There are a lot of bad things happening right now, so I wrote about five things that are not bad and in fact might actually be good.
All that sappy human stuff
It’s easy to forget when you’re looking at identical shots of black-and-white floating heads awkwardly delivering variations of the same line into a camera, but fighting is a deeply human interaction.
Sure, having the consciousness head-kicked out of our brains isn’t necessarily what most of us would choose as our main communication tool, but there is something to be said about the sheer honesty of it all. Cage-fighting is a contract between two people who are, at least in theory, meeting under the same conditions. They have more or less the same objective and the same basic tools. They meet under the same set of rules. Once the press-conference headlines are written and the pay-per-views are sold, there’s really no faking it. No one is hiding their intentions. It’s real and straightforward in a way that few other exchanges are.
It’s beautiful, really, in a fucked-up kind of way.
Take Uriah Hall’s win over Anderson Silva, for instance. There was really no question of the narrative going into it; this was the last hurrah of one of the greatest fighters of all time. Sure, we hadn’t seen him do greatest-of-all-time things in a while, but there were glimpses. We knew he was in there, somewhere, and what better night for it come out? That sure would be a nice treat from the universe at a time when there aren’t many of those going around. A happy ending, or something close to it.
Of course, that’s not exactly what happened. While Silva faired quite well for the first couple of rounds and wasn’t necessarily demolished, he was quite definitively stopped. We’d seen Silva badly hurt before, of course, but there was something extra sad about the sight of the bloody-nosed legend on his knees. Or there could have been, if it wasn’t for Silva’s opponent coming in and opting out of his own celebration to share a moment that we could all see but not understand, not really. Then it was a little sad, still, but it was also beautiful, and moving, and poetically messy in the very specific way that these snapshots can be.
Two of the toughest men in the entire world, letting each other and the rest of us in, if only for a bit, just a little. Just enough.
“I love you. I’m so sorry.”
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) November 1, 2020
Beautiful, I’m telling you.
Of course, it’s not like this was an uncommon occurrence. In fact, just the week before, we’d gotten a similar picture between then-lightweight-champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje. That night, after beating Gaethje to defend his title, Nurmagomedov got on his knees and wept. We sort of could understand what was going on — we knew he’d recently lost his dad, who was also his trainer, and this had to be an emotional moment. But we didn’t yet know that he’d decided that — thanks to a promise made to his mom — this would be his last fight.
Gaethje probably didn’t know that, either, but that didn’t keep him from sitting next to Nurmagomedov and putting his right arm around him as he cried. Gaethje, who’d not only just lost his shot at his dream but had done it in front of his own parents, understood something about that moment that the majority of us couldn’t and probably could never, not really. In doing that, he let us in on it, too, just a little. Just enough.
We know, of course, that fighters are human. We know they exist beyond those 15 or 25 minutes, and that they do so as complete people, with hobbies and opinions and secret enjoyment of morally reprehensible reality TV shows. Just like the rest of us. But then, unlike most of us, they get to consciously walk out of a locker room into a cage where another human is waiting to maybe break through their human tissue, shock their human organs, break their human bones.
And then, for a few minutes, we can kind of forget. It’s natural, in a way, to do so; how else are we supposed to be OK — gleeful, even — with the sights and sounds of jaws and orbitals cracking and snapping if we don’t briefly dissociate from the fact that they aren’t that different from our own? But then, something happens, and we remember. Sometimes, it’s with a thud. But, sometimes, it’s with a hug. And we all end up sharing something. Just a little. Just enough.
And it’s beautiful, really, in a fucked-up kind of way.
The assortment of badass women
Quick trivia: What do UFC champ-champ Amanda Nunes, Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman and Netflix original The Haunting of Bly Manor have in common?
The answer is nothing, because Birdman and Haunting of Bly Manor are both boring, drawn out and pretentious and Nunes is awesome.
Gratuitous bashing of otherwise acclaimed audiovisual projects aside, I do think we don’t always show the proper appreciation for the fact that we get to witness a (dual) reign like Nunes’ in real time. And that we get to watch Cris Cyborg’s and Valentina Shevchenko’s at the same time?
Seriously, let’s just take a second to review the facts.
Nunes is now set to defend the UFC’s featherweight title for a second time, after four bantamweight title defenses. She hasn’t lost a fight since 2014, when Cat Zingano finished her at UFC 178, and hasn’t really looked anywhere close to mortal since 2017, when Shevchenko took her to the scorecards only to lose via a narrow split decision. While her clear power — see: the grand Cyborg shocker of 2018 — and talent on the feet have become her brand over the last couple of years, Nunes’ first notable competitive steps were in jiu-jitsu.
