Image via UFC.TV.
Image via UFC.TV.
One of the last golden memories of my long-gone decade-plus love affair with pro wrestling is WrestleMania 13—exclusively because it featured what was, at least in my eyes, the greatest double turn ever. For all of you who spent your adolescence being cool and going to sex barbecues at Action Park or whatever, a double turn is when a heel (bad guy) and a face (good guy) simultaneously switch sides. Given pro wrestling’s (spoiler alert?) scripted nature, this seems like no big thing, but it’s actually a gigantic thing—a massive narrative undertaking that is almost never attempted, for the same reason that most writers don’t attempt John Le Carre-grade plot complexity.
Which is what makes the now classic Bret Hart-Stone Cold Steve Austin double turn such a remarkable—yes, and deal with it—piece of narrative. Going into their grudge match at Wrestlemania 13, Austin had played a gleefully sociopathic redneck; not a new character, in wrestling or in life, but done in this case with the kind of charisma that can take a generic heel to the next level in short order. Hart made for the perfect counterpoint—a veteran who had toiled long and hard to become the most enduring face of the organization in the post-Hulk Hogan era.
The match itself was violent, and technically and narratively complex—perfect soap operatics, in short. The climax was a vicious piece of choreography that redrew the lines of each character in blood and left the crowd pleading for mercy on the sociopath’s behalf as the do-gooder joyously reveled in a newfound depravity. Austin lost the match, but stepped into the antihero role that would launch him into superstardom. Hart lost the fans, but improbably added a new chapter to his career by letting go of a character he had spent a decade crafting. It should be noted that the match was refereed by former UFC SuperFight champion Ken Shamrock, who wore an arm-less zebra shirt and black spandex bicycle shorts. I swear this isn’t a troll-job. Just because this is something I would've dreamt doesn't mean it didn't happen.
Switching from spontaneous drama to scripted narrative was a bit much for the self-proclaimed "World’s Most Dangerous Man," just as it would be for most any athlete; if you need another reason to appreciate Brock Lesnar, remember how well he managed both. But this is, in general, tricky territory. Last weekend's Clay Guida-Gray Maynard lightweight contender match, which headlined UFC on FX 4, was a sobering reminder that the contrived can survive only as long as reality is willing to comply.
The contrived nature of the fight was owed mostly to the fact that, were UFC President Dana White able to yank out one of his own ribs and from it create his perfect fighter, it would be a version of Clay Guida that is much, much better at MMA. This is a dude who, when asked why he fights with his fluffy mane of hair out and about, responds with, "…I tell them, 'Like Kid Rock says, 'Long hair swingin', middle finger in the air.' It's time to go.'" I will never be convinced that White did not give serious thought to handing Guida the UFC lightweight title simply for quoting Kid Rock on the fly like that.
It's not totally undeserved, admittedly. Guida is an affable dude-bro who fights like an anthropomorphized wrecking ball, but a wrecking ball that had somehow been jamming Adderall—his record includes six UFC Fight of the Night awards and two Sherdog Fight of the Year trophies.
Maynard, for his part, is not only not those things, but not even any things similar to those things. Mostly, he’s a gruff son of a bitch who takes the "I am a fighter who fights fights for fighting" mentality to its acme. His self-evident being is reflected in his fights, which plainly reveal him to be the true spiritual successor of MMA’s original converted wrestlers—he takes people down and dares them to do something about it. The "something" is, typically, a resigned sigh from opponents who realize, in extremis, that the worst truth would have been better than this shitty dare. Given that MMA fans have been conditioned by UFC ads to despise (real) wrestling, everyone gets one guess as to how said fans have been conditioned to feel about Maynard.
However, this elaborate contrivance—every last worthless bit of it—had a terrible date with reality on June 22nd, when a crowd of nearly 5,000 jammed into the Ovation Hall at Atlantic City's Revel and chanted Gray Maynard’s name. That the chant was honest and coming from a crowd that booed him during his walk-out, introduction and, we can only assume, birth, had me persistently glancing at my watch if only to make sure it wasn’t melting. “A Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order,” but for show and with punching.
The chant served as proof of the collapse—of a great many things, of maybe everything—but it wasn’t the cause. Blame for the death of our foolishly human belief in a universe attuned to reason rests awkwardly on the shoulders of the man who shared the main event banner with Maynard. If that seems grandiose, you probably didn't watch Guida fight that night.
Ten minutes after entering the cage to by far the night’s biggest pop, Guida had become Atlantic City’s Public Enemy No. 2—falling just short of unseating the city's reigning and undisputed champion, Crippling Full-Spectrum Blight Camouflaged As Tacky-Sad Faux Prosperity. The vitriol spewing from the stands betrayed more hurt than anger over Guida’s dime-store imitation of Willie Pep. In just a few minutes, years of goodwill—earned the hard way, through immense physical, mental and emotional sacrifice—circled the drain. And Guida just kept on flushing.
