Stay Weird, MMA

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Like you, I will be watching fights this weekend. Unlike you, I will be watching them live -- in a nightclub in Gangnam. Clearly, I’m not talking about International Fight Week.

The night before the biggest and most anticipated fight card of the year, a random club in Seoul will host Japanese promotion Real Fight Championship. The event is called Korea vs. The World and is headlined by Kyrgyzstani fighter Nursultan Arsen Uule, as he meets one of Brazil’s many Marcos Souzas. As far as I can tell, the only reason this venue is putting on MMA fights is a coincidence of nomenclature: The club’s name is Octagon, and since the shape is now synonymous with mixed martial arts, 2+2=4.

So why am I writing about this instead of the heavyweight superfight between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier or the featherweight title fight between the most talented millennials on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster? For starters, I would have preferred to write about Korea vs. The World after it happened, but since it coincides with back-to-back UFC cards, that would be irresponsible. More to the point, as the next week of MMA coverage -- and likely longer than that -- will focus on the highest aspirations and virtues of the sport, it’s worth remembering MMA’s uniquely bizarre underground fringe.

The thing is, there’s probably some version of nightclub MMA happening near you, too. There are countless fighters who are closer to hobbyists than professionals but can still mop the floor with you or me or CM Punk, and they have bills to pay and weekend boredom to satiate. The UFC- and Bellator MMA-bound will almost never be found in such circumstances, but that’s not the point. These kinds of fights are meant to be weird and raw and fun. They accentuate the atmosphere, like a mechanical bull or stripper pole or local conspiracy theorist -- a part of the scenery that gives a venue its character. Doesn’t matter if it’s a bar, club, high school auditorium or Native American reservation, the feeling is the same, as universal as it is idiosyncratic.

The truly mainstream sports are too dignified and too distant from their roots to manifest in back alleys the way MMA does. Show me a nightclub that has one-on-one basketball games between rec-league coaches or rigs up a batting cage for competitions between neighborhood dads and I’ll gladly amend my statement. Backyard wrestling notwithstanding, there is nothing else similar in sports, no analogous off-brand in the corners of society.

Even regional promotions that aim for a measure of respectability end up with the same level of oddity. At Colosseum Combat 45 on Saturday in Kokomo, Indiana, Johnathan Ivey -- yes, this one … and that one, too -- faced off against Travis Fulton. As you probably know, Fulton has well over 300 professional fights to his name, and Ivey is closing in on 100 of his own. Fulton landed a thwacking body kick, which Ivey responded to by pretending to wince and keel over in pain. Had Fulton rushed in for the kill, he would have been met with a stiff right hook, but instead, Ivey stopped playing possum and rushed in and rocked Fulton. In the midst of what was sure to be a fight-ending flurry of ground-and-pound, Ivey disengaged and tapped the floor, forfeiting the match. Allegedly, he didn’t want to cause any further harm to a man he idolized.

What? Where else does this type of thing happen unscripted? Outside of MMA, what else has such deliriously surreal and endlessly entertaining potential?

Peculiar things happen in other sports, but Ivey and Fulton are seasoned journeymen who have fought some of the toughest fighters of their time, not no-name Tae Bo disciples fresh off the couch. If something like this happened in the Miocic-Cormier match, it would be met with rightful outrage and righteous indignation. In this context, however, it’s heartwarming. Beautiful, even.

Of course, the UFC itself originated from the same strange primordial ooze. Now that UFC fighters are high-level athletes decked out in antiseptic Reebok uniforms on ESPN, it’s easy to forget the tooth-flying, hair-pulling, crotch-demolishing, single-boxing-glove-wearing days. One might even suggest that the UFC would prefer its peculiar history to be swept under the rug of mainstream consciousness despite its obvious record of existence, like our old MySpace pages, or how Donald Trump’s immigration policies would have prevented his grandfather from coming to America. That the outskirts of MMA have persisted through the sport’s ongoing gentrification -- a dichotomous coexistence of evolved and unevolved that would surely confuse UFC strawweight Felice Herrig -- is a testament to how special and utterly weird this sport is.

So let the serious discussion of fighting wait a little. There will be more than enough time to discuss who the Greatest of All-Time is at heavyweight, featherweight and pound-for-pound after the dust has settled from International Fight Week. As the UFC marches into the future and the rest of the sport rides its titanic wake, the opportunity to reflect on MMA’s oddities will only shrink further into the shadowy fringes of our memories. Such charming, embarrassing nostalgia takes time to steep, but it’s always worth slowly sipping its comforting warmth.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall of the bar that Fulton and Ivey almost certainly went to together after their fight. One can only hope that somewhere behind the clinking bottles and splashed shot glasses between them, amidst the drunken Saturday night chatter, some dudes were punching each other under the dim glow of fading memory.

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.
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