Culturally, fistfighting is a renouncement of social progress. McCain, O’Donnell, and Streep describe MMA with various ornate synonyms for barbaric, so what does that make the men and women who practice it? I blame this bigoted trinity for their close-mindedness but not for their perspectives. Public officials and actors derive their vaunted statuses from our societal constructs, and fighting seems an assault on hard-won social norms. We have so thoroughly cloaked ourselves in decorum that we interpret violence as a last resort, employed only when civilization fails us.
Does bloodlust drive men and women to blows? It’s a common belief—and valid for a subset of fighters—but such a monolithic explanation does not appear for nearly any other sport. As a society, we imagine a plethora of reasons for athletes to pursue sports such as baseball or basketball because they’re pervasive, normalized. Pick-up games happen at nearly every major park. Little Leagues exist for children to play them. Fighting, meanwhile, is often a jailable offense.
We’ve so written violence out of the laws governing modern life that its resurgence appears a festering loophole. Society does not extend presumptions of innocence to humans who choose to fight. This uncharitable perception has only been exacerbated in recent years with the rise of MMA’s most visible athlete.
Conor McGregor is a man whose fighting prowess is only rivaled by his assholery. His star has grown so large that he’s nearly subsumed the sport under his larger-than-life persona in the eyes of the public. Conor McGregor is not an MMA fighter—Conor McGregor is MMA. Every rape accusation or charge of public violence against him smears fighters as a collective.
Unlike MMA’s loud mouthpiece, however, not everyone who fights is hateful. Not everyone fights to satisfy a sadistic urge.
Georges St-Pierre, a pantheon great of mixed martial arts, took up karate to stand up to bullies. UFC strawweight Paige Vanzant began studying self-defence after she was the victim of a gang rape. Elite welterweight Leon Edwards turned to MMA to escape endemic gang violence. All pursued fruitful MMA careers, leveraging fighting as a challenge to better the self. In discussing fighting, we must also acknowledge fighting back.
People fight because they love the art form, because it’s a challenge to exceed themselves, to support their family when a cashier’s wage won’t cut it, because they saw a Bruce Lee movie as a kid and always wanted to do those cool kicks. For every toxic fighter, there’s a counterpart in the UFC trying to pull themselves up the socioeconomic ladder by their own two fists. It’s a sad property of fringe things that their few instances of mainstream, national coverage define them utterly in public perception.
Conor McGregor punching an old man in a pub was wall-to-wall news. Here’s a story of a nearly unknown fighter named Junior Albini, instead.
Scraping by as a security guard and restaurant waiter in Brazil, Junior supported his severely impoverished family with MMA, his only permanent possession in such volatile circumstances. He couldn’t sustain a wife and newborn child on a laborer’s salary. Fighting was his family’s lottery ticket.
Nine excruciating fights later, Junior finally earned a UFC contract. He KO’d his opponent, UFC veteran Tim Johnson, within a round, a performance that earned him more money in a night than he’d made in years of working. After his first UFC win, heavyweight Junior reflected, “One thing’s funny. My daughter made two years one month ago. These two years, I never was able to buy her a toy. All her toys were Shampoos, empty bottles. Something like that, because we didn’t have much money… it means a lot to me that I can make a living and give back to them what they have suffered for me.”
When the UFC gave him $740 dollars for hotel fees, Junior spent most of it on clothes and toys for his daughter. Here they are!
I hope society sheds its reflexive value judgments on that which it does not understand. Let’s think of fighters foremost as humans who fight. These are real people baring their souls for the audience and subjecting themselves to unthinkable duress to transmute pieces of themselves, sometimes literally, into art.
It is a privilege to watch a fight.
Two Brief Concessions
I don’t enjoy watching people hurt. This may come as a surprise.
I really don’t. It’s unpleasant, it’s sometimes abhorrent. I cringe at seeing limbs twisted beyond the capacities of their joints in submission holds, and protracted beatings are sickening to watch. It’s a valid criticism that the sport necessitates pain. Consensual, but pain nonetheless.
But this is also what draws many to return to MMA as a refuge from modern life.
The cage is realism. There is no hiding behind facades, carefully scripted speeches, political non-answers, silver-screen edits, carefully manicured portfolios, anonymous abuse, the commercialized sanitized all-pervasive crap steeped to the bones of modern society. This is something tangible. And the tangible does not demand the removal of all that is ugly—
Life is messy. Life is painful. Great challenges often require great pain. MMA does not hide this. MMA does not lie to you.
Perhaps this is too philosophical an answer for many to accept. Hurting people is hurting people, and I recognize that. I’m sorry. I wish it weren’t this way too.
If none of that is satisfactory, this is my last half-hearted answer. Fighting is far from all-out street brawling. Fighters clasp hands and hug tearfully after beating the tar out of each other for twenty-five minutes. They touch gloves in shows of respect before the bout begins. They seldom lose themselves to the chaos, instead riding the crest of destruction and self-transcendence.
When most view MMA, they glimpse the proverbial Minotaur, our worst aspects cultivated to ghastly heights. They cringe and avert their gazes, as though staring at the sun. They don’t watch long enough to realize the fundamental paradox of the sport. Yes, it’s the Minotaur— but it’s also the Labyrinth that contains him.
I haven’t touched on this at all, but a lot of Mixed Martial Arts sucks. Bad.
It is a new sport, which affords it some leeway. But at lower levels and especially at higher weight classes, the ability to move the body in even an approximation of coordination comes at a premium. Most Heavyweight MMA is two overweight, gassy men fatting at each other until one collapses. So, a caveat: Curate your fighting palate. Don’t bother watching Gian Villante chungus aggressively at his opponent.
What Is Sport?
Pundit Max Kellerman elucidates the allure of combat sports better than I can hope to.
