[quote]A 'roid life: Kerr’s fall from grace, and revival
By Kenny Rice
Special to NBCSports.com
Over a six-year period he was the gorilla on the high wire. A powerful 6-3, 240 pounds, Mark Kerr was precariously balancing on the thinnest line: MMA star, and steroid and drug user.
His physique and the manner in which he dispensed of opponents with such brute force made him too big for a single moniker: He was “The Smashing Machine,” “The Specimen,” and “The Titan.” So invincible in the cage yet a lifestyle that became so vulnerable he sank into a personal abyss, the verge of overdosing, while cameras were rolling in a stark, mesmerizing documentary.
Kerr is “approaching five years” of being clean, living in Phoenix, Az, working to build a career as a realtor. He leaves soon for South Africa, where a movie is being made about his life. Drastic changes were needed for sobriety, but the essence, those complexities of what always made Kerr a magnetic force, remain. He’s soft-spoken, intelligent and articulate, the antithesis of the ferocious ground-and-pound cage fighter. And he is as unflinchingly raw as ever in his candor about the days of “The Smashing Machine.”
The natural found steroids “work”
(Mark Kerr, top, emerged as a national wrestling champion before he ever touched a single performance-enhancing drug. It was once his MMA career began that he found himself in a battle with steroids and painkillers. Kerr was the 1992 NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ at Syracuse defeating Randy Couture of Oklahoma State. He was the 1994 USA Senior Freestyle Champ. He went on to be an early star of Pride Fighting and the UFC 15 heavyweight tournament champion, winning 13 of 14 pro fights between 1997-2000).
A pure phenomena who could bench press 425 pounds and squat 550 pounds. He never used steroids until after returning from the 1996 Olympics, where he was an alternate on the U.S. team. “The testing was so strict at the amateur level it was always a fear thing. We’d all heard it (steroids) would help increase strength and stamina. I was going pro, like everyone, I was looking for an edge, to make sure I would succeed, so I started experimenting. It wasn’t difficult to find them.”
Over the next four years he indulged in the forbidden boost, packing another 15 pounds of muscle to an already powerhouse structure.
“I would never tell anyone to do steroids, would never promote it. But they do work. They give you strength and especially help in the ability to recover between fights. Steroids help an athlete from missing too many days of training. That is the biggest plus.” he says matter-of-fact. “But it’s not the easy way as some people perceive. They are not going to make you more talented. Realistically, if you were like me with natural talent and aptitude, it will help. Conversely, steroids alone won’t make you snap, unless it’s already within your nature.”
Kerr doesn’t want sympathy or clemency for steroid users, but feels a better understanding of the “reality” of the drug is needed as to what it can and cannot do for an athlete.
“Steroids will not make you crazy if the tendency isn’t there already just as they won’t make you a great athlete if you aren’t already. Here’s what they will do. If you run the 40 (yards) in 4.6, you can get it down to 4.4. If you bench 400 you can increase that to 450. If you have a vertical (jump) of 36 (inches) you might get to 40. But you have to be great to be greater, it’s not as magical as many perceive.”
Benoit and the ‘roid rage’ myths
The recent tragedy of pro wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son before hanging himself created a flurry of speculation about anabolic steroid use and the possible effects it had on Benoit leading up to the sad and violent end. Kerr doesn’t believe in the " ''Roid Rage" scenarios being offered.
“I didn’t know Chris but I know there has to be more to the story. It was “'roid rage?” No,” Kerr says. "Everybody it seems is ready to accept that because he was a pro wrestler. It’s easy to analyze the whole situation and want to believe the stereotypes that exist. It would’ve made news if a factory worker in Detroit had done this. Not to the level of publicity it’s received though because it is not only gruesome, it involves a pro wrestler.
“Who knows and we may never understand this. A man gets bent on a certain course, add anabolics, drugs, alcohol, demotion of his job and that all adds into the formula for Chris Benoit. We should not draw all the conclusions from one thing. There is at least X,Y and Z in the equation. But the facts get distorted about anabolic steroids and the other consequences can be readily dismissed.”
Steroids made the 38 year-old Kerr “edgy, aggressive in attitude at times” but never to a point he felt concern or fear for himself or others. “I guarantee you I have never had a blind rage. Suicidal or homicidal? No. Steroids do mess with your system but I can’t imagine what goes through a man’s head to hurt his own son. My son (Bryce) is my life, it’s inconceivable to harm him ever. Again, what goes through your mind is not always what is going through your body.”
Pressure to perform
His desire to be the king of the burgeoning MMA world 11 years ago was the impetus for experiments that become habit. Not with only steroids, but his toughest battle – painkillers.
“There’s constant pressure to stay near or at the top; to be in first class, to be at the top of the marquee. How your body looks, how you perform is your life. Knowingly you are going to take any advantage, especially if it’s not regulated,” he says. “I had fights in Alabama, Mississippi, places that didn’t have the standards of major athletic governing bodies in major fight states. Literally, they’d hand you a Dixie cup for a urine test and you were on your own. Your grandmother could’ve p— for you because no one followed you around.”
