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“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
So goes the quote typically attributed to Mark Twain, though in reality there’s very little evidence of the fact. Regardless who said it, it’s still a good quote, full of wit and insight into how humanity collectively operates.
It speaks to the uniqueness of situations, that the precise arrangement of variables that compose history rarely re-emerge in exact parallels, but if we squint a little, the rough shapes of historical events reappear in broad patterns. Yet the quote also speaks to our collective lack of imagination and our petty animal fate, that no matter what technological or social changes have occurred, we are still in some ways essentially the same as we’ve always been, destined to fall into the same stupid traps that people did in the past.
Lately, these ideas feel particularly relevant to the mixed martial arts world.
First there’s the potential fight between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Ortiz took to Instagram -- then did so again, and again -- to promote a third fight between the quadragenarians. Promoter Oscar De La Hoya said he’s willing to give them a platform, and “The Iceman” stated that he’s game, too. Given their name-value and nostalgic resonance, people will probably tune in to watch. Saturate the promotional packages with enough decades-old highlights and the fact that they share a combined 91 years of life experience will fade into the background.
Should the matchup get officially scheduled, it’s not just their age that makes it egregious; it’s that there is nothing left for either man to prove by fighting a third time. In 2004 and 2006 -- when both men were in their primes -- Liddell definitively defeated Ortiz twice by knockout. There was no controversy about either of those fights that can justify a third fight. Really, the most generous way to look at Liddell-Ortiz III would be to see who has aged better -- or, more accurately, who has aged worse. Then consider the fact that after their second fight Liddell went 1-5 with four brutal knockouts before retiring, while Ortiz went 4-7-1. At least it’s not Liddell vs. “Bones” Jones.
Moving on, the ghosts of the International Fight League have come back to haunt us all. The MMA Pro League, a team-based promotion, launched last week with two teams from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. With 5 events planned to be held in the summer, and projected expansion to six additional teams and a draft of 96 fighters -- only prospects, the owners assured, not out-of-retirement veterans or cast-offs from other promotions -- MMA Pro League is looking to look more like traditional team sports than the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
There are advantages to this model, no doubt. Just like in the IFL, fighters will be paid guaranteed monthly stipends and will likely receive year-round health insurance. Yet MMA Pro League seems to have learned from the logistical and tactical errors the IFL made: the goofy mascots, the horrendous mismatches. Unlike the IFL, fighters will also have to leave their home gyms to train with their teams, and the format will be point-based. Teams will get 3 points for decision wins, 4 points for submissions, and 5 points for knockouts. Thus, in five fights, a team could potentially win more fights and still lose on points, which adds an intriguing element of strategy.
Despite all these changes, color me skeptical. The concept sounds simple, but there are logistical concerns when it comes to injuries, botched weight cuts, and the plethora of other unforeseen complications that seem to arise in MMA. The concept itself is questionable, too. Thinking of MMA as a city-based team effort akin to the NBA, NFL or MLB requires a shift of perception that, frankly, may not be possible. It’s easy to forget that the IFL’s product was good. They had talented fighters in exciting fights, and they secured a TV deal way before the UFC started airing on FOX – all at a time when the UFC’s top spot was somewhat vulnerable compared to its current security. In a 2008 statement shortly before the IFL folded, CEO Jay Larkin had this to say:
“What does one do to grow the audience? What does one do to sell tickets besides putting on the best show you could possibly put on? And when you put that show on and you still can’t sell tickets well then you have to ask yourself does the public want this?”
The IFL made promotional and organizational missteps without question, but I’m not convinced that those errors doomed the concept to a fate that it otherwise would have avoided. Perhaps the MMA Pro League can prove me wrong.
The final rhyme of fight history stretched back well over a century. This weekend, the first bare-knuckle boxing match since 1889 took place in Wyoming. It was the inaugural event of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship promotion. With 2000 people in attendance and a yet-to-be-known number of viewers who purchased the pay-per-view, seven of the 10 bouts ended before the final bell -- four of them within 2 minutes of action. The event included UFC vets Ricco Rodriguez, Joey Beltran and Bec Rawlings, each of whom were victorious. Though the fights quickly turned bloody, it should also be noted that there is legitimate debate about the safety of wearing gloves, as they allow fighters to get hit in the head more. Bare-knuckle boxing, some argue, can reduce brain trauma over the course of a fight since hands get damaged more easily.
There was a visceral electricity to watching something that otherwise tends to take place in parking lots and drunken stupors. For those in attendance, it must have been a similar energy to watching early No Holds Barred fights, even though these bouts were subject to regulation. Still, boxing moved toward greater, more comprehensive rules for a reason: novelty wears off. As bare-knuckle boxing declined, boxing that looked more or less as it does today started to ascend.
The charge of watching bare-knuckle boxing could very well fade into nullity, leaving only a gimmicky product with watered-down talent. If the thrill of naked violence is the core appeal here, why pay money to watch the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship when there are countless free videos of backyard brawls uploaded to the internet every day? As always, I reserve the right to be proven wrong. In fact, I welcome it -- the more options for fighters to make a living and fans to scratch their violent itches without sinking into sociopathy, the better.
It’s rare for something truly new and innovative to take place. The biblical book of Ecclesiastes states that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” The rebuttal to that is a more commonly known axiom: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sometimes it takes breaking down to realize when history has started to rhyme. Yet we all believe ourselves to be the exceptions, and there’s something beautiful and tragicomic to that naïve optimism. Who knows? Maybe this time is the exception.
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.