Commentary

WITH THE BACK FLIP, OLD-SCHOOL MXER MIKE METZGER ICED HIS REP AS A

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:12 PM ET
By Chris Palmer

The thing is, Mike Metzger never says "try." He's made nearly 100 phone calls on this late fall day to talk about the music-and-motocross festival he's promoting at a minor league baseball stadium in Lake Elsinore, Calif. And not once has Metzger said he's going to "try" to do a back flip on his 230-pound 250cc Honda dirt bike. Nope. "What are you doing Saturday night?" Metzger asks over and over on his cell phone. He's standing in the driveway of his hilltop house in the tiny town of Menifee, 90 minutes southeast of LA, squinting into the afternoon heat. "You should come by. I'm going to do the back flip at 8 o'clock." Metzger says this as blandly as he might say, "I'm going to the refrigerator for milk."

Metzger didn't say "try" even when he regained consciousness last summer after a practice back flip in his backyard went wrong and the crash knocked him out cold. So why use that three-letter sign of doubt now? Not after shocking the action sports world at the 2002 X Games by landing back-to-back back flips, an unprecedented feat that won Metzger both the Freestyle MX gold medal and the Best Overall X Games Athlete award. So what if Nate Adams, one of the hottest young FMX stars and a protege of Metzger's, says that landing a million perfect back flips doesn't lower the odds that the next attempt will kill you? And Metzger definitely does not waffle when he says he will pop the flip at the Winter X Games, sailing across the cold gap from ice block takeoff to ice block landing.

Metzger shrugs. He is 5'10" and sinewy, with a tattoo of his surname in elaborate black letters stretching from his sternum to his belly button. At first, he sounds like a stereotypical laid-back Ridgemont High stoner-but listen closely and there's an intriguing, hard-edged rural twang mixed in, an accent that hints at the iron beneath his cartoonishly tattooed skin. Yet even close friends who are just as wild can't explain what drives him. Says Brian Deegan, co-founder of the Metal Mulisha and a co-conspirator of Metzger's for nearly a decade: "Every time I've broken a bone, I've said, 'Do I really want to do this anymore?' And Mike has broken more bones-arms, legs, collarbones-and has been knocked out more times than anyone. Period. No matter how much he gets hurt, it never slows him down. I could never understand that."

Metzger cops to being mental, but he isn't stupid. He wants nothing more than to be around a long time for his wife, Mandi, their 20-month-old daughter, Michaela, and their baby son, Myrie Fritz, who was born Dec. 21. Metzger has been riding since he was 3 and understands the dangers of his sport better than anyone. Seven screws hold his right arm together. The skin covering his left shoulder blade is a congealed puddle pebbled with specks of gravel, the gruesome souvenir of a crash in a Supercross race. "I fell and got wedged under the other guy's back fender, on top of the tire, and it just melted my back away," Metzger says with stunning nonchalance. "But racing's racing. Stuff like that happens."

So what's the secret to Metzger's success? Lack of fear? A superhuman pain threshold? Richer fuel mixture in his bike? Most likely it's the words he repeats all day into his cell phone: "I'm going to do the back flip." And so he does.

ROGER BANNISTER busting the four-minute-mile barrier. Doctor J launching from the foul line. Every sport has a moment in which the can't-be-done is suddenly ... done.

In freestyle motocross, the paradigm shift arrived upside down. Carey Hart threw out the opening salvo in the back flip wars when he landed-and fell-at the 2000 Gravity Games. He tried again at the 2001 X Games, but broke his foot. In April 2002, Caleb Wyatt became the first to land a flip and ride away. But the real revolution began one month later, when word spread feverishly among Moto X insiders that Metz had the back flip clean, the result of five weeks of practice, first on BMX bikes, then landing his motorcycle in desert dunes.

On July 2, too excited to sleep, Metzger awoke at 5 a.m. and headed straight for his backyard-where he'd built a freestyler's fantasy, a sprawling three-acre customized course-and began watering the dirt on the landing ramp. At 7:30, the sun was rising over the mountains behind his house as 20 friends and a few TV cameras gathered to witness the unveiling of his great Leap Backward. And when he touched down on the soft brown clay, Metzger knew he'd changed his sport forever. A satisfied calm surged through him. "I felt like I was in a world of my own," he says. "I set out to get it done, and I did it."

Metzger has long been a freestyle superstar, the inventor of many of the sport's core tricks and one of its most acrobatic, crowd-pleasing riders. Adding the back flip to his arsenal was the equivalent of giving Shaq wings. The news forced Travis Pastrana, still hurting from an earlier wreck, to learn the back flip quickly. At the Gravity Games in late July, Pastrana nailed an incredible seven back flips in his freestyle run and won the gold; Metzger's single flip won silver. But what Metzger did two weeks later at the X Games in Philly made all previous flippers look like wing-T quarterbacks in a Mike Vick world.

Just before his run at X, Metzger, a devout if eccentric Christian, said a little prayer. "The Bible is basic instructions before leaving the earth," he says now. True, but surely the disciples had a slightly different flight path in mind. Metzger snapped his face guard into place and charged into his 11-trick, 90-second freestyle routine. Then, with time winding down, he aimed his bike at the biggest ramp of all, a steel and wood kicker with 60* of pitch reaching nearly 10 feet above the ground. "It's the perfect time," Metzger thought to himself. He released the clutch and accelerated to 25 mph, and just as the bike left the lip of the ramp he gave the handlebars a backward tug. Soon he was 30 feet high, upside down, and hurtling into the future.

