Xtreme Action Sports Bar, in Denver, was just hours old when I showed up for dinner last Friday night to review what I imagined would be just an MMA-themed version of Hooters. Three or four servers dressed in ring girl uniforms stood outside passing out free drink coupons and shuddering in the cold. Inside, dozens of flat screens playing old UFC events surrounded the custom Octagon-shaped tables. Everything smelled new, including the freshly painted, bright-red walls. It was a lot to take in all at once. “Wow, this is what it looks like when MMA becomes mainstream,” I thought as I sat underneath a large metallic sign that dared me to answer in the affirmative: “Are You Xtreme?”
I coudn't help but hate on all this a little bit: the menu (appetizers were called "prelims," smaller entrees “lightweights,” etc.), the bartenders wearing Affliction T-shirts, the loud and obnoxious bro-rock. I realized that being around mixed martial arts since the beginning is like discovering a band before they make it big. That first album means so much to you, but after they sign to a major record label and their songs start appearing on the radio, you can’t help but feel like some purity's been lost, something that was just for you.
So there I saw in an MMA-sports bar with the "average Joes," longing for the days when MMA was still fringe and getting snarky.
“Wow, you’re really mean,” said my waitress Kyle as she struggled to convince me to order a round. She’s right, I thought, so I decided to shake off the hater inside me by ordering the drinks with the most entertaining names: one Blood of Dana, one Throat Punch, one Cutgirl, and one Screaming Tapout, if you please, Kyle. I took all four shots and started feeling more amicable.
I watched a couple UFC fights I hadn’t seen in ages on the screens behind me and started chatting with Kyle about her experience with MMA. It turned out she'd recently started to work as a ring girl at local events and had been asked by management to produce a training manual for the other servers--a sort of MMA primer. After getting a sense of the depth of my MMA knowledge, she quickly ran off to get a spiral notebook she'd been working in.
I brightened up instantly. Her notes, written in pretty pink ink, were the greatest MMA-related thing I had seen in a long time. “Why are you grinning, you weirdo?” she asked as I flipped through the pages. The novelty of seeing someone put effort into mapping out and learning the sport for the first time was really touching. She had listed off the various MMA promotions, the weight classes, several of the fighters, and a glossary of general terms like "clinch" and "take down." I mentioned that the first UFC took place in Denver and gave her the names of a couple of local fighters. She wrote those down as well.
As I paid the check, I had an epiphany: I shouldn’t be such a stuck-up pretentious hipster; I should just enjoy the mainstreaming of MMA for what it is. Just because I was there at the sport's beginning doesn’t mean I'm entitled to its future. Wanting your favorite band to stay obscure and unknown forever is a selfish act. MMA might never feel as cool to me as it did in 1992--artists in all mediums seem to produce their best work in their youth, when they’re still struggling and don’t know any better--but MMA will continue to be just as important to the people learning about it now as it was to me back then. Besides, even if someone discovers Bad Brains through listening to their recent awful rock-reggae albums, inevitably that person will find his way back to the band's brilliant punk masterpieces of the early 80s.
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