I guess the first thing you want to say about The Game Changers is that these guys are certainly getting their five-a-day of fruit because they just love to cherry pick.1 This in itself is no big deal. The Game Changers is not an academic paper, it’s a head-cracking polemic that whips out its agenda early, Louis CK-style, strokes it throughout and makes it abundantly clear that it won’t be putting it down until you’ve left the cinema, wiping alternative narrative from your still-twitching face.
Because when you set out to demonstrate that strength, endurance and explosive power athletes survive and, yes, thrive on a plant-based diet you are up against a century and more of carnist propaganda, sloppy generalisation and Joe Rogan bro science. The Game Changers has gone for maximum impact. They’re on some “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius” shit like, kill every sacred cow of meat-eating, let God sort out the rest.
And there’s mileage in this approach but first, let us meet our Virgil who accompanies us through the nine circles of plant depravity. Like Gary Lineker, Madeleine McCann and The Elephant Man, James Wilks is from Leicester, Engbland – a smallish town in the middle of the country, going nowhere in particular, signifying nothing of consequence. His superhero origin story is a common but resonant one.
A small and assuming child, James was repeatedly punched in the balls by vicious bullies. His father, Gary would not stand for this and sent his shaking, bleeding child to martial arts classes to teach him how to be a real man and not be such a little bitch. Even after months of fierce combat training, though, James could not win. A group of feral yobbos waylaid him after school and handed him his arse in a prolonged beating. So, much like the guy from Ice-T’s ‘Bitches 2’, he took karate and still got his ass kicked. What was to be done?
One thing that was certain was that all that Karate Kid bowing, honour and chi bullshit was not going to cut it. The painful gang pummelling beat a simple message into James: he needed to discover how to permanently maim his assailants with guerrilla pimp street tactics. The burgeoning and psychotically violent sport of mixed martial arts was the key. Throat punches, eye gouges, elbow strikes to the back of the neck, blows to the groin and fishhooks became the order of the day as James fought back against his tormentors, rendering several of them paraplegic in the process. He’d won the game of life and everything was amazing.
Death becomes him
Fast forward 15 years and James has made a career of leaving people with life-altering injuries. He teaches Navy SEALS and US Marines hand-to-hand combat – the kind of thing that will save your life if there’s a Haji trying to kill you with a knife. He’s a trained killer, training trained killers, the kind of guy who could fuck you in both eye sockets and leave you bleeding from every orifice before you’d even introduced yourself. No anaemic soy boy, this. And get this – he’s a vegan. Years of slurs on our masculinity are finally rebuked. We won!
But what turned this psychopath from a human maimer to an animal lover? After victory in the bloodthirsty reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter and his subsequent career in the UFC, James suffered torn ligaments in both of his knees. While injuries are common in the fight game, these were particularly serious setbacks. Still a thoughtful, sensitive boy at heart, James read everything he could on the science of nutrition and recovery and made some startling discoveries.
Are you not entertained?
The first of these was Doctor Fabian Kanz’s study of the bones of Roman gladiators2 which reveals that they were fed a largely vegetarian diet. The Savage is not an anthropologist, nor a historian but he will nonetheless go out on a limb and say that this wasn’t because Romans were keen to give their gladiators the very best food for their demanding kill-or-be-killed lifestyle but rather that they regarded the slaves as animals and fed them accordingly, with beans and grains.
Not that any of that matters because optics have never been more important and we now have our first powerful image. Russell Crowe and Kirk Douglas retiring from a busy day’s decapitation in the arena to enjoy a falafel wrap and wheatgrass juice together. The link between masculinity and meat-eating is weakened ever so slightly.
Leave it, Kraut
Fast forward then to the 19th century and the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig. He announced that humans got their energy primarily from protein, meaning vegetarians were incapable of prolonged exercise. This was accepted in the medical community far and wide. By the time this was disproven and it was shown that carbohydrates in the form of glycogen were the main source, it had already seeped into the wider culture. Nice one Justus! More like von LIE-BIG. His deranged rantings had less credibility than a post by Freelee The Banana Girl. He sort of made it up to the vegan community later by inventing Marmite but frankly, it was too late.
