Super superfluous story time: one of my all-time favorite films is William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977). And no, this isn’t my way of spreading personal news about whether I have taste. I don’t even recommend the movie. Not only was Sorcerer not made for a modern audience, I’m not sure it was made for an audience, period. The hyper-attention to detail involving an ensemble of characters speaking different languages suddenly stuck in a remote jungle together sends a clear message from Friedkin: ‘storytelling is my sport, take it or leave it.’
Audiences responded by leaving it. It came out a month after Star Wars debuted, so that didn’t help, but I doubt it mattered either. Parts of the film stay with me, but so does the history. Friedkin wanted to tell this story about men transporting sweaty nitroglycerin in South America so bad that he didn’t care his own cast and crew got malaria, food poisoning, and gangrene. And why would he? He himself went through most of filming with undiagnosed malaria. I mention Sorcerer not because it’s one of my favorite movies — or because I couldn’t think of any other hook to an otherwise slim story about a fighter people might remember for the wrong reasons — but because the history of any field will always have its period of gritty progression.
And speaking of gritty progression, boy is that the story of the UFC lightweight division. Jason Reinhardt, who we still won’t get to yet, was just another character during this period of MMA lore. To recap, lightweight was barely a division. The UFC had scrapped it after the lightweight champion won a welterweight title in 2004, and then decided he had agency over his own career, and went looking for fights around the globe.
In 2006, lightweight returned to the UFC. The first go around was a mixed bag. We wanted lightweight back, but did we ever really have it? At the time, lightweight contention looked like one of those classic action films that gets franchised direct-to-video, and the original stars get predictably priced out of starring roles, leaving the sidekick to carry on the story’s ‘legacy’ (however meager to begin with). You had Caol Uno, Jens Pulver, B.J. Penn, and that was basically it. Their interactions together weren’t exactly the stuff of legend. Penn killed Uno, and Pulver managed to turn survive his way into a win over Penn. With the elite lightweight fighters out of the way, new, grimier challengers emerged.
When lightweight came back, Yves Edwards was the only real hot shot fighter. Outside of Edwards, there was Melvin Guillard: a quick-twitch striker everyone criticized for “wasting his talents” without realizing his only strength was throwing strikes fast, which sounds more like a misunderstanding of what ‘talent’ actively means. Spencer Fisher, Sam Stout, Kurt Pellegrino, Jorge Gurgel: these were all fun fighters who rounded out the division. But they also weren’t the most talented ones. It took Kenny Florian, Joe Stevenson, and Sean Sherk dropping weight classes to finally turn lightweight around.
One of the hot prospects at the time was Joe Lauzon. He had a knockout win over the former lightweight champion (Pulver), and soon after winning that vaunted ‘six figure contract’ from TUF, his first opponent establishing the new hierarchy was Reinhardt. By Reinhardt’s own account, he wasn’t even supposed to be walking. Reinhardt had broken his neck six years earlier. He also lost a tooth before the fight to a Sour Patch kid. Is it all coming back to you?
“Wasn’t he that guy with a great record but the record was kind of suspicious?” Yes! “Suspicious” is an unfair word though. That was just the nature of the amateur circuit at the time. The combined record of his opponents was 61-85. Forty-six of those wins came from three fighters, meaning a whopping seventy-five percent of his opponent’s wins were concentrated in just three people. Six of them were against fighters making their debuts. Four of them had no MMA careers outside of their only fight with Reinhardt. This may feel like the analysis of a nitpicky writer on a slow news day. But it was enough to wind up an interview with him before UFC 78.
To his credit, he gave what I thought was a thoughtful response when confronted with this criticism. “I don’t listen to people who criticize my opponents because I know where I’ve been, what I’ve done, been through, sacrificed, and where I’m going,” he told MMAJunkie. “Throughout my whole career, I’ve pretty much always given up big weight disadvantages, and fought guys early on in my MMA career that should have beaten me and outweighed me by 20 pounds. So, to answer your question, I am very secure with who I am as a person first, and fighter second. I have great people around me and who care about me. I have a great camp. I have a great family, great friends. I am living my dream, and care about people — negative or positive. The negative haters just make me train harder, so thank you.”
One of the most overused words in MMA is “exposed.” It’s ammunition for the I Told You So analysts who seem to know everything after-the-fact, but never before then. How many times did you hear about how Ronda Rousey got exposed against Holly Holm? McGregor against Diaz? Anthony Pettis against Guida? Etc. Like the term “destroyed” on YouTube, it’s a word with its power concentrated in the attention it gets rather than the insight it provides.
Maybe you feel like those are textbook definitions of fighters getting exposed, and that’s fine. I believe otherwise: once you get to the higher levels, it’s not a matter of getting “exposed,” but rather: a matter of dealing with higher level strengths you’re either capable of adjusting to, or not. To me, Erick Silva got exposed. Brandon Thatch got exposed. And Reinhardt, a fighter whose record was clearly not in proportion to his talent, definitely got exposed.
At UFC 78 in New Jersey, it didn’t take long for Reinhard to get taken down by a body lock from Lauzon. From there, he got rear naked iced before the clock hit two minutes. And just like that, his UFC career was over.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Reinhardt’s story — yes, even more than his joke about giving his parents crabs — is that his return to the cage saw him pick up right where he left off. First, at Revolution Cage Fighting versus 2-12 Marcus Hermann. Then at the Iowa Challenge against 1-8 Cody Larson. It was enough to earn him another shot in the UFC. He certainly looked ready. But losses to Zhang Tiequan and Edwin Figueroa were enough for the UFC to have seen enough.
That would end up being not only his last UFC fight, but the last fight of his career. His career wasn’t the stuff of legend. But his life sounded legendary. Sure, he had nothing in common with Wanderlei Silva. But he got to train with him. He may have lost to Tiequan, but if you’re gonna go out, losing to China’s first UFC fighter to become a piece of history, however peripheral, is a pretty cool way to do it. This might all sound condescending. “Well he fought some ham and eggers, and lost to anyone worth a damn. Why extrapolate a bunch of ecomological crap from it?”
Because great fighters aren’t always great stories, and vice versa. That’s the lesson of gritty progression. Whether we’re talking about history, movies, or mixed martial arts: it’s all just sweat and meat. I believe Reinhardt understood this. As he told Pure Evil MMA, “the real fight is outside the cage.”
Well said, Jason.