There’s a moment in Robin Black’s one man show, which premieres on Sunday, Dec. 17 at The Park Theatre in Winnipeg, when the renowned mixed martial arts analyst for TSN goes back in time.
The makeup is gone, the leather pants hung up in a closet somewhere, but all of a sudden, it’s the 90s all over again.
“You get to this part where I explain that I wasn’t that good of a singer, but you didn’t have to be a good singer — it was the 90s,” he laughs. “You didn’t even have to be good looking. All you had to do was really know how to run a crowd. It felt fantastic and so natural because that was what I was really good at. I was really good at being a frontman.”
The Manitoba native isn’t lying. For a while, Black and his band, the Intergalactic Rock Stars, kept the flag waving for glam rock, pop metal, hard rock or whatever label you want to put on a style of music that dominated the rock world for an all too brief moment. It was so brief that by the time Black had started to make some noise on the Canadian rock scene, grunge had begun its ascent, effectively killing off a generation of bands that sang about good times as they delivered larger than life shows that packed arenas.
Black didn’t care what the “in” thing was, though. He was following his heart.
“Wearing makeup and wearing tight pants and having loud guitar riffs and feather boas and attracting girls in leather outfits and having pyro and all that — to me, there was no other option. There was nothing else to me that felt really like rock music. I didn’t like anything else.”
So when Nirvana released Nevermind in September 1991, Black and his band at the time, Ballroom Zombies, were undaunted.
“Our first show was within the same month that we first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” he recalled. “And everybody else who came before us who had long hair and leather pants and nail polish and the stuff that, to us, is rock and roll, they all wore plaid within a month of that. But we didn’t care. We were expressing ourselves.”
By 1998, Black was in Toronto, where he formed Robin Black and the Intergalactic Rock Stars. A pair of albums followed, but ultimately, life on the road began to take its toll and what used to get Black out of bed in the morning didn’t have that same thrill anymore.
“I used to work as a hairdresser 40–50 hours a week and take all that money and put it back into the tour or the recording,” he said. “So I kept putting in, but it became harder to do it and the lifestyle was really hard because you travel in a van and you get older. You’re 36, then 37, then 38, and you’re stuck in this van and living on beer and pizza. And it was tough.”
In 2006, it all caught up to him.
“There was a moment I had a seizure in England, and that really slaps you,” he said. “What are you doing here? Is this really what you want to be doing? You love music, but not everything that comes around it. When you’re having a seizure from alcohol and drugs and shitty food, you should really, at that point, examine your life. And that was the moment.”
The seizure scared him, but the “scary” that he wanted from music wasn’t there at the end. So he decided to find something to scare him again. And fighting seemed to do the trick.
“It (going on stage and performing) was scary,” Black said. “What’s gonna happen, are they gonna like it? And by the end, we were preaching to the perverted. (Laughs) That’s how we used to put it, and they loved it every night. There was no risk or uncertainty. And fighting is all risk or uncertainty. So I think I needed that.
“By the time I was walking away from music, I was done,” he continues. “The things I was getting joy in were performing and being a part of something and making people happy. By that time, I had walked myself into a corner where I should have — when I started playing music — really concentrated on becoming a better singer and musician and the roots of what it was to do my craft. Instead, I concentrated on all these other things which I found interesting, but I think I found them interesting because they came easy to me. Being a better jumping kicker, wearing tight pants better, making a cooler face, being controversial. Those things I found fun, so I did them more.”
Now he was in a realm where a bad night didn’t result in getting booed off the stage. In MMA, a bad night could get you knocked unconscious. And while Black was a martial artist for much of his life, going from training to fighting was going to be something completely different. And he loved it.
“You have to work hard at something to be truly great at it, and once you realize that, the question is, do you want to work hard at this thing?” he said. “And I realized it was almost a starting over mentality. And if I wanted to start over, let’s start over at the thing I really love. If I’ve got to almost start from scratch to get good, let’s go fight in a cage. That was the real dream. It was way harder, way more dangerous, way scarier, and in music, I already had fans and in MMA, everybody hated me. So it was the harder route, but it was the one I wanted to do more.”
In July 2008, Black made his pro MMA debut at the age of 38. He lost that debut, and he lost his second pro fight as well. In February 2009, he won, the first of four victories he would compile up until 2012. Then his analyst gig took off, and it wasn’t just that Black’s technical breakdowns were spot on. The real hook was the way he viewed the sport — not as someone who had never been punched in the face before, but as a former fighter.
“As an analyst, if you don’t fight, everything you’re discussing is theory because fighting is an altered psychological state,” he said. “When everything’s on the line and everyone’s staring at you and you are literally in a violent confrontation with a professional athlete, half-naked in front of everybody, it’s beyond mushrooms. (Laughs) If you never fought, you can’t experience that. So other people who do my job who’ve never fought, a lot of what they’re saying comes from a point where they cannot understand the reality. They’re talking about Xs and Os or 1–2–3s, but it’s not 1–2–3s or ABCs. It’s do-re-mi. It’s art. Scary art.”
It’s always been all about the scary stuff for the 48-year-old Canadian, and while he’s not competing in a cage or touring the world with his band, he’s hoping his one man show can bring some of that scary back.
“I miss it (music), for sure,” he said. “It doesn’t represent the same things because I loved leading the party and entertaining people and I’m hoping I can get some of that from doing the show I do now, because I miss that the most.”
Robin Black plays The Park Theatre in Winnipeg on Sunday, Dec. 17. For tickets, click here
For more information on Robin Black, click here