“The tradition of all dead generations,” Karl Marx once wrote, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” For James Joyce’s double, Stephen Dedalus, history was a nightmare from which one must try to awake. In letters, as in life, the best way to get to something like happiness is to be free from the burdens and expectations of the past—to kick one’s way out from under the smothering blanket of tradition and move around freely.
This is one of the biggest reasons I’m such a fan of mixed martial arts: It’s so new that’s it’s unhaunted by the nightmare of history. As far as I know, there are no curses in MMA, no doomed fighters, no tragic figures who had a hex placed on them or on their ancestors years ago, and are now fated to fail. I’ve never heard a fan speak about a fighter’s loss in supernatural terms. And so, as far as I know, there are no fans whose lives are inextricably linked in pathos and misery to the failings of a fighter, or who believe their resulting dejection is supernatural; they’re free to enjoy fights without the slow death-by-proxy so many team-sports fans accept as their lot. By becoming a fan of the sport, I didn’t inherit a tradition or a set of rituals. I didn’t agree to throw my emotional life in with a fighter and allow his or her actions to determine my mood forever after. My happiness isn’t contingent upon their successes, nor do I define myself by their failures, constantly replaying in my head their shames and then claiming them as my own, and passing them on to my children like a curse.
In my mind, you can’t really appreciate the beauty of a sport unless you free yourself from the constraints of loyalty. Liberated fandom? Perhaps. But dedicated fans of teams have no interest in being free from history, from the years of losses and poor trades and lousy decisions and simple bad luck. To them, sport is all about loyalty, and the blanket of tradition doesn’t smother; it warms. Take away a sports fan’s identification with the past—even (especially) a past based on almost nothing but collective, inherited misery—and that fan will be lost. Just look at Boston Red Sox fans (many of whom I went to college with and got to study in their native milieu, the New England autumn): When their team was cursed and doomed to failure, their loyalty was admirable, even poetic. Since winning two World Series this past decade, however, the team has become the definition of middling blandness, and their fans have been cut loose without the security of tragedy to give their lives meaning. What are they now?
For the Red Sox fan of old, the Chicago Cubs fan, or the fan of any team whose perpetual ineptitude is its identifying marker, life takes on a permanent patina of paradox: I’m only happy when I’m miserable, is their motto. Or worse: I’m only miserable when I’m happy.
At UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro, which took place last Saturday, the Brazilian fans made no secret of their loyalty to the Brazilian fighters on the card: Even on television, their chants were overpowering. But when those fighters lost, the fans didn’t withhold their admiration for the fighters who beat them. They weren’t stingy or ungrateful. In MMA, a good fight is always the most important thing, regardless of outcome. In the card’s Fight of the Night, American wrestler and longtime welterweight contender Jon Fitch beat up Brazilian up-and-comer Erick Silva. Despite the fact that Silva is one of the leading lights of the new generation of Brazilian MMA, the fans didn’t begrudge Fitch for beating him, nor did Silva’s dejection at the end of the fight leap out of the Octagon and into them (though, by the look on the striker’s face, there was more than enough to go around). The better man won, so the fans moved on.
“Tradition,” Woody Allen wrote, “is the illusion of permanence,” and nobody understands the reality of impermanence better than a professional fighter or a professional fight fan. When invincibility can be made a mockery of by a single lucky punch, and an entire fight card can be brought down by one injury, there’s very little value in tradition, and nothing to permanence at all.