Do you remember how shocked you were the first time you saw Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Clerk together in public, smiling? Or the moment Yitzahk Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands in front of the White House after signing the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993? Or, you know, that time the ghosts of Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader hung out at the end of Return of the Jedi? We’re essentially creatures of habit and assumptions based on prior experience, so when there’s a radical shift in the relationship between symbols of two such diametrically opposed and contesting visions of the world, our poor brains are barely able to process the kind of deep intellectual disconnect we feel. It’s like waking up one morning to find out that everything you knew to be true was false, and false true.
One day, MMA fans will look back on February 4, 2014, as one of those kids of days—when the end of an era of discontent becomes so clear that we have no choice but to accept our new reality, toss out the old way of defining ourselves and our world, and go out searching for new antagonists to bitch about.
We just received a press release saying that next Tuesday UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta will join Senator John McCain at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. to show support for an ongoing study at the Cleveland Clinic “dedicated to understanding the effects of repeated head trauma in fighters.” UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and his next opponent, Glover Teixeira, will be there as well, as will a few representatives from the Cleveland Clinic and McCain’s colleague, Senate Majority Leader, and former amateur boxer, Harry Reid (shown below).
But the real story is the fact that McCain will be standing on the same side of the fence as the UFC. McCain, after all, was essentially a one-man army fighting against the rise of the UFC back in the mid-90s, when the young promotion was generating revenues and controversy by selling itself as a sport without rules, terrifying most Americans and raising the antennae and the ire of powerful people in Washington. This all happened before Fertitta and his brother bought the UFC in 2000, but still, to think of John McCain and Lorenzo Fertitta hand in hand and arm in arm in the seat of American democracy is enough to make one’s head spin—just trying to contemplate all that image will symbolize, all the time’s that’s passed, all the changes the sport and the culture have undergone, all the metaphorical (and literal) blood that’s been spilled. Twenty years ago, John McCain led the charge to extinguish mixed martial arts; six days from now he’ll be hailing a new partnership with its biggest promotion.
But for MMA fans there’s no call to be smug here. Tuesday's event isn't proof of MMA's victory and John McCain's defeat. In the end, both sides won. Without McCain’s campaign against the UFC (which he called “human cockfighting”) back in the mid-1990s, a campaign that resulted in 36 states banning “no-holds-barred” fighting (35 five of which have since been overturned [I’m looking at you, New York]), the sport of MMA as we know it today wouldn’t exist. Most likely the entire notion of “free fighting” would have vanished back into the unregulated shadows from which it came. The UFC never would have made it to Fox; MMA fighters would never have gotten sponsorship deals with Nike; and Ronda Rousey would be an anonymous former Olympian, rather than a budding movie star. Most importantly, Fightland wouldn’t exist. And not just because the sport wouldn’t be big enough to justify our existence, but because none of us who work here would have watched the sport if it had kept on in its brutish prehistoric form.
As a result of McCain’s campaign, the UFC started cooperating with state athletic commissions and instituted a bunch of rules to make the sport more palatable to, you know, people. Because of McCain’s stubborn prudishness, the sport now has weight classes and gloves and five-minute rounds and no longer allows acts of talent-less brutality like fish-hooking, hair-pulling, groin striking, and headbutting. Because of McCain, we’re at a point where the sport is so popular and so much a part of the American dialogue that studies about brain injuries can be commissioned and seen through. As much as we’ve been trained to hate John McCain, he helped MMA grow from a spectacle to a sport.
In today’s press release, the UFC is pushing Tuesday’s event as an “unprecedented move” featuring “fierce competitors in the Octagon [putting] aside their longstanding rivalries.” With all due respect to the company’s marketing divisions, and to Jon Jones and Glover Teixeira, their talking about the wrong rivals. The rivalry between two fighters could never compare with the rivalry between a U.S senator and an entire sport. One is a sales pitch; the other is a seismic shift. The ending of the dispute between John McCain and the UFC will be significant long after Jones and Teixeira have retired to spend all that money they never would have been able to make 20 years ago.
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