When Rorion Gracie picked his younger brother Royce to represent Gracie jiu-jitsu at the first UFC event in November 1993, he was trying to prove a point: Royce was the runt of the Gracie clan, and Rorion wanted to show the world that size and strength don't matter when one fighter is trained in the art of jiu-jitsu and the other isn't. Three quick submission victories over successively larger opponents that night in Denver proved Rorion right, of course, and thus a great precedent was born.
More than any other major sport, the history of MMA is built on identification, understanding, and universality: universality of the attraction to fighting, instinctual understanding of its motivations and deviant thrills, and the identification of those watching with those fighting. Royce Gracie's victory that fateful night in Denver and the resulting proliferation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu were proof that the biggest, strongest, meanest, grouchiest, most-tattoo-covered guy doesn't necessarily make for the best fighter, a myth that had existed pretty much forever, and the result was widespread interest not just in watching MMA but in doing MMA. People—normal, decent, otherwise-peaceful people—saw MMA fighters and recognized something in themselves, or at least something they wanted to recognize in themselves: not a bar-fighting thug or a chiseled Adonis or a raging sociopath but an average person with the capacity to fight. I know because I was one of them.
Unlike football or baseball, fighting was a human inevitability and a biological imperative long before it was a sport, and so there's an instinctual connection we feel toward it and a sense of deep identification we have with those who do it, especially those who look more like us than professional football players and basketball players generally do. Fedor Emelianenko, Royce Gracie, Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin: They were great athletes but there was nothing prohibitively super-human about them, nothing deflating or disheartening, nothing Michael Jordan- or Bo Jackson-esque, at least to those of us still harboring happy fantasies about ourselves and our abilities. There was something inspirational in their everyday-ness.
But every step in every sport's evolution is a step away from the fans. And It's not just that as a sport evolves its athletes become richer and more famous, driving faster cars and living in bigger houses hidden behind thicker gates in closed communities; it's that they become different kinds of people, more evolved kinds of people, people capable of things far beyond our understanding, much less our ability. In every sport, at some point the relationship between fans and players undergoes a fundamental shift—through the use of space-age workout routines and exotic nutritional regimes and, occasionally, illicit drugs—after which players stop looking like the fans they're playing for and transform into cartoon superheroes: impossibly muscled, ultra-athletic, fast and strong and agile towering titans, something greater than, and beyond, us. As a result fans cease to identify with the players they love and start to gaze upon them like gods. And something gets lost.
That's why the moment Sage Northcutt pulled off his ridiculous video-game front flip after winning his UFC debut earlier this month will be remembered by MMA fans. Years from now we'll say we remember where we were the first time we saw Northcutt slice through the air like a cartoon character, as if the laws of gravity and anatomical inertia didn't apply to him. That flip felt like a Cambrian evolutionary explosion: a great thrust into some new era. It also felt like another giant leap away from fan identification for a sport that has always defined itself by it. No longer can I watch an MMA fight and think to myself with anything resembling self-awareness, "I can do that." Not in the Age of Northcutt. The era of fan delusion is officially dead.
Today I watched a follow-up video of Northcutt doing his ridiculous flip in the gym and several of his teammates trying and failing to duplicate it, and it made me realize just how far our beloved sport has come and how far it's floating off into the rarefied air of the other major sports. When mixed martial artists are doing things with their bodies that even other mixed martial artists can't comprehend, much less approximate, you know you've entered a brave new world, a world we fans can no longer hope to enter.
What is going on here? What bizarre planet is Sage Northcutt from? And what kind of unflawed inhuman glass is he cut from? And also, what happened to the days when two athletic, but still fundamentally human, fighters would meet in the Octagon and I could convince myself that if I had just buckled down earlier in life, just steered clear from all that scotch and all those cigarettes, just spent a little more time at the gym and a little less time in bed, been just a touch more disciplined and focused, I could have been in there with them? Where did those days go? Into what ether have they vanished? Surely whatever remained of them before this month began were wiped away the moment Sage Northcutt and his fantastical flipping body became a part of my world.