Opinion: The Cruelty of MMA, as Seen at UFC 257

By Lev Pisarsky Feb 1, 2021

I've loved MMA ever since I first watched it 26 years ago, when I was 8 years old. Nowadays, it's the only sport I seriously follow, and one I'm incapable of being tired of, even when I watch over 20 hours of fights in a week. I doubt that will change as long as I live, and yet I've always recognized the intrinsic, awful cruelty of the sport. What do I mean by that? Essentially, that bad events happen to good people. More specifically, highly talented, motivated fighters who do all the right things in terms of preparation and attitude—and are frequently very likable to boot—are nevertheless met with harsh, painful, even miserable results. UFC 257 provided two very prominent examples of this, one more obvious and the other less so.

Exhibit A: Dan Hooker

The outcome of Hooker vs. Michael Chandler was always going to be cruel, regardless of the victor. In fact, my very last article was about how amazing Chandler was, and how downright cruel it would be if his greatness were dismissed after losing to a great foe in Hooker. Of course, Chandler scored a spectacular triumph, and is finally getting the recognition and respect he has deserved for over a decade.

But the flipside of this is how bitter of a result it is for his opponent. Consider that in his last fight, one of the greatest in MMA history, Hooker dominated Dustin Poirier, the winner of the UFC 257 main event, for the first two rounds and had his moments in the final three. Moreover, he came very close to knocking out Poirier in the second round, a fact the Louisianan readily admitted. Hooker was a whisker away from being at the pinnacle of the lightweight division, possibly challenging Conor McGregor and/or fighting for the vacant championship. For what it's worth, as someone who confidently picked Poirier to defeat McGregor in the Sherdog Pick 'Em, I believe Hooker would defeat the Irishman, as well.

But what happened instead? Hooker came into the Chandler bout as motivated and hungry as ever to prove his own greatness in the co-main event of a major pay-per-view. He fought intelligently, choosing to circle and evade Chandler in the first round, when the American is at his fastest and most explosive. He circled away from Chandler’s power, all according to the text. Alas, he was just a little too predictable and Chandler set up a beautiful left hook that caught him. That's all it took, and Hooker was knocked out.

Now Hooker, who has fought 30 times in his career and been a pro for nearly 12 years, is suddenly very far from the top of the lightweight division, and must train and sacrifice for many more fights simply to get back to the same level. He was so very close to a spectacular victory against Poirier, and now, that point is a distant vision. It takes so little!

To add insult to injury, Hooker taking the fight against Chandler meant that, due to a series of quarantine protocols, he is separated from his family in New Zealand for almost two months. After his knockout loss, he has to stay in Dubai for four weeks away from his wife and young daughter, and then has another two-week quarantine back in New Zealand. Hooker posted the following heartbreaking picture of leaving his little girl, whom he won't be able to see for another month:

As one final kick in the teeth, while Hooker is in Dubai, he can watch Gilbert Burns, a man he knocked out in half a round, challenge for the welterweight championship in the headliner of UFC 258. One can certainly understand why even a warrior as tough as Hooker is contemplating retirement.

Exhibit B: Amanda Ribas

Last year, I wrote an article about women's MMA looking for a new superstar on the level of a Ronda Rousey, and how Rousey was such a unique talent — love or hate her.

In that article, I listed three qualities Rousey had:

1. A mystique of being dominant and unbeatable
2. Delivering exciting, one-sided fights
3. Being subjectively attractive, with an ability to cross over into the entertainment mainstream.

Well, until UFC 257, Ribas was doing a damn good job of checking off the same three boxes. She had displayed outstanding skill in her first four UFC fights, all one-sided victories. She was an excellent grappler who would take down opponents and brutalize them with ground-and-pound and her BJJ. But she was also a very good striker who beat up foes on the feet, and showed fine movement and defense. She was also smart, choosing to strictly stand against Mackenzie Dern, even when she was on her back, relying on grappling against Van Zant and Whitmire, and mixing the two against Randa Markos. All of her victories were incredibly dominant. She never even came close to losing a round, delivered a shellacking to tough veteran Markos, and was clearly being groomed for superstardom with her match-up over a departing Paige Van Zant.

Moreover, Ribas was as likable in terms of her personality as her appearance. She would always laugh and smile in interviews and after a fight, showcasing a genuine love for the sport and everything that comes with it. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and she already has a much larger social media following than most UFC champions. Ribas also works as a correspondent for UFC Brazil, and seems a natural television personality. In a sport where every athlete has those who don't care for them, I have never heard or seen a fan state they dislike Ribas.

With all this going for her heading into the pay-per-view opener against fellow Brazilian Marina Rodriguez, Ribas didn't neglect her preparation, either. She looked very sharp in the first round, and wisely relied on her grappling, avoiding Rodriguez's dangerous Muy Thai. Already a large -300 favorite before the fight, Ribas was an enormous -1100 favorite after Round 1. And yet, Ribas was betrayed by a quality she had little control over. Namely, the toughness of her chin. There had been concerns about this, since her lone loss prior to the UFC had been a knockout defeat to Polyana Viana, hardly a big puncher. This had been chalked up to various factors, such as Ribas slipping on the ring logo or her being only 22. But it revealed a genuine weakness, one that can't be trained or improved, and Rodriguez, a more skilled and heavier striker than Viana, took vicious advantage of it early in round 2, knocking out Ribas.

And thus, a seemingly can't-miss future WMMA superstar in Ribas finds herself knocked down multiple pegs while doing all the right things. Ribas can still become a significant star, but it's questionable whether she will ever attain a mystique of being unbeatable or whether she can withstand the strikes of a Weili Zhang if she challenges for the title. It's a cruel turn of fate, if less obvious than with Hooker.

Ultimately, I believe this cruelty makes MMA even more appealing. After all, as much as we like action and comedy, who doesn't appreciate a great work of tragedy? And this capricious, unjust fate in MMA, often in the form of its competitors being knocked out or badly beaten up, is more stark and poignant than, say, a team losing a basketball game or a tennis player a match. Among other qualities, UFC 257 gave us two very powerful examples of the agony of defeat.

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