Jordan Newmark | 13 May 2021
Imagine the sport of Mixed Martial Arts is a house.
The foundation is the rules, the walls and floors are the fighters, and the roof is the promoters. Maybe, the doorbell is “Face the Pain” by the band Stemm. And the ornate molding running throughout the house, which catches the discerning buyer’s eye, is Chris Rini.
It’s a decorative distinction. It’s handcrafted work that elevates. In short, Rini is trying to class up the joint. And he’s been successful at it for years with his famed charcoal drawings of live MMA action, which can be found at @RiniMMA on Twitter, as well as his cartoon column “MMA Squared” for BloodyElbow.com.
“There was an element of violence and menace in my work, always,” asserts Rini. “I think when I discovered MMA- the two worlds came together. I always really enjoyed life drawing. Being in a room for three hours with a model and you get timed poses. That’s pretty much the reason why I do the Twitter thread live on fight night. I learned that I could do really well doing 1, 2, 5 minute poses. That’s kind of how much time you have in a fight- you see something happen, and it like hits you.”
Borough Boy for Life
Born and bred in Queens, New York, Rini kept it local amassing art degrees at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Hunter College, both in Manhattan. Rini met and befriended like-minded misfits like street art savant and Robots Will Kill founder Chris RWK (robotswillkill.com). These schools provided experience and, more so, encouragement. It’s where he honed his eye to see art and to know he’s also the person to make it.
“I have this idea in my head that a lot of sports, if not every sport, has its silhouette imagery,” explains Rini. “It’s understandable. The silhouette of Babe Ruth after he’s hit a home run or the Michael Jordan ‘Jumpman’ or a soccer player diving or kicking. There are things that exist only in that sport, and those images resonate with you.
I feel like MMA doesn’t have that quite yet. I have fun trying to look for moments that only can happen in MMA. That’s one of the guiding things for what I’m looking for.”
Rini’s work feels alive. They’re not hyper-realistic renderings of a fighter in mid “Just Bleed” scream-face. There’s movement, there’s style, there’s feeling. It’s an action comic panel with depth and point-of-view of real, grueling moments inside the cage. Rini captures the sport as a lover of it, as a fanatic of it, because he simply is. The sport is his muse, has become his career, and inspired him to train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which he does at Renzo Gracie’s in Queens.
Falling in Love With Fighting
Like many, Rini was first really exposed to MMA through Youtube. Bored at a desk job in 2008-2009, Rini watched fights online and then poured himself into Wikipedia pages until he understood his new obsession. And from that desk with pencil on Post-it Notes, Rini began drawing caged combat. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Rini breathes each and everyone of them, like when Max Griffin celebrated his first-round knockout over Song Kenan in March.
“I like in that drawing [Max Griffin] is just a tiny bit off the ground,” tells Rini. “It’s one of those things you see as a celebration that lots of fighters do, and I think it’s born out of the shape of the Octagon- it’s that kind of skipping sideways, leaping, and going ‘Yeah!’. You see a lot of NBA players do it where they pump their fists down and leap into the air. When fighters win, and they’re really enthused, they’ll do this circular skipping, and it’s because of the shape of the Octagon. It affects human movement.”
Beyond Arching Kicks and Outstretched Punches
Many of Rini’s drawings embody quieter, almost private moments. At UFC Fight Night: Edwards vs. Muhammad, rising featherweights Dan Ige and Gavin Tucker had a highly-anticipated match-up, which ended suddenly and dramatically with a single punch by Ige. Rini’s sketch from the bout is a small scene in the aftermath when referee Mike Beltran comforted Tucker.
“It was a brutal, crushing, heartbreaking loss,” expresses Rini. “Beltran is holding their wrists, but they’re waiting between a commercial break, and they’re waiting for the cameraman to be like, ‘go for it’ and then [UFC cage announcer] Bruce Buffer starts.
In that moment, Mike Beltran lets go of Gavin Tucker’s wrist and kind of pats him on the back because he knows this guy just can’t believe things have taken a turn in such a horrible way for his career, trajectory, momentum. I wanted to get that. That’s as important as a sweet right hook.”
