By Chuck Mindenhall
It was a year of tough luck.
Alistair Overeem put epitestosterone into the collective consciousness, and Nick Diaz did the same for metabolytes. (And we thought we’d seen it all with Thiago Silva’s inhuman urine.) Jose Aldo rode motorcycles. Cristiane Santos, Stephan Bonnar and Muhammed Lawal taught us the important differences between drostanolone and stanozolol. The cage too often became a lab experiment (or the experiments were too often caught).
And then there were injuries and venue problems and wild tales and the prolonged demise of Strikeforce. Cards were put together with hopes and whims and good intentions, but rarely resembled the original draft come fight night. UFC 147 was going to be historic. Instead, a footnote. UFC 149 perhaps scared Calgary from MMA all together. UFC 151 became as mysterious as Area 51 — it just disappeared (and Greg Jackson became a person of interest in the attempted murder of the sport).
In 2012 there was Jon Jones and his smashed Bentley. There was Dominick Cruz and his ACL and all the information you could ever want about rejected cadaver tendons. There was Georges St-Pierre, who fought once. Interim titles were made and stored in closets and never defended. For Dan Henderson, there was no 2012. There was only Sokoudjou.
But you know what? For all the ills of 2012, there’s a reason that die-hard fans are so protective of their niche sport. It perseveres, and will bounce back, and in fact is as strong as ever. After a tumultuous year, it’s good to look back at the reasons we love it.
Here are 50 such reasons, in no real order:
50. Because all talk leads to a fight: You know what’s not satisfying? A lot of smack talk that goes unresolved. That’s where ball and puck sports come up short. In MMA everything’s leading to the flagpole. It’s the ultimate ultimate. There are times that are so meta in MMA as to boggle the spectator’s mind. You know the moments. Where somebody talks a bunch of rot and gets in another guy’s face and for a brief moment the worry is that a fight will break out. Then it re-dawns on you — a fight will break out. That’s the point of it all. No need to subdue a thing. Hype has never had such an easy time coexisting with a sport.
49. Matt Brown: Matt Brown, yo.
48. They show up: Fighters are usually masochists. Matt Wiman has said that he gets so nervous before a fight, he’ll envision a friend pulling up at the back door in a getaway car to whisk him away. St-Pierre has similar nerves before a fight. Vera usually pukes. They happily put themselves in these situations. They arrive at that moment, after weight cuts and media and training and travel and diets, and they have to ignore the ludicrous nature of the thing (that they are going out, essentially, to be punched in the face for public amusement) in order to put one foot in front of the other toward the cage. And they do. They show up. They go through with it. Fighters beat the notion of cowardice back for all of us.
47. The bro culture: There are more “bros” per capita in MMA than all other sports combined. You know bros. The loud T-shirts with sadistic clowns or skulls or daggers. The red Mohawks, the untold piercings, the shaved domes and hats with wide flat brims and energy drinks. Oh, and …
46. Tattoos: Scott Jorgensen might well have been modeled after Ron Athey. Ian Loveland has a rainbow trout on his back that would tempt any sportsman into flicking a caddis fly at it. Alan Belcher has the abomination of Johnny Cash. Brock Lesnar? The sworded thorax. There is more ink in a cage at any given moment than at most print presses. In fact, the odd fighter who isn’t tattooed stands out conspicuously as a blank canvas (looking at you, Matt Hughes).
45. Dan Henderson: He’ll fight anybody, at any weight. That’s old school. Henderson can’t out-talk anybody, yet he has that loud “H-Bomb” that doubles as a mute button. You ever seen Henderson without his teeth? He’s a throwback to the bare-knucklers who went 50 rounds.
44. Fists aren’t metaphors: They are the enforcement of a man’s literal will. A football player works in concert with 10 other players. A fighter works in concert with his own body and mind, his instincts and the profound knowledge of his own limitations. There’s not a purer, more harrowing exercise in getting to the bottom of your net worth.
