The fight is over, but the bleeding hasn't stopped.
The fighter has dropped to his knees with three holes in his head: His hairline hides one of the cuts, smallish but oozing; his right cheek has been split open on the bone, maybe an inch under his eye; and his right ear—his cauliflower ear, red and rubbed raw—has burst like a bubble.
A cutman kneels beside the fighter. His hands dart into a blue plastic bin with a duct-taped handle, filled with the tricks of his trade: a bottle of adrenaline 1:1000, an open jar of Vaseline, towels, gauze, swabs that look like oversize Q-tips and two enswells—flat slabs of steel kept buried in ice. The cutman works quickly even though there's no bell to answer. He knows the fighter wants to be anywhere but here, seen like this. It's more than blood pouring onto the canvas. It's pride, ego, hope. The cutman's job is to keep those things out of the puddle forming between them.
First he wipes the fighter's face with a towel, cold and wet, so he can find the sources of the three thin rivers. A pinhole can be the root of a geyser if an artery has been spiked; a wide cut might not bleed much if dead scar tissue has been torn open. The cutman has been around. He's faced openings that sprayed blood across the Octagon with every beat of a fighter's heart. But these cuts aren't pumpers; they're just runners, easy by his standards. He scorches each with an adrenaline-soaked swab, closing capillaries, shocking the blood into retreat. Once he's backed the blood into a corner, he keeps it there with a thick plug of Vaseline. Just a hit of pressure with the ice-cold enswell to keep bruising at bay, and the cutman's job is done.
It took months for Brian Stann to prepare for this August fight at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. The 28-year-old Iraq War vet and Silver Star recipient had been World Extreme Cagefighting's light heavyweight champion, holder of a 6–0 record. But it took just a few frenzied minutes for Steve Cantwell to open three gashes in Stann's head with elbows, knees and fists. And it's taken only seconds for Jacob "Stitch" Duran to close them.
At 56, Stitch—everyone calls him Stitch—is the most famous cutman in the world because he is the principal cutman of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its subsidiary, WEC. And mixed martial artists separate themselves from other athletes in many ways, most notably in how often they bleed. Stitch has risen on that ugly tide like a boat. He discovered kickboxing in 1974 while stationed in Thailand with the Air Force. After he returned to northern California, he opened a kickboxing school in Fairfield, where he first tried his hand at closing cuts. By 1995 he'd migrated to Las Vegas, drawn to the glow, and found full-time work as a boxing cutman. (He still freelances for several boxers, including Wladimir Klitschko.) When MMA took over town, Stitch became the company man, put on contract by the UFC in 2001 to work most of its events, including Nov. 15's Randy Couture-Brock Lesnar heavyweight title fight. For tonight's event alone, he's been assigned the 10 fighters coming out of the red corner. A lot of them get cut when they report for work at Blood Inc.
"MMA is far bloodier than boxing," Stitch says. "These guys will have multiple cuts—the middle of their forehead, their scalp. Head cuts bleed a lot. And the cuts are deeper, because of the elbows and knees. It's bone on bone."
The collision between fighter and cutman can seem just as brutal. The fighter might be panicked, disgusted, even supercharged by the sight of his own blood filling his eyes, by the warm, wet throb of the damage done. But in those few frenzied seconds in the corner, Stitch feels nothing. His hands are steady. His mind is clear. He is the professional. "I see so many cuts, it's automatic for me," he says. "It's poetry in motion."
All of which means he's been spending a lot of time under the TV lights at the Hard Rock tonight. It also means that his likeness—mustachioed, sporting thick black hair and trademark glasses—is featured in an upcoming UFC video game; it means that he earns in the low six figures; it means that he cohosts a radio show; it means that he has appeared in four movies, including Rocky Balboa and Ocean's Eleven; and it means that a Stitch Duran action figure will soon hit store shelves. "I feel like I've revolutionized the role of cutman," he shouts over the crowd between fights. "I get asked for more autographs than some fighters. It's a mindblower."
Before tonight's card, Stitch was stopped in the casino by a fan who wanted his picture taken with one of the cutman's famous enswells pressed to his face. Stitch obliged, and the fan smiled for a long time after, his fingers touching the spot on his cheek frozen numb by the hunk of metal keeping Stann's right eye from closing right now.
That enswell has stopped blood from flowing in Germany, Japan, Mexico, Los Angeles and Atlantic City. Only a month ago, it was pressed against Forrest Griffin's eye after Rampage Jackson opened it as wide as an elevator door. Earlier tonight, Stitch pressed it under the blackened eye of Jamie Varner, WEC's lightweight champion, before he pressed it against Stann's busted cheek and after he pressed it against the face of a fan smiling for a picture. Stitch Duran's enswell is so much more than an ordinary instrument of his profession. These bloody days, it's a tie that binds.
