very explicit, no. Thing is, I didn’t set out to make a political polemic, I wanted to just tell my story of MMA and the fighters themselves, the sport itself and the business itself. But in retrospect maybe I should have done that more explicitly, right? I definitely think I could have done that without shoehorning it in or beating people over the head, but just for the way I wanted to tell it… yeah.

VR: There was a video, maybe you might have seen it. It’s hard to find because it’s been out there for a couple of years, but it was one of those scrums where Dana White kindly explains how some guys sign a contract for like $100,000 and he steps in and says “No, no… you made $70, 000 or 60,000, because here’s this, and these fees…” He explains the breakdown and smiles, you know? Like he’s being benevolent, he’s explaining how exactly it is that these guys aren’t getting precisely what they think but at least he’s letting them know up front. Not to belabor the point of what was previously discussed, but do you feel that that sort of mindset and seeing that that sort of thing has been happening in and outside of the sport for so long, do you see any sort of remedy for that even if it’s not necessarily in the short term?

FB: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think that I’ve seen very positive steps for like, a fighter’s union that’s been very encouraging. I think efforts for uh… shit, her name escapes me right now. It’s on the tip of my tongue… Leslie Smith.

VR: Right.

FB: That seems to me — no disrespect to Nate Quarry – but much more familiar with labor organization procedure than other efforts we’ve seen. But I think there is, and I’ve written about this previously, I think the biggest roadblock you face towards labor consciousness, much less a class consciousness in MMA, is the atomization of the fighters themselves. I believe it’s very difficult to make a ton of people that are forced to see everyone else in the company within two weight classes of themselves as their roadblock, to work with them towards this common goal. And I think that it doesn’t help that the characteristic of the sport, even with moves to the mainstream and even with standardization of the sport and things around the sport — these are very strange social misfits a lot of the time. It makes it very difficult to make some sort of popular labor movement within it. That’s very unfortunate, but the silver lining I can give you is I am absolute dogshit at predicting this sort of thing, so… there is that.

VR: It’s giving me shades of the pre-election stuff. Like when you were here in Philly and did the live show for the convention. Now I’m getting flashbacks to that like, fuuuuuuck, man. That’s just…

FB: Yeah, man. The thing where you lay out everything, why the bad thing could happen and you’re like “well, maybe it won’t!”

VR: And you don’t realize until later it’s like a snake bite, it doesn’t hit you until a few hours later that you’ve talked yourself into this thing.

FB: 100 percent.

VR: One thing that I’d also have been curious to see is if it were something you guys would considered or something that would have been left on the cutting room floor, but I remember Holelzer Reich, I don’t know if you remember that brand?

FB: Of course! Of course! I remember Cowboy wearing them and going like “Oh, how could I have known they were Nazis?” (laughs).

VR: With the wedging of a group like that sponsoring fighters and the mainstreaming of white supremacists and other hate groups in instances of ”real life” as I call it, outside of the MMA bubble, I was wondering if that was also something you had considered including or something you’d focus on later on.

FB: Yeah, there was a lot of racism and race-related stuff that I couldn’t, it was sort of in initial drafts of those final three chapters, but I couldn’t put in. Not through Jon or anyone at SB Nation, just for the main arc of what we were doing. There is stuff like a little bit about Conor (McGregor) race-baiting, Chael (Sonnen) race-baiting, but if I had more time… thing is, if I put that in, I have to do this whole connective tissue and talk more about the sponsor economy, which could be another 20 minutes. It definitely isn’t a matter of priority, it isn’t the less important thing, it’s just for how we’re telling the story, certain narrative threads could not make it for the main narrative. I would, in the future, if I could do like a deep dig into the far right in MMA or sponsorship in MMA — you know, Karim Zidan has done amazing things about it — it’s something I’m very interested in. If I had dug deep into that I would have started with… goddamnit, everyone’s name is on the tip of my tongue today… Tony…? You know who I’m talking about? The Finnish fighter who always had to wear a rashguard because he had several swastika tattoos?

VR: Nah, Tony Halme was the older guy, you’re thinking of, uh… oh, god. Not Ben, Benjamin Brinsa was the German cat. Uh… Niko…? Niko Puhakka I think you’re thinking of?

FB: Yes! Yes! Yes! And there’s also some interesting things about Fedor’s old camp, Red Devil, some super far-right guys there. But the problem with that is, it’s so hard to substantiate stuff there, because the reporting is so... I’m gonna have to dig through Wayback Machine posts of UG posts, and it’s like “well shit, what can I actually use?”

VR: Yeah, how credible and how verifiable a lot of that stuff can be? It’s a challenge.

FB: Yeah.

VR: What other things were left? What would be like the top two things that you really wished you could have included the most or maybe expanded upon more?

