When you first start watching mixed martial arts, every fight is a struggle. And well it should be. Only a sociopath should be able to watch, without knowledge or understanding of the art of fighting, two people beating each other bloody and not feel at least a twinge of horror--only someone born without a conscience or a sense of connection to his fellow man.
After you’ve watched enough fights, though, and after you’ve learned about the sport and all its techniques and intricacies, all those moral concerns go out the window, until one day, very little that happens in a fight phases you. You still feel sympathy for the losers, of course, and you identify with the pain of the injured, but the struggle disappears. Pretty soon, you’re barely blinking at what other people might consider the worst examples of human barbarism … or at least human ridiculousness.
There are exceptions to not blinking, however, and they’re particular to the individual fan. Some may have trouble watching too much ground and pound, while others get queasy over a particularly nasty leg lock. For me, the line gets blurry at fights full of leg kicks. Show me a guy getting choked unconscious or a girl getting elbowed in the face and I won’t blink; make me watch 15 minutes of one man kicking another man’s leg into mush and I'll do so through my fingers.
This past Saturday, lost amid the hullabaloo of the Anderson Silva/Chris Weidman fight, lightweight Edson Barboza set an impressive, if grim, UFC record. With his win over grappling specialist Rafaello Oliveira, the Brazilian became the first fighter ever to finish two fights by leg kicks, the first coming two-and-a-half years during Barboza’s UFC debut, in Nov. 2010, when he left poor Mike Lullo sprawled on the ground, unable to walk.
The reason why leg kick beatings—like the one Jose Aldo put on Urijah Faber or the one Tarec Saffiedine directed at Nate Marquardt--are so upsetting is because, more than any other kind of beating, they reduce world-class athletes to helpless fawn. By the second round of their fight on Saturday, Barboza had so badly damaged Oliveira’s lead leg (Barboza had landed more than 20 thigh kicks in the first round) that the grappler could barely stand, much less fight back. At that point the fight ceased to be a fight. Oliveira was helpless, limping around the Octagon at Barboza’s mercy. Over and over again, Barboza walloped Oliveira's leg, and over and over again Oliveira fell to the ground and then dragged himself back to his feet when Barboza declined to follow him there. At a certain point in a fight like this—where so much damage is being done but there’s no risk of that damage causing one fighter to lose consciousness—the crowd starts calling for mercy. With each collapse to the ground and each slow drag back to the feet, the crowd gets louder and louder. Soon, the whole spectacle begins to feel like a knockout in slow motion: The result is inevitable but the referee has to feel around in the dark for that moment when mercy trumps possibility.
When Herb Dean did finally step in to stop the fight, Oliveira was lying on his back with all his senses and his mind in order. But he couldn’t walk anymore; he may as well have been a child at that point for all his ability to defend himself. Dean's decision had no urgency about it--he didn't have to leap into an exchange or rush to beat back the victor. He just calmly raised his hands and said, "That's it." No assault has ever ended more more civilly.
After Barboza’s debut victory over Lullo back in 2010, Lullo had to be carried back to the dressing room. All the knockouts that I’ve seen over the years, all the broken bones, all the losses of consciousness, and it’s only the leg-kick victims who ever have to be carried out of the cage. How sad and horrible it is to see a great athlete reduced to the humbled state of the dependent, of the helpless. Those are the moments when I almost have to turn my head away in shame. Almost.
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