The Tragic Love Story Of Christy Mack and MMA Fighter War Machine
Christy Mack looks at her face sometimes -- the new one -- and tries to decide if she likes it better than her old one. There are differences.
Her bright eyes used to be slightly more expressive. But the way her muscles healed after the attack, she now needs glasses. "It's OK," she says. "They're cute."
Her mouth has a different shape after so many teeth were broken. She has veneers, but they are uneven, a stopgap measure so she can eat normally. She won't smile for photos until she gets them fixed again.
"I didn't look in the mirror for weeks," Mack says.
She examines her face like it's not quite her own. Imagine that -- the most basic recognition, and it's gone.
"Just feeling my face, I knew it wasn't right," she says. "So when I'd look in the mirror, it's not me -- that person wasn't me. It's so hard to go every day without being you anymore."
Yet, after all the broken bones, a ruptured liver and a thigh bruise so deep that she couldn't walk for a week, Mack is back to being unmistakably herself in a crew neck blue sweater and jeans. Her subversive sense of humor is fully intact.
It's a warm day on the cusp of springtime, when living in Las Vegas feels like cheating the misery of winters growing up in a small Midwestern town like Edinburgh, Indiana. Mack lets her pit bulls, Cleopitra and Pitrick Swayzee -- see what she did there? -- into the warm desert sunshine of the courtyard.
Despite her eventual celebrity, Mack, 23, had a deceptively conventional childhood. She was a cheerleader through her senior year in high school. She worked at the Nike store at the local mall. Of course she can't say for sure, but Mack thinks she may have been the last person in her high school to lose her virginity.
She married her boyfriend at 18 and took care of their dogs while her husband worked at a car dealership. And if that were where the story ended, Mack's life would have been completely, boringly normal. But she felt restless, unsettled. So when she was approached about posing nude, she traded the Midwest and marriage for What's Behind Door No. 3, and went to Miami with her eyes open.
With her unique looks -- a curvy frame featuring finely designed tattoos, a long black mohawk and an affinity for her pet snakes -- she rocketed to the top of the adult film industry. And there were rewards and a kind of underground fame that she enjoyed.
But she never considered that part of her adventure would include starring in just about the most horrific domestic violence case you'll ever hear about, allegedly at the hands of a famous athlete.
Sitting on a white leather couch in her gated home a few miles off the Las Vegas Strip, Mack has decided that, new face or old, she feels good again. And she can even laugh about the stuff that still feels weird.
"Found out the fake parts of my teeth glow in the tanning bed. So that's fun, I guess. I'm glad that doesn't happen with my boobs ..." she tweeted in December.
Until the early morning hours of Aug. 8, 2014, the night Las Vegas prosecutors allege she was nearly beaten to death by former UFC fighter Jon "War Machine" Koppenhaver, Mack's beauty was still her calling card, and modeling was her job.
When Christine Mackinday started her career, the petite 5-foot-1 rebel considered many different hairstyles before finally settling on a long black mohawk. It gave her a renegade look that was in stylized defiance to all the interchangeable blondes in the adult industry. She used her hair to signal her membership in some other yet undiscovered tribe and attracted an ardent fan base as she transitioned from nude photos to adult videos.
By the time she met Koppenhaver in the spring of 2013, she was an established porn star. As War Machine -- Koppenhaver had his name legally changed in 2008 -- he pingponged from the UFC to several other MMA organizations, and he had been dabbling in porn himself. He had served jail time already after multiple arrests, most of which involved fighting at bars. She didn't know about those issues until she was already in love.
They'd met on a photo shoot. Mack didn't feel well (it was pneumonia), and he offered to come to her hotel and take care of her. She told him they would not be having sex, and he wanted to hang out with her anyway. They ate pizza and talked; Mack felt taken care of. "It was an amazing connection," Mack says. "I fell in love really quick."
Koppenhaver didn't approve of her work, but for a year they were a couple, even living together on two separate occasions at her Las Vegas home. When War Machine fought on an MMA card, she was the notoriously beautiful porn star who was cage-side at all of his fights. She says the violence began to carry over from the cage to home life, though.
"He became abusive about four to five months in, but by that time I was totally in love with him," Mack says. "So, so in love. The first time I thought, 'Oh it'll never happen again.' The day after, he stayed home from training and coddled me. After every time he would hit me, those were the best days of our relationship."
