It is my job to advertise fighting as the most exciting sport in the world but I wouldn't bother if I didn't earnestly believe that already. Unfortunately, a good number of matches are quite simply dirge and that is the nature of any sporting pursuit. Except it seems to burn your friends more easily when you introduce them to combat sports than when you invite them over to watch the rugby or football.
For every MacDonald—Lawler or Hunt—Dos Santos there is a Torres—Hill or Mir—Arlovski and that will always be the way it is. It matters little if the skill of fighters is on the up because two fighters of like ability will either force each other to new heights of frantic activity and thought or they will check each other at every turn and halt any momentum before it can wheeze out a second breath.
There are fights which I dread the day I will have to make myself excited for from the moment they are signed and there are fights which I feel to write about would be to insult the intelligence of the reader. In any case I have managed to write about some absolute stinkers with genuine interest rather than forcing myself to feign excitement and simply sell a line of hype. This, I consider an accomplishment. Having seen more bad fights than most and more simply boring fights than anyone with free will and a TV remote should have to, here are a few of my personal tips for enjoying a turd of a fight.
“Anything Can Happen”
Closely linked to what I call the first rule of fight journalism—which is to not write anyone off, no matter how personally uninterested the writer is by the bout—it still feels cheap to write this one down. “Anything can happen” is usually the go to excuse of a lazy promotion which cannot be bothered to book a card with worthwhile or competitive bouts. Then if a night of mediocre matches between men you have never heard of sees a decent number of knockouts that same promoter will be the first to rub it in your face at the press conference as if fighters you have never heard of always have the more exciting fights.
At the same time “anything can happen” has become my own mantra used to maintain my sanity in the face of appalling matchmaking. When I see Ronda Rousey matched against Bethe Correia, or a highly touted, good looking prospect matched with someone who he or she is clearly supposed to run right through, I groan, but I repeat the mantra and force myself to watch. Sometimes I'm rewarded with a genuinely unexpected outcome.
It could be a punch out of left field which decks the massive favorite or it could be that the latter thinks too much of his own ability. Ben Askren is one of the best welterweights in the world but he got away by the skin of his teeth in his last bout against Luis Santos after coming in doughy and far from the shape to meet real resistance. Two stuffed shots and Askren was sucking wind. Only a fortunate eye poke saved Askren from what looked to be heading towards an embarrassing loss.
Other times the favourite in a lop sided match up will proceed to fight with the least tact imagineable. If Gilbert Melendez had opted to fight in a more conservative fashion or in pretty much anything but a wild brawl, Diego Sanchez would not have been able to lay a glove on him. Instead we were treated to a barn burning brawl in which Sanchez had a very real chance of knocking Melendez out. A chance which his ringcraft and fight IQ would not have earned him.
A spectacular finish can quite easily save a boring fight too. Muhammad Ali was made to look slow and sloppy against Oscar Bonavena in 1970 but his literal last minute knockout scrubbed clean the minds of many spectators—to them it was vintage Ali despite it not being vintage Ali at all. Frank Mir knocking out Mirko Cro Cop might not have expunged the fourteen minutes up to it from our minds but the memory of one clearly outlived the other.
Ali versus Bonavena
To be honest, when watching a heavyweight fight the general expectation is already that it will be bad but will probably end in a knockout. Take those same low standards of “this is rubbish, but someone might fall down soon” and apply them to other divisions and you will almost always be impressed with what happens.
This will be more helpful to the regular fight fan than the occasional viewer, but it is the one which keeps me going. When you are watching two fighters struggle in a dull bout, don't think of the disappointment but of the chance to learn. Take what you are seeing from the fighters and place it in the context of what you know about other fighters in their division.
There is nothing that tells you less than a lop-sided blow out. I am sent mail each week asking me to write about Michael 'Venom' Page, Sage Northcutt or some such other exciting prospect but watching Page 540 kick a man who took the bout on one week notice and who had never fought before tells us absolutely nothing except that he can execute a fairly common Taekwondo kick against an immobile opponent who was sent in to lose.
The fact that the guy could barely get to his feet after his third failed shot was not encouraging.
And that's not just stuff that happens in the lower levels. Jon Jones and Rashad Evans versus Chael Sonnen were not matches that would tell us anything. Just months of hype up to a foregone conclusion. Sonnen is a big, scary wrestler at middleweight. At light heavyweight, against bigger wrestlers, he isn't. Nothing new was learned.