So, let’s put some meat on these bones. How about a carnivore-vegan deathmatch? Many of you will have heard of the allegedly violent sex offender Conor “Ireland’s Shame” McGregor. From 2013 onwards, McGregor cut a swathe through the featherweight division in the UFC, winning the world title in 2015, knocking out Brazilian legend José Aldo in 13 seconds. He was the biggest star in the sport blessed with high fight IQ, lightning reflexes and devastating timing. In 2016, he was set to fight the fearsome Brazilian Jujitsu blackbelt Rafael dos Anjos in defence of his featherweight title. A freak foot injury forced dos Anjos out. The event was already sold out so a late replacement would have to be found.
Not a problem. Step up plant-based California native Nate Diaz. The lesser talented of the sport’s fabled Diaz Brothers, Nate had won the same Ultimate Fighter show that Wilks had. Nathan was one of the last people you would expect to be vegan. Coming from the rough tough neighbourhood of Stockton, Nate along with his brother Nick had made their name running their mouths, smoking dope, getting cranky and generally digging the scene with their gangsta lean. These kids was gully as hell. Nonetheless, nary an animal product passed his lips since 2003.
Raising the steaks
This incongruity was not lost on McGregor. He mocked Diaz for his falafel and straw sandwiches (“Eat your vegetables!”) while he ate the diet of a real man. “Steaks for breakfast. Steaks for lunch. Steaks for brunch. Grass-fed, massaged. Beef. All day long.”
McGregor had apparently mistaken modern sport science for Desperate Dan’s cow pie strategy. Still, Diaz came in with 10 losses, a questionable defence and a tendency to come up short against the top contenders. When the fight began on March 5, 2016 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, McGregor was a 4-1 on favourite on a 15-fight winning streak. In the first round, you could see why. McGregor controlled the distance with low kicks, beautifully snapping Diaz’s head back time and again with his laser-guided straight left. Diaz struggled to get his jab going and McGregor opened a cut over Diaz’s right eye. The round ended with McGregor on top. Diaz had a taste of McGregor’s meat and did not care for it one bit.
The second round delivered more of the same, McGregor working the body while taunting Diaz, more lefts landing on that damaged right eye. Then all of a sudden it changed. Diaz found his range with his piston right jab and repeatedly connected. He unloaded with a left cross onto McGregor’s chin that stopped the Irishman in his tracks. Sensing his opportunity, Diaz began pouring it on, pursuing McGregor around the octagon, trapping him against the fence with dirty boxing combos. McGregor looked exhausted. Where was all that meat energy, Justus?
McGregor threw all his efforts into one last desperate attempt to take Nate Diaz to the ground. It was obvious to everyone who watched the sport, including both fighters, that this was a terrible idea. Diaz’s Brazilian Ju-jitsu background gave him a significant skill advantage on the mat. Seconds later he had reversed position and locked McGregor in a rear naked choke hold. McGregor tapped. The fight was over – McGregor’s first loss in the UFC. The great upset had occurred and the UFC’s cash cow was left bloodied, humiliated and semiconscious in a puddle of his own shit.
“I’m not surprised, motherfuckers,” said Diaz in his post-fight interview. But everyone else was. What could have caused this? Well, any unexpected loss is multifactorial but McGregor himself said that eating two steaks a day came back to bite him in the ass.
Dolphins, mates for life
It was food for thought. Anecdotal stuff like this is a necessary evil but how about some actual science round about now? Dr Robert Vogel, co-chair of the NFL committee on cardiovascular health, talks about how plant-based protein is better for endothelial function. He describes how animal-based meals impair blood flow and there’s a pretty goofy experiment with three Miami Dolphins teammates to demonstrate this. A sample of two and a control group of one would struggle to pass the ethics committee at Trump University. Still and all: optics.
