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Just about every week in this space, I write an op-ed column. Whether the topic is a political unpacking of Jon Jones’ latest misdeed or I’m describing a Ken Shamrock 1990s cable action flick in detail, whether I’m trying to be informative or maybe a little bit glib, I really only have one philosophical motivation: Mixed martial arts is a weird and freakish endeavor, and its bizarre traits inspire both our love and contempt for the sport and its characters.
If you don’t quite get what I’m talking about, please consider UFC Fight Night “McDonald vs. Lineker” on Wednesday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the other major MMA news that went along with the night. It was a perfect mid-week reminder of what a delightful carnival sport we’re all caught up in.
An Ultimate Fighting Championship event on a Wednesday night is a bit of a curveball in itself, but why Sioux Falls, which by 2014 census data is America’s 147th biggest city with a population of 168,000 and change? That was all political brokering by MMA agent Dave Martin, a Sioux Falls resident and attorney whose lobbying of the mayor, governor and other political power players in the state led to the creation of the South Dakota Athletic Commission in 2013 in an effort to improve the climate of MMA in the state. He’s the reason Ed Soares has taken the Resurrection Fighting Alliance to Sioux Falls four times in less than two years.
Martin is also the co-owner of Power MMA in Arizona, home to Ryan Bader, C.B. Dollaway and Aaron Simpson. He has also defended Daunte Culpepper against criminal charges stemming from the Minnesota Vikings’ infamous “Love Boat” debacle, as well as notorious football player Adam “Pacman” Jones, whom he represented in a theft case after his time at West Virginia University. In MMA, unique individuals invariably become strange bedfellows.
What of the card itself? Many fans were down on it when a back injury forced Michael Chiesa out of his lightweight headliner with Tony Ferguson, which was essentially a de facto title eliminator. Chiesa was replaced with unbeaten but largely unknown Landon Vannata, who was the biggest underdog on the card -- as high as +650 on some books by fight time. In actuality, Vannata’s wild offensive stylings led to his nearly stopping Ferguson inside the first five minutes and helping to author one of the best rounds so far in 2016. It also earned Vannata a $50,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus and created a real buzz around his potential, even after being choked out in round two.
Sure, that scenario is “so MMA,” as the kids say, but Ferguson was one of only three favorites who won on the 12-fight card, with a whopping nine underdogs gaining victories, seven of those by way of stoppage. The undercard strangeness doesn’t stop there; if it did, we’d probably be talking about a different sport.
For the purposes of focus and brevity, I will gloss over some of the more peculiar personalities on the undercard: Rani Yahya is a munchkin with a spaced-out personality, some of the very best technical grappling in the entire sport and a pathological, deep-seated obsession with snakes and reptiles, while Sam Alvey is a disconcertingly enthusiastic dude with a head of flaming red hair who married a winner of “America’s Next Top Model” despite comporting himself as “the guy who did too many drugs at a music festival.” Fighters like Yahya and Alvey could get 1,000 words a pop from me anytime on their personalities alone.
Conversely, a heavyweight pairing between Ukraine’s Alexey Oleinik and Poland’s Daniel Omielanczuk seems much more benign in terms of the personalities involved and the context of the fight itself. Instead, fight week saw Bloodyelbow.com’s Karim Zidan report on the background of Oleinik’s Oplot, which was both a fight team and a front for a violent pro-Russian militia in his native Ukraine; the man who co-founded the team with Oleinik, Yevhen Zhilin, is a retired police captain who spent four years in prison on assassination charges. Meanwhile, Oleinik’s perfect UFC record was tarnished, as he lost a bloody majority decision to Omielanczuk, who had tested positive for much-publicized pharmaceutical meldonium in a pre-fight doping test. However, ongoing World Anti-Doping Agency and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency questions about meldonium -- specifically the metabolization of the drug and not yet being able to pinpoint when an athlete took the substance -- led to Omielanczuk not being suspended, being allowed to fight and, in turn, gaining the biggest win of his career.
In the repackaged main event, former UFC interim bantamweight title challenger and once-prized prospect Michael McDonald was blown out of the water by the 135-pound division’s hottest emerging contender: 5-foot-3 blown-up flyweight John Lineker, whose fight style is entirely comprised of what Quinton Jackson refers to as “throwing bungalows.” Yes, in Sioux Falls, Lineker -- a tiny Brazilian man with a mohawk who was literally named after English football great Gary Lineker -- proved, to me at least, that he’s the most devastating pound-for-pound puncher in MMA.
Some statistics for context: By knocking McDonald down twice, Lineker is now the 16th fighter in UFC history to have 10 or more knockdowns in his Octagon career. However, Lineker is the only one of those fighters to do it at bantamweight or lighter, despite the fact that many still question if his Lilliputian height and reach will allow him to be effective in the division. On top of that, despite all of his fights being pure fisticuffs, Lineker has never been knocked down in his UFC tenure.
The only other UFC fighter ever with 10 or more knockdowns while never having been knocked down is Anthony Johnson, who typically takes the crown in any conversation about the absolute biggest hitters in MMA. However, Lineker is almost literally half Johnson’s size, and unlike “Rumble,” who has a devastating kicking game and is also a very serviceable wrestler, Lineker doesn’t really do anything except punch, punch, punch, punch, punch. Plus, Johnson’s reputation for instant destruction is now so well-known that almost all of his opponents try to avoid exchanging with him at all. Meanwhile, many of Lineker’s opponents -- like McDonald or Francisco Rivera, another enormous hitter -- end up indulging “Hands of Stone” in exactly the sort of fight he needs in order to prevail.
So here we are. Prospects like Cody Garbrandt, Aljamain Sterling and Thomas Almeida needing much more seasoning before taking a UFC title bid. That means that unless T.J. Dillashaw can even the score with Dominick Cruz and regain the bantamweight championship to prolong their feud, the biggest threat to the 135-pound crown is the sport’s pound-for-pound king of punching, a man who on paper seems made-to-order for the technical, stylish and well-rounded likes of Cruz and Dillashaw. If a Lineker UFC title fight becomes a reality, it will be one of the purest examples of “the puncher’s chance” in MMA history.
If all that wasn’t weird enough for you, you could have stayed up to watch the Fox Sports 1 post-fight show, where UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping fielded questions about why he’s rematching MMA legend Dan Henderson, 4-6 in his last 10 bouts, instead of any one of the elite contenders at 185 pounds right now. He was also asked to consider the even odder fact that many in the MMA world preferred Henderson as Bisping’s first title defense on account of how “Hendo” clobbered him in their famous UFC 100 contest.
Maybe you stayed up a bit later than that and checked out Twitter, only to see UFC President Dana White’s name included on the list of speakers for the Republican National Convention, which takes place July 18-21 in Cleveland. White, who was already teased by presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump as a potential speaker, will take part in a series of speeches on the economy during the second night of the convention. Alongside White: Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Kentucky Sen. and House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former United States Attorney General Michael Mukasey, among others. Yes, Republican devotees can show up to the Quicken Loans Arena and find out whether they have what it takes to be a [expletive] ultimate fighter in the modern neoliberal economy. No word on whether White will go into deep detail on the millions he and the Fertitta brothers spent over their years backing Nevada Sen. and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, as well as a host of Democratic outfits in New York state in their pitched battle against Culinary Union Local 226 and in an effort to get MMA regulated in “The Empire State.”
That’s a lot of weird to take in, especially in the middle of your work week. Yet this is MMA. For us fight freaks, it’s just another Wednesday night in a surreal, uneasy paradise.