Joe Souza is standing in his living room behind his little dog, Pepito, when his wife, Virginia, answers the door. A look crosses his face as the light hits it, a shyness in his eyes that says I'm sorry for this. Joe Souza is 74 years old and does not look like Joe Souza anymore, or at least not like the Joe Souza fight fans remember patching up some of boxing's all-time bleeders. He has pressed his long, thin fingers into Arturo Gatti's gaping forehead and into the wounds of Jesse James Leija, Andrew Golota, Lou Savarese—boxers who split open so often they should've had zippers sewn into their skulls. If Stitch Duran is the fight game's loud and glitzy future, Souza is its worn and inconspicuous past, the one with all the secrets.
Today Souza is also a man who needs healing. He has rectal cancer, which has caused him to lose weight and his bottom teeth. He knows how his boxers felt when they squirmed on their stools under his swabs, potions and unrelenting pressure. "Shut the f— up," he told them when they griped. Now, though, he's given himself over to his doctors and their complicated medicine. "It's not up to me," he says, easing himself onto his couch with the help of a cane. In two weeks he will have surgery to take out his cancer. In two weeks he will be the one hoping against hope that someone stops the bleeding.
There, in a corner of his living room, ready just in case, is his black bag, covered with a thin layer of dust. What it carries hasn't changed much in 40 years. Souza unzips it to unveil its contents. These are the original fixes, stored in empty jars of Virginia's eye makeup. He picked them up like war stories. Like a lot of cutmen, Stitch included, Souza started as a coach at a gym where there wasn't money for an extra guy in the corner. He had to do it all and found that closing cuts was what he did best. "You learn from experience," he says. "You have to go out in this world."
But this world is not a welcoming one; it's a suspicious fraternity. Most cutmen are mercenaries whose livelihood, scratched out by pocketing around 2% of a fighter's purse, is staked on what they carry in their black bag. They gain their reputation by performing miracles; they keep it only as long as managers and trainers and fighters believe they perform magic. And magicians never reveal their secrets—at least not until they become old men with cancer and have nothing left to lose.
"It's 90% pressure," Souza says, holding up one of his swabs. He made them in his garage out of thick dowel and cotton because he tired of store-bought models snapping when he dug them hard into a cut. Before each fight he would soak them in adrenaline 1:1000, the same quick fix that Stitch and every other cutman since 1970s legend Ace Marotta (Souza's mentor) has used. "Standard stuff," Souza says with an accent that screams New Bedford, Mass., even after decades in San Antonio. "Don't make me out to be no superhero."
Souza does wear a comic book character's scars: thin white lines in neat rows across his left forearm and left leg. He shrugs when asked about them. "He would cut himself and experiment in the kitchen!" Virginia pipes in from the living room. Souza smiles his toothless smile. "They weren't around veins," he says. "I wasn't a wacko."
But he was an alchemist. He would hear whispers about medicines, rummage them from a pharmacy (a state-issued cutman license is good for a doctor's prescription) and mix them up in bowls. Then he would cut himself and experiment to see which formulas would coagulate, which would numb, which would burn, which would fail. "I thought he was going to blow the place up," Virginia says. "The stink—oh, you wouldn't believe."
In the 1970s, Souza settled on a stable mix of Vaseline, adrenaline 1:1000 and aloe vera from his front yard. (This was before the healing properties of aloe were more widely known; Souza just fluked on it.) The mix formed a paste he would smear on his left wrist for easy access during fights. Still, knowing he had maybe 45 seconds to seal up a bleeder between rounds, he continued to hunt for a more potent weapon. He found it one day when he took Virginia, who is legally blind, to her ophthalmologist. He asked the doctor for advice. "I was just good at picking things up," Souza says. "I paid attention." The doctor showed him Surgicel, a medicated gauze ER docs and Army medics use to plug bullet wounds. Souza took some home, cut it into squares, rolled it into tiny bundles, then jammed it into a fresh opening he'd carved in his arm. By keeping the Surgicel in place with his paste and then pressing it with his enswell—a custom-made one-pounder shaped like a doorknob—Souza discovered a divine cure for foreheads turned into faucets. Never mind that Surgicel wasn't approved by the sport's governing bodies. With his latest secret hidden in the crannies of his elbows, Souza became the best cutman in boxing.
When Arturo Gatti fought Oscar De La Hoya in 2001, much of the prefight attention focused on Gatti's propensity for bleeding. Reporters were obsessed with the question of why such a good and honest fighter was born with an Achilles' face. Part of it was Gatti's sharp cheekbones and prominent brow. (Some fighters, like Ricky Hatton, are rumored to have undergone bone-shaving surgery to round their features.) Gatti also dropped a lot of weight before fights, leaving his thin skin even thinner. Whatever the biology behind his fighter's curse, Souza became the center of attention for one of the few times in his career. Normally he kept his head down and went to work, old school, but that week he became part of the prefight buildup. "If I can just hold this kid together," he told reporters.
