After upsetting Rory MacDonald Saturday night, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson did his MMA due diligence and called for a title shot against the winner of the UFC 201 fight between champion Robbie Lawler and Tyron Woodley. This was fine and just and fair and reasonable and after seven straight wins over increasingly more murderous competition, surely no one deserves a shot at the belt more than Thompson (least of all, Tyron Woodley). But because the universe is an unpredictable place and a boulder could drop on Thompson’s head, or our heads, at any moment, we would like to argue that Thompson’s next fight should not be for the UFC title, no matter how proper such a fight would be, but rather against fellow welterweight contender Demian Maia.
Every once in a while the world offers an opportunity for an athlete or a team to transcend the everyday concerns and earthly distinctions of their particular sport and strive for something approaching the sublime, to transcend the predictably great in the name of art. Today, for example, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and their fans are likely ruing the fact that they may have wasted too much physical and mental energy in their quest to break the NBA’s regular-season win record this year when a bit of physical and mental energy may have been just what they needed to overcome the Cleveland Cavaliers last night in game 7 of the NBA finals. Instead the Cavs won the trophy and the Warriors lost and today everyone is too busy singing the (much-deserved) praises of LeBron James to remember or care that the Warriors won 73 games this season, except those who are remembering just to scold the Warriors for all that energy they wasted.
But the Warriors were absolutely right to do what they did. Championships come and go with all the predictability of the seasons, and trophies rust. Every year some team wins a title, and we celebrate or mourn their achievement and bask in their reflected glory and gawk at their parades and then promptly forget them and get back to our lives. To win a championship is a great achievement but it’s as reliable and uninspiring as the turning of the earth. To aim for something no one has ever achieved before, to get 73 wins, to leap over the concerns of the everyday and make people believe in something greater, something like true beauty, even genius: that’s a noble cause and a venture worth sacrificing titles for. True art in sport—in life—is so rare our athletes owe it to themselves and to us to reach for it if they’re ever lucky enough to get the chance.
So, yes, Wonderboy deserves a title shot. So, arguably, does Demian Maia. But we, fellow MMA fans, fellow seekers of sublimity, we deserve a fight between Thompson and Maia. Such a fight would be bigger than any championship belt; it would be a chance to see which man, arguably the closest we have to true artists in the sport of MMA, is more perfect in his art. Just imagine if Dostoyevsky and James Joyce could have squared off over a sheaf of paper.
Watching Thompson have his way with Rory MacDonald on Saturday night was to see a true artist at his easel. Thompson is so luminous as a striker, so quick and subtle, so in control of distance and range, so masterful with movement and angles, so at ease, that even greatness on the level of Rory MacDonald’s was laid low by it. There are dozens of truly great fighters in the UFC, many of them far more complete mixed martial artists than the striking-centric Thompson, but few, if any, are so complete in their mastery of one art form, so transcendent in their specificity, so conversant, even poetic, in their language, that they’re capable of making their fellow great athletes look earth-bound by comparison.
In fact, I would argue the only other one out there is Maia, whose Brazilian jiu-jitsu is so glorious that over and over again he’s used it to minimize the greatest fighters in the welterweight division and turn them into bit players in the great novel he himself is writing. Watching Demian Maia grapple is like listening to Miles Davis play or watching Marlon Brando act. It’s also like watching “Wonderboy” Thompson strike.
In their ways, Thompson and Maia are throwbacks to a simpler time in fighting history, back to the early days of the UFC when specialists would battle it out to determine stylistic, even ideological, supremacy—before MMA was even called MMA. And according to the foundational, axiomatic ethic of MMA evolution, those days are gone and their success shouldn’t be. Thompson’s grappling is as middling as Maia’s striking, and the great governing principle of MMA for the last 15 years has been that only when every art form is mastered and integrated with all the others do you get a great fighter. But here they are, two specialists proving that high art can beat back even mastery and the tide of history.
So, in the name of beauty and possibility and humanity’s ever-present desire for something truly beautiful—something to believe in (which is what we all hope for in the back of our minds every time we turn on a game or a fight)—I hereby call for Thompson and Maia to fight next. Let them get inside a cage and determine once and for all who the true artist of the UFC is. Then the heavens can collapse on our heads all they want.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.