She also has a background in judo and capoeira, because why not? As if being one of the most complete and dominant fighters of her generation wasn’t cool enough, Nunes was also the first openly gay UFC champion and now has an adorable daughter with partner and fellow UFC fighter Nina Ansaroff.
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Cyborg, for her part, hasn’t lost a fight since Nunes brought along the aforementioned shocker of 2018 — meaning, the quick 51-second knockout that cost her the UFC’s featherweight title. Prior to that, Cyborg hadn’t lost — or even come close to losing — an MMA fight since her 2005 professional debut. Despite a contentious history with the UFC, Cyborg’s mere existence was so undeniable that the promotion not only eventually brought her on, but basically created a whole division around her.
At 35, she’s now Bellator’s featherweight champion, and it’s hard to fathom that anyone not named Amanda Nunes could possibly stop her. Cyborg is also known for her charitable endeavors and her low tolerance for bullshit, which is a winning combination if I’ve seen one.
Then there’s Shevchenko, who also hasn’t looked like she even belongs to the same species as the rest of us since the — again, narrow — loss to Nunes back in 2017. Shevchenko has since moved down to the flyweight division, which she’s ruled with relative ease since beating perennial boogeywoman Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the vacant title in 2018. Shevchenko is also good at shooting guns, dancing, traveling the world and just generally making the rest of us look lazy, frumpy and unskilled.
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And that’s not to mention UFC strawweight champion Weili Zhang, who came out of the demolition of Jessica Andrade straight into an instant classic with Jedrzejczyk and delighted us every step of the way; former UFC champion Jedrzejczyk, whose style of fighting can only be described as “your worst nightmares come alive, but with very crisp fists;” Rose Namajunas, another ex-UFC-champ who’s paired beautifully technical displays inside the cage with refreshing vulnerability and honesty outside of it; fellow former UFC champ Jessica Andrade, who’s a pressure cooker of a fighter and also everything that’s pure and beautiful with this world; Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, who is funny, relatable and brave apart from being Bellator’s undefeated flyweight queen; UFC strawweight contender Angela Hill, who’s not only the personification of persistence but also one of the sport’s most underrated intellects; PFL champ Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic champion and survivor who’s made it her life’s mission to speak out against sexual abuse.
I could go on but, unlike The Haunting of Bly Manor, I know when to stop.
Which is not to say all these women are perfect, or that I agree with everything they do and say. In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite. But it is to say that, in a sport that doesn’t always send the most welcoming messages toward women or anyone who isn’t a straight cis man, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s plenty of inspiration to go around.
The UFC’s bantamweight and lightweight divisions
While it was a bit of a shocker and a low-key bummer, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement announcement did leave us a gift.
For a couple of minutes, we allowed ourselves to dream. To dream of a world that could accommodate a UFC lightweight tournament.
Of course, we knew this was merely an exercise in imagination. In no way could such a fun, enticing and totally doable concept be turned into reality. But what are we broke capitalists but experts at self-delusion? Sometimes it’s just nice to sit by the fire with a warm cup of coffee, a book, and the illusion of choice within an existentially oppressive system.
From Ben Fowlkes’ column at The Athletic:
“(Conor) McGregor, (Dustin) Poirier, (Michael) Chandler, plus Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje and a few other wild cards – maybe Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira, and Al Iaquinta, plus Diego Ferreira and Beneil Dariush as alternates – would give you a killer lineup for an eight-man lightweight grand prix. Throw in the title and a big cash prize for the eventual winner and you have yourself a genuinely exciting plan that can stretch out across 2021. The more I think about it, the more pumped up I get for a great idea that the UFC definitely won’t even consider. And then I get sad.”
But in any case, I promised this would be a column about good things, so let’s move on to that: If anything, this exercise helped show just how great the UFC’s lightweight division is. Recent wins and losses aside, there probably isn’t a bad fight to be made between the men brought up by Fowlkes — and that’s even excluding names like Paul Felder, Kevin Lee and Islam Makhachev. One of the most historically intriguing divisions in the UFC is now open in a way that it hasn’t been in quite a while and, tournament or not, that’s nothing to scoff at.
And then there are the bantamweights, who are frankly just showing off.
Between Cory Sandhagen’s picture-perfect knockout of Marlon Moraes, Cory Garbrandt’s triumphant rise from the championship ashes, and the perfect five-win campaign that set Aljamain Sterling as the next challenger to champ Petr Yan’s belt, there’s enough action at the top of the division to keep us entertained at least until Nevada is done counting votes.
