Until 2016, my favorite sport was illegal in the state of New York.
During a hearing regarding its legalization, NY assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell memorably quipped, “[It’s] two half-naked hot men rolling around in a cage trying to dominate each other. It’s basically gay porn, only with a different ending.”
The misguided assemblyman is describing mixed martial arts, or MMA, an acronym most know only as that thing Conor McGregor does.
MMA consists of fighting with the least restrictions of any combat sport. There are no 10-counts, no immediate breaking of clinches, and minimal bans on striking and grappling techniques. An early iteration of the sport, Vale Tudo, translates from Portuguese to “anything goes.”
So, yes. There is grappling in fighting, to paraphrase Mr. O’Donnell’s eloquent phrasing. And while I applaud the assemblyman’s maturity, his derision does mirror a greater disdain in public consciousness toward fighting and its proponents.
Mixed martial arts occupies an awkward niche in American culture. It’s often conjured adjacent to alcoholic meatheads, white rage, and mindless masculinity. Fighting is, after all, about punching, kicking, and wrestling people. Hurting. Blood. It appeals to society’s basest lusts for violence, and shouldn’t we, as civilized people, have shed these gladiatorial relics of bygone eras?
Few concepts in life reduce to neat, one-sentence dismissals like the rhetorical query above. This is no different. To honestly evaluate the merits of sanctioned fighting, we must first examine its troubled past.
Growing Pains and Ivory-Tower Insults
Systematized fighting is a new concept. While specialized arts such as boxing, muay thai, or wrestling can trace competitive lineages spanning centuries, for most of human history, fully-fledged unarmed fighting eked out a muted existence in street fights, gang-ridden favelas, or drunken bar-brawls.
Until 1993, when UFC 1 gathered experts from a diverse array of combat disciplines in a tournament. Its garish promotional poster boasts, “The Ultimate!” Then, in shattered bold font, “THERE ARE NO RULES.”
The issue? In the ’90s, nobody knew how to fight. Proto-renditions of unarmed combat were sordid affairs, two hulking men with more HGH than blood in their veins clashing in frenzies of attrition. Aggression substituted for skill, and dominance was measured less through technical supremacy than the volume of an opponent’s blood soaking the canvas by fight’s end. This was the first integration of historically separate spheres—boxing, wrestling, jiujitsu, karate, taekwondo—in a grotesque amalgam of spectacle over sport.
O’Donnell is not the first legislator to take aim at MMA. In 1996, then-Senator John McCain tried to kill in the cradle what he saw as the inbred, mixed child of perfectly sound martial arts. A longtime boxing fan, McCain characterized the upstart combat derivation as “barbaric” and “human cockfighting.” He pleaded in letters to governors of every state to effectively ban the sport. His efforts, which prompted thirty-six states to illegalize MMA, proved a near-knockout blow.
It’s been decades, and MMA’s greatest fight still centers around public legitimacy. MMA has become the habitual scapegoat of American sports, an easy proxy for all things distasteful to polite society. Meryl Streep famously snarked in her Golden Globes acceptance speech in 2017, “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” A snappy line aimed at a perfect target: a perceived smear on society in stark opposition to the civilized niceties of her social and artistic stratum. A schoolyard-bully insult guaranteed to draw no backlash from her Hollywood elite crowd.
As an MMA apologist, I’ll admit that my favorite sport is deeply flawed. MMA, as an industry, fleeces its athletes and systemically crushes attempts at unionization. The UFC is a flagrant offender, a profit-driven organization headed by Dana White, an angry thumb of a man with abhorrent politics and no discernible moral compass. A fringe sport also attracts fringe athletes; on occasion, shadier hangers-on mired in conspiracies, bigotry, or hatred set foot on the octagon floor. And I cannot discuss fighting without acknowledging its human cost, that men and women who exit the cage are sometimes irrevocably broken, beaten husks of themselves. Fighting, even sanctioned, is a dangerous proposition.
