In an Oscar season saturated with repetitive red carpet affairs, one black-tie event stood out from the rest in the lead-up to Sunday’s ceremony — the only awards party where Steven Seagal was the guest of honor and mixed martial arts fighters brawled in the center of a ballroom between courses of a lavish four-course dinner.
The first SMASH Global Pre-Oscar Gala, a charity awards fete celebrating MMA and action movies, also was the only Oscars week bash in Hollywood in which Academy Award nominee Meryl Streep, who unwittingly declared war on the MMA world by slamming the sport in her lauded Golden Globes speech, was persona non grata.
Here, the mere mention of Streep’s name sent a cacophony of boos rippling through the well-heeled crowd.
Facing the fight cage, Seagal, 64, sat serenely next to his wife, Elle, a former dancer, before being honored for fight disciplines in movies like “Under Siege,” “On Deadly Ground,” “Out For Justice” and “Hard to Kill.”
One of Hollywood’s truest Renaissance men — action icon, seventh-degree Aikido black belt, mojo priest, Vladimir Putin pal — Seagal also is a voting member of the academy who has seen all of this year’s best-picture-nominated films. Only one impressed him.
“I liked ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ quite a bit,” he told The Times, “but I thought it was a bad year for films. I didn’t like much.”
Seagal has been traveling and making movies in Thailand while keeping abreast of politics back home. He waved off the media’s fervent fixation with the dual citizenship granted to him last fall by the Kremlin, blaming former President Obama for the hubbub.
I think Russia and America should be brothers.
“People wanted to make a big deal out of mine because Obama tried so hard to demonize Russia,” Seagal said. “But I would never give up my citizenship. You can have all the citizenships you want as long as you pay taxes in America, and I pay taxes in America. I’m an American and always will be.”
Seagal’s well-publicized bromance with Russia’s leader was already a pop cultural curiosity before Putin’s ties to Donald Trump and his alleged interference with the U.S. presidential election dominated news cycles.
“I think it’s coming from Obama and George Soros,” Seagal said of the media’s scrutiny of the Trump-Putin connection. “And I think that we need to be friends with the superpowers when at all possible. I think Russia and America should be brothers. I think we need them and they need us.
“I think it’s one of the most important things in the world to bring Russia and America together,” added Seagal, who declined to address the immigration ban but said he views Trump’s first month in office has been “primarily” a success.
Amid the din of clinking glasses, Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” heralded the entrance of the evening’s first competitors to the octagon, a match that ended in a TKO in the first round. Between subsequent fights, including an evenly matched women’s submission-only contest that ended in a draw, For Veterans, By Veterans founder Eric Osche introduced the nonprofit organization dedicated to ending veteran poverty, which received a portion of proceeds from the night.
Celebrity guests in attendance including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Michael Jai White, Kristanna Loken, Casper Van Dien, former NFL player Shawne Merriman, and UFC fighter Josh Barnett cheered as Seagal accepted the SMASH Global Icon Award, a handcrafted leather championship belt, and hefted it over his shoulder. Reality TV personality Courtney Stodden, attending with her dog Cupcake, also enjoyed the evening’s festivities and stayed for a post-awards dance party in the octagon.
SMASH Global founder Steve “Hulk Smash” Orosco, 36, a former MMA fighter who launched his prestige MMA brand with four previous galas, said he plans to throw an annual event celebrating MMA in film.
“Martial arts and action don’t get the recognition they deserve in Hollywood,” he said, minutes before the ballroom doors opened to guests streaming in from the red carpet. “The academy, the foreign press, they don’t give awards to Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, even Arnold [Schwarzenegger]. Why hasn’t someone like Sylvester Stallone gotten a lifetime achievement award? He’s made more of an impact than anyone in Hollywood.”
Sporting Ferragamo shoes and jacket, Dolce and Gabbana slacks and a feather-accented bow tie, the former finance broker explained his push to create a luxury MMA brand to rival the elite events that bring well-heeled crowds in for million-dollar boxing matches.
“Even if you watch UFC, in the first 10 rows, you see people in Tap Out shirts drinking Bud Light,” he said, citing the hedge fund managers and doctor friends who love the fast-growing sport — and, he predicts, will be willing to pay more to celebrate it in the near future. “MMA is going to take over boxing in popularity at some point. But the sport has grown so fast that the crowd hasn’t caught up.”