Opinion: Politics, UFC 205 and What It Means to Fight

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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There’s a common phenomenon that coincides with every Conor McGregor fight: Friends and family members who otherwise don’t care about MMA whatsoever suddenly ask me questions about “the fights this weekend.” The questions generally boil down to “Who is McGregor’s opponent?” and “Is McGregor going to win?” It’s a testament to how broad the Irishman’s reach has become.

At this point it’s hard to deny that everything feels bigger with McGregor. I’m not only talking about the verifiable things -- the gate records, the pay-per-view buys, the paychecks -- but also the general, abstract feeling. A McGregor event reliably evokes an air that it’s something more than just a fight card. It’s The McGregor Fight; it’s bigger than it actually is.

This whole week was like that, sort of. While the mood surrounding UFC 205 on Saturday was that of an excited largeness, with the full velocity of a historical venue and a legitimately stacked card behind it, the atmosphere of the week leading up to it was one of pensive sobriety. The presidential election concluded, finally, and people retreated back into whatever it was they felt about the results. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of responses to the outcome, from gloating to rioting, there was a feeling that we were all collectively experiencing something larger than just another presidential election. It was a nationwide hangover following an especially toxic election season.

Politics permeated the event. Beyond the election, Madison Square Garden was a big deal in part because it was off-limits for so long, and it was off-limits because of politics. McGregor was aiming to become and -- spoiler alert -- ended up becoming the first fighter to hold Ultimate Fighting Championship titles in different weight classes simultaneously. That may not strike you as something political, but it made me think of UFC 41 and how B.J. Penn’s glaringly obvious win over Caol Uno was inexplicably called a draw, leaving the lightweight belt vacant. Coincidentally, the UFC pumped the brakes on the lightweight division entirely for the next three and a half years. Penn’s next UFC fight earned him the welterweight championship. “With all due respect to McGregor,” I thought while watching him brilliantly and effortlessly put Eddie Alvarez down again and again, “this consecutive belt thing basically already happened.”

Sounds ridiculous, right? It probably is, but we all cling to things that are intellectually convenient. By nature, humans are creatures of immediacy -- creatures of small, easy thinking. I’ll spare you the intricate mental gymnastics I’ve invented for considering Penn the first true two-division MMA champion, but know that it exists.

Of all the post-election analysis I’ve read -- and good God have I drained too many hours into reading post-election analysis -- the one that makes the most sense to me is the idea that we all live in our own bubbles. Pundits have discussed regional bubbles, socioeconomic bubbles, ideological bubbles, everything you can think of to paint one group or another as out of touch. It’s why anti-Trumpers are so quick to paint every Trump supporter as a dumb racist, as if people they’ve known their entire lives suddenly became monstrously evil overnight. It’s also why Trump supporters are so quick to dismiss the very real and legitimate fears and anxieties of anti-Trumpers, as if they never actually listened to the man they supported. It’s always “them” who don’t get it; “they” are the ones out of touch.

The term “out of touch” itself is myopic, since connection between people goes two ways, but mostly what all this talk misses is the fact that it is a predictably human feature to surround ourselves in our own comfortable bubbles. The moments we reach out of them to seek connection with others, even if just to simply ask whether or not McGregor is going to win, are rare.

I can already see the comment section railing against the infiltration of politics into a column following what may be the biggest MMA event ever, and so be it. You can’t separate politics from sports, since the actors involved in the games we love are real people who exist in the real world. Sports are not a sanctuary from the rest of the world; they’re a lens through which to perceive it.

I want to be clear: UFC 205 was not the same as the presidential election. I don’t mean to trivialize the significance of this election, nor do I want to taint the honesty of a fight with polemics. If anything, the idea that there are winners and losers in politics like there are in sports is part of the problem in my mind. However, for a few hours, millions of people who exist at various points along various continuums in life were able to step outside of their own bubbles and forget the divisive ugliness of the political climate to watch people punch each other. This says something about the state of political discourse, of course, but it also says something about this sport. Mixed martial arts may not, as my esteemed colleague Todd Martin puts it, have the power to heal the world and bring happiness to all its people, but it may not be a bad place to start, either. We’re divided for so many serious reasons, it kind of makes sense that we can come together over something not so serious, even if only for a short time.

My parents came to visit me in Korea last week, and they flew out the night of the election. We see the world from opposite viewpoints on the political spectrum, and given the nature of this election, their final day was more than a little tense. As vote counts trickled in and our phones buzzed with different types of messages for the same reasons, conversation switched gears. “Who’s McGregor fighting this weekend? Is he going to win?”

It was nice to remember the bubbles I’ve put myself in, to come up for air in a larger, shared space. It was nice to have a conversation.

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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