UFC 168 took place on the same night as my ten-year high school reunion.
We reserved the back area of a King of Prussia sports bar while MMA fans mobbed every other section of the building.
While leaving, I looked up just in time to see Anderson Silva kick Chris Weidman and snap his leg in the process.
“Gross,” I remember thinking.
I was a lifelong sports fan but never understood hand-to-hand combat. Boxing had faded in popularity and most of the MMA fans I knew were “bro” types who didn’t necessarily appreciate sport. They just wanted to see someone get knocked out.
The change in my attitude actually started as a social thing.
Most of my friends were into mixed martial arts and started gathering for UFC fights a few years back. I met up with them to watch UFC 194 and found myself fascinated by the entire card. I was impressed by the pure physique and athleticism of Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero. Conor McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds. In the penultimate fight, Weidman’s resilience was topped only by Luke Rockhold’s relentlessness.
Even after losing his middleweight belt, Weidman went on-camera inside the ring, immediately after the fight.
“All I can do is work hard and keep a positive attitude. If I lose, then it’s my day to lose.”
Imagine speaking with a reporter after something like that.
Most of these guys will touch gloves in a show of mutual respect, beat the tar out of each other, then shake hands afterward. There is genuine bad blood between some fighters but the elements of dignity and class in martial arts are incredibly underrated.
More millennials seem to gravitate towards MMA because boxing feels “stiff” in 2017. Whereas traditional boxing was about throwing punches, showing patience, using good footwork, and pacing yourself physically, MMA takes all of that and builds on it. You have the elements of submission and grappling. Some fighters have traditional sporting backgrounds and others are black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
It feels like an evolution of strategy and tactics with nuance that boxing simply doesn’t possess.
I appreciate the fact that McGregor is a world-class striker with strong takedown defense. Dominick Cruz doesn’t knock people out, but he also doesn’t get hit. Stephen Thompson uses an odd stance and style.
I also don’t think most people appreciate the backgrounds of the fighters.
Eddie Alvarez grew up right here in Kensington and eventually moved his family to Northeast Philadelphia using prize money. Here’s a guy who was raised on G Street, trained in Philly gyms, and worked his way up from the bottom.
Isn’t that the American dream?
Think about the popularity of Rocky in this city. Eddie’s story is the same thing, only it’s real, not fiction. I put Alvarez on the same level as any successful Eagle, Phillie, Flyer, or Sixer.
— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) April 6, 2017
The two fighters in Saturday night’s main event have stories that are just as interesting.
Daniel Cormier represented the United States in wrestling at the 2004 Olympic Games. His opponent, Anthony Johnson, was also a wrestler and won a junior college national championship. These guys aren’t street brawlers who came through some shady underground network. They are legitimate athletes who were raised the same way we were.
People also talk about the violent nature of MMA but some approach from a hypocritical angle.
Some of the most celebrated moments in other sports involve extreme physicality and danger. Many of the NFL’s hardest hits now result in a penalty flag. Quarterbacks and wide receivers are protected while athletic safeties and linebackers have had to change their approach to the game.
Baseball’s most talked about video clip of the last three years involved one guy punching another guy in the face. Most fans also cheer for contact at the plate or a good, hard, takeout slide.
Ice hockey doesn’t need much of an explanation since fighting still takes place.
And even “fringe” sports, like soccer and lacrosse, feature hard physical contact, serious injuries, and a rise in concussions.
Physicality is a natural part of sport, and MMA is constantly evolving to curb unneeded and severe injury, just like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey.
For instance, you can’t strike an opponent in the back of the head. That’s 100 percent illegal. You also can’t throw elbows from a specific angle and fights are paused if someone takes a poke to the eye or a wayward limb to the privates. Referees are quick to break up fights and doctors are stationed ringside for immediate attention.
You also have people like Meryl Streep who make myopic comments without really knowing what they’re talking about. It’s not just about white alpha males on steroids, which is what I thought a few years ago.
UFC has a ton of Brazilian fighters and a Polish female champion. Black men currently hold three of eight championship belts and the promotion’s most popular fighter is Irish. Go through the rankings in Bellator and ONE and you will similarly see participants of all different backgrounds and nationalities.
This is one of the world’s most diverse sports, and it’s not just about kicking someone’s ass.
The martial arts are one of humanity’s oldest traditions. Most of us have seen Creed, or the Karate Kid, or Million Dollar Baby. Maybe your son or daughter took Tae Kwon Do lessons when they were younger. We teach self-defense classes for safety and security. Conflict and combat is a natural part of our heritage and the implication of barbarism isn’t entirely fair.
Mixed martial arts is the contemporary amalgam of every hand-to-hand discipline that has ever existed.
To me, that’s something to be appreciated, not derided.