She stopped doing movies at his request, sticking to photos and appearances. But of course, as so many domestic violence victims detail, that didn't really fix anything. A relationship that began with tenderness turned into something close to the exact opposite.
The relationship ended, started again and ended again, but Mack still felt that pull toward Koppenhaver. They stayed in touch, and on Aug. 8, 2014, prosecutors say he used an old key to get into her home, where she and a male friend, Corey Thomas, were sleeping the night before a tattoo convention.
What happened next, the prosecution contends, morphed from a jealous outburst into a horrific display of violence. In court documents outlining 36 different charges against Koppenhaver, including attempted murder, the violent details are hard to read. (Please note that much of what you're about to read came from Mack, Thomas, the police report and the prosecution. Koppenhaver's attorney, Brandon Sua, declined an interview request for his client, who is in solitary confinement and unavailable to speak. Comments from Sua are included where relevant.)
Mack and Thomas were woken when Koppenhaver allegedly walked into the bedroom, turned on the light and began striking Thomas with his fists. In his testimony, Thomas said he'd been punched repeatedly and bit in the face by Koppenhaver before being placed in a chokehold. After about 10 minutes, Mack testified, Koppenhaver told him to leave the house and to not report the incident to the police. Thomas left the house, and he did not call the police.
Koppenhaver then began hitting Mack, according to the prosecution. He punched her multiple times, causing her to lose consciousness at least once, and kicked her in the side of her body.
As she laid on her bathroom floor, Mack says that Koppenhaver allegedly told her, "That is my p----y, and I'm going to take it back now." At some point, Mack says, Koppenhaver grabbed a knife and threatened her with it. She says she ended up naked and in the shower, though she's not sure whether he undressed her or ordered her to take her clothes off. She told police that Koppenhaver tried to rape her, and prosecutors have charged him with sexual assault. In her testimony, Mack escaped the house only when Koppenhaver left the bedroom and entered the kitchen. She heard the clanging of metal and believes he went looking for another knife.
Mack says she ran, naked, to a neighbor's house, climbed the fence and begged to let her in. The neighbors didn't open the door, but they let her hide behind a wall outside as they called the police.
The beating left her unable to walk for a week because of the injuries to her thigh. Her liver had been ruptured from punches and kicks to her body -- the liver injury was so bad that doctors opted to not operate on her face because they worried she couldn't handle being put under anesthesia. She had 18 broken bones, a broken nose, multiple missing and broken teeth, and a fractured rib.
But perhaps nothing hurt like her recollection of what Koppenhaver did to her identity. At some point that night, Mack says he took the dull blade of the knife he was holding and meticulously began sawing her hair.
When he was done, Mack's trademark mohawk laid on the floor in a pile.
After neighbors called police, the story blew up. As authorities launched a manhunt for Koppenhaver, Mack posted stunning images of her injuries on Twitter, sparking a viral reaction. Dog the Bounty Hunter even announced he would be joining the search for Koppenhaver.
All sorts of rumors and false reports began to pop up about what happened that night. Mack saw comments on social media speculating that she wasn't really hurt, or that she had hurt Koppenhaver first. It was reminiscent of the way that many people saw the initial Ray Rice news in February 2014 and shrugged their shoulders with some version of, "You never know what happens between a husband and wife."
It's a brand of victim-blaming that often happens in domestic violence cases, but there also seemed to be an added undercurrent of derision for Mack because of her profession.
She's just a porn star.
She probably likes it rough.
But three days later, the narrative shifted dramatically when Mack tweeted graphic photos and her description of the incident. The photos were widely run by news outlets and blogs, with 40,000-plus retweets.
Pretty soon, the conversation began to shift. Something about seeing pictures that document domestic violence -- with Mack, with Rihanna, with Janay Rice -- dwarfs reading about it. The visceral, gruesome reality of Mack's injuries was inescapable, and it made people gulp and feel uncomfortable. Which is exactly what Mack wanted. "This is not acceptable," Mack says about her decision to fight rumor with evidence. "I'm not going to sit around in my hospital bed and have people say that I did something wrong. This is what happened, so I decided to put it out there."