Inevitably, De La Hoya cut Gatti in the opening round, under his right eye. Souza worked the cut between rounds, plugging it with Surgicel and his secret paste. "I'll tell you what," Souza says, "a cut under a swollen eye is a son of a bitch." But he worked a minor miracle that night, holding Gatti together until the fifth round, when De La Hoya was beating on him so badly Gatti's corner threw in the towel. The fighter was upset. "I could have kept going!" Gatti yelled. But sometimes, Souza will tell you, the bleeding just can't be stopped. It will flow all night until a boxer is empty. Young men, young fighters, have a hard time understanding that. Old men know better when it's over.
In his garage, Souza has built a kind of museum over the years: artifacts from countless fights, some of the names remembered, most of them not. He sometimes talks about returning to corners after he gets better, but more of the time he talks about how he'll be thought of after he's gone. He won't work MMA—"too vulgar, too brutal"—and boxing has been reduced to a few dim lights waiting to be put out. "I don't have no more clientele," he says, looking at old photographs of himself. In them, he's standing behind someone else or at the edge of the frame. That's Ezzard Charles, that's Muhammad Ali. Pernell Whitaker. Vernon Forrest—"Boy, he treated me good," says Souza. Wladimir Klitschko is one of the few photos in color, but now Klitschko's got himself a new cutman. "This guy in Las Vegas," Souza says. "Ever heard of him?"
"First thing I did when they called me to replace him," Stitch says, "I called Joe Souza out of respect." Souza's last fight with Klitschko was in 2004, when Klitschko lost to an underachieving American named Lamon Brewster. Klitschko found an excuse in Souza, who had rubbed Vaseline on his fighter's legs before the bout, something he'd always done to protect against rope burns. Klitschko decided that the Vaseline didn't allow him to sweat, which made his legs tired, which caused him to collapse after the fifth round, a collapse that had nothing to do with his push-button chin. The Klitschko camp decided they wanted someone fresher, someone who didn't rely so much on mystery potions and hocus-pocus. They wanted more science, less art. Just like that, Souza was out and Stitch was in.
Stitch says he hasn't heard of Surgicel. But he does have a cure-all in his bucket: Avitene, a powdery coagulant developed during the Vietnam War. It stops bleeding on contact but is hard to work with, a last resort. It goes for $300 per gram and is one of three chemical agents (along with the coagulant thrombin and adrenaline 1:1000) the Nevada State Athletic Commission allows cutmen to put in their black bags and blue buckets. It was Avitene that Stitch used on Forrest Griffin's face after Rampage opened it up. Griffin is at the Hard Rock tonight, mixing meat metaphors. "He saved my bacon," he says of the night Stitch patched him up long enough for him to beat Jackson. "My face looked like hamburger." Griffin wrote Stitch a letter after that fight to thank him. He included a check for $1,000. That more than covered the Avitene.
The night wears on. It's busy, but not as busy as Stitch might've liked. "Dude, I get off on the blood," he says. He remembers when he got the taste for it. He was working his first big Vegas boxing match, Raul Marquez vs. Keith Mullings, in 1997. Marquez was cut five times. Blood ran everywhere. Stitch climbed through the ropes, his hands filled with swabs, and worked three gashes at once. The swabs flashed like chopsticks. Later, Marquez needed 75 stitches to close his face. But Stitch kept him in the ring, and Marquez won the fight. "That was the first chance to show what I could do," Stitch says. "That was the beginning."
Earlier this evening, a lot of these MMA fighters began their journey into the Octagon by having Stitch wrap their hands. He sells himself as a full-service operation—another way he's separated himself from the 10 or so cutmen working the elite levels of MMA and boxing worldwide. "I've got one of the best wraps in the business, no bulls—," Stitch says. With a combination of gauze and tape, he turns each man's calloused hands into sculptures. "He's a wizard," says Varner, watching Stitch build up his knuckles and his confidence. "I feel like a gladiator getting ready for battle, like he's putting on my armor. Like, this is it, you know?"
His hands wrapped, Varner paces, waiting for his music to start, his cue to enter the Octagon. Nineteen other fighters pace around him, thinking the same thing. They look at each other across the big room and wonder who among them will win and who will lose. And when Stitch finishes wrapping their hands, they might even wonder whether they will carry new wounds back into this room, foaming with Avitene and adrenaline.
A few hours later, the guesswork is over; there's only fact. Nine fighters have been knocked or choked or tapped out, including Stann. Backstage, most of them look a little like Joe Souza did when Virginia opened the door. Stitch stands off to one side. He eats a sandwich, wipes down his enswells, packs up the rest of his things. He's already thinking about his next fight—he's booked solid until 2009, more work than he can handle. The losers, though, they can't see forward yet. They can only cast back. In the hours since their opponents had their hands raised, they've felt their bruises come out, the canvas burns on their backs rise like fingerprints, their cuts weep into fresh, wet scabs. They have bled all night, and now they stare through the blood, through the walls and ceiling and out into space. Come the end of a card like this, when the backstage floor is littered with Stitch's wraps and stained towels, soaked through and discarded, the reality of blood sport is on painful display: Every fight has a winner and a loser, and between them is a gap no cutman can close.