Today is the day we celebrate the birth of a nation. Not just any nation, mind you. According to NASCAR fans and most politicians, it's the doggone best nation in the history of this or any planet.
USA! USA! USA!
What better way to celebrate than to choose the most American fighters of all time? Not the best, mind you. Because that, frankly, is boring.
These may not be the best fighters in the world, but they are the fighters who best represent America, warts and all. So put down that hot dog or that bite of apple pie, and join me in a celebration of the American dream.
American Value: Independent Spirit
Evan Tanner was a wandering soul. His was a journey of self-reflection, self-destruction and complete and utter unpredictability. Tanner never seemed completely at peace, struggling with demons and dependence. But when he was feeling good, there was no smarter or more engaging fighter in UFC history.
To Tanner, life was an adventure:
College dropout, adventurer, seeker, traveler, ditch digger, dishwasher, cable tech, concrete worker, steel worker, salad prep, busboy, ski resort security, ski resort rental shop technician. I've worked in a slaughterhouse. I've been a landscaper. I've done drywall, tile, countertops, wood flooring, roofing. I have been a plumber, worked as a bottle collector at a bar, a bouncer, a doorman, a head of a security team. I have been a basket room clerk, a carpenter, a framer building beach houses, a truss builder.
I've lived on a farm. I've lived in the city. I've earned money mowing lawns, selling on ebay, and fighting. A teacher, a trainer, and a coach sometimes. There was a time when I was younger that I didn't know any better than to be a liar, a cheater and a thief. I have since learned to despise those things. I have had great friendships. I have had great loves. I have been a lover, I have been a son, a brother, and a friend. And I was once a world champion.
Evan passed away in 2008, found dead in the California desert when he ran out of gas, water and time. He was 37.
American Value: The pursuit of money.
Quinton Jackson started life with next to nothing, growing up poor and hard in Memphis. Is it any wonder, then, that Jackson values money and possessions so highly?
For Rampage, it's all about the Benjamins. The dinero. The stacks and racks. The cash. And what's more American than that?
American Value: Ironic self-detachment
Forrest Griffin tries his best to hide his feelings behind a veil of irony. After all, if he pretends not to care, what can possibly touch him?
But his own emotions betrayed him against Anderson Silva. He sprinted from the cage after his embarrassing loss, unable to face an embarrassing defeat.
Beneath the surface, those shrugging shoulders, is a fighter who cares, and cares deeply.
American Value: Excellence
Randy Couture is called Captain America for a reason. He's a super hero come to life, a fighter who conquered not just opponents in the cage, but age itself. He excelled well into his 40's. If he was human, he was the broken mold, an athlete never to be equaled again.
A former soldier and Olympic alternate, Couture is the living embodiment of American exceptionalism. As Joe Rogan once proclaimed, "That man is my hero."
American Value: Capitalism
Perhaps Chael Sonnen went too far during his days as a real estate agent. The federal government certainly thought so, charging him with money laundering. But, really, is there any more American crime?
Chael's mistake was pursuing this American value a little too hard. That's how he lives his whole life, on the edge, charging full speed ahead. Sonnen's problem was a little bit of excess "American-ness."
I call that a good thing.
American Value: Political passion
Chris Lytle was often the winner of a three-man vote, the mechanism UFC honchos Dana White, Joe Silva and Lorenzo Fertitta use to choose the Fighter, Knockout, and Submission of the Night bonuses. Those votes earned him 10 bonuses, worth more than $500,000.
It wasn't so easy, it seems, to earn votes in Indiana, where Lytle failed to advance out of the Republican primaries. Politics, he says, is a much dirtier game than cage fighting:
"Fighting is more pure," Lytle told MMA Fighting. "At the end of the day, you're gonna be going in there and it's gonna be one on one and you can't talk and you can't lie. The truth is gonna come out at some point.
"That's not the case here. The truth never comes out and that's why these people who've usually been there for so long are usually the dirtiest, the rottenest of the bunch. They're the ones who are the best at it and there's never a time when you have to prove yourself.
"It's just the bigger the lie, the more people want to believe in it. It's kind of a very depressing reality that I'm faced with right now. This is who's running things and this is why and that's the truth of the matter."
American Value: Native pride
One of the best in a continuing line of Native American MMA stars, Spiritwolf is among the most aggressive and fearless fighters the sport has ever seen.
A proud Navajo, his infectious energy and positive attitude can't help but touch anyone he meets. His fights guarantee fireworks—what more can we ask of an American of the Fourth of July?
"My mentality is just to fight the way I train," Spiritwolf told MMA Mania. "I train 365. I train every day, holidays, vacations. I love training. I love to train and I love to fight. When I'm in there, whatever happens in there for me, I'm gonna perform at my best. Some fighters, when the lights are on, they shrivel up. When a knee hits their face, they shrink up.
