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Israel Adesanya was all wound up, as most of us were, when Alexander Volkanovski fended off Brian Ortega in the UFC 266 main event on Saturday in Las Vegas.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder, clearly invested in the outcome of his Australian teammate’s latest title defense, posted a video on Monday that captured his real-as-it-gets reaction when Ortega attempted a pair of dangerous submissions during an incredible third round—among the best five minutes of MMA so far this year. Ortega had been punished and pressured through the first half of the bout, then he nearly turned everything on its head by snatching a guillotine choke that tested Volkanovski’s limits while his shaved scalp turned various shades of purple.
“I thought it was done,” Ortega said in the Octagon after the unanimous five-round decision went to Volkanovski. “That’s what we train for exactly, my whole camp. Like I said, I was trying to come for his head, but that little bastard is tough as hell, man. I wrapped onto that neck. I tried to squeeze it. Trust me, I tried to finish him. I heard him gurgling and he f---ing slipped out, and I was like, ‘F---.’”
For a variety of reasons—relief, stress, exhilaration, gambling concerns, getting carried away by an honest to goodness moment, whatever it may be—many of us, including Adesanya, would probably concur with Ortega’s assessment. That was certainly the case moments later, after Volkanvoski expertly escaped a deep triangle choke, reversed Ortega and rained down a barrage of damaging strikes.
What a roller coaster ride that was.
UFC 266 offered several reminders that not much out there can match the thrill of combat sports, especially when a fighter gives everything he has despite being on the wrong end of a literal beating. This is the Faustian bargain MMA watchers make when celebrating, idolizing or spinning away the damage that fighters take. Still, we revel in tenacity so intense it can appear abnormal on a superhuman level.
If you think about the fights you love, how many also turned on a dime? This right here is the secret sauce that makes MMA unpredictably chaotic and intoxicating. From entry-level kids and established contenders to the best of all-time, fighters operate in a reality that most athletes only deal in metaphorically. At its core, MMA is a test of transitions. Skill to skill. Range to range. Heart to heart. Moment to moment. Trouble to triumph.
That creates scenarios for fighters like Georgian bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili, who survived a difficult and furious opening frame before flipping the script on Marlon Moraes.
“I got hurt,” Dvalisvhili said following his stunning second-round stoppage of Moraes on the UFC 266 undercard, “but you gotta kill me to stop me.”
Combat sports does not have a monopoly on the mentality—all serious competitors find moments to embrace “kill or be killed,” no matter what venue they occupy—but in the fight game, if the going gets tough, it actually gets really rough.
Fortitude is a pillar of combat sports and, to be sure, any competitive and athletic endeavor. However, this goes back to UFC President Dana White’s adage that humans have a basic need to gawk at fights on street corners, or at Wal-Marts, or mini-marts, or Dairy Queen parking lots, or cages in arenas near you, or wherever it is that people roam and throw down. Sometimes when they do, they get rewarded with a memory that connects them to something bigger than themselves. That’s worth saying out loud because, as spectators, few experiences match the range of emotions that occur when fighters, forced to defend themselves, completely turn the tables.
By definition, the greatest fighters earn the distinction because more often than not they survive these situations. Beyond the talent, work and everything else that makes a person capable of fighting for a living, the willingness to walk through fire to find a better place on the other side makes them, well, them.
Anderson Silva had been a dominant force six defenses into his UFC middleweight reign, and it took tapping Chael Sonnen after being on the receiving end of a beating for nearly 25 minutes to affirm the Brazilian’s greatness with one of the most dramatic late-match comebacks in UFC history.
Fedor Emelianenko is forever an all-time great, thanks to a long run atop the heavyweight division that would have been impossible without the Russian’s ability to survive trouble, keep his wits and counter attack. Going from the chicken dance into an immediate finish of Kazayuki Fujita; being driven head first into the canvas by Kevin Randleman, then nailing a quick sub; getting rocked by a Mirko Filipovic high kick, then fighting back; being clipped by Brett Rogers before knocking the man’s head off on CBS. Each dance with danger imprinted Emelianenko onto the minds of anyone who watched him.
How many ways did Wanderlei Silva or Eddie Alvarez or Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Scott Smith dig themselves out of cavernous holes? Not every time but enough to be remembered regardless of a result on a given day. When Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua met in their classic bout a decade ago, the fight was a series of peaks and valleys. The journey between those two points might cause a person to show respect with a gentle nodding of the head when they think of what the fighters did that night. How about the fact that Brock Lesnar choked Shane Carwin after being pummeled by one of the heaviest-fisted fighters in MMA? Remember the emotional aftermath and feeling spent? On and on they pop up, these testaments to resilience and desire that get people like us and people like Adesanya out of our seats just the same.
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