The Hand-Wringers Reappear
About a year ago I was in Toronto eating dinner with a friend, and the restaurant we chose was broadcasting a professional hockey game on a television above the bar. Now, I spend most of all of my days watching and writing about human beings fighting in cages so you might think that my tolerance for sports violence would be higher than most, but it seemed like every time I looked up at the screen that night in Canada I involuntarily recoiled in horror. Say what you will about the violence in mixed martial arts; at least mixed martial artists are usually facing their opponents when they get hit. Not so in hockey. Every time I saw some poor guy get smashed in the back and crammed face-first into a plexiglass wall my heart went out to him even as my soul lurched away. It seemed brutal, barbaric even, and my heart longed for the child-like innocence of MMA.
Still, just because I don’t like Brussels sprouts doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t be able to enjoy them, and just because I find hockey and football horrific doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of irony. To be truly alive is to be self-aware, and for me to run around condemning violence in one sport while celebrating the violence in another would be the height of self-congratulatory nonsense. I am a professional MMA journalist, not a professional hand-wringer, and people can do as they like.
But you just knew it, didn’t you? As soon as Anderson Silva’s shin connected with Chris Weidman’s knee this past Saturday night and cracked in half, you just knew the moralists and the squares and the kings of self-righteousness would come pouring out of Time Magazine and off of Twitter to say, “I told you so.” They were just perched and waiting for something this grotesque to happen. Forget that this might be the worst injury in the 20-year history of the UFC or that injuries just as awful happen in football (memories of Joe Theisman still haunt my childhood memories), soccer, even (fair warning) basketball, with far more regularity. Anderson Silva’s almost cartoonishly violent injury was confirmation for the virtuous of the world that they were right all along. They sat patiently while MMA worked its way into mainstream culture, into the movies, and onto Madison Avenue, knowing all along that their prudish little hearts would eventually find vindication in the eyes of a credulous culture as soon as someone got really hurt.
And so, we got self-righteous tweets from the likes of Tim Brando, a sports broadcaster who covers college football for a living (football!) and who is so concerned about people getting injured in MMA that he waited exactly no time at all before turning Anderson Silva’s personal agony into an opportunity to point out his own nobility.
I don’t know much, but I do know that condemning violence in MMA while making a living covering football, especially football played by men who aren’t getting paid, betrays a level of self-satisfaction and tone-deafness only a sports broadcaster, or maybe a teen pop star, could pull off.
The Better Part of Valor
Obviously the big story from UFC 168 is going to be the gruesomeness of the Anderson Silva injury and the possibility that it may have ended his career, but the more fascinating story may have unfolded earlier in the night, when UFC veteran Chris Leben quit on his stool in between rounds one and two of his fight with Uriah Hall. Sandwiched as it was in time between Georges St-Pierre’s recent announcement that he would be taking a leave of absence from the sport and Anderson Silva’s potentially career-ending injury, Leben’s decision not to go out for round two after getting pounded by Hall at the end of round one was a remarkable and remarkably brave act of self-awareness and self-preservation, particularly for a guy who’s built his career around self-destruction.
In a sport like MMA, where toughness is a prerequisite and oftentimes discretion isn’t rewarded, you rarely see fighters quit. They might break during the course of a fight, and essentially quit-by-referee, but too often a fighter’s pride will override his better judgment. Which made Chris Leben’s decision on Saturday night so remarkable. Here was a guy who’s been fighting for his entire adult life, taking all kinds of punishment as he went, making the most self-aware decision a human being can make. Right after the fight was over Leben told Hall, “You’re the next generation.” Not long after that, on Twitter, he wrote: “Days of winning on toughness alone are over,” before implying that he would be moving on from MMA. How’s that for self-knowledge? When would you ever expect to see that kind of clarity from an athlete in the middle of a football game: the realization that a sport has passed you by and that the risks are no longer worth the rewards.
But MMA is all about self-awareness. We might look at fighters as larger-than-life tough guys, and they might occasionally look at themselves the same way, but really when it comes down to it mixed martial artists are in a constant state of self-appraisal and exposure. They walk into cages in front of thousands of people in almost no clothing and have to convince themselves that they have it in them to fight, an act fraught with anxiety for any human being with an instinct for self-preservation. And at some point or another they have to convince themselves that they no longer have it in them. Which might be harder than the first.
By refusing to come out to face Uriah Hall in round two, Chris Leben was engaging in the kind of deep soul-searching and self-actualization poets could only dream of. But growing up in a sport that demands that kind of exposure had prepared him. Fighting lays fighters bare, for all the world to see. You can’t hide your bruises or your blood or your fear or your anger. And when it came down to it, Chris Leben couldn’t hide his incapacity, his obsolescence, any longer. He knew he was licked--that he was part of the past
Which is what makes MMA so great. It’s all about the contradictions. The toughest (Leben) and the most brilliant (Silva) are also the most fragile. Such is sport and such is life.
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