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The new school year in Korea begins with the new calendar year. As such, I got to know my new batch of students this week. Introductory classes are always boring and a little dry, since they mostly exist to learn names, highlight important dates and go over expectations. However, the first day is when I explain the theme of my class, which is really what I try to make the theme of my life in general: to embrace failure. It’s a typical teacher truism, and I’m aware of how cheesy it can sound, but I genuinely believe it. We are, after all, human, and failure is inevitable. What matters is not avoiding failure but developing the ability to learn from it.
UFC 207 on Friday provided two case studies in how to fail and how now to fail. Especially for the “New Year-New Me” resolution crowd, the ways in which former champions Dominick Cruz and Ronda Rousey dealt with their defeats are instructive.
Before I get too deep in the weeds, props are due to the winners of those fights. I was among the many who, having watched and reviewed every minute of Cody Garbrandt’s Ultimate Fighting Championship career, assumed his path to victory was singular and improbable, that he needed a big knockout blow to walk home with the belt. Instead, he showcased a multi-faceted game plan and executed it near-perfectly. It may sound odd to say this given his in-cage shenanigans, but Garbrandt was much more mature than I gave him credit for. He was patient and technical, and he capitalized on his athletic advantages because of it. He got the better of most exchanges, dictated the range and made Cruz play into his game for the majority of the fight. It was a stunning, breakthrough performance for someone who I, admittedly, otherwise wrote off.
As for Amanda Nunes, her performance wasn’t as much of a surprise as Garbrandt’s, but it was no less spectacular for it. “The Lioness” didn’t simply overwhelm Rousey with physicality and athleticism; she relegated the former champion to lower technical tier. There are no doubts about Nunes being the superior striker and overall fighter, and it’s not even close. Now that we are a few days removed from the fight, it’s easy to look at the way she demolished Rousey as some predetermined inevitability; and since only one of their combined 14 UFC fights leading up to UFC 207 had gone to the judges, it felt like a safe bet that it was going to end quickly. Still, there were very real question marks about how Rousey was going to perform, and even though the worst of our suspicions were confirmed on fight night, Nunes also exceeded expectations by walking through the most dominant female champion the UFC has ever had.
Both the men’s and women’s bantamweight champions had big, possibly career-defining wins, but the obverse sides of those fights are worth exploring.
As of right now, Cruz is still the greatest and most accomplished bantamweight in the history of the sport. It’s a young history, of course, but his achievements are still impressive. Since his debut at 135 pounds in 2008, Cruz went undefeated with a slew of title-fight wins in World Extreme Cagefighting and the UFC, got injured and sat on the shelf for extended periods of time on two separate occasions and still came back to reclaim his title and defend it. It’s a remarkable story, and it helps to explain why the first thing he said in the post-fight presser was, “What was tough about [the fight]?” He explained: “Loss is part of life. If you don’t have loss, you don’t grow. This isn’t tough; this is life.” Each of those sentences individually is cheesy and cliché -- and absolutely accurate.
Cruz showed up to face questions after his first loss in nearly a decade. He made no excuses in evaluating his performance and his opponent, and he did so in the same cold analytical style that makes his pre-fight trash talk a treasure to behold. He said that whatever hate he gets from fans is both expected and inconsequential: “I’ve definitely had a lot of dislike thrown at me, but I also feel a lot of love.” The type of honest reflection he vocalized -- to say the belt is important to him and that he loved holding it, yet he’s still capable of being happy without it -- is rare and refreshing, and it shows that Cruz is a levelheaded and remarkably adjusted human being on top of being a phenomenal fighter.
The virtues of Cruz are easier to appreciate when they’re contrasted with the flaws of Rousey. In the year of her absence following the loss against Holly Holm, her focus was not on the abundant love she received from media and fans but on the hate. It felt as if she was genuinely confused that being a huge star and crossover celebrity invited both and that she was unaware that very few fighters have been as widely celebrated as she has been. Before, during and after the fight against Nunes, she barely showed up for the people who have been and always will be in her corner. Saying nothing speaks volumes, especially when it actively obstructed the UFC’s ability to promote Nunes. Instead of passing the torch, she stomped her feet.
The presence of Rousey leading up to UFC 207 was like that of a black hole; the gravity of not being there -- for media and promotion, at least -- sucked all the attention towards herself. Granted, that attention would have been there even if she was in front of the cameras, but at least then her star power could have rubbed off on the other fighters on the card. It was frustrating, though not at all surprising, that her unwillingness to speak to anyone continued after the fight. It was even more frustrating since it distracted a lot of people from the storylines that do matter: how Garbrandt shared his victory with leukemia survivor Maddux Maple, Nunes’ breakthrough moment and, of course, Cruz’s graceful acceptance of defeat. Whatever Rousey’s New Year’s resolutions may be, she has much to learn from the other three fighters in the main and co-main event.
The inevitability of loss doesn’t make it sting less. It’s hard to imagine what it feels like to invest every fiber of effort into accomplishing something, only to come up short. To see people celebrate your failure compounds that pain. When you see yourself as a flat character, it’s difficult to reconcile who you are when that character no longer exists. No one is saying the last 14 months of Rousey’s life have been easy. However, if she should listen to anyone right now, it’s Cruz: “Every single one of these fights is a life lesson, if you look at it and view it right and if you use it correctly.”
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.