Photograph by Jennifer Livingston
DMX's hypnotic "Ain't No Sunshine" blasts through the jumbo speakers at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, as middleweight champion Anderson Silva makes his way to the Octagon at October's Ultimate Fighting Championship 90. Under the glare of a single spotlight his tall, lithe frame looks severe. His face, though, is relaxed, and his eyes fearless. He demolished his previous opponent in less than 45 seconds.
The capacity crowd, primed by the nine fights on the undercard, including a bloody, fast-paced middleweight brawl that left the mat looking like a crime scene, wants this matchup to make it past the one-minute mark. In the center of this orchestrated mayhem stand Reed Krakoff, the unassuming president and executive creative director of Coach; his petite wife, Delphine; two publicists; and Mandy Moore, who became a friend of Krakoff's after he shot her for a Coach ad campaign.
A UFC fight—at which most guys in the crowd look like Turtle from Entourage and most of the women look like the girls Turtle would like to bed—is probably the last place you'd expect to see someone so firmly entrenched in the worlds of fashion, art, photography, and design. But after years of following the mixed-martial-arts scene and months of photographing the UFC's top competitors for his latest book, Fighter: The Fighters of the UFC, Krakoff is as comfortable near the Octagon as anyone on the circuit.
Photograph by Reed Krakoff/Courtesy of Viking
"These guys don't fight out of anger," Krakoff says, nodding to Silva and his challenger, Patrick Cote, a muscular French-Canadian. "There's an incredible amount of technique involved, and they have an incredible amount of respect for each other."
Respect is evident in the rules of combat (no eye-gouging, no fish-hooking, and no attacks to the groin) and in the pre- and post-fight handshakes, bows, and occasional bro hugs. Respect, though, isn't what's made the UFC the phenomenon it has become. For all the talk of discipline and sportsmanship, inside the ring very little quarter is given. Each fighter has an arsenal of combat styles, from jujitsu to judo, boxing to wrestling. Just as quickly as a combatant can throw a right hook he can be slammed to the ground and find his head squeezed between his opponent's knees. The fighters not only make for entertaining viewing (fights broadcast on Spike TV over the past year have occasionally outdrawn Monday Night Football and Nascar in the all-important 18-to-34 male demographic) but have proven rich subjects for Krakoff, who, over the course of 14 months, photographed dozens of them.
Krakoff snapped all the athletes in their final days of training, when many of them were cutting weight, sometimes sweating off eight pounds in 48 hours. At times there was little interaction on the set—some fighters wouldn't even speak to Krakoff. He kept his instructions simple, asking the fighters to be themselves—no menacing faces, no fist-up poses—and he kept his day-job credentials to himself. As Krakoff puts it, he didn't want the fighters to know he "designs lady purses."
Photograph by Reed Krakoff/Courtesy of Viking
The black-and-white portraits not only highlight the fighters' enviable physiques and artful tattoos but also reveal hitherto unseen sides of their guarded selves. Silva, somber in the Octagon, appears jovial in the book. Dan Anderson, his nose flattened by years of wrestling at the Olympic level, says he thinks he looks "goofy" in one of the pictures. "But everyone liked it, so I'll take their word for it," he adds. Other fighters, like Josh Koscheck, who rose to fame on Spike's Ultimate Fighter reality series, and James Irvin, seem pensive, while UFC welterweight champion George St-Pierre looks content in one image and anguished in the next. "Once I started photographing the fighters I realized they were just a bunch of guys, like ones you would find in any office," Krakoff says. "There was the aggressive guy and the funny guy and the emotional guy."
One night this fall, many of the fighters got to see Krakoff-the-fashion-designer on his home turf during a book signing at Barneys New York, which filled its Madison Avenue windows with life-size examples of his UFC work. "I didn't get punched in the mouth," Krakoff says with a chuckle, "so I was happy about that."
Cote, the challenger in tonight's main event, can't say the same. After trying for the better part of 15 minutes to engage Silva in a full-on brawl, the Canadian goes down grimacing in the middle of the third round when his right knee gives out. Silva, the winner on a technical knockout, takes the mike and apologizes to the booing crowd for an underwhelming ending. Krakoff shakes his head, gets up from his ringside seat, and as he walks out of the arena into the cold night air reflects on how the sport has become a kind of antidote to his high-stress life in fashion. "I prefer this kind of fighting to more subtle violence," he says. "It's still honest and honorable." Courtney Colavita