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Nostalgia is one of the traits that make humans unique in the world. It’s hard to know if other animals ever feel nostalgic, since it’s not exactly visually readable like anger, sadness or fear. It’s likely that even emotionally and cognitively advanced animals cannot reminisce, as nostalgia is really an offshoot of -- or perhaps an intersection for -- imagination and emotion. It requires us to imagine the past to stir up similar feelings we once had. Whether nostalgia is part of the evolutionary development of remembering or if it hints at something larger, like the existence of a soul, it is a potent and uniquely human experience.
This weekend was especially fixed on the rearview. It marked the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, as well as the 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency. All manners of punditry were employed to construct meaningful, coherent narratives about both of them to see if the distance of time has brought about new understanding.
Combat sports also had some acute fits of nostalgia over the weekend. Anthony Joshua notched his 19th straight knockout in the biggest fight of his career against Wladimir Klitschko, immediately drawing comparisons to greats of old, from Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson to Joe Louis. Perhaps it was a result of the absence of any major fight cards this week or the next, but the MMA media was busy looking back, too. Patrick Wyman of Bleacher Report, Chuck Mindenhall of MMAFighting and our own Jordan Breen each published a retrospective-style piece looking at how different aspects of MMA’s past collides with its present. Some of those collisions are obvious, some not so much.
Truly, a lot has changed in this sport, while a lot continues to remain the same. Part of our tendency/borderline obsession with looking back is because we are naturally nostalgic creatures, and technology magnifies that. It’s why Facebook reminds us of old posts on a daily basis and why we have hard drives plump with old photos that we never look at anymore. Another part of our nostalgic compulsion is because the youth of MMA means its history is both accessible and personal, not separated by the type of decades- to centuries-length gaps that render the history of other major sports as academic fascinations. It’s easy to remember MMA’s roots because they weren’t that long ago, and yet distinct and dramatically different eras have also come and gone, making it a useful exercise to look back and see how much -- as well as how little -- things have changed.
One of the comments I see and hear most frequently is that the sport is more boring than it has ever been. Hyperbolic, I’d say, and more than a tad bit hipster-whiny, but the sentiment is not without its merits. It’s easy to look back at the early days and rekindle the excitement of old. The storylines seemed more dramatic, the sport more mysterious and saturated with possibility. It was more esoteric and unique. Now, the sport is closer to being fully realized, and it seems less dynamic in a way. It takes a lot more to surprise us, and the sheer number of events makes all the individual fight cards blur into an amorphous, never-ending season. We get our hopes up for big events or intriguing fights every now and again, but for the most part, there’s a certain business-as-usual monotony to it all. The sport is now a bona fide product, and while it is rare for it to be outright terrible, greatness also seems to be elusive. People get more excited over the things that upset them -- like deserving contenders getting shafted from title shots -- than the things that drew them to the sport in the first place. To be fair, a lot of those things have either atrophied or altogether disappeared.
The Reebok apparel deal is case in point. It made little sense at first, especially with all the ridiculous blunders associated with rolling it out and the fact that nobody has ever really liked Reebok, but it now seems more reasonable in hindsight knowing that Zuffa was looking to sell the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The reality, unfortunate or not, is that an exclusive Reebok sponsorship looks much more enticing to potential investors than the Condom Depot free-for-all that came before it. That’s not to say it has been a good thing. The day Reebok uniforms were imposed on the fighters marks a day that a certain excitement for the sport died, and the issue of fighters getting screwed out of sponsorship money has been repeated ad nauseam. Hindsight has clarified the thinking behind the decision, though.
Despite the legitimacy of these perceptions and feelings, objective reality shows that the sport has only improved. The UFC is bigger than ever, and the art of fighting itself has taken tremendous technical strides while still maintaining the same fundamental shape it has always had. As Wyman detailed, there are many nuanced differences as to how the fight game has developed -- like how counterpunching technique has become more complex, or how volume has become an increasingly better indicator of success -- but the more interesting note is that it is still dominated by specialists. Stylistically, MMA is essentially the same game as it has been, just with smoother edges. Fighters have shored up their weaknesses to greater competencies, as opposed to being solid strikers with zero grappling ability or stout wrestlers throwing stiff-necked shoulder punches, but the fight game is still comfortably in the hands of fighters who excel in a single area. The main difference is that those single-area specialists are simply much better in their respective fields.
In the early stages, the allure was to see different styles pitted against each other, as opposed to different fighters. However, once fighters started to shore up their weaknesses into greater competencies, the line of thinking was that the most balanced, three-dimensional fighters would ascend to the top of the sport. That has yet to happen. Meaning, there has been a perceptible step up in the quality of fighters, both athletically and technically, without compromising the in-cage identity of the sport, which should be enough to quell the negative talks surrounding the state of fighting. It hasn’t.
For many of us, we’ve watched this sport grow up. I don’t have kids of my own, but I imagine there’s a similar feeling in that arena, to be proud of how one’s child has matured but to still look back upon those infant days with fondness and yearning. It has been nine months since WME-IMG has taken the reigns of the UFC, and while that seems like a short time to start looking back, any mother can attest to the dramatic changes that can take place in nine months. While we squint harder and harder to find traces of how the new owners might be ruining the sport -- and to be sure, decisions like allowing highly ranked fighters to walk deserves scrutiny -- reality is not so simple to categorize. Is MMA better or worse than it has been in the past? It depends. As British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his famous essay “On Denoting,” straightforward statements can in fact assert multiple and even conflicting ideas simultaneously. Perhaps he would conclude that MMA is both at its best and worst right now.
Ultimately, the sport has changed and it hasn’t, and depending on when and why you got into this sport, this is either the highest or lowest point it has ever been; or it’s both. No matter what, there is no amount of looking back that can stop the forward march of time. The word nostalgia translates literally from Greek to mean “the desire to return home.” It is a profound feeling but a tragic one; the only home we can make for ourselves rests unavoidably in the future.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.