Meanwhile, Anderson Silva versus Patrick Cote is generally considered one of the most tedious fights in UFC title history. But it told us something important about Silva—that he hates to lead. Throughout the fight he was reluctant to move first, and when he did it was almost exclusively with long kicks. The champ's boxing was not so sharp when his man would not clumsily swing at him. Another dull fight with Demian Maia confirmed this. When Chris Weidman came in and made the champ mad by refusing to lead except with stiff, conservative jabs, he was operating on knowledge his team gleaned from those bouts.
Does your guy keep getting pressed against the fence by some hopeless brawler? Think of how he would do against someone who knows how to cut the cage. Is he whiffing on swings each time his man feints? What would he do against a Dillashaw or Machida. Boring fights happen because neither man can get their game going, and there's always a reason for that. More than in a shocking knockout or submission loss, you are seeing a man at his most troubled in a boring, monotonous bout.
Unless you are there at the event as press and have signed that gloomy paper that says you won't be getting your buzz on, feel free—nay, obliged—to liquor up. If you scout the card ahead of time and find that it has four grinding wrestlers and a heavyweight bout as the main event and that it's being fought in Denver, plan ahead. Nothing classes up an evening of awful fights like a signature cocktail.
“Do you remember that time we watched those completely forgettable fights at Jack's?”
“You mean the night we all tried Bermuda Blacks?”
It is hard to get upset about the decision to keep booking heavyweights for five rounds when you're giggling your way through your fifth Diamondback. And if you're worrying about the money you have wasted on the card, incorporate it in the fun. Sometimes I suspect that Mike Goldberg's real purpose is to throw out sound bites specifically for people drinking along at home. And if a lengthy promo comes on, plug the laptop in to the TV and throw up an old fight with Bas Rutten commentary. Any time he says 'liver shot' or 'spleen', advises someone to roll for a kneebar, or tells the story about how he broke Yoshiki Takahashi's leg, you treat your liver to a shot of its own.
Don't Take It So Seriously
Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway that one should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad. In fighting, a frankly bad match can be every bit as entertaining as a great one. Be great, be terrible, the one thing the fans won't forgive you is being boring.
I once sat behind that great coach Lucian Carbin and a group of his fighters for what can only be called the sloppiest kickboxing match I have ever seen. Each time the men in the ring tied up one would try to make space to punch, fail, and resort to trying to hammerfist his opponent's head while it was next to his own. Nothing was hurt except the referee's feelings as he utterly failed to break the two or stop them from hammerfisting in gloves which were far too large to hurt anyone over that distance.
Neither was good enough to break the clinch or stay out of it and we were put through round after round of these two headlocking each other and hammerfisting with so little effect that it was more schoolyard japes than fight. I cringed knowing that Carbin—a man I admire greatly—was sitting through this with me but when I caught a glance of him he was laughing up a riot. It was the most animated I saw him all evening, even when he later cornered his man to a knockout victory.
Similarly, I can't remember a moment of the good scrap between Brad Pickett and Neil Seary (though I recall cheering for the underdog) yet my most vivid memory from the same evening was the crowd erupting with applause, laughter, and jeers through the dreadful fight between a man billed as “The Cheesecake Assassin” and Igor Araujo as they traded powerless, two-handed flails while locked in a fifty-fifty leg entanglement.
And I remember almost nothing about the Yamma Pit Fighting event. Yamma was fought in a cage with a sloped floor, supposedly making for fighting on both high and low ground but actually just serving to trip the men over as they tried to defend takedowns. But I remember being online with hundreds of other people, enduring this terrible and hilarious new (and mercifully short lived) take on MMA.
Not every fight can be a chess match or a barnburner but there is room for enjoyment at both the sublime end of the spectrum and the ridiculous one. Terrible fights can be fun fights. Even boring fights have their own merits. If you're a fight aficionado, a coach or a betting man they spell out exactly where both men struggle. If you are not it doesn't matter, you are no less a fight fan for not enjoying rubbish fights. But sitting through the snoozers is par for the course at any level of fight fandom.
In recent years I have taken to asking new acquaintances in this business not about the best fight they have seen but about the worst one. Rather than the same four or five bouts I would get for the first question, I am treated to something both hilarious and unique from that person's past. Could be a slog from a major show, some poor mug being matched up with Jon Jones in an amateur bout, or a not-quite-illegal event in the backwaters of nowhere where the fighters fell through the door of the cage.
And that's the real secret to enjoying awful fights: in retrospect.
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