Sport vs. Spectacle

By Jake Rossen Apr 27, 2009
In 1870, Jem Mace and Joe Coburn were tossed into competition with each other to decide the world’s bare-knuckle boxing champion -- a sport that played host to some horrific injuries. (Death, for example.)

Mace and Coburn contested the title for an astounding three hours and 45 minutes.

Neither man landed a single blow.

Not long after, someone made an attempt on Mace’s life.

To say it was someone who bought a ticket to that fight is perhaps not unreasonable.

Last Saturday, Anderson Silva fought not to lose. It was a bizarre change of pace from a man who had reeled off seven successive finishes in the UFC. Silva gave Thales Leites no chance to mount an offense. He landed kicks to Leites’ thigh at will. He would stare at Leites for what seemed like hours. He professed satisfaction at emerging from the fight unscathed, which is a little like an Olympic diver bragging that he never got wet.

So you didn’t get wet. You also didn’t get in the water.

Silva’s performance -- the second in a row featuring a counter-attack methodology designed to remove most of the risk -- brought questions of whether athletes have any obligation to acknowledge the crowd. We do pay his salary, after all, albeit in a roundabout way. Is it not expected that he will endanger his health for us?

Fighting is a calculated-risk business. Smart athletes go in with designs on doing the maximum amount of damage to an opponent while sustaining the minimum amount of damage to themselves. Ducking helps. Having good takedown defense helps. Blocking punches helps.

Remaining stationary because your opponent refuses to enter your range does not help. It allows you to remain safe, of course, but it doesn’t allow you opportunity to win. That’s a pretty important part of the equation: creating opportunities to win.

Silva’s supporters argue that it was Leites who was at fault -- that his refusal to engage, to the point of flopping to his back, cheated Silva out of those opportunities. But that ignores Silva’s obligation to invent openings as often as he chases them. If MMA is about waiting for someone else to make a mistake, and making a zero-risk game of it until then -- well, we’re all in some serious trouble.

Timidity is an actual violation of the Unified Rules. You cannot refuse to engage an opponent. Like most of the regulations, this is designed to homogenize a messy conflict. This is no longer the landscape of jiu-jitsu guys “cooking” opponents for hours on end, or punching someone in the crotch until they cough up a lung. It has been streamlined for television, for public mass consumption and for Burger King.

Sports do not exist in a vacuum. “Spectator sport” is redundant. What is a sport if not played for the amusement of others?

Silva -- or any fighter -- isn’t at blame. They do what’s appropriate in the rules. If he had gotten a point deduction for passivity, perhaps the fight would have played out differently. Better: Since Leites was told to stand up after flopping to his back, where’s the fairness in forcing Leites to play Silva’s game? If Silva didn’t want to engage standing, why not bring him to the mat in the same way Leites was brought to his feet?

None of this happened, of course, and Silva was allowed to cherry-pick only the most opportune times to land strikes. The fight is almost MMA’s version of “The Blair Witch Project,” hailed as brilliant minimalism by some and an eye-gouging disaster by others.

There’s no accounting for taste. And if Silva ends his next bout with a vicious knockout, this will all be forgotten. But if his stature in the sport now compels him to compete with no momentum and no aggression, seeking only to preserve a sterile legacy, then observers can do worse than simply deduct points -- they can deduct revenue.

Anderson Silva might be the best fighter in the world. But if he chooses not to fight, does that even matter?

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