Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
There’s a false dichotomy separating MMA fans. Supposedly, there’s a camp that watches fights for entertainment and another one that wants to know the identity of the best fighter. It’s the “Spectacle vs. Sport” debate that all too often boils down to a pair of shrugging shoulders; “MMA is both spectacle and sport,” the wise man says as he strokes his beard.
While both streams ultimately lead to the same sea of watching people punch each other, there’s a single source behind the divergent paths: curiosity. The desire to learn is a powerful human instinct, and both categories of fandom scratch that itch in different ways. Discovering who is the best or how they are the best is an obvious function of learning, and witnessing something new and spectacular -- getting surprised by MMA’s athletic and violent possibilities -- is itself a way of taking in new information. Such exposure to something new, even when it’s passive, certainly qualifies as a type of learning. The preferred aesthetics differ between those who want to be entertained and those who want to see elite competition determine which fighters really are the best, but those aesthetics are underpinned by a similar impulse of curiosity.
That is why watching One Championship’s “Unstoppable Dreams” was such a vastly superior viewing experience than UFC Fight Night 129 over the weekend.
When you’re accustomed to watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the novelty of One Championship is refreshing. Everything was new and different from the UFC model that virtually every North American promotion has emulated. The commentary and fighter introductions were reminiscent of Pride Fighting Championships, but everything else -- the fighters, their stories, their styles -- was its own thing. There was even a kickboxing match between MMA title fights for good measure. Unlike Bellator MMA, the One Championship roster is not a collection of UFC castoffs, either. This adds intrigue to watching them fight, as it poses the question of how the fighters would fare against the UFC elite. Though the answer is likely “not very well,” it’s still fun to entertain those matchups in your head. Count me in for a fight between One featherweight champion Martin Nguyen and anyone in the UFC’s top 10-15; and Angela Lee versus anyone is guaranteed entertainment.
Part of what has made the UFC’s product tiresome is that a lot of the fun has been sucked out of the sport to make it an airtight product. Not for nothing; the UFC is the most successful brand in the sport by a wide margin for a reason. I had dinner with a friend recently who at best could be described as a casual fan. He enjoyed the UFC when it was “karate guy vs. sumo guy” but lost interest once he perceived it to be a homogenous ooze of mixed martial artists who all have the same fundamental style. He’s wrong in his perception -- there’s still a tremendous amount of diversity in the sport, and most of the champions still tend toward dominant, specialized skill sets -- but he’s not alone in feeling that way. Watching the “Unstoppable Dreams” card was like reliving those early moments of fandom where seeing new and different styles compete against each other was simply and purely fun to watch.
Compare that to UFC Fight Night 129. Before we get to the existential horror that was the main event, we must also be fair and give respect where it’s due. Dominick Reyes looked sharp and spectacular in his first-round technical knockout of Jared Cannonier. The undefeated 28-year-old has the size and skill to be a real force in the light heavyweight division, which is in dire need of some new blood. Similarly, Tatiana Suarez put on an equally promising showcase in the co-headliner, as she easily handled Alexa Grasso in half a round. Also undefeated and young, Suarez continues to not only justify the hype around her but build upon it.
Yet neither of those performances or any of the other excellent fights before them was enough to offset the torturous 25 minutes between Demian Maia and Kamaru Usman. Maia’s lone path to victory is so single-hulled and nakedly transparent that virtually any cautious game plan will result in another unanimous decision loss. Likewise, his grappling is still so dangerous that it makes every opponent reasonably risk-averse, as we’ve seen three times in a row now. The result was watching a wrecking-ball demolish a house block-by-block instead of crashing through it.
There is no way around it: The fight was bad. As fighters, Maia and Usman are in fact quite good. Maia has a wall of snatched welterweight heads that is rivaled by few, and Usman continues to look like a future title contender. What made the fight so dreadful was not just that it was boring but that we learned absolutely nothing about either man in the process. It felt like five rounds of nothing -- for nothing.
Now that Maia, MMA’s most revered gentleman, has lost three fights in a row in nearly identical fashions -- going 0-for-49 in takedowns along the way -- there’s nothing more to say about him. He still beats a lot of the current Top 10, but at 40 years old and with such a glaringly obvious and exploitable weakness, there’s not much left for him in the game. As for Usman, he managed to notch the biggest win of his career and wind up in exactly the same spot. He looks every bit the future title contender he always did without making anyone want to see him actually in a title fight.
Yet whenever he fights again I’ll be thinking the same thing, that this will be the time he puts his strength, size, athleticism and technical ability together and executes to his potential. If and when Maia comes back, I’ll still be waiting for him to old-man drag his opponent to the ground so we can see some pretzel-making go down. When One Championship puts on a show, whatever happens, I’ll probably still unconsciously dismiss the fighters as UFC inferiors, no matter how entertaining and capable the fights may be. For all our innate desire to learn, we are creatures of habit who more often than not return to whatever base assumption we brought with us in the first place.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.