He trained in Minneapolis briefly with MMA fighter and better known WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar. During this time he saw parallels in the sport and entertainment demands that he theorizes could have been a problem for Benoit and others.
“Brock said he told Vince McMahon that if he saw one more baggage claim check he’d go crazy.” he adds. “So Brock started traveling by private jet. Still there is always that pressure. You have to be there and then be here and there’s a different audience and they expect you to live up to all they’ve heard and seen, every time out. The money’s good so you fight more than you should, you have to learn how to handle pain one way or another. Some of us didn’t always handle it as well.”
The baseball problem
(Mark Kerr was an NCAA champion wrestler while at Syracuse University).
Life-long sports fan Kerr even steps to the plate on the hypocrisy he feels for the national pastime. “Baseball is so worried suddenly how everyone is performing. Basically there are three, four guys they keep looking at,” he states. “You’re telling me those are the only guys who might’ve taken steroids? No. But they are tremendous athletes who might have benefited, although there is no concrete proof. When all those homers were flying out of the park and people were packing the stadiums, baseball wasn’t concerned. As long as they were hitting them.”
He contends talent prevails in the end even with the assistance of steroids, noting a few flash-in-the-pan seasons compared to storied careers.
"If a man hits a ton of homers, steroids could help add several more, but he would still hit a ton without them? Kerr asks. “There have been a season or two that look now like flukes for certain players. But the stars are still shining. And something else to consider, no one in baseball has taken a bat to a teammate or the opposing pitcher out of this “'roid rage” have they?”
Kerr is unapologetic about the past, harbors no blame, makes no excuses. It was other drugs, primarily painkillers, that sent him spiraling downward. And his epiphany to change course ironically came while the cameras were rolling for the documentary showing a fascinating yet destructive life.
“I was melting down in front of the camera, an overdose. The filmmakers actually put down their cameras and came to my side that’s how concerned they were that I was going to die. My girlfriend then,Dawn, who later became my wife, was there and immediately got on the phone and called my psychiatrist. And within minutes it seems she came rushing over. I was saved because I had people around me who cared.” he calmly recalls. “The next day I sorted out the whole process and if I didn’t have people around me who were stable and talked to me logically, not coddling me, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Kerr’s discussion is borderline cathartic. He agrees “The Smashing Machine” legacy is a cautionary tale. He advocates more patience and understanding for those who are using any type of drugs, educating before punishing first-time offenders. He speculates, that might have saved Benoit or could still save others, especially with a support group like he had during his battles.
He cites the UFC as becoming a big-time sport for their regulation of fighters. “The UFC has popped some people, less than five percent I would guess. Because fighters know they’ll be screened. They might have to miss a fight or miss some training but they can still have careers by staying clean.”
Kerr has never hedged in his astonishing honesty about steroids and painkillers. Even the quick fix satisfaction might have limited the longevity and true greatness of his career. As for damage already done, he realizes the repercussions might not be over. It is an awareness, especially with a young son, that concerns if not worries him frequently.
“Ten years ago what I was putting into my body, I don’t know ten years from now what the consequences will be. I don’t know if I have prostate cancer if it will be directly caused by steroids. I can’t say the definitive links are this and this. It puts stress on your liver, heart, kidneys. How much and for how long though? You hear a 38-year-old pro wrestler died from a heart attack. It makes you wonder.” he adds, “There’s never been a definitive study into the long-term effects (of steroids). Yes, there are some obvious, short-term studies of side effects but all the certain conditions down the road? The pharmaceutical companies are more concerned with Prozac studies than steroids, there’s more money in them.”
A blessed life and cage return
He finishes the interview on the cell phone while driving north to Flagstaff for the weekend in an effort to beat the heat of the Valley. He and Dawn divorced a year and a half ago. She is sitting in the passenger seat. Dawn was there through the lowest point in Kerr’s life and the happiest, the birth of son Bryce, who will be 3 in November. Bonds that are too strong for a piece of paper to break, perhaps the flawed but charismatic Kerr too genuine to permanently leave.
He says “athletes are not forced to face real life.” But he is trying with real estate, taking a healthier advantage of something offered to him this time by friends,a new career. “I have the opportunity to learn from some guys who really know this business and have been generous in teaching me. It’s a great education. Something I can do for the next 40 years.”
He’s absorbed their input with the same tenacity as he used to put away opponents, discussing the growth of high-rise living in the Arizona-Nevada area, the future swings in the market, the pluses of owning a house or a condominium.
While his formidable frame “can’t do what it once could, those days are gone,” Kerr has a fight next month at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Ct, against Sean O’Haire, a specimen himself around 6-7, 280. This will be only his fifth fight since 2000. It might be the finale for Kerr regardless of the outcome. But he won’t say with certainty, not close to his other strong opinions, that he is retiring.
There are coaching opportunities ahead and the real estate world fuels his competitive fire these days. That high-wire life has been firmly on the ground long enough to convince Kerr he has a foundation again. The Toledo, Oh, native is establishing roots in this desert land once considered too arid for growth, rising from his personal ashes for a fresh start.
“I’ve been blessed. I wouldn’t trade anything that’s happened, anything,” he says. “Overall it’s been a blessed life and I look to the future with hope.”[/quote]