"For me, it's the opposite. When the lights are on, I get stronger. When the cameras are around, I get better and when adversity comes and I get hit and I'm bleeding, I become more of a Spiritwolf, more of a beast. It just is something that I've owned in my heart and I'm very fortunate to have a supporting cast in my family and my students."
American Value: Bootstrap Pulling
Tito Ortiz didn't have the same advantages many of us have. His father struggled with drugs. His mom struggled with bills. Things could have gone very differently for Ortiz.
Hard work was the difference. Ortiz built himself into a fighter, but that's not the limit of what he wanted to accomplish in his life. He also built a business, one of the first fighters to concentrate on the business side of the sport.
The result? Millions of hard-earned dollars in his bank account. Tito Ortiz is not just a UFC Hall of Famer—he's a genuine American success story.
American Value: Warrior Spirit
Our country was founded by warriors. Many of them were idealists, men like Thomas Jefferson who could make words sing. But they were warriors at their core, willing to fight and die for what they believed in.
Today, few men sign the dotted line to represent their country and to fight for our values and interests around the globe. Brian Stann did—and without him and our other heroes in the U.S. Armed Forces, we'd be a country lost.
Stann earned a Silver Star in Iraq. I salute his valor. I think this citation speaks for itself:
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star Medal to Brian M. Stann, First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy as Second Mobile Assault Platoon Leader, Weapons Company, Third Battalion, Second Marines, Regimental Combat Team 2, SECOND Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM from 8 May to 14 May 2005. During Operation MATADOR, Second Lieutenant Stann led his reinforced platoon on an assault through a foreign fighter and Mujahedeen insurgent defense-in-depth to seize the Ramana Bridge north of Karabilah, Iraq.
On three separate occasions, he traversed four kilometers of enemy occupied urban terrain in order to maintain his battle position. With each deliberate attack he controlled close air support and the direct fire systems of tanks and heavy machine guns destroying enemy positions along the route. At one point, the enemy massed on his platoon and fired over 30 rocket propelled grenades, machine guns, detonated two improvised explosive devices and attacked the unit with three suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices. Second Lieutenant Stann personally directed two casualty evacuations, three vehicle recovery operations and multiple close air support missions under enemy small arms, machine gun and mortar fire in his 360-degree fight.
Inspired by his leadership and endurance, Second Lieutenant Stann's platoon held the battle position on the Euphrates River for six days protecting the Task Force flank and isolating foreign fighters and insurgents north of the river. Second Lieutenant Stann's zealous initiative, courageous actions, and exceptional presence of mind reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
American Value: Greatness
Don Frye is a great man. More than that, he's a great American. With his Tom Selleck mustache and gravelly voice, he's a modern John Wayne, if John Wayne had been a real butt-kicking cowboy and not a notorious draft dodger.
Frye, wearing his "Terrorists Suck" T-shirt and American Flag shorts, represented us proudly in the Pride ring. But he was more than a fighter. As a younger man, Frye was also a fire fighter. With an emphasis on "fighter," as he told me in this 2009 interview for Heavy MMA:
Don Frye has been a fighter his whole life. Long before he was making a living bashing skulls in the cage, Frye was still fighting, whether it be fighting fires or fighting morons on the street. Sometimes, in those amazingly rare moments, the two became one and the same.
Frye was a firefighter and EMT in New Mexico and later in Arizona. Of all the late night calls and all the roaring flames, one night stands out in his memory, as vivid as if it were yesterday.
"We got the call, around midnight. We roll in there and put the fire out, find a couple of hotspots here and there. Then we find a suicide note," Frye said. "That pisses you off because they are endangering your life and the lives of all the other fire fighters."
This was worse than people calling for an ambulance at two in the morning with mild discomfort, which is how EMT's spend 95 percent of their time. This was dangerous and irresponsible, and a furious Frye began searching the house for the perpetrator.
"I walked into the bedroom and found the son of a bitch on the bed," Frye remembered. "I grabbed him by the ankles and yanked his ass right on the floor. Boom! He screamed and I drug him down the hallway. I hit him against every wall on the way out the door. Boy, it'll be the last time he tries to commit suicide by fire. I picked him up and threw him out on the lawn. You lose your compassion real quick when people do stupid shit like that."
Frye, as that story clearly illustrates, may not have had a long career as an EMT. Too many stupid people, not enough patience. A former college wrestler, Frye felt a calling as a fighter.
That ladies and gentlemen, is Don Frye in a nut shell. It begs but a single question—great American, or greatest American?