Great Fighters, Great Fights, And Everything Else

Ronda Rousey, Chris Weidman, and Lyoto Machida are really good at sports. The rest is noise.
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Some people who make their livings fighting other people fought each other over the weekend, as they do most weekends; some of them won and some of them lost, as that’s how it works. There are nuances and ins and outs to all that, but what’s worth focusing on is this: Ronda Rousey is really great at sports. Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida are both really great at sports. Watching athletes be really great at sports can be an absolute joy.

That’s it, or that’s the part of it that matters most. This isn’t particularly complicated, although it’s understandable that we lose sight of it so often. Mixed martial arts spends so much time obfuscating and drowning-out and otherwise burying that simple, good thing. It makes us question whether or not it deserves the label of “sport” and then readily provides so many negatives and so much nonsense that serve to obscure the reasons we watch in the first place. This weekend, at least a portion of it, offered an escape from all that, and an opportunity to stare in awe and enjoy the entertainment. This is, as it always is, exactly the point.

***

The lead-up to UFC 175, as has so often been the case during the UFC’s fumbly baroque period, was an unmitigated disaster. The early portions of the show were only marginally better. The pay-per-view card started with a less-than-enthralling bout between relative unknowns Marcus Brimage and Russell Doane, which ended in some highly questionable scorecards. Stefan Struve, a 26-year-old fighter who has already been (T)KO’ed five times, and who has been on a hiatus since last March due to a shattered jaw and more concerningly, a serious heart condition, had a frightening “near-fainting” spell and elevated heart rate pre-fight backstage that resulted in the cancellation of his match with Matt Mitrione.

Uriah Hall, a former Ultimate Fighter prospect who has all too often fought listlessly and without any obvious game plan, wrecked his toe in the first round of his fight with Thiago Santos. While it is supremely impressive to continue on and win any kind of a sporting event with a compound fracture, the injury further limited Hall in his fight, and didn’t make for particularly compelling viewing. Additionally, the ring doctor and ref appeared to allow themselves to be shooed-away by Hall’s corner’s “He’s okay!” assurances while they were trying to check out the injury, and Joe Rogan used his position in the booth to chastise the doctor for trying to examine Hall further. All extremely UFC, none of it especially inspiring.

The night’s final two fights, however, temporarily erased the memory of almost all of this, and of everything else that so often makes following MMA a painful chore.

***

Ronda Rousey’s pre-fight countenance says almost everything. It has always been thus. It says “I am a terrifying, destructive force of nature, and I have only the most complete disdain for you, my opponent, who barely belongs in the cage with me and who will shortly be vanquished in a painful manner.” It says, also, “You are right to be afraid.” It says, plainly: “Doom.” More importantly, everything that is says is true. It is one of the greatest things I have ever seen in sports, and Rousey is one of the most wonderful champions that any sport currently gives us a chance to watch.

On Saturday, Rousey affirmed that she’s so far beyond the baseline level for very good, 135-pound professional female MMA fighters that it seems almost unfair. Alexis Davis, her opponent, is a quality fighter. She’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, and a totally decent kickboxer who people assumed might have a standing striking advantage over Rousey. She was in every way a legitimate challenger for the belt.

And so Rousey waded into a wild punching exchange with Davis, drilled her with a right to the temple, clipped her with a follow-up left, and transitioned silkily to a clinch knee to the body. Without pause, she lobbed Davis skyward with a reflexive uchi mata, landed in a scarf-hold headlock, and punched her repeatedly in the grill with tremendous malice until referee Yves Lavigne realized that at some point during all this, conscious coherence had abandoned Davis’ body. This took all of 16 seconds. Every one of them were fabulous. There is nothing quite like this particular display of dominance currently happening in any other sport.

Whatever the current limitations of the talent pool in women’s MMA, and there are plenty, watching a world class athlete operate at a ridiculously high level against the best that pool has to offer is a great way to spend 16 seconds.

Further, Ronda Rousey is great. When people wondered if her judo game would translate to MMA, she arm-barred ten amateur and professional opponents straight in the first round, many of whom were fully aware the armbar was coming and could do absolutely nothing to stop it. When they questioned how she’d fare when pushed outside of the first round, she launched Miesha Tate around like a trebuchet that flings humans in their rematch, and added an 11th armbar finish in the third round. When we wondered how she’d adapt against an Olympic wrestler she might not be able to take down at will, she tenderized Sara McMann in the clinch with knees, and folded her with a nasty liver shot. When we theorized about the progression of her boxing, she blasted Davis with her hands. Ronda Rousey always, always has an answer.

Watching Rousey work at a peak level and somehow continuously get much, much better as she goes, while wondering what underdog will come along and do the unlikeliest of things to unseat her, is fun. There is more to say about it, but also there really isn’t. It is good to watch her do all this.

***

Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida followed Rousey’s display of dominance with a middleweight title fight of a completely different and even more fascinating kind.

Machida has arguably the best defense and footwork of any MMA fighter, and tends to frustrate his opponents with his patience and movement, creating angles from which he can leap in and strike, and from which his adversary can’t effectively return fire. He’s supremely good at this.

Weidman employed brilliant tactics to counter it. He calmly stalked Machida, walking him down and cutting off the cage, punishing his movement with kicks from distance whenever possible. He sprinkled in takedown attempts to make Machida fear the level change, and despite The Dragon’s underrated takedown defense, was able to get the fight to the floor several times.

Machida constantly threatened to land counters -- his straight left and step-in knee are vicious -- which gave the entire proceedings a palpable tension, but he didn’t have much success. Weidman took the first two rounds easily. In the third, Weidman finally found his range with punches, and landed several big shots that bloodied and visibly stunned Machida. Going into the fourth, Lyoto was down three clear rounds, hurt, increasingly winded, and running out of options. He needed to find a response, and somehow he did.

Reversing the momentum of everything that had occurred so far, Machida stepped up his aggressiveness, landed several big body kicks that slowed Weidman down, and then, mid-round, popped Weidman with a counter punch appeared to rattle the champion.

The final round was brutal and brave. The exhausted fighters exchanged throughout, until Weidman secured a takedown in the latter portion of the round. As time ticked away, Machida willed himself to his feet and found the reserves for a final flurry while Weidman shelled on the fence. The fact that it wasn’t enough to make up the ground he’d lost earlier in the fight didn’t make it any less riveting. I am leaving some things out, but when you’re grinning enthusiastically, those things are of questionable importance.

It’s not much more complex than that, any of it. Great athletes committing great acts of sport, doing implausible, dramatic, and in this case violent things with their bodies is captivating. There are people, including myself, who regardless of -- or in spite of -- the rest of the spectacle, will gladly pay to watch this, ad infinitum, in hopes of seeing just this sort of thing.

When we complain about the circus that blares around the fights themselves, or the sprawling expansion that’s impacting the baseline quality of every card, or the promotion of fighters for reasons other than their athletic ability, or the canonization of sloppy brawlers, it’s because those things stand in the way of seeing more of this competitive virtuosity.

Ronda Rousey retained her title in a spectacular blow-out. Chris Weidman retained his title in a tactical battle that evolved into a contest of attrition closer than the judges’ cards could show. We all got a mostly unnecessary reminder Rousey, Weidman and Machida are great fighters, and a much needed reminder that the reason we watch MMA is that it can be an amazing sport. It is nice, and jarring in the best possible way, to remember why we watch all this in the first place.


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