Bull Ropes and BS: 'Respect' and Fan Foolery

By Jordan Breen Aug 11, 2008
After a 15-minute emasculation of Heath Herring (Pictures), even in the face of other notable Saturday night happenings, I was fully aware Brock Lesnar (Pictures) was going to dominate my inbox come Sunday morning. However, I expected most of the discussion to be centered on his obvious potential as a heavyweight, with requests for me to impersonate Joe Silva by forecasting Lesnar's future fighting engagements.

Instead, I have been swarmed with and puzzled by dozens and dozens of choleric and venomous messages from incensed fans who have apparently suffered damaged psyches at the hands of Brock Lesnar's in-cage antics.

That's right: Lesnar's curb-stomping of Herring is no longer the issue. What's really important, what's really stuck in the craw of fans, is Brock Lesnar laughing at Herring while assaulting him, and an imaginary bull roping of the Texan following the fight.

This is seriously an issue?

We're embroiled in an unfortunate era of professional athletics where major sports leagues have become comically stringent toward the perceived "excesses" of celebration. The NFL has been tabbed "the No Fun League,” has had to ban the use of "props,” and regularly hands out "excessive celebration" penalties. In the NBA, you can wag your finger to the crowd, but do it in the direction of an opposing player, and you're facing a fine, never mind the resulting insanity if you make a throat slash, or throw up a Roc-a-Fella dynasty diamond with your fingers. Major League Baseball? Fist pump too hard in the wrong inning after a strikeout, and feel the wrath of millions of crusty octogenarians who still keep score in their pocketbooks at the ball park.

Your most hardened sports fans may see contemporary celebrations as a tad on the ridiculous side, but can still acknowledge that even the most inane dance and pantomime is nothing to be vexed by. In fact, it probably adds a little something to the game by introducing a measure of villainy. If sports fans are to lament this hyper-individualistic era of athletics, shouldn't we have individual antagonists?

However, if this is the overwhelming sentiment from general sports fans, why are so many MMA fans angered by Brock Lesnar's Saturday night shenanigans?

"Does he know he's in a real sport now?" one rankled emailer wrote me. "This is not how MMA fighters in the biggest organization in the world act. He should have looked at the guy in the main event, and taken notes."

My only question: Which guy in the main event? The guy who breakdances and back-flips after victory, or the guy who mean-mugs at the camera, snarling and sneering?

You can't throw up a post-fight fist pump without punching another elite level MMA fighter with a post-fight trademark. Chuck Liddell (Pictures) screams. Takanori Gomi (Pictures) surfs on the turnbuckle, and Eddie Alvarez (Pictures) back-flips off of it. Thiago Silva (Pictures) and Josh Barnett (Pictures) have the market cornered on throat slashing. Yushin Okami (Pictures) shows off his swordsmanship. Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures) assails cameramen. This truncated list doesn't even account for those who are prone to spontaneous post-fight celebration like BJ Penn, who is liable to lick his opponent's blood or dead-sprint to the locker room after a W, or Anderson Silva (Pictures), who has dressed up in full Moonwalker garb and given us rhythm guitar lessons after kayos. All of these actions are just as much overtures to the soul of pro-wrestling as those of Lesnar, who is still chided for his WWE wrasslin' tenure.

So, either we have a predictable double-standard at work, or there's some other overlooked aspect.

After responding to another up-in-arms emailer by pointing out that MMA is rife and rich with celebratory silliness, I got a response that perhaps gets us to the kernel of the matter.

"Fighters like BJ and Anderson are free to do whatever they want after they win because they earned it," I was told. "Lesnar has two wins in MMA. He isn't the UFC champion. He just makes an unsportsmanlike ass out of himself. Laughing the way he did during the fight was classless."

Never mind the absurd notion that the ability to celebrate athletic triumph is reserved for top-10 fighters. Am I really to believe that four months and change removed from Mike Kyle (Pictures) getting a televised fight on one of the biggest fight cards of the year, and with Gilbert Yvel (Pictures) just having signed with Dream, that Brock Lesnar's lukewarm cowboy impression are really indicative of unsportsmanlike conduct in MMA?

If Brock Lesnar wants to laugh at his opponents during a fight as he did to Herring, so be it. If his opponents don't want to be mocked in the middle of a match, they ought to learn how to do more than turtle perpetually.

Some cranky old football purists lament the state of the game, but laud more contemporary figures like Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson because when they score touchdowns, they simply hand the ball to the referee.

"Act like you've been there before," they all pseudo-wistfully say. But Brock Lesnar didn't dive the pile from the two yard line. In his third pro MMA fight, he beat a perennially solid albeit unspectacular heavyweight, in the biggest MMA organization in the world, in front of a partisan crowd on a major pay-per-view. Let the man get his bull rope on. Heath Herring fights in a cage for a living -- I think he can handle an imaginary lasso.

Although traditional martial arts have become scorned and derided in many MMA contexts, there still exists an almost cartoonish, Ken Shamrock (Pictures)-esque obsession with the idea of "respect" in MMA, and that those who don't abide are in violation of some mystical modern samurai code. The fact of the matter is that the sport we watch and enjoy isn't some overwrought honorific combative ritual. It's a prizefight, with grown-ass men trying to prove who the alpha male is. While we all certainly want to see fighters fight clean, hard, and fair, I fail to recognize why some fans are keen to demonize showboating more so than actual in-fight lawlessness.

If you want a testament to the power and place that pro-wrestling gimmickry and showboating have in this sport, look no further than Tito Ortiz (Pictures). His maybe, maybe-not signing with Affliction was the biggest story of last week in the MMA world, despite the looming UFC 87 card. And what for? Ortiz hasn't beaten an elite-level opponent in years. In fact, his period of dominance in the sport is hard to remember in terms of actual action. Apart from slamming Evan Tanner (Pictures) through the floor, and his commercially successful but competitively handicapped smashing of Ken Shamrock, what do you remember about Tito Ortiz's UFC title reign, except for the Belfort fight being cancelled 60 times and him not fighting Chuck Liddell (Pictures)? You remember the six-shooter pistols. You remember flipping the double birds. You remember the Gravedigger. And for some reason, years later, he's still worth millions when he fights, and that includes your hard-earned dollars.

I'm not long for this world of "Great fight, bro,” and shared embraces for any remotely competitive fight. While I could do without a sport full of Ricardo Mayorgas, I'm all for some good old-fashioned pro-wrestling heel tactics. American MMA needs to step up its game anyhow: Ricardo Arona (Pictures) doesn't have a major deal, Josh Koscheck (Pictures) isn't singing "19-1", and Tim Sylvia (Pictures) still just wants to be loved. Since Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures) is well-settled (and well-compensated) as Japan's super-villain, somebody needs to angrily galvanize the MMA public.

If Lesnar's laugh-and-lasso annoyed, offended or even outraged you: good. But if you think for a minute that there's "no place" for this pro-wrestling gimmickry in MMA, Dana White will chap your thin hide all the way to bank. And thank God, because I've had all the clichéd "respect" I can handle.

(PS: Enjoy Gilbert Yvel's Dream debut.)
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