A few weeks ago at UFC 152 in Toronto, TJ Grant, a 28-year-old lightweight from the small suburb of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, took the center of the Octagon as soon as his fight with Evan Dunham started. Grant, who fought for years as a welterweight, is bigger than Dunham, so this was the smart strategy: using his size to bully the smaller man out and try to pin him up against the cage. MMA judges call this “octagon control”; trainers simply call it the logical thing to do.
But Dunham, a southpaw from Las Vegas who’s fought in the UFC for nearly five years, is a smart fighter himself, and he responded to Grant’s strategy by circling, forcing Grant to track him down, occasionally stopping to throw a sneaky lead uppercut through Grant’s gloves into his chin. The lead uppercut is rare in MMA because it’s risky—it doesn’t give a fighter the kind of reach a straight jab does. But Dunham and his trainers must have noticed something lacking in Grant’s defense, because the punch kept landing.
Grant responded to these uppercuts by pushing Dunham against the cage, landing a few quick punches, then reaching out and grabbing the back of Dunham’s head with both hands. Using this grip, which Thai kickboxers call the “plum,” Grant pulled Dunham’s head down and threw a right knee that landed flush on his face. This may sound inhuman to Westerners raised on the well-padded sport of boxing, but it’s a common strike in Muay Thai, a combat style known as the “art of the eight limbs” because fighters are trained to throw punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. Thai fighters are notoriously indifferent to pain. In Thailand, when conditioning themselves to throw and block shin kicks (fueled by what could only be called madness), they’ll harden their bones by repeatedly kicking hard objects, like trees. TJ Grant, who came into MMA as a grappler with no striking experience, occasionally trains at a Muay Thai camp in Bangkok, fighting through soft shins, unimaginable heat waves, and once even a bout of food poisoning brought on by chicken purchased rashly at a roadside stand.
But Dunham knows Muay Thai as well, and he’s fine with pain, so his fight with Grant quickly became a slugfest, with both fighters growing visibly more excited with each punch. Halfway through the first round, Grant landed a smashing right cross to Dunham’s chin. Dunham responded by circling to his left along the cage while simultaneously throwing a big right hook that caught Grant on the side of his face. Grant threw up his hands to signal Let’s go! and Dunham smiled and stuck out his tongue in response. It takes a certain amount of insanity to fight in a cage; it takes something far beyond insanity to delight in it.
Originally scheduled to be the first fight on the main card of UFC 152, the Dunham-Grant fight had been pushed to the preliminaries, a result of the mess that ensued after UFC 151 was canceled two weeks earlier. When light-heavyweight challenger Dan Henderson had to pull out of his fight against champion Jon “Bones” Jones at the last minute, and Jones refused to fight self-promotion savant Chael Sonnen on short notice, UFC 151 became the promotion’s first cancellation in a decade. A fight between Jones and veteran Vitor Belfort was then hastily arranged by UFC promoters and stuck at the top of the UFC 152 card, moving the original main event and all the other fights one notch down the schedule, meaning Evan Dunham and TJ Grant were pushed off pay-per-view into the promotional desert of basic cable.
Whatever disappointment the fighters felt when they heard the news was long gone now, though. Throughout the second and third rounds, Dunham and Grant exchanged punches and kicks furiously, as if theirs were the fight everyone had come to see. Dunham concentrated on jab-cross combinations aimed at Grant’s nose and Grant repeatedly crouched down to throw thudding punches to Dunham’s body. Halfway through the second round, Grant pushed Dunham up against the cage, and as Dunham pushed him away, the Canadian grabbed the American’s head and pulled it down into his knee. What resulted wasn’t a huge collision, more of a glancing blow, but glancing blows often cause the most damage. Dunham’s forehead split wide open, and blood began to pour down his face and into his eyes. Dunham responded in the only way he could: He grinned widely and resumed throwing punches.
Moments like these—when an injured fighter is leaking blood all over the cage but fighting on as if nothing has happened—are always litmus tests for MMA interest. The casual fan, or the passerby watching out of curiosity, will often use such a moment to escape out the backdoor, pleading for human decency as he goes. Others want nothing but blood and gore, but they’re brutes and should be ignored or chased from arenas. But for deep-down MMA fans, the blood isn’t the thing; what gets us is the fighting through blood. It’s the collective recognition of our own marred physicality, the acceptance of our shared imperfection, our mortality—too horrible to face head-on. When Evan Dunham smiled through all that blood—all his blood—he was mocking death and conquering, if only for a moment, the fear of inevitable mortality. So was TJ Grant, who spent the rest of the fight covered in Dunham’s blood. And so were they both when, at the end of the fight, they shared a bloody hug and held each other’s arms up in victory (before the judges called it for Grant by unanimous decision). I’ve experienced a little of that feeling in some of my own sparring matches: the temporary, willful indifference to the pains and desires of the body. The Buddhists call this detachment, the first step on the road to enlightenment.
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