As they stand in the waiting room, all the nerves turn up to ten and rush through the body. They’re told by the event staff that it’s time to go, and that’s it. Go. The wait in the arena tunnel is grueling, as the camera crews crowd them trying to get the best facial reactions they can for their shot.
Then their music hits. Whether it’s “Hypnotize” by Biggie or “Wonderboy” by Tenacious D, the song is unequivocally them.
The walk is a long one, turning a couple hundred feet into a mile-long stretch. Months of lead up crawl into their head during the infinite stroll: personal attacks on character, family members attacked verbally, altercations during press conferences.
Finally, the destination is reached. After conquering the last few steps, a quick twirl is necessary for one last glimpse at the murder of crows ready to pounce on every drop of violence they lay their eyes on.
Then, the door is shut for the last time.
A quick glance across the cage reveals the one human they’ve been solely focused on for months. There’s an odd sense of intimacy; sans the referee, it’s just the two of them. Nothing else matters – not things said in the past, not the thousands onlooking, not even predictions into the future – when the bell is finally rung.
Commence the dance.
There is something special about mixed martial arts. It’s a sport that refuses to be defined, and rather rests in it’s contradictions. It’s brutal, yet beautiful. Limited, yet limitless. Archaic, yet progressive. It’s Dead Kennedys, while also Beethoven.
It’s the fastest growing sport in the world, yet it’s misunderstood.
For those who don’t know, mixed martial arts (MMA) is a combat sport that involves striking, grappling, wrestling, and other techniques in a regulated, round-based contest between two fighters.
The term was coined by the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) and has been working it’s way into the vernacular of fight fans ever since.
At it’s core, MMA was created out of questions like this: “Who would win in a fight between a boxer and a jiu-jitsu artist?” “What about a kickboxer and an amateur wrestler?”
UFC 1 took place in Denver, CO in 1993, but the sport remained “underground” until about 2005. After 12 years, the sport was already close to dying after having difficulties connecting with what can be considered a mainstream audience.
It was this fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonner in The Ultimate Fighter’s finale that finally helped the young sport connect with an audience that never had access to it.
Since 2005, MMA has had it’s ups-and-downs, ebbs-and-flows, but there’s no doubt that after the $4 billion sale of the UFC this summer, the sport is at an all-time high.
So what is it that is so attractive about the sport? Well, in my opinion, MMA is the purest form of competition out there today. It’s a practice so focused and so dialed in that there can really be no slip ups at any time during a fighter’s months of preparation for a fight.
To several onlookers, it can be considered bloodsport, but that is doing MMA a clear disservice. At the sports core, it’s a game of human chess, only the stakes are much higher. Every movement a fighter performs during a fight is meticulously planned out and a well-studied reaction to whatever they read right in front of them.
It’s two masters of a craft facing off to try and get the edge on the other. And if they fail, the consequences could be brutal.
There is a narrative to every single fight, and it is seemingly different every single time. For example, at UFC 205, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson faced Tyron Woodley for the World Welterweight Championship. In the fourth round, Woodley rocked Thompson and hit him with a barrage of strikes from the ground before applying a tight choke hold. Thompson refused to give up, though, and eventually fought his way out – the crowd erupted in thunderous applause. After five rounds, Wonderboy survived and the fight was scored a draw.
See the highlights of the fight here.
It is the ultimate form of competition, forcing it’s competitors to become something other than just themselves if they hope to be victorious.
Now if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably realized that I’m a mixed martial arts romantic. While I won’t deny those allegations, I also understand the big reason why the sport is finally taking off: the spectacle.
Surrounding the beautiful clash of styles taking place in a cage is a bright, delightfully obnoxious pageantry. I mean… Las Vegas is the fight capital of the world. Fans come from around the world to see men and women, who have been marketed to be larger than life, enter the colosseum and do battle. In the weeks leading up to the matchups, world tours commence and you get your smack talk between fighters that makes you want to see these two warriors go at it.
And that’s why I was brought back into it. I was scrubbing through the internet one day in 2013 when I saw a young, cocky Irish fighter named Conor McGregor was starting to make his way through the ranks of the UFC. He was brash, uncensored, and brilliant. He talked confidently and backed every single word of smack talk up, which for me as a fan was intoxicating. I had stopped following the sport religiously in around 2011, which not coincidentally is around the time Chael Sonnen, who originally got me into the sport, was on the decline. I like to put it this way: Chael was Connor before Connor was Connor.
Flash forward to today and McGregor is the face of the UFC.
I mentioned before that MMA is progressive, and what I mean by that is it’s application around the world. The sport translates to every country, and is poured into by so many different cultures. I mean, just look at the impact Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has had on almost every single MMA event. Fighters from all around the world compete, making the sport second to only soccer is worldwide attraction (in my opinion). Of the 11 current UFC champions, five of them are international fighters. In this sport, no language or cultural barriers can separate greatness from shining.
Basically, in the most long-winded way possible, I’m trying to say that there is something in MMA for everyone. If you want violence, it’s there. If you want tactics, it’s there. If you want combat art forms to collide, it’s there. If you want spectacle, there.
Bruce Lee is famous for this quote, which I think applies to this discussion:
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
That is why MMA is so great. It refuses to be defined by one thing.
It is like water.