“All other sports are, after all, metaphors for the imposition of will. If Altuve hits the game-winner for the Astros past the Yankees’ Chapman, if Kawhi leads the Raptors past the Greek Freak and his Bucks— even in one-on-one sports, if Federer can’t return Djokovic’s serve— then we’ve witnessed the imposition of one will, or a collection of wills, over another. In these other sports, the ball is the surrogate for the will. Boxing takes away the ball. What we are there to find out is whose will will prevail physically, literally. It is more compelling than a metaphor for the same thing.”
To further Kellerman’s point, I’d pose the question: What is Sport?
Sport is, as he outlined, a contest of wills. It is a challenge to transcend the self. It is pitting one side against another directly. Utterly. It is blind to circumstance, background, discrimination. It is the ultimate meritocratic proving ground of physical assertion.
Or, it should be. Most sports approximate this ethos. MMA embodies it.
Sports are regulated, fair, and respectful— hence the term Sportsmanship. Mixed Martial Arts bouts are often underscored by this understanding, with glove-touches, friendly banter, acknowledgments and respect in post-fight interviews. But sports also allow latitude for the dirty— dirty moves, trash talk, dirty cheats.
Sports are friendly and hateful, painful and cathartic, have dire consequences, and yet are all the more meaningful for it. Sports are an excuse to fight one another outright, usually metaphorically, and yet still remain bound by our self-imposed societal decorums. There is a referee in every ring.
MMA isn’t an illegitimate bastardized derivation masquerading as sport. MMA is the archetypal sport.
The UFC is an organization which holds MMA bouts. MMA is a sport of many organizations, including ONE, Bellator, ACB, and Rizin. The UFC is the largest by far, but notable talents exist elsewhere too.
To name a few: Kyoji Horiguchi, Kai Asakura, Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov, Eduard Vartanyan, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, Bibiano Fernandes, Douglas Lima, Jack Cartwright, etc.
On that note—
For the curious, and for the few MMA fans reading who wish to dig deeper, here are a few UFC gems whose fights I’d recommend investigating, along with a few annotations for cool stuff to look for.
The best strategist active in the sport, also perhaps the best in the sport’s history. Gorgeous pressure footwork (see: Volkanovski – Mendes). Extremely aesthetic movement patterns, blends volume feinting gorgeously into his game, especially in integrating feints into his footwork. Adept use of his lead leg, which is often light for quickest elevation into a body or leg kick. Possesses one of the cleanest overhands in the sport. Good jab. Good ground game. Good wrestling. Good clinchwork. The most well-rounded fighter in Mixed Martial Arts, and very difficult to beat.
Fights of Note:
- Volkanovski – Mendes (awesome)
- Volkanovski – Holloway 1 (masterclass performance)
- Volkanovski – Aldo
- Volkanovski – Holloway 2 (this fight moved me to genuine tears. I was bawling in my room at 7 P.M. on a Saturday evening with nobody around)
Arguably the greatest fighter of all time. Defensively, the undisputed best. A long resume stretching decades. On the correct end of aesthetic extremes. Watch him. I cannot distill the essence of Aldo in a paragraph. Aldo is greatness. In his peak, Aldo mastered Mixed Martial Arts at a level that nobody has since grasped.
Fights of Note:
- Aldo-Edgar 1
- Aldo-Edgar 2
- Aldo-Mendes 2
- Aldo-Holloway 2 (the best defensive performance in a loss)
Leon is a prime example of the modern MMA fighter. He’s deftly woven every aspect of his game into a cogent whole, and to see him execute at such dizzyingly high levels is a treat. Leon’s preferred range is a fluctuation: at kicking range, he’ll light you up with his lightning-fast 1-2s and diverse arsenal of kicks. Try to approach, and he’ll suck you into his vortex of a clinch, outstrike you, throw you aside, and deliver a devastating exiting elbow as a parting gift. He ping-pongs his victims between ranges in devastating fashion until their faces are impressionist paintings.
Fights of Note:
- Edwards – Cerrone
- Edwards – Dos Anjos
- Edwards – Nelson
The current 135lb champion has mastered a skill that speaks to the maturity of his game. Giving up rounds to acquire reads is a tactic primarily used in boxing, where the greater number of rounds allows for longer planning periods. To consistently probe with the first round, sometimes losing it as a means to gather data, and then unleash pinpoint attacks on identified weaknesses with volume, precision, and power over the next several is far ahead of the current meta. One of the best boxers in MMA, an excellent clinch game, and gorgeous Ground and Pound.
Fights of Note:
- Yan – Soo Son (Watch this if only to marvel at Soo Son’s iron chin)
- Yan – Rivera
- Yan – Aldo
- Yan – Magomedov 1 (Not in UFC)
- Yan – Magomedov 2 (Not in UFC)
To me, the most talented martial artist to ever live. An unbelievable physical specimen of a fighter combined with unwavering positivity and self-belief. Max Holloway is a hurricane. With his elite boxing and varied kicking game, Holloway sets upon his opponents with inhuman fervor, delivering volumes of punches that logic dictates should be impossible to sustain. One of the best chins in MMA, some of the best Cardio in MMA, some of the best Takedown Defense in MMA, and an astonishing mind for fighting. Max Holloway is that anime genius who can see a move from a video game and then execute it seamlessly in the octagon (in fact, for his first few fights in which he had no MMA coach, this is precisely what he did). His progression from average prospect in his first UFC fight to the current demon of featherweight should not occur in nature.
Fights of note:
- Holloway – Pettis
- Holloway – Aldo 1
- Holloway – Aldo 2 (ridiculous performance from Aldo, only further emphasizes Holloway’s awesomeness)
- Holloway – Ortega (good god watch this fight)
- Holloway – Poirier 2 (Holloway arguably won this. Great fight nonetheless)