Comedy's reigning champ Russell Peters on Rousey, Silva, and staying on top
True story: Russell Peters was once kicked in the face by former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton.
To this day, no one will confirm that it was unintentional.
Before he became one of the biggest stand-up comedians in the world, Peters was a kid from Brampton, Ontario that loved boxing and became enamored with emerging sport of mixed martial arts after a video taped marked UFC 3 found its way into his VCR.
“Remember that one? Keith Hackney fought Emmanuel Yarborough,” asks the Canadian comic, speaking to FOXSports.com before embarking on his first tour dates since the close of his successful Notorious world tour.
There is excitement in his voice as he talks about old fights, trying out the moves made famous by early standouts like Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock on siblings and cousins, and renting each new UFC video from long-forgotten franchises like Jumbo Video, where the all-you-can-eat popcorn was always overly salty, incredibly stale, and yet somehow still appealing.
Over the years, that early interest has developed into a full-blown passion—he’s been to a number of live events, stays up on all the major news, and developed friendships with some of the elite athletes in the sport, which has led to more instances of getting worked over by UFC stars.
“Cung Le is one of my dear friends—he stays at my house whenever he comes to L.A.—and him and I mess around all the time. He’s a tough son of a bitch.
“I’m sure he scales it back,” Peters says of his occasional sparring sessions with the former Strikeforce middleweight champion. “There is not one part of me that thinks I’m getting over on him. And he knows not to kick me—I have no legs; I’m completely kick-less.”
While he may not have kicks in his offensive arsenal, Peters does have strong insights and opinions on some of the big developments that have hit the UFC of late, and a ton of respect for reigning women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who returns to action later this month at UFC 170 in Las Vegas.
“I was really intrigued by Ronda and Miesha,” Peters says of the UFC 168 co-main event that ended with the champion once again securing her signature armbar. “I was at the Honda Center last year (for UFC 157) when Ronda almost got tapped out. I was like, `Oh my god—she’s gonna tap! She’s gonna have to tap!’ Her legs started twitching and everything. But let me tell you something—that woman is a beast.
“Jake Shields and I are really good friends and I’ve asked Jake about her, and he says she’s as strong as a man. You can’t half-ass grapple with Ronda because she will tap you out. She can easily be in the pound-for-pound ratings with men, and possibly in the Top 3. She’s not `good for a woman’—she’s phenomenal for a fighter. I think the minute you start trying to negate how good she is by boiling it down to gender or competition, you’re doing her and yourself an injustice at that point.”
Having tuned in to see how things played out in the second meeting between Rousey and Tate, Peters remained glue to his television during the middleweight championship rematch that served as the main event as well.
“I think the minute you start trying to negate how good she is by boiling it down to gender or competition, you’re doing her and yourself an injustice at that point.”
Like everyone else that took in UFC 168, he too was left in horrified silence when former champion Anderson Silva broke his leg early in the second round.
“I’ve never met Anderson Silva, but I feel like I care about him. Do you know what I mean? It broke my heart when I saw his leg break. I felt so awful because it was the second round—and yeah, he was catching it a little in the first round—but I would have liked to have seen what he was going to do differently in the second round.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Weidman either—I think he’s a very underrated guy that doesn’t get the props he deserves, but at the same time, I would have liked to see what Anderson was going to do in the second round. He’s a smart guy; he knows how to change up his approach. He didn’t make it this far by being a one-dimensional fighter.
“But that kind of injury is not something you come back from at 38-years-old. In order for him to come back at full speed, he’ll be 40 or 41 by that point. Plus your bones don’t heal the same way as you get older—that’s just a fact of life. I think he’s going to have to reside in the fact that he was the best and just enjoy himself.
That final statement takes the conversation from inside the Octagon and onto the stage, as the 43-year-old Peters draws a parallel between the small window of opportunity fighters have to reach the top of the UFC and the similar trajectory shared by those in the business of making people laugh.
Like fighters, stand-ups begin their journey on small shows—honing their skills, trying out routines, and finding themselves long before they become household names and headlining acts. As in the hurt business, innumerable hopefuls never make it that far, and for the ones that do, there are no assurances on how long it’s going to last.
You can go from on top of the world to out of the spotlight in no time flat.
“The difference is that in comedy you can keep going,” laughs Peters, who ranked third on Forbes 2013 list of top-earning comedians. “There’s no end game—you do it because it’s what you do and you’re not getting kicked in the head.
“But I do feel a bit like Anderson or Chuck Liddell,” he adds. “Chuck held the title for a while, he was the darling for a minute, and then it came to an end. You can’t stay on top forever, no matter what you’re doing in life. You have to accept that, know that at some point you were a champ and be happy with that. Some guys never get that opportunity.”
YouTube accelerated Peters’ rise to superstar status in the comedy world. As clips of his early Canadian showcases went viral, his classic “Somebody’s gonna get hurt real bad” routine logging well over 15 millions views to date and serving as the lead “Reason to Watch” December’s UFC Fight Night event from Australia.
In addition to a busy tour schedule and the fact that he’s tremendously talented, part of what has helped Peters stay on top is his ability to adapt to the changing landscape of stand-up comedy.
“Chuck held the title for a while, he was the darling for a minute, and then it came to an end. You can’t stay on top forever, no matter what you’re doing in life.”
While YouTube may have been instrumental in helping him build a name, streaming sites such as Netflix are the new vanguard, which is why Peters filmed his Notorious comedy special and an accompanying four-pack of behind-the-scenes, UFC Primetime-esque mini-documentaries exclusively for the digital platform.
Even when it comes to the impact of streaming, the diehard fight fan Peters can make a connection between the comedy club and the cage.
“I don’t know how old you are, but I remember as a kid, if you wanted to see something, you had to be home at a certain time to watch it or hear about it the next day from people at school. But people have moved on from that. We went to the days of VCRs where people would record something and then they’d watch it and then we moved into the DVR stage, and that’s where we are now.
“DVRs to me are what CDs were—people still do it, but the next wave is streaming, and that’s just a convenience thing. Now they don’t have to rush home, now they don’t have to worry if they have space on their DVRs—they can do what they want to do. People like the freedom.
“For comics it’s great,” he continues, only to adjust his statement right away. “Well, it’s a double-edged sword because the minute you put out a special, all that material goes dead as far as the live act goes. That’s where I’m at now.
“Notorious came out in October, my tour ended in November, and here I am three months later, sweating my balls off trying to figure out what I’m going to say on stage next. So it’s a good thing and a bad thing— you’re putting a product out there and the people that want to see it, will see it
“But the bad thing is that you’ve got to turn over a new act right away. And the more people know you, the harder it is to go in, drop in and just work stuff out. You don’t get to have a bad night any more. When you’re going title fight to title fight, you just want to fight a bum every now and then.”
Just as the UFC champions don’t get any tune-up fights, Peters doesn’t either, but chances are that when he heads back out on the road this week, he’ll be just fine.
After all, he’s proven himself to be a dominant champion in the comedy arena, and he has no plans for relinquishing his title any time soon.