43. They latch the gate: In the early days they wanted a moat, with live alligators circling in craven hunger. In retrospect, that’s hammy (and a nightmare for the UFC’s traveling production crew). But it’s still a cage, and have you ever seen Bruce Buffer hustle himself out of there after the introductions? He scoots like a man getting out of harm’s way. They lock two people in, and, make no mistake, it’s meant to simulate those grim do-or-die games of Rome. (If “simulate” isn’t too trivial a word).
42. Human origami: Demian Maia loves himself some floor. And jiu-jitsu is big. There’s Jake Shields‘ American variety, Eddie Bravo’s interstellar concepts (which are aided by gymnast flexibility), all the way down to Cody McKenzie‘s gangly limbs slithering around the necks of opponents like vines alive.
41. It gives voice to writers: This thing is new, and as a fringe sport it opens up an opportunity for writers. But the game itself, and the idea, is old. Conflict is a tireless muse.
40. Because of human error: Bad scorecards are a dime a dozen, and Steve Mazzagatti has become the Steve Mazzagatti of referees. You know what, though? It’s human. Judges are interpreting a fight. Referees are tending rules and safety as arbiters. They get things wrong. You know what’s cold, ruthless and boring, though? Perfect. That’s what. Flaws are part of the game’s character. And judges mean …
39. It’s a trial: Take sentencing into your own hands, cautions Dana White. Don’t leave it to the judge’s scorecards. Don’t wait on third-party verdicts. But it’s beyond that; every time a fighter steps in that cage it’s a trial. His future is always 100 percent in the hands of his present, and therefore his past has little bearing on things, either (just look at Jamie Varner). This sport has a big sense of right now (and cornermen have struggled to convey that bit of gravity throughout the ages).
38. Ronda Rousey: There was a brief second in the Miesha Tate fight, just as Tate’s arm was torqueing the wrong way, that somebody in the Ohio crowd yelled “take that arm home!” This is acceptable. Rousey has a (figurative) collection of such souvenirs, and it’s one of the reasons she’s the game’s fastest-rising star.
37. Because PC doesn’t get free admission: Part of the culture of MMA thrives because it’s not politically correct. In fact, it’s the anti-PC. White is a big reason for that. He sticks his foot in his mouth plenty, but he doesn’t issue apologies. He calls it like it is. In that way, he’s right down on the ground level with the demographic. He has a secret handshake, so to speak, with his fan boys. With all the PC nature of other sports, this can feel like being pulled back on a bowstring and then let go. Which is to say it’s refreshing.
36. Bruce Buffer: The silvery in-cage playboy will do a phone message of his famous “It’s Time” for a fee. He also does weddings.
35. Every fight is the playoffs: There are no seasons in MMA. Every fight is, theoretically, make or break. Every fight could be, very realistically, the last. Each fighter controls his own destiny. The possibility of injury is always great. The possibility of “losing your edge,” is also great. (Just look at Jonathan Brookins).
34. Gladiators: Remember when Chris Leben had just fought Michael Bisping in England and he was all purple and bloody and beat up, and he grabbed the microphone from Joe Rogan and yelled, “Are you not entertained?” Ha. That was cool. Why yes, “Crippler,” we are.
33. Hope: If you’re not afraid of losing, particularly vicariously, you’re allowed to get your hopes up. So many people are fair-weather fans in other sports because they don’t like the formality of losing. In MMA, fair-weather fans are rare. People deal in raw emotion because they like jangling their own raw nerves.
32. Degrees of separation: A.J. Liebling traced the history of boxing to himself via a series of punches in his book “The Sweet Science.” It’s less dramatic, but this can be done in MMA, too. For instance, Jorge Rivera once punched me (without total malice), and Rivera was punched by the great Anderson Silva. Silva was nicked by Dan Henderson, who was punched by Allan Goes, who was punched by Frank Shamrock. Frank was punched by his brother Ken Shamrock, who has been punched by Royce Gracie. Royce by Helio, Helio by Carlos and Carlos by Otavio Mitsuyo Maeda and Maeda from the godfather of judo himself, Kano Jigoro. We are connected by a series of punches.