Koppenhaver has maintained his innocence throughout, tweeting during the manhunt, "I'm not a bad guy. I went to surprise my gf, help her set up her show and to give her an engagement ring and ended up fighting for my life."
He later added, "The cops will never give me fair play, never believe me. Still deciding what to do but at the end of the day it's all just heart breaking."
Koppenhaver's then-employer, Bellator, immediately cut War Machine from its roster. Bellator president Scott Coker says once he saw the pictures, his mind was made up. He was new to the job, but wanted to send a message to everyone that alleged abuse like this wouldn't be tolerated. "It was very clear to me that there is no space in our league for somebody like that," Coker said.
Koppenhaver was already on probation for previous offenses -- the worst being a bar brawl in San Diego in which he roughed up a bouncer and female bartender -- and Mack had alluded via social media that he had been abusive in the past before the alleged incident in August. "It wasn't OK for people to say I got what I deserved when they had no idea what my struggle was," Mack says now. "My people told me afterward that I shouldn't have (put out the photos and her statement). But I needed to write that."
The doubts and detractors haven't disappeared, of course. When she posted a photo to her Instagram account in February, one user replied, "Damn war machine should finished the job, bummer."
Here's the thing about Mack, though: She purposely allowed herself to be named by the court and in the media after the incident, even though alleged sexual assault victims typically are shielded from identification. So she has no issue firing back at random Instagram and Twitter harassers, tweeting back, whether in her own defense or on behalf of other women who have been assaulted, hoping it changes a mind or two. "I did nothing wrong -- it wasn't like I said, 'Please hit me again,'" Mack says. "He was abusive, and people can't see that being the abuser is always going to be wrong. There's nothing that makes it OK. And people are looking for that one reason."
Even now, Erin Mackinday looks thin and tired, despite the cheeriness of her hot pink "Las Vegas" sweatshirt.
As hard as the recovery was for her daughter, Mackinday was nearly broken into pieces by what happened last summer. Early on the morning of Aug. 8, she says she was awakened by a text from Koppenhaver saying she should check on her daughter. Mackinday was confused, so she called him. He told her enough to send her running to her car and driving in a panic through the Las Vegas streets in the early morning dawn.
Mackinday stopped her car in the middle of the street when she got to her daughter's house, barely aware that she was blocking traffic. Mackinday pushed through the layers of law enforcement and animal control pleading for an answer to the worst question a mom could ever wonder: "Is my daughter dead?"
Retelling the story, Mackinday breaks down again.
"No, your daughter is in the hospital," she was told.
Knowing how Mack loves her pets, Mackinday quickly secured the pit bulls from animal control and locked the ferrets and snakes in a room. Then she left for the hospital.
In her room, Mack could only see a sliver out of one of her swollen eyes. But she recognized her mom's voice coming down the hallway.
As her mother walked in, Mack pre-emptively pleaded with her, "Please don't cry."
Mackinday initially agreed, but when she took her daughter's hand and squeezed it, she fell to the floor and started sobbing. "That's when I knew it was bad," Mack says.
For most of the next week, her daughter was in the hospital as Koppenhaver evaded the authorities. U.S. Marshals developed a lead that he had fled to an Extended Stay America Hotel in California, near where he grew up. (TMZ reported that when cops went to Koppenhaver's home in San Diego to retrieve two exotic snakes the fighter had there, they found Dog the Bounty Hunter on site.)
Mack's address had been publicly released in the police report, so there was no haven to return to as reporters camped out near her home. Mackinday communicated a few times with Koppenhaver, yelling at him and begging him to turn himself in. She went from her daughter's bedside to her Las Vegas home, which was surrounded by television cameras. She felt equal parts guilty and angry for failing to keep her baby safe.
"The rage eats you from the inside out because you are so helpless," Mackinday says now.
Mack's new house, the one she moved to after her home address was published, suits her sense of style. There are graphic designs all over the walls -- car chases and Bond girls.
Mack's bathroom has three giant lipstick tubes so vividly drawn that it looks like a single kiss would impart a Chanel-red mouth. This is where Mack keeps her 12 wigs.
Long blue or short blond, she spent weeks trying them out. She was looking for more than new hair, though -- she was searching for a new identity.
It took eight months and trying on dozens of wigs, but Mack finally feels like she has found herself again. In January, Mack got sick of her hair as it grew out. Her solution: She shaved it all off. Then she did a photo shoot bald.
