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Meet the man who turns fighters into art

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The way it started was that Ross Baines heard about a boxer who needed help. The boxer’s name was Nick Blackwell, and he was in a medically induced coma.

Blackwell had taken a bad beating in a British middleweight title fight with Chris Eubank Jr., and the U.K. boxing scene was rallying behind him with a charity drive meant to aid his recovery.

Baines, 39, was a painter in his spare time. Occasionally he’d do it as a side gig, in addition to his regular job as a decorator, but mostly it was just a hobby, a passion. When he heard about the fundraising push for Blackwell, he thought maybe he could help. So he painted a portrait of Blackwell from a photograph and offered it as part of the charity auction.

“Then I thought, OK, I’ll go on Twitter and see if I can get a few boxers to retweet it, promote it, and get some more money for (Blackwell),” Baines told MMAjunkie. “Next thing I knew, all these U.K. boxers were sharing my stuff on Twitter.

“That was interesting. That’s kind of when I realized that you’re never more than a few clicks from anyone on Twitter.”

These days this is what Baines does for a living, thanks in part to the opportunities afforded by Twitter. It’s his full-time job, painting everything from soccer players to family portraits. He does it mostly on commission, from his home in Essex, England, and he spends a lot of his time these days on painting MMA fighters – sometimes even paintings for MMA fighters.

That part began with Brad Pickett, the British UFC bantamweight. Baines has been an MMA fan ever since he saw a videotape with the first few UFC events on it, he said, and he’s particularly fond of the fighters from his home country.

Shortly after he started following Pickett on Twitter, Baines reached out with an offer to create a custom painting of any moment Pickett desired from his 12-year career.

“It was just a freebie, sort of a fan thing, a nice thing to do for a fighter,” Baines said. “He really liked it and shared it with a few people. Then I shared it with Daniel Cormier and said, ‘Choose any fight photo you want me to paint.’ He got back to me, which I was totally blown away by.”

At first the UFC light heavyweight champ thought he might want a painting of himself with the title, smiling in those glorious moments after a win. Then he changed his mind. What Cormier wanted, he told Baines, was a family portrait.

ross-baines-artwork-3Sure, Baines told him. He could do that. The next thing he knew, there was one of his paintings hanging in Cormier’s house. It didn’t take long before Baines was talking to Cormier’s teammate, former UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez. Only what Velasquez expressed interest in, Baines said, was not a fight painting, but rather a portrait of his French bulldog. (That project, however, has yet to move forward, according to Baines.)

One of his more recent works was a custom painting for UFC bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt. He’d been talking with Garbrandt off and on for about a year, Baines said, waiting for just the right shot.

“When he won the title a couple weeks ago, that picture of him with the belt and (cancer survivor Maddux Maple) was just screaming at me to be a painting,” Baines said. “I messaged him and said, ‘What do you think?’ He told me it was the best moment of his life, so I told him, ‘It’s yours.’ I also threw in a print to give to Maddux.”

Most of Baines’ work these days is custom-made paintings on commissions, many of them for fight fans. They’ll send him a photo of their favorite fighter, their favorite moment, and in a couple days Baines will have a canvas ready to ship. Sometimes what they come back for a scene from a movie, or a portrait of a family member, or maybe a painting of the church where they were married.

Just about the only thing Baines won’t do is the same exact painting of the same exact photo over and over again. It’s not just because he doesn’t want to labor over Conor McGregor’s tattoos more than he has to (though, according to Baines, fighters with multiple tattoos are one of the bigger challenges to paint, along with the intricately detailed UFC title belts). It’s also because, for him, painting fighters is still a fun pastime, and he’d like to keep it that way.

“If 20 different people wanted the same exact painting, I’d feel like I’m working in a factory,” Baines said. “I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

As for why his paintings have become popular with fans and fighters alike, that’s where it gets tricky to describe. His paintings are usually done by looking at photographs, but prints of fight photos typically aren’t a hot item unless they’re autographed. With a painting however, there’s a different sort of appeal.

“I don’t know why, but there’s just something about a painting, isn’t it?” Baines said. “It’s a bit more personal. When you get it in your hand and see the texture of it, see a few brushstrokes, there’s something about that. You don’t have to be an art collector to appreciate that. It’s special.”



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