31. Bellator tournaments: You hate them. But you love them. You know? Attrition is a love/hate concept.
30. The Diaz Brothers: What can you say? The brothers of “Stalkton” are a breed unto themselves. One time I asked Nate Diaz how his older brother Nick Diaz was as a cornerman. He recalled some different mentoring tips that Nick had passed down, and reached into his grab bag of experience to provide me examples, one of which was, “Don’t get no girl pregnant.” Quintessential Diaz. In fact, we now have a word for such raw 209 parables — we call them “Diazisms.” And they fight. A forward-moving, flow-striking, patter-to-power style that is at turns boxing, brawling and hood.
29. The sordid past: The cage is a canvas of past brutality. The sport was originally called No Holds Barred, a Mesozoic era when fish-hooking and head-butting were cool. Don Frye roamed those lands. There were artifacts. Teila Tuli’s tooth was extracted from press row, traced back they think to a Gerard Gordeau kick. The sport has cleaned up over the years, has been sanctioned, is legal in most states and is as safe as anything under the banner of “Ultimate Fighting Championship” can be.
28. Yet, there’s lunacy: New Yorkers have to travel to New Jersey to watch MMA. Taken piecemeal, all the disciplines are legal in New York — boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu, judo. Put together as a stew, it becomes a culinary mess.
27. Infiltration: It may not be “mainstream” in the mainstream sense, but we all remember Joe Lozito, who used his MMA knowledge to stop a killer on the subway. MMA is everywhere. Anthony Bourdain knows. He’s seen his wife, Ottavia, come home from Renzo Gracie’s with bruises that look like eggplant tattoos. He says she sometimes will be giving him a sweet look, or what he mistakes as a sweet look, before realizing she is looking at him as a perfect dummy for an omoplata.
26. Omoplatas: And speaking of omoplatas, the cousin of the high-minded gogo, they never work. Yet how excited they make Joe Rogan when they are attempted in the cage. And how often they lead to more practical submissions (or escapes). Omoplatas are the white whale of subs. Somewhere right now a crazed jitz practitioner is dreaming of being the guy who ushers in the Viable Omoplata Era.
25. Four-ounce gloves: Let’s get one thing straight here: The gloves are meant to protect the knuckle more than they are the cheekbone. Got it? Alright. Proceed.
24. Cauliflower ears: You know what the vegetation on a man’s ears is? A biography. It means ruthless gnashing, that he’s a grinder, and is so crazy and futureless that he couldn’t be bothered to use headgear. Fighters are vain about these ears, even if the outward appearance of chewed-up Randy Couture ears is an offense to our concept of vanity.
23. Dana F. White: MMA wouldn’t be where it is without the world’s greatest circus barker. Deal with it. At the end of the day, it is what it is.
22. Because the fight game is innate: Joyce Carol Oates, one of the unlikely historians of boxing, once wrote about the taboo of fighting in a society with “pretensions of humanitarianism.” This is especially true of MMA. At root, what we suspect is that most people can’t take their eyes off a fight — that if we can get past that false coat of civility, well, then we get to something more toward the truth about our interests. MMA fans suspect detractors are really just in denial (and that’s a fun secret).
21. Jeremy Horn: This person exists.
20. Brotherhood: Fighters may despise one another, they may rake each other over the coals in the media for eight straight weeks, but there is a solidarity at the end of it all. There is a handshake; sometimes a hug. What is the communication? That they went to war, in a sport they both are fraternity brothers in.
19. Sport, but not a game: St-Pierre has said that MMA is a sport, but it’s not a game. This is true. Games carry an air of the frivolous, of friendly competition. A fight is real. In fact, it’s as real as it gets. They have smelling salts cageside. And they use those smelling salts a lot.
18. Walkouts: When Dan Henderson walked out to Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe” in Columbus at UFC 82, it was goose flesh. The old wrestler giving the nod to his wrestling roots, about to fight the single scariest man on the planet, with Heath Sims and Darrell Gholar pumping their fists behind him in convoy. That was awesome. (Note: Hendo was choked out a short time later).
17. Duke Roufus: Anthony Pettis is Duke Roufus’ real life comic book action hero. Think Roufus drew up that little fence-walking ricochet kick that will haunt Benson Henderson forever? Probably. His favorite movie is “Ong Bak,” and he wants to get the essential Ong Bak out of his fighters.
