Recently I decided the reason I’m such a huge fan of mixed martial arts—beyond my affection for blood-splattered knockouts and tactical submission battles—is because it gives me the only opportunity I know of to witness a sport becoming itself.
Every sport, no matter how exciting it is to its fans, eventually reaches a kind of equilibrium in its development, where the huge revolutions of earlier eras become more modest. Aside from the occasional great leap forward (see: LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer), where everyone stands up and takes notice of a brand-new way of doing things, sports reach a point where their greatest artists work in details, perfecting the creative explosions of earlier ages. Compared to sports like football, baseball, and basketball, all of which long ago reached that equilibrium point, mixed martial arts is just now entering its golden age, an era filled with revelatory missteps, bold experimentation, and occasional explosions of athletic transcendence. And isn’t that the true, deep-down joy of sports fandom? Isn’t that what sports writers and other romantics are always telling us—that we watch sports for those rare moments when we witness something we’d never seen before? Surely that’s Michael Jordan’s true legacy: not that he scored so many points or won so many titles or even that he redefined athletes as walking Madison Avenue billboards—but that he made us believe in something. After all, he was the one who convinced us that human beings could walk on air.
In just my relatively short time as an MMA fan I’ve watched the sport evolve into something it wasn’t before and seen seemingly indomitable fighters get left behind in the rush. One minute you think you’re watching the greatest fighter who ever lived in then-23-year-old Mauricio “Shogun” Rua during his miracle year in the Japanese Pride organization, 2005 (during which he defeated Hiromitsu Kanehara, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, and Ricardo Arona). Then, barely five years later, you’re watching Rua, who by then was the UFC light-heavyweight champion and in his fighting prime, getting beaten so badly by 23-year-old upstart Jon “Bones” Jones that you—an experienced fight fan, not easy to wobble—almost feel compelled to look away. The fight was so one-sided and bruising, someone watching MMA for the first time would have been forgiven for assuming that by some horrible clerical mix-up a professional had been allowed into the cage with an amateur and given clearance to beat him senseless. It didn’t seem fair. Actually it seemed cruel, even by the dubious standards of professional fighting.
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