FB: I would have liked to have expanded more on Sakuraba. I feel like one of my biggest mistakes was I didn’t talk about Sakuraba enough. Watching it in the end I was incredibly proud of what we did, and like always I was like “holy shit, Jon’s a talented guy!” But I was like “Did I really just do that? Did I really just sort of mention Sakuraba in passing?” Because to the uninitiated fan, they just think of him as this hapless guy that Ricardo Arona cheated against. I mean, I think there are times where I forget that I’m not just writing for hardcores, and I’m like “OK, you know Sakuraba…” And in retrospect it’s like “God, that could have been such a cool thing to talk about!” I’d already talked about the Gracies as this aristocracy and it’s like “What about this guy? This cool, strange guy who loved to get drunk and smoke cigarettes and had a very strange way of beating these guys at their own game?” And yeah, I really wish I did more. I don’t think I explored as much with much with Conor as I wanted to. There’s something I wanted to delve into, Conor and Floyd, and Khabib a little bit, which I think is a very interesting phenomenon. So I’ve noticed that every time Conor fights, people that are not fight fans vociferously root against him. Which makes a ton of sense, he’s a prick. He’s a complete prick. But they’re like “Conor’s an asshole, I can’t wait until Floyd Mayweather beats him up!” “I can’t wait until Khabib Nurmagomedov beats him up.” And it’s like “Weeeeeeell, I don’t think these are good guys, either…” And the problem is I don’t have a fully formed thought for what I want to express there. If I don’t have a fully formed thought, I probably won’t end up doing it, but I did think it was very interesting, you know. Again, that chapter is mostly about the end of history, the age of a lack of conclusions and the flattening monoculture we live in and not the weird thing that I fully figured out a thought for yet.

VR: OK… final question, and this is probably the most important one here as it’s the most relevant to our time. Donald Trump Jr hypothetically will agree to fight Michael Avenatti in an MMA fight. Who ya got?

FB: That’s a great question, I mean OK… so, what do Chris Weidman and Donald Trump Jr. have in common? They have just a sad childhood, as sad a childhood you can get for Donald Trump Jr, being a psycho billionaire who kills beautiful endangered species and a racist prick.

VR: Very much unloved as a child, unfortunately.

FB: He’s got that rage within. That said, I don’t think he has the thing that Weidman has, which is wrestling his entire life and learning how to overcome adversity (laughs) and digging within. I don’t think he’s got a lot of that.

VR: Wait, wait, wait… dude does CrossFit, though. Doesn’t that count?

FB: You’re right. You’re right, CrossFit is tougher than NCAA wrestling. You’re dead on. Avenatti though, I think like, subconsciously I first picked Avenatti when I first heard about this because he looks like Johnny Sins, and Johnny sins is an incredibly in-shape guy, right? I’m like, “Shit, if he’s as in shape as Johnny Sins…” But I don’t think he is. Look at a side profile of Donald Trump Jr., you gotta figure a flea picked up by the wind could knock him out. He’s gotta have a glass jaw, right?

VR: Well, it’s easy to be evasive. If you don’t have a chin, how do you hit… it’s hard.

FB: It’s true. Avenatti’s also quite a bit older than Don Jr. This is a tough one! You know what? I have to give it to Don Jr., and just as a political economy thing most fighters that are older are right wingers, he could probably get word-class training. He puts out the call, “I need to be trained to fight Michael Avenatti!”, he’s got a billion guys like “(grunty macho voice) YES, SIR! I WOULD BE HONORED!!”

VR: Just like Sean Hannity got that training with Chuck Lidell. I don’t think he’d follow up and be consistent with it. But Avenatti probably got that racquetball cardio some of them rich guys have.

FB: That’s true. That’s true, and Avenatti – I’m trying to think of… there are a few, like… see, the only lefties I know that are in Jiu-Jitsu are like, left lefties. I don’t think they’d like Avenatti. Are there any, I can’t think of any corny libs, right?

VR: I can, but I shouldn’t mention him, actually…

FB: OK, nevermind, then! I could see, here’s the weird Dead Zone vision: I could see Jon Jones through some weird ego thing going “I could absolutely make this 50 year old lawyer an incredible fighter” and just trains Avenatti. Just as this bizarre mental game with Daniel Cormier. That’s the scenario where I see Avenatti winning. I would eight times out of ten for unfortunate political economy reasons have to give it to Don Jr., but I don’t think it’s a decisive fight, it’s a decision that goes the full way because Avenatti has good cardio and… I dunno, do you think Don Jr. has one-hitter quitter power? I don’t.

VR: (laughs) I’m just imagining – you give each of them a towel, right? They each wrap the towel around their left forearm and and have to use a machete with their right hand and let them settle it that way.

FB: Machete fight? I’m giving it to Avenatti. He’s slimmer and like, crazier angles of attack. He’s a smarter guy than Don Jr.

VR: Alright. Do you have any future projects that might be related to this arena or anything that you would see sooner or later?

FB: I don’t know about soon. This was… I’ll be honest, I lost hair over this. Not because it was… because I wanted to do it for so long. Everything I do is either podcasts or writing articles, it’s got a one-second turnaround time. I do it, and then it’s out. I think that anyone that does anything at all that requires any personal or creative input, they have like that insane anxiety of “What if I did this perfectly wrong and everything sucks?” right? And for me, this is something I’ve literally wanted to do for a decade. It’s the longest I’ve ever worked on anything. Two years. I had months feeling like “Did I fuck this up, totally? Do I suck?” And so it was a very stressful thing. Also an incredibly rewarding and what a lucky experience I got to have. But I would like to take a break from doing this for a few months, but I think I’m going to disappoint people with the thing I would want if I ever get to do another one, what I want to do. I want to do eSports. do this about eSports and the streaming economy. But hey, who knows what the future holds? If there’s some crazy, the last mogul of Hollywood just has a blank check for me, I’ll do this about racquetball, I don’t care. Graphics cards are only getting more expensive. Nah, I’m kidding…

Felix Biederman is a podcaster, writer, and now author with the rest of the crew from Chapo Trap House, and his musings can be found on Twitter.