Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Holy Cow, Johnny Morton


I am pulling myself out of hiatus for some crazy news. Former USC reciever Johnnie Morton is now entering the Octogon!!!!

Or maybe its some other league like that. Anyway. Crazy stuff.


LAKE FOREST, Calif., May 16 — When Johnnie Morton finished playing wide receiver in the National Football League, he carefully reviewed his retirement options: be host of a talk show, expand his real estate profile, maybe work on his golf game.

Related
Mixed Martial Arts: Marine Is Used to Fighting for His Life (May 22, 2007)


Duane Burleson/Associated Press
Morton played 12 professional seasons, including 8 with the Detroit Lions. He caught 43 touchdown passes in his career.
After much consideration, Morton decided that it would be best to spend his free time being body slammed into a chain-link fence by two men named Joker and Gun.

“Crazy, huh?” Joker said.

Joker’s real name is Mike Guymon. Gun’s real name is Tony Bonello. Together, they are teaching Morton how to compete in mixed martial arts, one of the few sports that may be more violent and more dangerous than professional football.

“I’ve gotten hit a lot in my life,” said Morton, who spent 12 seasons going over the middle against N.F.L. safeties. “But I’ve never gotten hit like this.”

Morton will walk into a ring for the first time June 2 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, beginning his second career. He expects to ask himself the same question that friends, family members and former teammates have been asking him for months: What in the world are you thinking?

Mixed martial arts combines wrestling, boxing and kick boxing with jujitsu, tae kwon do and Muay Thai. Punches to the head and knees to the gut are encouraged. Even the most accomplished fighters get their faces rearranged into cubist paintings.

Two months ago, Morton’s only experience with mixed martial arts was watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship on television. He admired the fighters, mainly because they were the only athletes who seemed more fearless than football players. Morton memorized their names as if they were N.F.L. superstars.

“Some people want to bungee jump,” Morton said. “Others want to jump out of planes. I would never do that. But I want to do this.”

Morton, 35, does not have to fight for a living. He went to the University of Southern California, had a cameo playing himself in the movie “Jerry Maguire,” and was named one of People magazine’s most eligible bachelors. He is rich, handsome, and almost as marketable as Tiki Barber, the former Giants running back who is now a news correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show.

Morton, meanwhile, goes to work at a gym in an Orange County office park. The gym — Joker’s Wild Fighting Academy — includes a ring with a chain-link fence. Japanese and American flags hang from the ceiling, reminding Morton of his mixed heritage.

In Detroit, where Morton spent eight seasons, he was the kind of player who did not get tired even during two-a-days. He can bench press 400 pounds. His body fat is less than 5 percent. But during a sparring session Wednesday, he could not summon the energy to get off his hands and knees. Joker and Gun had to drag him to his feet.

“Let me die in peace,” Morton moaned.

Then he remembered that he was a former professional football player, that his girlfriend was watching, and that Joker and Gun do not believe in peace.

Morton charged at his sparring partner, battering him with a combination of punches and dropping him to the mat with a sweep of his leg. Morton used one hand to grab the man’s neck and the other to pound the side of his face.

If Morton were in the N.F.L., he would have drawn a 15-yard penalty, an automatic ejection, a fine and a possible suspension. But here, he prompted Joker and Gun to do their version of a touchdown dance.

“Look at this guy,” Gun said. “He’s beautiful. He has tons of money. He has an incredibly happy lifestyle. And he’s putting his brain on the line. He’s putting his manhood on the line. It’s hard to say what would make him do it.”

Morton is not the first N.F.L. player to enter the ring, only the most celebrated. Michael Westbrook, a former receiver for the Washington Redskins, won a fight two years ago over Jarrod Bunch, a former running back for the Giants. Bob Sapp, a washout as a N.F.L. lineman, became a formidable competitor in mixed martial arts.

One afternoon last winter, Morton was eating lunch at the Health Emporium when a man named Joey Sakoda approached him. Sakoda first asked Morton if he wanted to go to a mixed martial arts fight. Then Sakoda asked Morton if he wanted to participate.

Sakoda works for Superagent Athletes, a Japanese agency that represents Joker and Gun, both title holders. Sakoda acted quickly, placing Morton on the Dynamite!! U.S.A. fight card, which includes a mixed martial arts star (Royce Gracie) as well as a novelty act (Hong Man Choi, a 7-foot-2 South Korean.)

Morton was afraid to tell his parents. His mother, Katsuko, is Japanese-American. His father, Johnnie Sr., is African-American. Johnnie Sr. was once shot eight times while in his car. Katsuko and Johnnie Sr. did not want their son taking any more risks with his body.


Mark Avery for The New York Times
Johnnie Morton, left, with the trainer Mike Guymon, known as Joker, who urged Morton to “take chances.”
Related
Mixed Martial Arts: Marine Is Used to Fighting for His Life (May 22, 2007)

Morton is getting no tuneups. He is fighting in less than two weeks, on Showtime pay-per-view, in the same stadium where he played college football. He will be paid about as much money as he used to earn for a single N.F.L. game.

One of the broadcasters will be Jay Glazer, who has a unique perspective on the bout. Glazer is best known as an N.F.L. analyst, but he also competes in mixed martial arts. When he visits N.F.L. training camps in the summer, players ask him more about fighting than about football.

“Football players are looked at as the biggest and baddest guys on the planet,” Glazer said. “People see them as superheroes. But football players also need someone to look up to. They view mixed martial arts as something even they are unwilling or unable to do. All the guys love Johnnie. But they think he’s nuts.”

N.F.L. players may not want to get into the ring, but they are willing to get in a gym. For years, many players have used boxing as part of their off-season workout regimen. Recently, they have started to turn to mixed martial arts.

According to Glazer, Philadelphia’s Brian Dawkins and Jacksonville’s Donovin Darius have trained at a mixed martial arts gym. So has Barber. This winter, Kansas City’s Jared Allen worked out at Arizona Combat Sports in Tempe.

“Football used to be our only real gladiator sport,” said Trevor Lally, the owner of Arizona Combat Sports gym. “Now, players have M.M.A. to give them a taste of that one-on-one combat. The combat is what they love.”

Morton was never a fighter. Like many receivers, he would try to hit linebackers when they were looking the other way. But Morton said there was only one person in the N.F.L. he would really like to see in the ring — Matt Millen, the Lions’ president. Millen directed a homosexual epithet at Morton after a game between Detroit and Kansas City in 2003, when Morton was playing for the Chiefs.

Morton is not ready to give up football just yet. He was released by the San Francisco 49ers two years ago but said that his agent was talking to a couple of teams. Ideally, he would fight in June and go to a training camp in July.

Morton is trying to shift back and forth, from the mainstream of sports to the fringes, from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to Joker and Gun. When Morton finished his workout Wednesday, Joker shouted out one more piece of advice, for the road home and the road to retirement.

“Drive fast,” he said. “Take chances.”

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