As we wake today and try to make sense of the unique display that the world witnessed last night in the penultimate fight on the Bellator 149 card, most will try to write it off as a travesty and a blight on the sport. It’s understandable to want to do this. On the surface, Kimbo Slice vs Dada 5000 was not a classic fight. In an age where epic five round matches like Robbie Lawler vs Rory MacDonald at UFC 189 have pushed martial arts to new heights and new limits, it’s easy to look at the vaguely threatening peregrinations of two men of questionable talent and nominal records and dismiss it as trash, as a spectacle or freak show that set the sport back at least twenty years. But what if Slice’s lumbering, slow-motion attempt to make 5000 put on the glasses and the latter’s subsequent Ric Flair face plant was not, in fact, MMA’s nadir, but a defining moment that could forever alter our understanding of the discipline?
For another interpretation of Kimbo vs Dada 5000, we must look back in time to another Dada: the early twentieth century avant-garde art movement that eschewed logic and coherence in favor of irrationality and chaos as both a political and esthetic statement. More specifically, we must look at the one of the movement’s most famous and enduring pieces: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.
When Duchamp, who had already been experimenting with anti-art in the form of his readymades before aligning himself with the Dadaists, procured a urinal, signed “R. Mutt 1917” on it, and arranged for it to be submitted to a New York’s Society of Independent Artists, the newly established organization reacted in much the same way that MMA fans and pundits are behaving now: they refused to recognize it as art and dismissed it as indecent. But Fountain is now widely hailed as one of the most important works of twentieth-century art.
Fountain has inspired a seemingly limitless number of interpretations in its near-century long existence, far too many to properly address in a single piece of this nature, but perhaps the most relevant to our current situation is the one explored by Jonathan Jones for The Guardian in 2008. Positioning the idea of Fountain as “the final, triumphant endgame in western art’s long campaign to establish the intellectual status of the artist,” Jones writes that “Their fight to raise themselves above the status of mere craftsmen has led artists, since the 15th century, to seek to be seen as intellectuals.”
This is similar to the struggle that mixed martial artists currently face to raise themselves above thugs or human cockfighters. Fighters, experts, and fans alike work hard to emphasize the intellectual discipline that goes into the sport, the sophisticated human chess that happens within the cage walls.
And, much like how Duchamp deliberately chose an obvious piece of craftsmanship and an ostensibly base and unlikeable object—something that people literally piss on—for his work, Kimbo Slice vs Dada 5000 traded in the similarly unsavory roots of its art. Taking two street fighters—one of whom was ran a backyard promotion—who rose to infamy through gross spectacle and lowest common denominator curiosity and putting them near the top of a major MMA card forced the MMA to confront its anxiety about its origins and the prejudice and misunderstanding the sport still faces. Juxtaposing the match against another Ken Shamrock vs Royce Gracie brilliantly heightened this anxiety, forcing us to reconcile the mix of genuine martial arts appreciation and lurid voyeurism in which UFC 1, where the pair first met, was forged.
In this light, Kimbo vs Dada was not the kind of cynical bread and circus act that combat sports’ detractors argue is at the root of all fights, but a provocation, an inspired piece of mixed martial anti-arts that demands us, as an audience and as fellow artists, to reevaluate everything we know about our medium. What is mixed martial art? What elevates it above the street fights of Slice and 5000’s pasts? How do we appreciate that and articulate our appreciation to the outside world? And where do we go from here?
We might well spend the next hundred years looking for these answers.
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