The Best MMA Writing of 2013: Mary Pilon from the New York Times investigates the story of Charlie Rowan who faked his own death

The story of Charlie Rowan's life began with his death, as the writing cliché goes. On March 9th, a thousand people gathered around in…

By: David Castillo | 10 years ago
The Best MMA Writing of 2013: Mary Pilon from the New York Times investigates the story of Charlie Rowan who faked his own death
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The story of Charlie Rowan’s life began with his death, as the writing cliché goes.

On March 9th, a thousand people gathered around in rural Michigan to pay their respects for the late Charlie Rowan (who died in a car crash) with a posthumous string of bouts called ‘Fight for Charlie’ reserved for the type of competitors who only know the UFC by the living room they gather around in to watch from afar.

The only problem is that Charlie Rowan was the man responsible for robbing a gun store south of Traverse City, Michigan over a week later.

Tomato Can Blues was Mary Pilon’s fascinating story of the amateur mixed martial artist who faked his own death, only to give up the ghost when his fight promoter, Scott DiPonio, caught his mug shot on TV after a store called Guns and Stuff was robbed (with its owner, Richard Robinette, brutally injured).

There has been plenty to be thankful for this year when it comes to MMA journalism. But of all the fascinating stories, none is more carefully constructed or riveting than Pilon’s feature.

The story itself reads like true crime in cinematic form, with all the dramatized trimmings. Rowan himself is an interesting figure. Being slightly insane, and relentlessly adventurous still doesn’t quite encapsulate the qualities it takes to fake your own death. Despite the primal appeal of getting to observe your shared experience from the heavens, it’s Rowan’s chance encounter with the Investigation Discovery channel that seems to have inspired the blueprint for his unusual journey.

Where Pilon’s article stands out is in its structure. For many readers, Attila Futaki’s illustrations highlight how print and digital media are finally coming together to produce something immersive, and interesting.

Mary was kind enough to address this over the phone, revealing that “With this we wanted to make sure that the illustrations weren’t gimmicky, and that they served to illustrate the story and evoke the feelings and facts. We have all this reporting, these police reports, and documents, so how do we best marry print, and digital. It was a problem that needed a solution rather than ‘hey we have these cool illustrations, where can we throw them?'”

As to whether or not this was a deliberate or subconscious attempt to accommodate the technology revolution and the way we process information nowadays, she doesn’t seem convinced of Nicholas Carr and other critics who believe we’ve distanced ourselves from deep thinking now that Skynet is online.

As Mary explains, “I think we have this idea that people process things really fast now and that’s true but think about jump pages in print in a newspaper. I don’t know when I was a kid that I read every single jump page of every single article. I don’t know how my dad’s attention span when he as my age would compare to mine now. I think it’s always been hard to keep people hooked, and to figure out how people process information.”

However, the unique and vivid presentation never distracts from the story itself. A story that is rich in detail, and that with each paragraph brings to life the emotions reflected in the brilliantly molded narrative. The details also help emphasize a truth about the sport itself.

There’s an interesting tidbit about Rowan’s story towards the end:

The news was out. A front-page headline in The Traverse City Record-Eagle read, “Fighter Accused of Faking Death.”

The cage fighters felt betrayed, furious that Rowan had sullied their sport’s name.

“He’s lucky the cops got him before the fighters did,” Big John Yeubanks, the promoter, said. Organizers of the Fight for Charlie recently filed a police report in Traverse City accusing Rowan of fraud.

After the hoax was exposed, the cage fighting promoters decided to hold another benefit, this time to raise money for the Robinettes, the owners of Guns & Stuff. They have collected more than $15,000.

It’s easy to forget that for all of its flaws, the cast of characters that make up the MMA landscape captivate us. Not always for better, as Rowan himself reveals. But not always for worse either, considering all those involved who managed to raise money for the Robinettes.

While the bright UFC lights and the FOX studio room are how we’ve come to think about MMA these days, it’s easy to forget that mixed martial arts still operates in small towns the way it used to when Royce Gracie defied expectations, and strangers gambled their wits in favor of victory. To paraphrase and distort the words of the father of cyberpunk…the past is still here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

For the real deal, please read Tomato Can Blues here.

For a brief interview over how the story came about, click here.

Mary Pilon can be reached and tweeted @marypilon.

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David Castillo
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