MMA's Greatest Moment (and Ben Henderson's Worst) Makes Its Way Into the Mainstream

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Another day, another step toward mainstream acceptance for the sport of mixed martial arts. Today we saw a trailer for a new series of soon-to-be-released Electronic Arts video games powered by something called the “EA Sports Ignite Engine"--games, the companies says, that “will be alive with Human Intelligence, True Player Motion, and Living Worlds”--and wouldn’t you know it: Right there among the dramatic CGI shots of NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III driving for a touchdown, NBA star Kyrie Irving leaping for a layup, and soccer genius Lionel Messi diving for a header, were UFC lightweights Benson Henderson and Anthony “Showtime” Pettis battling it out for the WEC lightweight championship back in 2010.

You'll forgive us for gushing, but to think that we as a culture have reached a point where we’re not only comfortable seeing animated videos of men fighting on our TV screens (particularly to sell video games that are going to be played by young children) but also that we’re willing to implicitly accept MMA’s place on a pedestal with sports the size of football, basketball, and soccer (rather than, say, fringe sports like skateboarding or the luge) is remarkable. Thankfully, as with everything else in American society, the “moral” qualms of a squeamish public get drowned out by the overwhelming reality of economic success. MMA may not be football, but now it gets to hang out with football, and the squares are too deflated to make a sound.

But hidden beneath the surface of today’s MMA victory, there is a hint of darkness, also related to the ideals of American late-capitalism: For every winner, there needs to be a loser, and for every triumphant, video-game-worthy moment of athletic brilliance, there’s someone having his/her career defined, in animated form, by a failure.

But while the players on the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Atletico Madrid can take solace in the anonymity of the collective, poor avatar Benson Henderson is out there on his own, essentially naked, getting his face kicked in slow motion—a Madison Avenue-meets-Silicon-valley reminder of what he has admitted was the worst and darkest moment of his otherwise amazing career.  

It’s a bizarre quirk of the sports world, not to mention of the video/social-media reality we inhabit, that one terrible moment can define the career of an athlete, even if that athlete spends the rest of his career as a dominant champion. As long as he lives, and even after (when he’s in heaven with Jesus), Ben Henderson--who is the UFC lightweight champion of the world, who is a pound-for-pound top 10 fighter, who’s never lost in the UFC, and who’s only lost twice in his entire career--will never be free of Anthony Pettis’ stunning, mind-scrambling, sport-redefining, limit-shattering, iconic leaping-off-the-cage head kick that capped off their championship fight.

As Morrissey might say, it seems so unfair, I want to cry.

For his part, Henderson has approached the whole thing philosophically. I guess he figured out at some point there was nothing he could so about that kick being the most culturally significant instant in his career—not in a world of YouTube, highlight reels, and video-game marketing strategies. No, when life gives you lemons, best to respond by just winning a UFC title, making a pile of money, proposing to your girlfriend in the Octagon after a win, and revelling in the fact that someone wanted to make a video game character out of you in the first place, no matter how badly that video game character is getting beaten up ... and for all the world to see.

If you can’t beat ‘em, Tweet ‘em. 

Check out these related stories:

MMA Comes to Daytime Television

Jon Jones, "The New York Times," And My MMA Ambivalence