And then there’s the impending return of ex-champ T.J. Dillashaw, whose suspension from a doping-related offense ends in January. There’s the forever-looming shadow of fellow former champion Dominick Cruz. There’s the fact that Henry Cejudo’s retirement may or may not be permanent, and that his return may or may not be at bantamweight. There are reliable veterans like Marlon Moraes, Pedro Munhoz, Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo, mixed in with wild cards like Raoni Barcelos, Merab Dvalishvili and Marlon Vera. And that’s not to mention the division’s constant influx of talent.
Basically, you can throw a stick out the window and hit an exciting bantamweight, which is a risky move because you can also hit a video of a rich white girl saying she doesn’t understand why people who don’t vote for fascists are mean to people who vote for fascists.
The following nicknames, in no particular order
- Maurice “The Crochet Boss” Greene (Unique, chill, surprisingly literal)
- Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (Scary & bilingual, like the coolest of us)
- Luis “Violent Bob Ross” Pena (Some people are over it; those people are tasteless, classless and wrong)
- Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen (…. !…)
- Ryan “Darth” Bader (Controversial, but this list isn’t a democracy)
- “Ya Boi” Eryk Anders (Simple, flavorful & approachable; the chocolate-covered carrot cake of MMA nicknames)
- Andre “Touchy” Fili (You can pry it from my cold, dead hands)
- Rick “The Ginger With the Intent to Injure” Pfeifer (and we thought “Alpha Ginger” was cool)
- “Ice cream” Kron Gracie (It works because it sounds fun and silly and non-menacing and then you see Kron)
- Jordan “Beverly Hills Ninja” Wright (Clearly a man of elevated taste and culture)
- Roberto “Robocop” Soldic (I still think the terrible Pitbull-to-Robocop ratio is one of the things keeping MMA from going fully mainstream)
- Julia “Raging Panda” Avila (I, for one, welcome our panda overlords)
- Matthew “Semi The Jedi” Semelsberger (It rhymes!!!)
- Darren “The Dentist” Steward (As a fan of simple and universally terrifying nicknames, I am currently working with Fernanda “Filing Your Own Taxes” Prates for my eventual MMA debut)
- Zach “Fun Size” Makovsky (We stan a self-aware king)
- Chris “The Housewives’ Choice” Fields (Choices were made, alright)
- Steve “The Creepy Weasel” Montgomery (I have questions, but I don’t think I want any of them answered)
- Ben “Combat Wombat” Sosoli (Check his Tapology page and thank me later)
PS: I left out classics like “The Axe Murderer” and “The Korean Zombie” because they’re in every list and I wanted my list to be special.
PPS: I also left out Brazilian nicknames because you’re not ready for this conversation.
The wild stuff we get to witness, like, all the time
Remember when it was Wednesday, and normal people were eating dinner, or watching normal-people sports, or hearing stupid Robert whine about his stupid job and talk about his stupid car and wondering what would have happened if they had just run off with Eduardo instead?
Well, we were watching this:
— UFC (@ufc) November 5, 2020
Then, the following night, we were watching this:
— MMA Junkie (@MMAjunkie) November 6, 2020
And then, on Friday morning, we were watching this:
— ONE Championship (@ONEChampionship) November 6, 2020
While we prepared for this:
“My goal and my dream is to become the champion.”
— UFC (@ufc) November 5, 2020
Sure, that’s not what “licensed therapists” or “my mom” would consider “healthy” or “nice” or “advisable in any way.” And yes, the sheer amount of events does inevitably lead to the watering down of cards and burn-out among those who need to stay on top of day-to-day coverage. But, hey, how many people have five days worth of excuses to get out of actually having to “do things” and “interact” and “be, like, a normal person for once?” How many fellow reprobates have such a constant, mildly socially acceptable source of instant gratification? How many of us can say “it’s OK, it’s just sports” instead of addressing our very obvious issues?
Mostly, though, there are just so many chances to watch human beings doing the wildest, coolest, weirdest stuff.
That is not to say that every card is inherently a good card and that every fighting-related happening is necessarily worth your time, but it is to say that we are spoiled when it comes to content. There’s pretty much always something to watch. There’s always something to think, talk, read and write about. MMA is a nearly inexhaustible source of material. And while that can be both a privilege and a curse, I’m just going to go ahead and throw it on the privilege pile today.
Just let me have this.