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.
MMA is a sport of moments. Each one is permeated with a unique blend of emotions, a mixture of excitement, nervousness, anticipation and surprise. The moment a bout gets announced. The moment fighters stare each other down for the first time. The lightless silence right before the walkout music starts blaring. The moment the cage door closes. The moment you became a fan.
Or as Chan Sung Jung reminded us, the moment in a fight where everything can instantly change. Against Yair Rodriguez at UFC Fight Night 139 on Saturday in Denver, “The Korean Zombie” won more moments than he lost. At the end of four frames, two judges had given him three rounds, while the other had the fight tied at two rounds apiece. The final round was more of the same, which is to say action-packed back-and-forth brawling that could have gone either way. Jung was a lock to notch, at the very least, a split decision win. He was only moments away. That’s the thing about MMA, though. Moments matter.
The instantaneity of a fight is what makes it so exhilarating. It only takes a split second to upend an entire fight’s worth of work. If a basketball team is down double digits, it has to get stops on defense and go on a scoring spree. Football requires a coordinated effort from completely different personnel to come back from a large deficit. Most sports demand a period of sustained excellence to change the final result, and even in games like soccer that can also instantaneously change, those moments of dramatic potential don’t come around often. MMA is full of them.
In the opening moments of the fifth round, Rodriguez and Jung embraced in the middle of the cage. They were both aware they were creating something special together. “That’s what you love about mixed martial arts,” said commentator Brendan Fitzgerald. The show of mutual respect, the recognition that the opponent possesses the very traits to which they themselves aspire -- these are moments of beauty that clash with the visceral ugliness of combat. Yet they aren’t contradictory to any of us. In fact, those kinds of displays are, as Fitzgerald said, a large part of what we like about MMA: its true-to-life complexity. A fight is simultaneously virtuous and barbaric in the same way life is at once painfully beautiful and beautifully painful. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish which is which, in life or a fight.
This is one of the many ways in which a fight is a distillation of life. It’s easy to see how that connection is made. We all see ourselves as the hero of our own story, the main event fighter who is both the favorite and the underdog at the same time. Life feels like a series of fights -- for acceptance, understanding, success, validation. We win, we lose, we fight again. Watching a fight becomes a kind of vicarious wish-fulfillment, since most fights in our personal lives don’t involve opponents directly in front of us and are thus much less honest. If only we could knock out indecision, submit failure and at the very least take a decision, even a split one, over the doldrums of routine. However, life is not a fight. There are no referees or judges, and our most important bouts are fought without anyone watching.
Yet that’s the existential balm of being a fight fan, beneath the immediate thrills of high-level violence. They make us believe that no matter how much we’re down in our own fights we’re perpetually only a single moment away from changing everything. As long as a single second is left, a victory is possible. Moments matter.
Halfway into the fifth round between Rodriguez and Jung, there was a moment of calm where both men stopped and soaked in the moment: the numbness of adrenaline, the exhaustion in their bodies, the roar of the crowd, the eager anticipation for a moment to happen; and it did happen, at the very last moment possible, in the most surprising and spectacular fashion imaginable. It was exactly the kind of moment that makes this sport what it is. At once, dreams were both crushed and realized. Beauty and pain, in all their combinations, shared the cage together.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has provided 25 years’ worth of moments, some incredible and inspirational, some exasperating and vile. Sometimes those opposites are inseparable, and sometimes they happen at the same time. Sometimes they’re hard to tell apart. That’s the fight game. That’s life. Soak it in.
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.