UFC 234 is now available on Amazon Prime.
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Depending on who you ask, you’ll get very different answers for “what fighting is all about.” For some, it’s all about a smaller or otherwise athletically disadvantaged fighter using superior technique to defeat a larger, more intimidating opponent. For others, it’s all about the street fighter narrative: finding out which person from which country with which fight style is best. For many, fighting is best represented in an all-out rock ’em-sock ’em donnybrook where the fighters leave everything in the cage and end the bout gasping for air and hugging out of respect.
Each of those examples -- and plenty others -- are perfectly reasonable conclusions of what professional fighting is supposed to be. Yet the main event from UFC 234 on Saturday in Melbourne, Australia, between Israel Adesanya and Anderson Silva showcased some alternative explanations of what fighting is all about.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was not a fan of the matchup when it was first announced. On paper, it looked like another instance where a name-value veteran would be sacrificed on the altar of promotion for the sake of propping up a rising star. While that is nothing new in the world of combat sports, it tends to result in a sad, ugly spectacle that becomes dubious promotional justification: Beating a big name who is a decade or more past his prime is hardly a respectable reason for granting someone a title shot.
Yet despite my conviction that this fight was a bad idea, it turned out to be pretty entertaining, and even though it was a clear-cut win for Adesanya, it was much more competitive than it was expected to be. After the first round, where Adesanya landed more strikes to Silva’s head than Silva landed at all, it looked like “The Last Stylebender” was primed to pour it on and find a stoppage in the middle frame. “The Spider” battled back, though, putting the action on his terms while arguably stealing the round. In the moment, it felt like it was either man’s fight to win, and that tension made the third and final round feel much closer than it actually was. That’s why it was fun to watch. Describing something as “fun” is usually pretty empty; it’s a rote word that typically is meant as a placeholder for something more specific and descriptive. Still, the most obvious and definitive quality of the bout was the sheer joy of it all, for both the competitors and the spectators. If that’s not what fighting is all about, then why do we pay for it?
This leads directly to a connected yet distinct purpose of prizefighting: showmanship. Of course, competition is paramount to any organized sport. After witnessing the lowest-scoring NBA game in history in 1950, sportswriter Dick Cullum wrote that “it is a low conception of sports to say that a team’s first duty is to give you a lot of senseless action instead of earnest competition.” True enough, without earnest effort to win, a sport becomes hollow; no disrespect to professional wrestling fans out there. When people watch fights, especially between recognizable names, at least some of the intrigue is a genuine curiosity about who is going to win. There is no shortage of bland, amorphous violence on the Internet if that is all you’re looking for.
Competition on its own is not always enough, though. Consider the simple concept of timed rounds in MMA. Rorion Gracie once said that “[the clock] tells a fighter who’s losing to try and stall until the bell rings, rather than use his resources to find a way to defeat his opponent.” Sounds simple enough. The contrivance of time limits strips away the raw competitiveness of fighting. Yet few fight fans yearn for the type of stalemate purgatory exemplified by the 1998 bout between Renzo Gracie and Sanae Kikuta, which lasted over an hour. I defer to Josh Tucker’s excellent piece on the bout, where he writes: “Renzo Gracie vs. Sanae Kikuta is the worst fight I’ve ever seen. From a competitive standpoint, though, there’s nothing strictly wrong with it. Both fighters were physically engaging and trying to gain an advantage. They were given unlimited time to work, and they weren’t shy to use it. Bas Rutten’s exasperated claim that there is ‘no point’ was wrong. There were points being made emphatically; it’s just that one of them is a sport isn’t inherently worth watching.”
There are countless fights that were more competitive than the UFC 234 main event, but that doesn’t mean they were necessarily better fights. Both Silva and Adesanya ducked and dodged, feinted and landed. Few moments of their 15-minute affair made me reach for my phone. Did it look like Adesanya was holding back at times? Sure. Was Silva really trying to win? Probably not. Nevertheless, the showmanship made the fight enjoyable. To defer once more to basketball, Shaquille O’Neal said this about his identity as an athlete: “I’m a basketball player slash entertainer. Basketball is entertainment. People pay money to come see you dunk, swat, dive on the floor, and they come to see you make faces, trash talk. They come to see you do a lot of things.”
Ultimately, what fighting should be is subjective. Whatever you think fighting is all about says more about you than the sport. Part of the beauty of fighting is that it fits into whatever box we want to put it in. It is large; it contains multitudes. This ineffable yet indisputable quality was easy to see in the UFC 234 post-fight press conference, where Adesanya insisted he needed time in the shower to process the fact that he just fought and defeated his idol. Even for Silva, who has been fighting professionally for over 20 years, there was something special about this fight. “I’m very happy,” he said. “I’m very lucky because I worked my entire life in this sport. When I see the people -- wow. I’m very lucky … I said thank you [to Adesanya]. Thank you for giving me more energy and inspiring me to continue my sport and doing something special for everybody.”
Whatever that feeling is called -- appreciation, invigoration, perspective -- that is what this sport is all about. At least, that’s a big part of it.
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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