Think about the lasting scenes from the final two fights of UFC 194—the fights themselves that is, not Conor McGregor's biggest fan climbing the lion at the MGM Grand and getting chased off by security. Think about Chris Weidman's face split into shades of red and purple, peeking through the swelling at a world in which Luke Rockhold took his place as middleweight champion. Think about Jose Aldo, holding a white towel to hide the blood trickling from the bridge of his nose and the pain welling up in his eyes. While much of the UFC's three-night fight binge in Vegas is already a blur, these images from the immediate aftermath are going to stay a while.
Saturday night saw two challengers reach their division's heights at the expense of two longtime incumbent champions, and the chains of events that produced those memorable results were so different: after 18 minutes of momentum swings, Rockhold buried Weidman under his hips and brutal ground and pound; meanwhile, McGregor's left hook freed Aldo from consciousness after 13 seconds that passed too quickly to see if there would be more than one side to the fight. But in their back-to-back contrast at the top of marquee, these bouts proved to be shining examples of a single principle: you never know what complexion a meaningful fight can take.
If you watched the pulse of a perfect evening of MMA fights on an EKG, it would be a mix of spikes and flat lines reflecting the pace of blitzkrieg and attrition. We've all felt the familiar fatigue of cards laden with lackluster decisions that push into early morning, but drawn-out fights are inevitable among top-shelf fighters who don't want to give their opponent an inch, and some of the best fights ever fought require judges do what fighters' hands and feet can't. We've all seen fast knockouts that answer as many questions as they ask about lucky punches and about how the victor would hold up in a rematch where the fight went deeper, but there's an abiding appeal to first-round knockouts. With so many ways to win and lose, watching MMA as a spectator demands variety and forsakes too much repetition.
And while the first three bouts on UFC 194's main card were entertaining, that trio of straight decisions threatened to become a slog. That's when McGregor and Rockhold used a few of Aldo's and Weidman's best-known attributes against them. In Aldo's 11 years in MMA that saw him go for a decade without defeat, he often showed a capacity for quick-finish violence. As for Weidman, while running over the 185-pound division and toppling Anderson Silva, he always had the resilience afforded through outstanding wrestling and top-game jiu-jitsu. Then, on Saturday, the champions faced two guys who did what they did only better at the time it most mattered. McGregor and Rockhold adopted the champions' advantages as their own, refracting them into wins that were lyrical in their decisiveness as well as their difference, the grueling four-round war as stirring as the quickest championship stoppage in UFC history.
Aldo-McGregor and Weidman-Rockhold provided the ideal crescendo to three straight evenings of high-level MMA—events that reminded me why I started watching this sport in the first place. It's not especially novel to call MMA a sport that's mostly absent of metaphors: no balls in nets, no field goal kicks through uprights, a dearth of symbols getting in the way of the elemental human interactions on display. But fighting has another edge that's usually left unstated: most of the time, the conclusion on a contest comes at its most dramatic moment. It ends with a wrenched limb, glazed-over eyes, some blood, some tears, some flash of consequence. It might take a few rounds to get there. Then again, it might only take a few seconds.