FIGHT CLUB: Branding a Rising Star
I was contacted by a person advocating for Tim (The Jaguar) Dooling, a promising young mixed martial arts fighter in need of branding. Mira had reached out to me, based on my extensive experience as creative director for major magazines like Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness, to craft his image and build his fan base to win the attention of UFC honchos. His profile was not, she expounded, typical of someone who routinely steps into the ring for no-holds-barred brawling with an opponent who wants him dead. We agreed to meet for lunch, and I enlisted a colleague from my days in publishing to join us. Any doubts my friend Steve and I may have harbored quickly vanquished by the charming, erudite young man sitting across the table next to his beautiful girlfriend—an accomplished and wise MMA fighter in her own right.
Luckily for them, they enjoyed the comforts of a relationship simpatico with the rigors and sacrifice demanded of serious fighters. Theirs is an unrelenting training regimen, followed by the soul-crushing misery of dropping weight prior to the ritual weigh-in, where mere ounces over the limit can mean competing at a severe disadvantage in a heavier weight class. After the intense, feral adrenaline rush of hand-to-hand combat comes the wound-licking recovery process that even victors must endure after. It’s a monastic existence that eschews pleasures of the flesh hedonistic night owls like myself take in stride. It’s the kind of rare commitment only another fighter could fathom and tolerate.
Over lunch, anecdotes of their riveting bouts were punctuated by the strategies and philosophies honed through experience the way epochs of wind and water turn a coarse stone smooth. Tim’s is a classic American underdog story, growing up poor on the edge of the scabrous, forsaken town of Trenton, New Jersey, an under-sized white kid struggling to fend off the tough black and Hispanic boys who tested his mettle at every opportunity. He gained their respect by outperforming kids both older and bigger in makeshift backyard boxing matches staged around his neighborhood. His taste for fighting—and the respect if conferred—was amplified by the winnings he consistently brought home. It was not enough to be fit, skillful and resilient. Tim harnessed the mental acuity required to defy gravity in the ring. Prior to gloves touching he lets fly with disorienting smack talk contrived to subvert an opponent’s head, rendering him vulnerable to undisciplined emotion and right into Dooling’s trap, tactics he patterned after his idol Muhammed Ali.
Paradoxically, this thoughtful warrior is an exceptional human being, a humble young man who teaches fitness to kids, does volunteer work, and confesses a soft spot for misfit shelter dogs. Regrettably, I missed my opportunity to photograph Tim and Amanda while they were still together. But my sessions with Tim alone have been immensely rewarding, as these handsome portraits attest. We are currently laying plans for a short film about his life, so stay tuned. The working title is Soul of a Champion.