A fighter who recites generic UFC-branded “THIS IS SPARTA!” copy 24/7 risks being taken at his word. Guida does, but his fans instead watched him dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge his way through the first two rounds, while Maynard feebly chased a shadow and swatted at air. In fairness to Guida, Maynard hits dumb hard and is likely the better wrestler of the two. In fairness to everyone else, it was intensely, profoundly boring to watch, and rocketed well past any notion of tactical savvy and swerved head-on into a tanker of unleaded “What the fuck?” fuel.
The anxiety of the crowd heightened once it dawned on them that they were presumably in for three more rounds of…this. While they could only sit there and ponder—again, I assume—Slavoj Žižek’s role in guiding modern cultural criticism, Maynard did what Guida was supposed to do all along. He became the crowd, and vice versa. Double turn, all the way across the sky. So intense.
Toward the end of the third frame, Maynard succinctly delivered the crowd’s judgment by flipping Guida off. Those in attendance sprung to life once they realized that Maynard—not Guida—wanted a fight that actually resembled a damn fight. Guida’s response was as verbal as it was physical, he backpedaled like Pavlov’s most useless dog. But the boos were gone, replaced not by silence, but by raucous cheers. Against all expectations, the crowd was cheering Maynard on and, just to make sure there was no confusion over their collective allegiance, began chanting his name in unison. As the chants died down and the fourth round got under way, I scribbled, in what my notebook reveals to be ginormous letters, a note I never, ever thought I would have cause to scribble down. "DOUBLE TURN!" It's probably better to imagine those words at five or six times the size in which they appear here. For the sake of accuracy, and also because it was like that.
The fight didn’t get much better from there, actually, but it improved just enough to enhance the improbable drama enabled by its prior shittiness. Maynard would walk Guida down with his hands at his sides, dare him to do something about it and occasionally sneak in a clean strike that would launch the crowd into a fresh round of desperate, pleading cheers. Guida, meanwhile, just kept on backpedaling, save for a moment in the fifth when he landed a crisp combination on Maynard mid-taunt and promptly ran to the other side of the cage. I don’t need to tell you that the crowd responded like a pack of Revivalists seeing the Holy Ghost when Maynard shook off the blows and begged Guida to do it again. Guida, as he had all night, refused to listen to anyone but the stern men in his corner.
And then it was over, but only in the most basic sense. The final bell rang and perhaps the most bizarre main event in modern UFC history came to a close with no clear winner in sight. It was a sentiment that the crowd clearly shared, based on the palpable anxiety in the air. It's one thing, after all, to sit through a boring fight and quite another to watch someone get a win bonus for boring the fuck out of you. Given the crowd’s dangerous 1:1 ratio of artificially distressed denim to "Sunglasses at Night" tributes, I feared the fallout of a Guida win.
Thankfully, no collars were popped to DEFCON 1 following Bruce Buffer’s predictably melodramatic announcement of the judge’s scorecards. Maynard won a split decision by the most narrow of margins and the fans got to retain some illusion of a just society. True to his half of the double turn, Maynard became their mouthpiece during his post-fight interview when he said of Guida’s strategery, "His stuff got old."
It was an unexpected bit of natural charm from a guy who ain’t never been too good at no word talkin'. I glanced again at my biggest note of the night and headed for the press conference certain only of the fact that I had no idea what the fuck was even happening anymore.
That conference began without Guida and Maynard, which meant most of the questions would be headed Dana White’s way. It is fair to say that he did not hold back:
"The fight sucked, I don’t know how to expand on it anymore."
"Is [Guida] the most talented, well-rounded mixed martial artist in the world? No."
"[Guida] was literally running…this isn’t 'Dancing With The Stars.'"
The knockout blow came when he proclaimed the night’s main event worse than the Kalib Starnes-Nate Quarry match from UFC 83—perhaps the most notoriously awful fight in MMA history.
Maynard joined the fray soon afterwards and summed up the communal sense of frustration and disappointment in wonderfully laconic fashion when he declared, "I'm human, too." The remainder of his comments were no less forthright, but reflected a natural grace that your average pro wrestling face spends an entire career struggling to pin down. He was awkward, and it was eloquent.
With Guida still missing in action, the media passed time racking up quotes from the other fighters in attendance. One of those fighters was Dan Miller, who won the Submission of the Night award with a third round guillotine choke of Ricardo Funch. Inevitably, he was asked for an update on the condition of his two-year-old son, Daniel Miller Junior, who suffers from polycystic kidney disease and is awaiting a risky transplant procedure.
Halfway through that somber update, in an entry that would've seemed over the top if it hadn't been so clearly authentic, Guida boorishly barged into the room. "Why is everyone so quiet?" he asked. "Let’s have some fun, go hit the boardwalk, eat some funnel cake." What a heel move.