Luke Thomas admits that his professional ambition, to be a leading voice in the mixed martial arts realm, puts the ground-and-pound on his personal relationships. A live-in girlfriend just tapped out after four years with Thomas, though he says he spent a lot more of that time mulling the beauty of heel hooks and guard passes than on nurturing a romance.
“I don’t blame her,” he says. “I work an insane amount.”
The breakup hasn’t slowed him down. As before, Thomas, 29, lives up to his e-mail prefix, “AllDayMMA.” He still runs the Bloody Elbow, a marvelously named gathering spot for ultimate-fighting fans, and provides the MMA fighter rankings published in USA Today. The Brookland resident also does color commentary for live fight cards put on by Ultimate Warrior Challenge, a rising MMA promotion that is trying to make the D.C. area a stronghold.
And Thomas hosts MMA Nation, a talk show that airs weekly on WJFK-FM. It’s perhaps the only radio program fit for the hardest of hardcore ultimate fighting fans.
Asked to explain his drive, Thomas says he just wants to help bring MMA further into the mainstream. And to, you know, get paid for it.
“The potential for this sport is incredible. Working like this is the only way to be a part of it,” he says, hinting that if it weren’t for medication, he might never sleep.
For a pastime that once seemed destined to remain in the cultural fringes—as pointed out in every article on the subject, John McCain years ago referred to MMA as “human cockfighting”—ultimate fighting sure gets a lot of exposure. A new video fight game, UFC 2009 Undisputed, shipped a reported 2 million units when released last month.
And though Thomas’ radio show is unique for now, MMA is reaching what sure seems like a saturation point on television. Several cable networks—Spike, Versus, and the HD Network among them—exist only to feed whatever segment of the population gets off on rear naked chokes. (David Carradine punchline, anyone?) I watched a lot of TV on a recent vacation, and only Reba reruns were as available as MMA programming.
A half-century ago, in the early days of television, that same sort of exposure almost killed professional boxing in this country, as folks tired of all the “Friday Night Fights” and “Saturday Night Fights” shows. And, even for all the MMA airtime, it remains true that the biggest names in the sport are a pro wrestler (Brock Lesnar), an Internet charlatan (Kimbo Slice), and a punch-drunk has-been (Chuck Liddell).
But where a casual observer sees a glut, Thomas sees necessity.
“There’s nowhere near too much MMA [in the media],” he says. “Yes, there’s a lot of recycled material on TV. But that doesn’t worry me a bit. The more people watch, the more they understand what’s going on. The video game is very important for the same reasons, since the learning curve for this sport is so huge, and we need to have all this.”
Thomas even sees fantastical growth potential in an MMA radio show, particularly his.
He got the MMA Nation gig the old-fashioned way: By buddying up to the established talent in the WJFK stable. He met members of The Junkies, the station’s weekday drive show, at an MMA card he was working in 2007 at the D.C. Armory; out of that, he began making unpaid appearances as the ultimate fighting expert on that program and others on the WJFK schedule. Program director Chris Kinard heard Thomas’ spots and last summer figured he’d give the radio novice a shot.
Kinard didn’t throw Thomas into prime time. MMA Nation now airs Saturdays from 7 to 9 p.m. In radio, weekend nights are the opposite of weekday drive time. It’s where program directors will allow just about anything on the air that doesn’t violate FCC decency rules. In fact, WJFK’s weekend programming is so loose that they gave the keys to the station to me and some friends a few years back for a Sunday night music show; the program’s name, The Music Show, shows how much effort and talent went into our broadcast.
Thomas’ broadcast, for example, is the lead-in for The Other Side, an absolute freak magnet of a show with a host that communicates (wink, wink) with the dead. MMA Nation also shares a schedule with something called Focus on Manassas. (Who’d want to do that?)
But listening to Kinard, it sounds like management has decided Thomas can transcend his surroundings.
“We thought we’d experiment with some different kinds of shows last year, and of all of them, MMA Nation is the only one that lasted,” Kinard says. “I wasn’t aware of anybody else doing [an MMA show]. And [in April] he outperformed our normal weekend ratings by more than double. We started out thinking this has the potential to be a nationally syndicated show, and that’s still our plan. You see MMA all over the place on TV, so why not on the radio?”
If WJFK follows through on its long-rumored switch from general guy talk to sports talk, Thomas is in a good spot to profit from the format change.
Thomas says that over the years, while carving out a career on the MMA sidelines, his obsession with the sport was such that he set a goal of “getting in the ring myself by the time I was 30,” a mark he hits in August. But this winter, while training for his debut fight, he hurt his shoulder bad enough to need surgery. As his failed romance and sleepless existence testify, Thomas doesn’t let much get in the way once he sets his mind on something. But the torn labrum caused him to give up that ghost and get back to his original plan.
“I had to accept I’ll never be an MMA fighter,” he says. “But I can still talk about it.” cP
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