Mike Metzger turned FMX upside-down
Twenty Years, 20 Firsts celebrates the 20-year legacy of the X Games in action sports with a collection of 20 of the most iconic first-trick moments in X Games history. The fan-vote component for the top moment concluded with Elena Hight taking the win just after X Games Austin, but the "World Of X Games" 20 Firsts show will count down the top 20 moments July 19 on ABC.
It's hard to believe the first backflips on motorcycles in competition were landed just 12 years ago. Fast-forward to today, and freestyle motocross riders regularly land double backflips, front flips, body varials and other eye-popping aerial antics that wouldn't have been dreamed of a decade ago. But when Mike Metzger landed the first backflip in an X Games competition at X Games Philadelphia in 2002, the FMX world would never be the same.
"It's crazy what we all do in FMX, especially those of us with families," Metzger said. "We put the selfish helmet on to go out and risk our lives entertaining people because we love it, knowing that the most dangerous thing anybody could ever want to do is get on a dirt bike and jump it the way we do. But before we put on those helmets, we all pray, every one of us. For me, that worked my whole life, thank God."
A longtime fan of Evel Knievel, Metzger started racing at age 6 and became obsessed with movie stuntmen on motorbikes in 1986, the year the movie "Rad" came out. "It was the first time I'd ever seen anybody do a backflip on a BMX bike," he said. "Right then and there I remember thinking, 'That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to flip my motorcycle.'"
Metzger was one of the first riders to start messing around with BMX-inspired freestyle tricks on his motocross bike. His competitive rival, Carey Hart, had come close to landing the backflip in competition before, but broke his foot in the attempt at the X Games in 2001. Then in 2002, Caleb Wyatt made history as the first rider to successfully backflip a full-size 250cc motorcycle, a few months before X Games, giving Metzger the final nudge he needed. Two weeks before X Games VIII both Metzger and Travis Pastrana landed the first backflips in any competition at the Gravity Games, according to ESPN Stats & Research. Pastrana finished first, and Metzger finished second.
Metzger started landing the flips in the dunes by his house, and then let it be known in advance that he would be bringing the backflip to X Games in Philadelphia. "When you know in your head it's time to do something, you have to go for it," he says, remembering the accomplishment with a shrug.
"The first day I did it off a freestyle ramp was July 2nd -- I'll never forget it -- and ESPN was there to film it for the commercials leading up to X Games," Metzger said. He didn't have access to a foam pit big enough for motorcycles in those days, so attempting it meant full commitment.
"The very first time, I landed it and rode away from it, and the camera guys missed it. I guess nobody really thought I was going to go for it," Metzger said. "After that, I made damn sure they were rolling, and landed it again on my second and fifth tries, with a couple crashes in between, before calling it a day. Two days later, on the Fourth of July, I landed 21 in a row without falling."
Those fireworks didn't do much to calm his nerves about bringing the trick to X Games, however. "It wasn't that I was worried about landing it," he said. "I knew once I did it, I was going to have to do it again and again for the rest of my life for as long as I was riding freestyle motocross. I knew it was going to be a game-changer for me and for everybody in the sport, and that terrified me. But that's what X Games had always been about: bringing something new to the table. It really did change things forever."
Despite all the hype he'd helped create, Metzger played it cool on the day of the event and rode conservatively to make sure he made it to the big show. Then, right before finals, he got an even bigger idea.
"I went out there to walk the course and decided the best metal ramp for the backflip was the 45-foot jump, but then right behind that was an 80-foot dirt jump that was the most perfect freestyle jump I'd ever seen. I thought, 'If I don't flip that, I'm missing out.' I knew I was going to flip the first jump, and in the back of my mind I was thinking, 'When that second one comes around, I just might go for it,'" he said.
Travis Pastrana, who had won gold when Moto X Freestyle made its X Games debut in 1999 and won again in 2000 and 2001, was out with an injury that year. He watched from the announcer's booth as Metzger landed back-to-back backflips.
Metzger won gold in Moto X Freestyle that day, then landed a backflip no-footer to take Moto X Best Trick gold. He also won silver in Moto X Step Up, and said the prize money from that weekend was the biggest paycheck of his life.
He competed for nearly another decade and collected three more X Games medals before a training crash forced him to pull out of X Games Los Angeles 2011 with broken vertebrae in his back and neck, two broken collarbones and a lacerated kidney.
Metzger now works as a tattoo artist at Renaissance Studios in San Clemente, Calif., near Camp Pendleton. He says military folks frequently come into the shop asking for the "Godfather of FMX" when they're looking for new ink, as do many of today's top FMX riders. Metzger never did love that nickname, but says he's still a fan of FMX. These days he says he's content to sit back and let others take the risks.
"I'm honored I was able to hang in there as long as I did, especially with all my injuries, and to have made my contributions. But it definitely got to where it was all too crazy to keep up with," Metzger said. "I'm completely retired now. I don't even own a dirt bike anymore. It hurts too damn much. I don't miss being hurt all the time."