I’ve never really been into combat sports (boxing, MMA, wrestling, etc.). I don’t have anything against these sports per se, but they’ve never really been my thing. It’s probably because I never watched them growing up (although Mailer’s “The Death of Benny Paret” was one of my favorite essays from HS).
It doesn’t help that I’ve largely lived in the post-Tyson boxing world, in the “era of no great champions.” There’s no nostalgia about boxing for people under 30; Mike Tyson is a video game and a freak to young people, even if the real Iron Mike is smarter and more complex than people think. Lennox Lewis didn’t really draw Americans to the sport; neither have the Klitschko brothers. And when the heavyweight division was left for dead several years ago, casual fans were told to check out guys in other divisions- Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather, Jr, Oscar De La Hoya. I tried that last year with Mayweather-De La Hoya. That snoozefest eliminated any remaining desire I had to watch boxing.
Meanwhile, America had already turned to MMA to replace their collective jones for hand-to-hand combat. While I was ignoring the death of boxing, people had already gotten into MMA. I never really missed it because I didn’t even know about it (again, the never watching it on TV thing). All I really knew about MMA was that “old guys” such as Mr. Tony and Wilbon didn’t like it because it was “too brutal,” and that young fight fans were flocking to the sport in droves. Also, I had the sense that Dana White, the head of UFC, wanted to be Vince McMahon, or at least couldn’t finish a sentence without swearing five times or threatening to kick someone’s ass. That’s about all I knew (and all I really still know) about MMA.
So, this weekend solved the “watching” problem of MMA for me. CBS was bringing MMA to the masses on network TV, featuring “Internet sensation” Kimbo Slice. Never mind that EliteXC is a lower-tier MMA league (? division?), and that Slice’s MMA skills have been questioned ever since he busted out on the YouTube scene- this event had all the buzz. However, it wasn’t CBS’s broadcast on Saturday that I caught, but rather the Versus broadcast of the (apparently much better) WEC on Sunday. And now I get it.
I was flipping channels last night, and landed on Versus just as Miguel Torres and Yoshiro Maeda were getting ready to get in the cage. I didn’t change the channel until the whole telecast was over. Those were two of the most riveting fights I’ve ever seen. I loved the Torres/Maeda East meets West dynamic, the whole “I’ve come all the way from Japan just to kick your ass” thing. That Torres looks even vaguely like the Karate Kid is also fun. That Torres’ forehead was cut basically right off the bat, and that by the end of the fight his blood was all over both competitors couldn’t have been done better in Hollywood. Honestly, my initial reaction to the blood was one of mild nausea- I’m a total wuss- that quickly turned into amazement that it wasn’t an issue for the competitors, the ref, or the announcers. In boxing, it seems a cut can threaten a whole match. Here, it just added to the visual spectacle. One thing that was clear was that neither competitor was going to back down, and that both were trying to knock the other guy out. It sure didn’t seem like these two guys were trying just to earn enough points to win. [Is there some technical reason for that? Is is a function of the length of the matches (5 5-minute rounds in championship bouts)? Or is scoring trickier than in boxing? Or is this just how MMA is- two guys trying to just kick the crap out of each other?] When Torres and Maeda had each other by the ankle at one point, in a seeming deadlock, it was a perfect metaphor for the first part of the match (and was adroitly pointed out by the announcers). The energy that both guys showed (especially Torres) was amazing.
With boxing, sometimes people get the sense that they could last some small amount of time in the ring with a real fighter. It’s the old “I could take a punch from Mike Tyson” bar argument, and even if you come down on the “no way in hell” side of the argument, you might at least be willing to entertain the debate. Watching these two MMArtists, who were each 3-5″ inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter than me, I figured I wouldn’t last 20 seconds in the cage.
Once Torres started working the right eye of Maeda, it was only a matter of time. I don’t know if it was the clarity of the HD broadcast, or that the announcers were really good at pointing stuff out, or that I was so emotionally into the fight by that point, or what it was, but watching Torres work the eye (and seeing the eye getting worse) was as fascinating as anything I’ve seen in boxing (although, again, that hasn’t been much). But that was just once facet of the great fight. I guess it would be akin to focusing on one drive in a great football game, or maybe just the offensive line play in that game- an interesting moment or aspect, but not one that should overshadow the greatness of the whole game.
At the end of that first match, I figured there was no way I was changing the channel. I had to keep watching to see if that match was an anomaly. I guess it wasn’t (at least on this night). The match between Urijah Faber and Jens Pulver seemed like another made-for-movie matchup. California pretty boy Faber, with his bulging bronzed muscles and inexplicably perfect teeth, battling appropriately-named ugly mutt Jens Pulver, with his pasty, lean physique and different-colored eyes. Faber was the defending WEC champ, and Pulver, four years his senior, was a former UFC champ and was undefeated at 145 pounds [Is there some juicy back story to why he’s a former UFC fighter? In the script it says he was unceremoniously kicked out of UFC, only to destroy WEC and return to UFC to avenge his enemies, or something like that.]
I actually found this bout slightly less entertaining, although I’m pretty sure it’s because Torres/Maeda was the first one I’d seen, and maybe it had drained me emotionally already. The only thing I really remember from Faber/Pulver was the almost zombie-like resilience that Pulver had, taking blow after blow without falling, and after each flurry, grinning and egging Faber on. The combination (over I guess 30 or 45 seconds) that Faber laid on Pulver in the second (I think) round had enough power it for maybe three knockouts, but Pulver stood his ground. Faber seemed shocked that Pulver didn’t go down, and for a moment, it seemed like a turning point in the match. Pulver had taken the best from Faber and survived. For the remainder of the match, it even looked like Pulver might have a chance. He landed several shots that looked like they stunned Faber, and a couple sent him back a few steps. But ultimately, Faber just had too much energy for Pulver. When they would go to the mat, Pulver really looked like he was holding on, trying to catch a quick breather. But Faber would keep working, keep throwing forearms to Pulver’s head. It appeared that defending against the fury of Faber hadn’t left anything in the tank for Pulver to use to attack. If nothing else, the old-timer from UFC had given the champ a good fight.
So that’s it. The couple of brief things I’ve seen today about the WEC event said that they were two awesome fights, so I don’t feel like a total dumbass for my take on what I saw last night. Maybe the fact that I could “get it” without some expert telling me what was happening is exactly the thrill of MMA. Or maybe it’s about actually seeing two athletes at the highest level squaring off and really try to knock each other out. I don’t think I’m going to run out and order the next UFC PPV or spend all my time scouring the internet for the latest MMA news, but I do know one thing: based on what I saw last night, I think I get it now.