In all the years I’ve been following mixed martial arts I’ve only felt real pity twice.
The first time was UFC 128 in March, 2011, when Jon “Bones” Jones beat Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the UFC light heavyweight championship. That fight was so one-sided, and Rua looked so lost, almost angelic, in his suffering that I couldn’t help feeling for him what any halfway decent person would feel for any person getting swallowed by his greatest fear: Pity in the true Aristotelian sense of the word. Now, I don’t claim to understand anything about Aristotle, but I’ve read enough quotes on daily calendars to know that real, "classical" pity is what we feel for someone who’s experiencing suffering he doesn’t deserve. And no one – not Shogun Rua, not Rick Santorum, not anyone -- deserved to fight Jon Jones that night.
My second experience with pity took place this past Saturday during the main event of UFC 155 in Las Vegas. Watching heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos get completely overwhelmed by Cain Velasquez for 25 unending, suffocating minutes bordered on the inappropriate. I felt like I was seeing some part of dos Santos no one outside of his closest friends and family was ever supposed to see: complete vulnerability. He looked terrified; he looked lost; he looked like he wanted nothing more than to sleep for a thousand years, tucked away in the dark, alone with his shame. Junior dos Santos looked innocent.
But this is one of the most remarkable things about being an MMA fan: We get to witness unfiltered human emotion. This is true to a certain extent with all athletes, of course, but football players are buried behind masks, baseball players are protected by teams, and runners, swimmers, gymnasts, and golfers don’t offer themselves up to be physically mauled in public. When they lose, their loss isn’t equated with a death. The look in Junior dos Santos’ eyes wasn’t the look of a person who was losing a game; he was losing his life. And for the first time, he didn’t know what to do about it. It’s an amazing thing to see a look of profound, existential powerlessness on the face of someone who had always been the personification of indestructibility.
But my experience Saturday went beyond simple identification. It wasn’t just that for the first time I could feel what an MMA heavyweight champion was feeling; I always knew Junior dos Santos was capable of being afraid. This was something different, something more meaningful, more elemental, and at the same time more unnerving. This was looking inside another human being all the way. It was an autopsy. The entirety of Junior dos Santos -- the unbeatable champion, the "baddest man on the planet" -- was laid out on display for all the world to see. Which, when you think about it, is both the most disquieting thing in the world and an act of highest generosity. And so mine was a noble voyeurism. That's what I keep telling myself.
Check out these related stories:
UFC Origins: 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.