Yet—it’s also intimate, and personal, and heartwarming, and gorgeous, and cerebral, and truthful, and real. It’s sublime in ways McCain and Streep cannot comprehend from their cursory glances at its brutal exterior.
Despite itself, modern MMA is a viscerally human art.
A Museum of Modern Martial Arts
Joe Rogan often says, “Fighting has evolved more in the last twenty years than in the previous seven hundred.”
While Joe Rogan has become the confused, blustering, baby-boomer uncle of MMA, he is, on occasion, right. Joe has followed the sport since its early aughts. MMA’s modern form bears no likeness to its unpolished predecessor.
Rather than UFC 1’s mishmash of disjointed arts, modern Mixed Martial Arts seamlessly integrates individual disciplines—and, in so doing, weaves a wholly original art that exceeds the sum of its parts. Striking blends into wrestling, which blends into ground grappling, introducing nuances that have indelibly altered the fighting meta.
Further, people finally learned how to fight. Gone were the human button-mashers. Modern elite fighters are at least competent in every discrete mode of fighting and often exceptional in endlessly intriguing ways.
The more I turned an analytical eye to modern MMA, the more depth I unearthed. Somehow, when the pomp of flowing kimonos or silver-screen tornado kicks is replaced with Monster Energy logos and corporatized Reebok shorts, that familiar fight-scene magic vanishes.
We forget that high-level combat is as exquisite and awe-inspiring as any fancifully choreographed martial-arts flick.
Let’s interrogate this awe. It’s elusive and requires examination, but please bear with me. I cannot convey the magic of a parallel world without borrowing something of the reader—an open mind and a commitment to understanding.
The following section contains snapshots, each inscrutable or unremarkable at first glance. But look further, look deeper. We’ll find the art together.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Darren Elkins
This is my favorite MMA fighter, the great Alexander Volkanovski, punching Darren Elkins’s soul into the astral plane.
Self-evidently, a gorgeous move. It’s compounded by the aesthetic weave Volkanovski executes after the overhand—see him dip and return to reset his weight distribution after the big punch? The rote maneuver of a well-heeled kickboxer to avoid a counter assault and regain his stance. Wholly unnecessary, of course, given that he’d just rendered Elkins clinically dead for three seconds.
Moments like these draw the eyes, but equally important—and arguably prettier—is the setup. Let’s examine this clip from the start. Feel free to pause or rewind the clip in relevant areas as my commentary continues.
First, the footwork. Volk is an excellent cage-cutter, meaning he systematically removes space from his opponents as the round progresses. Notice how he inches forward with subtle steps, slowly herding Elkins into being plastered against the cage? With no room to maneuver, Elkins is forced to shuffle along in a parallel stance. Volk follows and cuts the distance farther.
Elkins is desperate. At 0:23 on the in-fight clock, Elkins uppercuts in vain, a failed attempt to deter Volk from coming closer.
Seeing this, Volk identifies an opportunity.
At 0:17, he changes levels and jabs to the body. It’s a strike that invites the counter uppercut, and Elkins, with few options, takes the bait. His second uppercut attempt, timed a beat late, also misses.
Now, the pièce de résistance:
The initial motion of Volk’s overhand strike—a dipping of the head, a changing of levels, a flaring out of the lead hand—is almost identical to the initial motion of the body jab that Volk threw mere seconds prior.
You can forgive Elkins, then, for assuming his opponent was attempting the same tactic.
Elkins readies his counter uppercut for the third time, this time a full beat ahead. He’s caught onto Volk’s timing, finally, and on this tertiary attempt the strike lands true—
If Volk had thrown a body jab.
Alas. The same initial movements, but a very crucial diversion occurs midway as Volkanovski’s right hand arcs in a scything motion to administer the hardest punch in MMA, tenderly relieving Elkins of all motor control.
The story of a fallen man plays across seconds. Blink, and you’ll miss these exquisite details—the setup, the trickery, Elkins’s facsimile of success before consciousness was wrested from his form.
This is art.
Ryan Hall vs. B.J. Penn.
Beware, technical gibberish ahead! I’ll elaborate further after I’ve defined this delightful move.
