Saturday, Feb. 28
Staples Center | Los Angeles
To many, martial arts are a sort of magic -- in every sense of the word. Magic in the sense that it is fascinating, mysterious and incomprehensible how a man or woman can train their body and mind to reliably do the opposite of what comes natural to most people, to fight instead of flee, to move to the side instead of step back, to maneuver into a counter instead of cover up.
Martial arts also evoke the same feelings of skepticism that magic does. There is a long, embarrassing history of ridiculous ideas that are founded in lore more so than actual combat, yet they have come to inhabit a mythological soma. Never mind that things like the death touch or using invisible energy to control people have never been proven to actually work; there are still cultish legions of believers in such techniques. Indeed, magic is usually bulls--- and trickery.
Then there is the very real magic, where the impossible happens without explanation or doubt. Martial arts test the limits of human potential, often yielding sensational and undeniable results. When a fighter evades attacks like a ghost or dispatches of an opponent quickly with a single punch, it is magic of a high order. When a fighter turns back a worthy adversary in mere seconds without throwing a single strike at all -- that is physical sorcery of a different sort, one which makes us instinctively say it is impossible. Yet reality validates right in front of our eyes.
That was what it felt like when Ronda Rousey defended her Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight title against Cat Zingano at UFC 184 in February. It was a magic show, a 14-second illusion, and Sherdog.com’s 2015 “Submission of the Year.”
In a lot of ways, Zingano was not like Rousey’s previous opponents. The physically imposing and undefeated bantamweight had finished eight of her nine professional opponents, including a submission win over Raquel Pennington and TKO victories over Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes leading up to her title shot. Against Tate, she overcame an early blitzkrieg and responded with a resounding smashing of Rousey’s longtime foil. Add to that her existential comeback from personal tragedy, and Zingano was hailed as Rousey’s most legitimate test to date. She was talented, she was tough and she was relentless.
That is not to speak ill of Rousey’s prior opponents. However, in hindsight, seeing Rousey dominate everyone so easily, they all rusted into memory as lackluster tomato cans. For many, Rousey’s triumphs were not of her abilities so much as they were an indication of weak competition. The reality was most likely somewhere in the middle, but the world of Rousey has seldom been discussed with any level-headedness from either fans or detractors. Regardless, in Zingano people saw the potential to truly test Rousey for the first time.
“I’m different,” Zingano said in a prefight interview. “I know she knows that; I know the whole promotion knows that. I have things to offer that people haven’t seen before, and I just have to be me. I have to do me, go out there with my intensity and my aggression and I’m unstoppable. I know that.”
Oddly enough, Rousey seemed to echo some of those sentiments: “I think that Cat’s resilience is one of the things that has really impressed me about her the most. It’s not just the way that she fights but the way that she endures. She’s not one of those people that can start losing a fight and you can count on them being a frontrunner and just beating themselves. She’s one of those people that has to be finished all the way until the very, very end and I’m ready for that.”
Rousey was not the only one ready for that. Although “Rowdy” was the prohibitive favorite that most expected to win, there was a widespread feeling among fans, media and fighters that Zingano would make it to the second or third round before getting finished. At the time, that was as high a compliment as any Rousey opponent could hope to get.
Despite what the rest of the world thought or predicted, Zingano did not show up to survive past the first round. She planned to take the fight to Rousey, like no other woman had. She did not seem fazed by the aura of invincibility surrounding the incumbent champion. Rather, she seemed convinced that it was her destiny to bulldoze her way through that aura. When the bell rang, Zingano took a few hop-skip steps toward Rousey, measuring distance. Three steps and a flying knee later, she was wrapped up with the champion. Magic would either be debunked or verified.
Zingano dumped Rousey on her head, but the Olympic judoka held on tight and wheeled her hips and legs high into the air. The momentum of Rousey’s acrobatic redirection forced Zingano into a scrambling somersault. She ended up on her back briefly, but flipped herself around to get on all fours. Rousey never lost her grip, and she clung to Zingano’s back, one leg by Zingano’s left shoulder, the other auspiciously hanging around Zingano’s right hip.
Rousey trapped Zingano’s right arm and flung herself to the floor in a fraction of a second, and before anyone could figure out what happened or how it happened, Zingano was tapping to Rousey’s trademark armbar. What was supposed to be Rousey’s most legitimate opponent, the woman who was supposed to at least make it out of the first round, ended up lasting only 14 seconds. Rousey ended the fight in record-setting time, without throwing a single strike.
Magicians never tell their secrets. Even if Rousey wanted to tell hers, it did not look like she would have been able to do so; the acrobatic improvisation that led to the armbar seemed as inexplicable to her as it did everyone else.
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