16. Burt Watson: They call him the “babysitter of the stars,” and that’s true. But Watson is the “spirit of the thing.” If you listen closely, toward the light coming out of the tunnel, you’ll hear him. The UFC site coordinator’s voice emanates not just from the bowels of the arena, but down the ages of the fight game (he used to work with Joe Frazier). “Let’s roll to the hole, baby,” he screams. And sometimes he just screams. Long after many of these UFC fighters come and go, Watson’s voice will still be echoing down the corridors.
15. No standing eight count: And thank goodness.
14. The matchmakers: Sean Shelby and Joe Silva get to play god. We love to praise them when they make the fight we want — or the fight we didn’t know we wanted (such as any Cub Swanson fight) — just as we like to call them crazy. But they do a consistently great job of handling the spectrum. They want to book the guy who can beat the champion. They want to match heads of momentum. They match tailspins with tailspins. And sometimes they throw darts at pictures on a wall to determine who’s next for whom (or at least so we imagine).
13. Flyweights: If you don’t like the idea of two 125-pound fighters flying around like electrons, then you don’t like verbs. These are action men.
12. Greg Jackson: Remember when Jackson once said, “When you look at the dark side, careful you must be … for the dark side looks back.” What? That was Yoda? Thought that was Jackson.
11. Style versus style: You have a Jeet Kune Do master who just front kicked a jiu-jitsu player into oblivion, right after beating a big counterpunching boxer with a spinning backfist? Great. Ben Askren is still at the end of it, in his singlet, waiting to grind all your martial arts into a fine powder.
9. It’s a circus: When you see Yves Lavigne, Reed Harris, Herb Dean, Stitch, Brittany Palmer, Joe Silva and Urijah Faber — always Urijah Faber — posing for pictures up and down the aisles of your town’s sports facility, you know the circus is in town.
8. Las Vegas: It’s not unreasonable to imagine the UFC brass at the headquarters in Las Vegas sitting around a table like the Justice League. (Legion of Doom?) The UFC is a show, a roll of the dice, a skill game, a spectacle, a night activity. It is hubbed right where it should be.
7. The others: Ray Sefo‘s World Series of Fighting is cool, so is Bellator and OneFC, King of the Cage and RUFF. You know why they’re cool? Because they exist. There are multiple platforms to be a professional mixed martial artist. Invicta might be the coolest story of 2012.
6. Art of eight limbs: MMA is in love with eights. There are eight sides to the patented UFC Octagon, and eight limbs in Muay Thai. UFC 8 played up the classic motif of “David versus Goliath,” and UFC 88 effectively signaled the end for Chuck Liddell. When Dan Henderson decisioned Carlos Newton at UFC 17, Rory MacDonald was 8 years old. Eights are wild!
5. Polyglot: MMA is a true melting pot. There are fighters from America, Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, Korea, Brazil, England, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Russia, the state of Montana and Cuba (Hector Lombard).
4. Violence as aesthetics: Upon catching his first good look at Anderson Silva, Joe Rogan coined the “ballet of violence” thing. This makes sense to me. It doesn’t take a nuanced eye to see the grace within the maelstrom of a fight. Set Edson Barboza‘s spinning wheel kick on Terry Etim at half speed to “Bolero” and tell me I’m lying.
3. The “Puncher’s Chance”: In every fight, no matter how much the odds stack against one man in favor of another, there is one great equalizer: the black spot. There’s a place, on the side of the chin, that if touched just right, shuts the whole program down. Any man can be knocked out. When promoters are selling a mismatch, they are selling the optimism in the form of a “puncher’s chance.”
2. Traditions are being constructed: While boxing’s history is long and rich and storied, MMA’s is still in its infancy. If you’re in MMA right now, you are a part of its scaffolding. There are a million firsts still out there for the taking.
1. Barefoot: Mike Tyson used to keep things as primitive by not wearing socks; in MMA they don’t wear shoes. In this way it’s not only animalistic, it’s everybody’s worst nightmare — to appear in public, in a trial-like atmosphere, wearing only underwear.