One by one, a parade of plant-based titans is introduced. Heavyweight strap holder David Haye punched people in the tits for a living; ultramarathoner Scott Jurek runs insane distances in impossible times; Dotsie Bausch won a silver medal in track cycling at the 2012 Olympics at 39; Wolverine cosplayer Patrik Baboumian breaks strongman log lift world records like it ain’t no thing; 60-year-old strength and conditioning coach Lucious Smith looks like he could snap you in two with his weaker hand while Facebook Live-ing his buddies. Strength. Power. Grrr-aaarrgh.
It’s not just about energy, blood flow and the ritual emasculation of ignorant Irishmen. A big factor in any athlete’s performance is recovery time. Elite sport is a game of inches and any edge you can get can be vital. So when we hear that animal products produce inflammation while plant products reduce it, it is a big selling point. Reduced recovery time reaps greater benefits for the work you put in. All about the gains, bro.
Lobby, you win
All fine and dandy so far but what we need is a big bad – a supervillain to really get our dander up. Take a bow Big Meat – you are the heel upon which we will build our church. Big Meat’s enforcer is Exponent Inc., a cunt-for-hire company who have spent half a century doing sterling work like challenging the link between asbestos and mesothelioma.3 The tobacco industry used Exponent’s research to deny the connection between secondhand smoke and cancer, so you know these guys are just the best.
It’s all about muddying the waters. Exponent don’t need to prove anything definitively; they just need to sow seeds of doubt. Dr David Katz founding director at Yale University Prevention Research Centre, explains. “Despite the appearance in our media of confusion, there is massive global consensus about the fundamentals of a health-promoting diet and… it’s a plant food predominant diet, every time.”
That’s all good rage fuel of course but how do we personalise this? James is way ahead of you. He brings up his dear old grandpappy who died from heart failure after decades of smoking. He worries that his dad’s shit heart will conk out too unless the old bastard gives up his nightly doner kebab sandwich. Nobody wants his dad to die and we have an emotional segment where James saves Gary’s life by forcing him at knifepoint to go vegan.
“I’m scared – please leave me alone,” says Gary but it’s clear that the subtext is “Thank you, son! I wouldn’t be here without you and your tofu and tempeh skewers.”
Get down with OPE (yeah, you know me)
So, what is the key takeaway from The Game Changers? That veganism doesn’t leave you a bloodless malnourished waif may not be news to PBS regulars but it might be to those outside the tribe. Optics have never been more important and nowhere more so than in the vegan sphere. The Savage is a long-time advocate of acting like you got some goddamn sense if you’re going to be visibly discussing other people’s ethics (OPE), particularly when it comes to diet. Veganism has an image problem as well as a behavioural problem that threatens to reduce its appeal to only the narrowest of niches. Backslapping circle jerks in ethical bubbles contribute only to the most grisly narcissism.
That’s why The Game Changers’ brave attempt to get gym bros on broad should be applauded. It’s all so easy to look at Bodybuilding.com Misc and say it is solely comprised of emotionally crippled shitsacks, all of whom would benefit from their immediate suicides. It’s incredibly straightforward to point out that it is the ultimate emblem of toxic masculinity, self-defeating bravado and knuckleheaded bro science. It’s laughably simple to conclude that its women-hating, fag-bashing, race-trolling and shit-posting makes it the kind of beyond-the-pale shitpit best avoided altogether and that any kind of engagement with its members is an exercise in futility.
But here’s the thing: we need them. We need every craven bitch-made gump on the planet if we can get them. And the fact that there is a small but growing minority of plant-based strength athletes is the kind of miracle we cannot afford to ignore.
- Is The Game Changers game changing or is it sensationalism? – My Sports Science
- Roman Gladiators – The Osseous Evidence (PDF) – American Journal of Physical Anthropology
- Big Companies in Legal Scrapes Turn to Science-for-Hire Giant Exponent – Business Ethics