The Fine Art of Violence
The wealth of Rini’s range is on full display in his self-published “The Fine Art of Violence, Volume 1”. The book is a curated collection of 100 charcoal and pen-and-ink drawings that occurred between January 1st and December 31st, 2019, to encapsulate an MMA “season” in Rini’s mind. Along with the drawings, there are ten essays written by Josh Rosenblatt, author and former editor-in-chief of Vice Media’s “Fightland”, which Rini illustrated.
“There was a time in 2016, 2017 where using the word ‘violence’ was a way for you to describe the way you love certain fighters,” adds Rini. “Jordan Breen had the ‘All-Violence Team,’ and Dr. Patrick Wyman would use it in a positive way. I do feel like this is it.
This is how I want to contribute to the cultural canon of both MMA and the fine art world. I would love to add some historical context and some class. I would also like MMA to enrich the world of fine art. In terms of the depictions of the human body, it’s one of the most amazing things happening now. It’s emblematic of the times we live in. The human body can do this, and it can look like this.”
Finding a Voice With MMA Squared
If fine art and charcoal weren’t enough, Rini has his lair of satire and topical commentary cartoons at “MMA Squared” on BloodyElbow.com. In conversation, Rini compares grappling exchanges with Renaissance marble statues with glee, which is viewing MMA with an objective lens.
The cartoon panels in “MMA Squared” present the editorial, the subjective, and, in many ways, the dirty diehard fandom Rini shares with us. It’s “inside baseball” jokes or takes that are inspired by Rini’s childhood reading newspaper comics.
“I grew up in New York, and the Daily News had this cartoonist named Bill Gallo who had a cartoon every day in the sports section,” remembers Rini.
“It was about all the local teams, and it was totally busting on the owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner. He would draw him as a World War I German general with the pointed helmet, pre-Nazi German. He called him ‘Steingraber’.
He kind of roasted him. Steinbrenner was a Donald Trump-esque figure in New York as the owner of the Yankees and the source of innumerable headlines. This dude laid it all out for me and, also, I grew up loving ‘The Far Side’, a surreal kind of comic. I put a lot of that into MMA Squared.”
What’s next? Rini is releasing his follow-up book “The Fine Art of Violence, Volume 2”. Obviously, it will offer another incredible collection of Rini’s more recent drawings. It will feature contributions from two other talented artists: Edward Cao (@EdwardCao on Twitter) and Adam Nelson (@gorillathebear on Twitter). Also, Rini has compiled essays from a who’s who list of writers: Josh Rosenblatt, Chuck Mindenhall, Shaheen Al-Shatti, Julie Kedzie, Fernanda Prates, Eugene S. Robinson, and Schwan Humes.
“I feel amazing that all these people said yes,” discloses Rini. “It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. These people are all people I respect and look up to and admire what they’ve done. That they’re willing to work with me- it has been very humbling.”
To keep up with all of Rini’s work, follow him on Twitter at @RiniMMA for his live drawings and MMA Squared updates. Also, Rini can be found on Patreon under ‘ChrisRini’ with multiple tiers for those interested. And, of course, check out www.ChrisRini.com to buy “The Fine Art of Violence, Volume 1” in hardcopy or digital download and to buy “Volume 2” when available. These books are Rini’s skipping celebration of art, of MMA, and a hope for much more of both.
Leaving a Legacy
“I would like to build this book into something that outlives me,” affirms Rini. “What made me get into MMA, the theme for my work is that it has finally grown to the point where it could support someone like me.
I’m not like the foundation of the house; I’m the really sweet molding around the edges of every room or the lack of a better metaphor. You need promotions, you need fighters, you need the TV deals, you need the fanbase, you need the personalities and the people with the microphones, and the cultural signifiers that this is a thing.
After you have that, you can have people like me. You can have people with really successful podcasts and just a whole ecosystem that can grow on top of that. I’d love it that I could build something that someone else can pick up the reins of after I go.”