On Mondays, 1.2 million Instagram followers wait for her NSFW #MackMonday photographs, and there was a lot of positive feedback for her new look. Social media has had its trolls, but Mack has also found a community of nameless supporters, many of them women. She inspires an unusually personal connection with some of her fans.
In the weeks after she was beaten, Mack got dozens of letters from well-wishers. They were raw with feeling, many containing stories of the writer's own abuse. At the lowest moment of her own life, Mack had difficulty trying to absorb more pain. She answered a few, then packed those letters into a closet. Someday she might get back to them.
Mack sees a day in her future when she can be a conduit for healing. It isn't here yet, and she is in some ways still grappling with how this all happened. "Growing up, I never saw myself being that person," Mack says.
Many of the women who contact her tell similar stories of a pattern of abuse. At a pretrial hearing in November, Mack testified to many of those details in a courtroom across from Koppenhaver. She said she had endured a history of sexual violence from Koppenhaver, the telling of which elicited laughs and smiles from the defendant. Prosecutors asked the judge to note in the court record that Koppenhaver had been laughing, to which his attorneys objected.
"I watched him laugh," the judge said. "It's noted."
When Kristen Paruginog, head of Break The Silence Against Domestic Violence, a peer-to-peer anti-domestic violence network, heard about the abuse Mack was getting from Koppenhaver fans, she reached out. Mack had actually donated to a Las Vegas-based shelter in the month before her attack and was looking for an outlet. "She has a huge platform that could allow her to be that voice," Paruginog said.
Mack has joined forces with Break The Silence, though she realizes that her time in porn complicates the domestic violence community's willingness to embrace her. Men and women who work in sex-related fields are hardly the only ones who suffer from domestic violence, just like being from a wealthy family or having a white-collar job is no insulation. In fact, just in the past year or so, porn stars have begun coming forward with remarkable stories of -- surprise! -- being pretty much just like the rest of us.
She hopes the next chapter in her life involves turning her story into some good for the cause of domestic violence awareness. She'll testify this fall when Koppenhaver's case goes to trial. She says he emailed her once after the alleged attack and said, "I forgive you. We can move out to the middle of nowhere and breed snakes."
He never said he was sorry.
On Oct. 14, Koppenhaver was found unresponsive in his Las Vegas prison cell with a makeshift cloth noose around his neck. A lengthy note in Koppenhaver's handwriting read, "They wanna charge me with battery and (domestic violence)? Fine, do it, but don't railroad me with B.S. fantasy charges like Rape! Attempted murder! Kidnapping! And Burglary! It's making it impossible for justice. I'm a good person with a huge heart, and everyone who knows me knows that, especially Christy."
Koppenhaver's vital signs quickly returned to normal, and he was placed in solitary confinement on suicide watch. He has written often from prison via his Twitter handle, always maintaining his innocence. (Sua would not confirm Koppenhaver himself is behind the tweets. "I can't comment on that at this time," Sua says.)
He has found Jesus, the tweets say, and wonders whether this new understanding could have made a difference earlier. He and supporters -- including his attorney -- tweet using the hashtag "FreeWarMachine." Sua says there is a writ of habeas corpus hearing set for April 22, in which Koppenhaver's defense will make the case to release him. "There's a lot that we want you to know, that we want the public to know and that will come out at the appropriate time," Sua says.
Mack will be watching closely. War Machine's trial is tentatively set for September.
"It hurt so much to know he was so separated from the situation. He still hasn't taken responsibility to this day," Mack says. "He blames his childhood, he blames me, he blames fighting. He claims he found God now -- he's looking for any kind of way not to take responsibility for what happened."
What's next for Mack? She wants to become active in the domestic violence community, and says she's done with porn films. She expects to continue making personal appearances and dancing -- she recently took a refresher course in pole dancing, which she says she enjoys.
In the immediate future, Mack is planning a new tattoo. During her recovery, it was the last thing she wanted, self-inflicted pain on top of all the other agony.
But this one is going to be beautiful. It will start at her right shoulder and arch around, taking up some of the available real estate on her back. She hasn't decided on the specific image yet, but it'll be designed to cover a tattoo she got a while ago. One that is still there. One that she doesn't want any more.
It says, "Property of War Machine."