This is a backside 50/50 entry into a pristine inside heel hook. Ryan Hall torques the leg in a submission hold that creates hellish strain on the ligaments of the knee. An aging B.J. Penn is forced to tap, effectively ending his career.
Okay. So jargon aside—what just happened? How did he do that?
This is a fight between two apex masters of their crafts. Both are international-caliber experts in Brazilian jiujitsu, a martial art of grappling and submission holds. Both, then, are also adepts at recognizing and defending these submission attacks.
Why did Penn allow such a deep entry into an attack on his leg?
Hall’s setup is crucial.
To enter the backside 50/50 position, i.e. the fancy spinny leg move, Hall needed to both switch stances—that is, switch his back and lead feet—and propel off of his backfoot into the roll.
Attempting the move outright, however, is far too blatant. The veteran Penn, sensing danger, would likely have skirted away and reset distance before Hall finished the initial stages of his maneuver.
An intellectual exercise: what did Hall do to disguise his true goal? Take a moment to study the clip and formulate your own hypothesis.
The answer is in the kicks. Their purpose was not to inflict appreciable damage. Instead, they served as repeated probes which flickered in Penn’s mind, over and over, until he was numb to their presence.
So numb, in fact, that he was utterly unprepared when one such kick retracted just a few feet farther—into a switched stance. The lead foot and rear foot reversed position directly into a springboard for a devastating leglock entry. Penn, caught a step behind, sprawled on instinct. Too little, too late.
The rest is history.
The last sad gasp of Penn’s career is turning away from the heel hook rather than into it. In other contexts, it’s not an unreasonable strategy, seeking to wrench out his leg before Hall had tightened a firm grip. But given Hall’s deeply secured position, turning away may have cost Penn his knee’s few remaining ligaments.
There is beauty in the execution of the move, but there is beauty, too, in the numbing of the mind, the disguising in the stance-switch.
Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson
Isn’t that just the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen? Good grief.
Outside slip avoids the straight, then Justin Gaethje, ever the precise tactician, slams a calf kick, weaves under the counter hook, connects with his own, and exits at an angle to stem further articulations of counter-offense.
Details, details, details!
To throw a straight punch, one must first transfer weight forward and onto the lead leg. The body rotates and extends, giving the punch its heft.
Gaethje knows this. He knows also that the optimal moment to kick the outside of the calf, then, is when his opponent is leaning on it while throwing a punch and therefore cannot easily retract the leg.
As Gaethje slips the first punch, Ferguson aims his follow-up, a left hook, downward to compensate for the shift in Gaethje’s head position. Gaethje weaves under the strike, arcing his head in a pendulum motion. In the same instant, Gaethje fires the leg kick onto Ferguson’s vulnerable leg, avoids the counter assault, and resets his stance at a superior angle by retracting his rear foot to the right of where it had been at sequence’s beginning.
Notice how Gaethje’s body is aligned at clip’s end? See how both his lead foot and rear foot shift to the right, uniformly, from their positions at clip’s beginning? How his body is angled differently relative to Ferguson, exiting a lateral path so that Ferguson must rotate his own body to follow, thus placing a subtle roadblock before any potential counter assault? Realize, too, that by adjusting to this new angle, Gaethje creates a cleaner path for his left hook to land.
Tony Ferguson is no rube. Ferguson is one of the greatest lightweights alive, a menace over the division with a terrifying arsenal of skills. But even he, with his leg kicked out from under him, his hips squared in the pocket and feet parallel, in terrible position to form any base for evasive maneuvers, can only succumb.
The clip is one second long.
I’ve tried to present this triptych in accessible levels of detail. But return to each with a critical eye, and you’ll find further subtleties yet to be gleaned that I’ve omitted for brevity and simplicity. To discuss grander tapestries—the various intricacies of fighting styles, of technically well-integrated processes, of a game plan well-executed, of effective mid-fight adjustments—is beyond the scope of this article. But trust me, there’s more. Step in, explore. You’ll see.