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“What will you choose for your walkout song?” Asked of practically every fighter before a bout, this question means much more than they let on…for most. Whether in remembrance, for energy, out of love for the music, to get the crowd on your side or potentially as an intimidation tactic, walkout music used to always matter, from the very beginning of the sport when fighters were allowed to select their own music. 2020 has been an incredible year full of countless trials and tribulations, but who would have expected that one of the more surprising moments in the sport over the last 12 months happened in an arena but not inside the cage.
Throughout 2020, dozens of gems played on the loudspeakers of the venues, ranging from the disco classics of “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA for Pannie Kianzad and “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss for Jim Miller, to ballads like “I Will Always Love You” performed by Whitney Houston and utilized by Montel Jordan. Brian Kelleher made a lasting impression once this year by selecting “I Won’t Do What You Tell Me (Glass Shatters)” by Jim Johnston, also known as the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin theme song. The recently resurfaced “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac made its debut as a walkout track as Alexander Hernandez strode out and smashed Chris Gruetzemacher. With a song worthy of “Stat of the Week” after his event, Jordan Leavitt made his mark inside the Octagon by slamming Matt Wiman to unconsciousness, but not before emerging with “Big Balls” by AC/DC – a first for UFC fighters. One final Rizin Fighting Federation event this year has the potential to shock the masses with something truly unique; should that come to pass, the track or tracks will be given their due.
The inaugural winner of the “Walkout Song of the Year” award saw Diego Ferreira strut out playing air guitar to “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins twice in 2018. His good spirits coupled with a great song led to dominant performances over Jared Gordon and Kyle Nelson. The positivity from that entrance was diametrically opposed by Kron Gracie, whose terrifying choice of a looping air raid siren won the 2019 “Walkout Song of the Year” award. If there were something that could somehow serve as a polar opposite to both Kenny Loggins and a klaxon blaring for several minutes, it would be this year’s winner.
Darren Till, a welterweight contender who recently found his way to middleweight, showed success in his 185-pound debut against Kelvin Gastelum. The victory, a contentious split verdict, at least played as an audition tape to prove he could hang with the big boys. At UFC on ESPN 14, the final event that went down on the first residence on “Fight Island,” Till gained a headliner spot against former champ Robert Whittaker. A boisterous Brit who typically made his walk to the Octagon as “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins or “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond plays behind him, changed his mind.
The promotion granted fighters permission to select their own walkout songs on several occasions, as far back as UFC 15.5 in Japan in 1997. Stars with the company as early as UFC 30 were on record with non-generic entrance music, Tito Ortiz’s Limp Bizkit tracks being the most notable example. Due to licensing rights and the company overdubbing later releases, much of the old walkout music history is lost in time, like tears in rain. Around UFC 40 is where fight music started becoming individualized, which would place the unofficial beginning of this privilege at 2002. Every fighter since then has either picked generic music – something from nu-metal bands like American Head Charge, Black Flood Diesel or the legendary Stemm – or their own specially selected track. No fighter on record ever opted out of music altogether, until Till did at UFC on ESPN 14.
“He chose to come out in silence, ladies and gentleman,” play-by-play commentator John Gooden stated matter-of-factly during Till’s entrance. “He said that Sweet Caroline is for you guys at home, and those in attendance…he comes out in silence.”
The silence was deafening. Gone were the dulcet tones of Diamond or the sing-a-long tune of the crowd behind him. Instead, a stone-faced Till walked out motivated for his toughest test at his new weight class. Without background noise to fill the gap between commentary sentiments, the entire experience felt jarring, as if something was sorely missing. “This has got to be the most unique walkout I’ve ever experienced at the UFC,” Gooden later admitted.
As expected, Whittaker not only countered with actual music, but with his usual suspect of a walkout track as he has for 11 of his last 12 appearances. “Can’t Be Touched” by Body Head Bangerz was its name, and whenever Whittaker uses that track, winning was his game. A victory has followed every recorded use of “Can’t Be Touched” for Whittaker, and this trip to the cage was no different. Not particularly memorable as a headliner, the winner and loser’s stocks after this contest did not travel far as a result. The most intriguing part of this tense 25-minute affair and the moments that preceded and followed it was almost certainly this curious selection from Till.
Strangely, “The Gorilla” was not the lone fighter to refuse walkout music in 2020. Perhaps witnessing the dramatic effect of Till’s silent entrance, Mirsad Bektic emulated this strategy two months later at UFC Fight Night 178. The first cut is the deepest, and the first use of intentional silence proved about as effective as the second. Bektic, an action featherweight who had lost three of his last five, tried to change things up against the returning Damon Jackson. Attacking with takedowns and heavy top control for the good part of ten minutes, Bektic had the fight in the bag and only needed to survive to the final bell. Sadly for Bektic, this was not a unique occurrence where his foot slipped off the accelerator long enough for his opponent to capitalize upon it. Jackson snared a guillotine choke and pulled off the mighty comeback and upset, all while handing no music its second defeat of the calendar year.
It might seem unorthodox that after over 900 individually picked walkout songs played this year, the two men that opted not to select music made the biggest impact. It should be noted that regularly utilized songs do not qualify, as it is not unique or particularly noteworthy if Charles Oliveira chooses “O Hino” by Fernandinho for the 18th recorded time, or that Donald Cerrone went back to the well with “Cowboy” by Kid Rock three more times. Likewise, while “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin is a top-tier track, its usage is not original enough to merit distinction.
In an era where fight cards blend together, walkout music similarly needs to stand out from the pack to draw attention. This kind of choice could inspire others to go in a different direction with their combat audio experience – it already has, as a fighter followed suit not long after Till’s initial decision. Till (and Bektic) made his choice to abandon music, and no one dared disturb the sound of silence. The absence of any music is the 2020 Sherdog.com “Walkout Song of the Year.”