Opinion: Mixed Martial Artistry

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.

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All great art is narrative in some way. Not that a piece of art needs to tell a story in order to be great, but what truly distinguishes something is its place in a larger context. While good art of any sort can be defined by the immediacy of its aesthetic, great art exists in narrative crosshairs that make it representative of something bigger than itself. It’s why classic paintings can capture a period of history as much as any account of facts or why our favorite songs tend to be the ones that bring us back to specific moments from our lives; they’re intertwined with the things going on around them in a fundamental, inseparable way.

By any metric, Nate Diaz-Conor McGregor 2 at UFC 202 on Saturday was great art. It was a perfect blend of what we love about this sport, and it couldn’t have happened at a more perfect time.

It contained all the grit, heart and technique you could ask for in a fight. Though both the first fight and the rematch were panned for being meaningless inasmuch as rankings and titles are concerned, the matchup’s aesthetic of outright fun has never been questioned. In this way, the rematch did not disappoint. Throughout the course of five rounds, they took turns finding their rhythm and falling victim to their weaknesses one moment and exploiting each other’s the next.

The Irishman landed flush left crosses that dropped Diaz several times in the opening frames, bobbing and weaving around the attacks of his slow-starting foe in patented McGregor fashion. It was a reminder that, despite his entertaining brand of verbal warfare, “Notorious” has always cashed his checks through spectacular in-cage performances.

Then, when Diaz found his groove, he was countering cleanly while putting his hands down, pushing McGregor back with his trademark Stockton Slap, pointing and laughing at his prey as he stalked him and communicating in the universal sign language of an upright middle finger. It was a showcase of Diaz in his most Diaz-esque, most fully realized form.

Expectedly, the fact that both men turned in vintage performances made it so the result was somewhat controversial, which only enhances its lore. Aside from rounds one and three, which clearly belonged to McGregor and Diaz -- and let’s be honest, either of those rounds could have been scored 10-8 with little argument from me -- every other round was reasonably debatable. A signal of great art, in any medium, is its ability to ignite conversation, thoughtful or not. This fight did exactly that. Yet for all its clearly discernible aesthetic value of being fun and entertaining, what sets Diaz-McGregor 2 apart from almost every other fight this year is the context in which it took place.

This year -- hell, the last six weeks -- has seen more behind-the-scenes movement than any time period I can remember. Even the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s run of buying Pride Fighting Championships and Strikeforce and absorbing World Extreme Cagefighting, while tumultuous and exciting, took place over the course of four years. In the past few months alone, the UFC sold for billions of dollars, weigh-ins were moved to the morning, United States Anti-Doping Agency controversies have erupted several times and fighter pay has been more centrally focal than ever before, culminating in the preliminary formation of fighter unions. Even if none of this is personally exciting, the effects of these things have an undeniable impact on the sport, and the UFC 202 headlining rematch exists at the intersection of all of these stories.

However justified you think McGregor’s press conference power plays are or are not, the fact of the matter is that they come at a time of increased importance. Now that the UFC is under new ownership, the tug-of-war between labor and management is tenser than ever. I’m not convinced that McGregor’s actions were altruistic by any means, but they still set the tone for what the company can reasonably demand of its independent contractors and how relations will be settled; apparently, skipping out on media obligations altogether is no bueno, but showing up late and/or leaving early is fine. As fighters become more emboldened, it will be interesting to see how they will toe that fine line from here on out.

Of course, weight was a significant narrative thread here, too. Despite the debatable idea that McGregor and Diaz were fighting a single division up from their natural weight classes, the size advantage that belonged to Diaz was in plain view. Martial arts have traditionally maintained an ethos of mind over matter, skill over brute force. The first fight was a victory for the more rational view that size does matter and that it can have more impact on the outcome of a fight than skill differential. The rematch flipped the script and showed that smaller fighters, if they fight intelligently, can still defy what should be physical limits. It was a tip of the hat to why many of us fell in love with martial arts in the first place, this idea that the dictates of reality are not as unilaterally imposed upon us as we tend to think.

The effects of drug testing and policy were visible, too, and not just at the post-fight presser when Diaz openly smoked CBD oil; that was a ballsy move in its own right, as CBD oil is still technically illegal in most states and tends to have trace amounts of THC in it. Regardless of how that plays out, the fact remains that Nick Diaz wasn’t allowed to corner his little brother because of a positive drug test that the Nevada Athletic Commission can’t even prove is real. In wake of superstar positive PED pops from Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar, the willful ignorance surrounding marijuana -- and all its component parts -- looks more petty and uninformed than ever.

The final piece of big news coming out of this fight was the guaranteed multi-million dollar purses for both McGregor and Diaz, an unprecedented payout in the history of the sport. This comes at a time when fighter pay is an ever-present issue. Again, I have my reservations about the idea that either of them negotiated these seven-figure checks out of a sense of pugilistic fraternity, but their motives don’t matter. They are paving the way for others to leverage their worth into larger paydays. Already we see more fighters lobbying for money fights, and why wouldn’t they? If you’re going to put yourself through incredible physical rigors, you might as well pad the bank account as much as possible. Though it will probably be a while before the average “12 and 12” fighter sees this trickle down in any meaningful way, it’s at least a step in the right direction to see the people whose backs bear the burden of the sport get theirs.

Indeed, the main event between McGregor and Diaz was artful. We saw McGregor evolve and overcome a stylistic kryptonite that was exacerbated by a meaningful size difference. We saw Diaz put on another violent crescendo of style and craft, only to lose in a conspiracy-conducive way. We saw the aesthetic appeal of pugilism. We saw the courage and stubbornness that define human resilience represented in a manner that was both brutish and sophisticated. We saw the best and worst of two of MMA’s most iconic fighters simultaneously in flux, both battling back from adversity more than once. As storylines played out within and around the fight, we saw glimpses of something bigger than fighting manifest in 25 minutes that were as messy, chaotic and beautiful as anything else in life. Regardless of where you fall on the issue of artistic mimesis, the relationship between reality and art is a blurry one, and this fight walked that line in exciting, compelling fashion.

From the bottle-throwing beginning and the finger-flipping climax to the bro-hugging denouement, the fight posed -- and answered -- questions about the UFC and the sport as a whole. More importantly, it left room for an epic epilogue, another chapter waiting to be written in the rubber match. What better narrative end point is there than one of uncertainty and open-ended potential?

Speaking strictly from a sporting perspective, this was a meaningless fight. Art often is meaningless; it doesn’t keep us alive or fulfill our animal needs. Art doesn’t need to, nor does it need to arrive at some Significant Place. It just needs to make us feel something, to respond to it organically and honestly. For 25 minutes, that’s what Diaz-McGregor 2 did, and it did so as well as any painting, film, song or poem can.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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