Metzger was not finished. As soon as he touched down, he blasted toward the next jump, and it was this one that left fellow pros gasping at his audacity. The first flip had been routine-for Metzger, anyway-because the takeoff ramp was smooth. But on the second he launched from a rutted dirt ramp and flipped across an 80-foot gap. "There's so many ways to screw up the back flip," Deegan says, "and there's only way you can do it right. Mike made it look easy."

When the run was over Metzger did a little victory shimmy, but he saved his excitement for the medal ceremony, when he brought his tiny blonde daughter onstage for a dance. "I've been telling people for years that I'm the best," Metzger says now. "Maybe with these medals, they'll finally believe all this stuff I've been talking."

METZGER DUBBED his new trick the Double Fritz, in honor of his grandfather, Fritz Metzger, and his father, Ted Fritz Metzger. "Mike played football and basketball when he was little," his mother, Sharon, says with a laugh. "But the way his dad feels about motorcycles, those sports didn't stand a chance."

Ted Metzger owns a construction company but his passion was-and is-anything that goes fast on wheels. When Mike was 4, his family lived in Corona, Calif., in a house with a steep driveway. Ted built a wooden ramp so Mike could launch his Big Wheel. "I'd eat it all the time," Metzger says, laughing. "So I'm used to crashing. But what kind of dad builds his kid a ramp like that?"

By 16, Metzger was a motocross racing prodigy, complete with Suzuki sponsorship, and he won the expert stock division at the '91 Loretta Lynn Amateur Nationals. Deegan, newly arrived from Nebraska, remembers their first meeting, in 1994:

"We were racing and about halfway down the start, Mike tried to cut me off into a pole." They bonded immediately, and the two soon rented a house in Quail Valley, Calif. "we were known more for our lifestyles than our riding," Deegan says. "On New Year's Eve, we had hundreds of people, bands, fights, people running around naked through the house. Actually, mainly Metzger. I remember him doing wheelies through the house naked."

Their creativity took more public forms, too. Deegan and Metzger were joined by pals like Hart, Tommy Clowers and Mad Mike Jones, and their antics on MX bikes led to the creation of freestyle motocross in 1995. "We'd basically just steal BMX tricks and try to do 'em on motorcycles," Hart says. The first FMX competition was held in 1998, in Las Vegas. ESPN added the sport to the X Games in 1999 and to the Winter X Games in 2001.

For all his freestyle creativity, Metzger earned a nickname he dislikes, The Godfather (he would prefer The Innovator), but not many medals-he wasn't disciplined enough to win a lot of events. "In the past, I thought I could just show up at the Gravity Games or the X Games and leave with a medal," Metzger says. "I didn't take it seriously."

Two things prodded him to focus on freestyle: the birth of Michaela in 2001 and a wreck while practicing Supercross in 2002 that crushed five teeth. Metzger had recently bought a house on five acres, complete with a sign on the iron gate at the end of the driveway reading "Paradise Ranch." After gold teeth were installed in his gums, Metzger jumped on a bulldozer and replaced his backyard Supercross course with nine FMX jumps. For good measure, he built a foam pit where he would perfect back flips on a BMX bike before launching them on a motorcycle.

The work paid off, both at the 2002 X Games and afterward. "Michelin hooked me up with tires when they found out I did the flip," Metzger says, standing in his garage and pointing to a stack of fresh rubber. "Before that, I had one bike that I'd bought and no tires. Now I have all kinds of bikes." Except for the history-making Honda: That bike is hanging upside down from the ceiling of the New York headquarters of his main sponsor, Ecko. No matter. Metzger's two car garage contains eight dirt bikes, while the family ride, a blue PT Cruiser with baby seat in the back, stays outside.

Metzger strolls through the house and across the yard to a new work shed out back, bought with X Games money and filled with his paintings. Giant psychedelic swirls of orange, black and blue, with bulbous bleeding eyeballs-Metzger's favorite image-float menacingly. Around the side of the house, a new silver Dodge Dakota 4x4 gleams in the sun, its front end crushed and a headlight hanging loose. "This truck couldn't jump a 13-foot gap!" Metzger says. "Look at it. I went 55 straight into a ditch. I only had it three weeks."

Somehow he'll get to Aspen for his first appearance at the Winter X Games. "I've elected not to ride the past two years because of the cold," he says. "I hate the cold." Even long johns, Metzger vows won't mess with the amazing run he started this summer. "I'm going to do the same thing I did in Philly, just ride the best I can and have fun. I'm going to do the back flip."

Hidden in that simple phrase is Metzger's ultimate weapon. Other riders may be younger, stronger, more flexible. But no one can match Metzger's confidence. "Every time you say you're gonna do a back flip, you gotta know you're gonna do it," Metzger says. "I have a plan and that's it."

He squints over the horizon and remembers that today is his 27th birthday. "Twenty-seven," he murmurs. "Sounds good. For awhile, I didn't know if I was gonna be 27." Yet why bother surviving if you're not pushing boundaries? He promises a flying 360 soon. Riding motorcycles has taken Metzger to the hill on top of Paradise Ranch. But he'll never stop trying to go even further.

Hold it: forget the "trying." Mike Metzger will go even further.

Chris Palmer

ESPN the Magazine