Recently I decided the reason I’m such a huge fan of mixed martial arts – beyond my affection for blood-splattered knockouts and tactical submission battles -- is because it gives me the only opportunity I know of to witness a sport becoming itself.
Every sport, no matter how exciting it is to its fans, eventually reaches a kind of equilibrium in its development, where the huge revolutions of earlier eras become more modest. Aside from the occasional great leap forward (see: LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer), where everyone stands up and takes notice of a brand-new way of doing things, sports reach a point where their greatest artists work in details, perfecting the creative explosions of earlier ages. Compared to sports like football, baseball, and basketball, all of which long ago reached that equilibrium point, mixed martial arts is just now entering its golden age, an era filled with revelatory missteps, bold experimentation, and occasional explosions of athletic transcendence. And isn’t that the true, deep-down joy of sports fandom? Isn’t that what sports writers and other romantics are always telling us -- that we watch sports for those rare moments when we witness something we’d never seen before? Surely that’s Michael Jordan’s true legacy: not that he scored so many points or won so many titles or even that he redefined athletes as walking Madison Avenue billboards – but that he made us believe in something. After all, he was the one who convinced us that human beings could walk on air.
In just my relatively short time as an MMA fan I’ve watched the sport evolve into something it wasn’t before and seen seemingly indomitable fighters get left behind in the rush. One minute you think you’re watching the greatest fighter who ever lived in then-23-year-old Mauricio “Shogun” Rua during his miracle year in the Japanese Pride organization, 2005 (during which he defeated Hiromitsu Kanehara, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, and Ricardo Arona). Then, barely five years later, you’re watching Rua, who by then was the UFC light-heavyweight champion and in his fighting prime, getting beaten so badly by 23-year-old upstart Jon “Bones” Jones that you – an experienced fight fan, not easy to wobble – almost feel compelled to look away. The fight was so one-sided and bruising, someone watching MMA for the first time would have been forgiven for assuming that by some horrible clerical mix-up a professional had been allowed into the cage with an amateur and given clearance to beat him senseless. It didn’t seem fair. Actually it seemed cruel, even by the dubious standards of professional fighting.
The Rua fight turned out to be the start of Jones’ own miracle year, one in which he would make four former UFC champions look hapless one after another. After winning the title from Rua, Jones embarrassed longtime division flag-bearer "Rampage" Jackson for four rounds and then choked out the previous “unbeatable” light-heavyweight champion, Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida, standing up. After the ref stopped that fight, Jones walked away nonchalantly, leaving Machida’s unconscious body to flop to the ground like a sack of flour. Top fighters like Machida never lose by standing guillotine chokes, but Jones doesn’t just win; he expands possibilities. That Jones has also recently become MMA’s biggest heel – the self-righteous religionist who got busted for drunkenly driving his $190,000 Bentley into a pole and then responded by blaming “haters and fickle mma fans” for kicking “me while I’m down”; the self-proclaimed “businessman” who refused to take a fight on short notice, resulting in the first canceled UFC event in a decade and the loss of paydays for dozens of fighters who can barely afford their Hondas, much less a Bentley – may not paint the prettiest picture of Jones as a person but it doesn’t diminish just how great he is in a cage.
The reason for Jones’ success isn’t just because he’s a brilliant natural athlete (which he is; it’s something in the blood, I guess – one of his brothers is a defensive end for the Baltimore Ravens, and the other one is a lineman for the New England Patriots). It’s that he’s a brilliant natural athlete coming up in an age when his sport has evolved past its early raw years and entered its renaissance, when most of the early kinks have been worked out and everything seems possible. Jones (who’s been picked by Nike to be the sport’s first crossover star) is MMA’s golden child, the perfect example of the modern mixed martial artist, who came to the sport with all the elements of the game at his fingertips – boxing, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing, judo, whatever you can think of.
20 years ago, when the UFC was barely in its infancy and mixed martial arts was still something so off-the-radar that John McCain hadn’t even started to call for it to be banned yet, the organization’s stars, like Royce Gracie and Tank Abbott, were specialists who entered the Octagon to prove the supremacy of their respective martial arts or bar brawlers cashing in on crowds’ desire for bloody freakshows. The superstars of the next 10 years, like Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, and “Shogun” Rua, came into MMA through one or two disciplines and quickly set out to integrate other fighting styles into their own. But the kids coming up today, like Jones, featherweight champion Jose Aldo, and welterweight next-big-thing Rory McDonald, started their training after “ultimate fighting” had evolved into “mixed martial arts.” Entering the Octagon as a single-minded specialist for them would be unthinkable; it would be professional and anatomical suicide. Muay Thai and boxing and wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu aren’t separate disciplines anymore; they’re elements of the same sport, fundamentals that need to be mastered and integrated before you can call yourself a mixed martial artist – the way dribbling, passing, and shooting are all seamless elements of a basketball player’s game.
Now that the sport’s baseline has been established, fighters are free to improvise and innovate. That’s how we got Anderson Silva front-kicking Vitor Belfort to the face Karate Kid-style, Edson Barboza knocking out Terry Etim with a spinning heel kick, and Chan Sung Jung – “The Korean Zombie” – finishing off striker Leonard Garcia with a Twister (a submission that involves cranking your opponent’s legs in one direction while cranking his head in the other) all in a little over a year. None of those moves had ever been seen in the UFC before 2011; now they’re a part of the vocabulary: three more examples of what’s possible when technique meets daredevilry.
Back in April 2012, while defending his belt for the third time, Jon Jones trounced his archrival and former training partner Rashad Evans (himself a former UFC champion). Throughout the fight Jones seemed to be making up moves as he went along. Here he was fighting one of the best mixed martial artists in the world, a man with years more experience than he had, and he was beating him up with shoulder shrugs and wild spinning punches. Forget the stunned announcers or the shocked fans; Rashad Evans had never seen before what was crashing into his head. When Jones hit Evans in the second round with an elbow jab that could have knocked down a wall, you could almost see the spirit go out of the former champion, as if that one move told Evans everything he needed to know about how quickly a star can get left behind by a sport becoming itself.