On Cub Swanson, Jazz, and MMA

Fightland Blog

By Dan Shapiro

Photos via Cub Swanson

Musical metaphors in mixed martial arts are littered with mentions of rock and roll, metal, country and hip hop; the aggressive rhythms and distorted sounds of contemporary genres are a natural fit for a sport like MMA, where athletes brutalize each other with vicious strikes and suffocating chokes.

But indulge me, if you will, for just a few minutes; change the station, and trade the tired, four-four time signatures and cold, soulless electronic beats of popular music for the complex polyrhythms and sophisticated melodies of jazz. It’s the only way to truly appreciate the artistry of UFC featherweight Cub Swanson, who headlines UFC Fight Night 44 on June 28, opposite Jeremy Stephens.

Swanson, 30, is as unorthodox as anyone in the MMA game today, well, maybe save Lyoto Machida. But Cub’s loose and wild style thrives on spontaneous improvisation, a fundamental tenant of jazz, and his wiry movements, which stem from the bouncy, side-to-side spring in his step, correlate to the ebb and flow of swing and bebop.

Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare Cub Swanson, or anyone for that matter, to jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, or Charles Mingus. But tune into any one of his fights, put the commentary on mute, and throw on a classic jazz album, say John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Freddie Hubbard’s Open Sesame, and you’re certain to see Cub in constant movement, seamlessly switching stances along with the soundtrack, soloing and comping on his hands, feet, knees, and elbows, ones, twos, threes, and fours.

Cub Swanson once referred to his style as “beautiful destruction,” a perfect description for an unpredictable standup game and well-versed Brazilian jiu jitsu repertoire. Swanson’s arsenal, however, also includes a variety of cartwheel and spinning back kicks, along with Judo throws and hip tosses, which instantly relegates him to the fusion subset, alongside greats like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

The connection between Swanson and jazz, albeit obscure, is further solidified by a detailed examination of his current five-fight win streak inside the Octagon, which demonstrates Cub’s evolution from Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt into one of the more dynamic and creative fighters in modern MMA.

Coming off a second round submission loss to Ricardo Lamas in his 2011 UFC debut, Swanson scored his first win with the promotion in January 2012, knocking out George Roop in the second round. Swanson not only exhibited his speed and agility that night, landing punches and kicks at will, but he also displayed an uncanny ability to change his tempo (another core facet of jazz), never allowing Roop the opportunity to find his timing.

With the highlight-reel knockout of Roop under his belt, Swanson’s next appearance inside the Octagon came in June 2012, against the significantly bigger Ross Pearson; Swanson thoroughly battered Pearson, landing winging power punches in numbers.

Such a crafty and artful performance can only be examined through speakers blasting the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds on Fire, John McLaughlin’s technical and emotional guitar wizardry the perfect compliment to Swanson’s heavy right cross and Capoeria kicks, as well the front kick, double jab, left hook combo that laid waste to Pearson in the second round.

After quickly dispatching with his next opponent, Charles Oliviera, via knockout, an overhand right to be exact, in September 2012, Swanson’s next foray into the jazz-fusion-meets-mixed-martial-arts approach came against Dustin Poirier in a battle of highly touted 145 pounders.

Swanson employed deceiving level changes and the finesse of continuous shoulder movement to deke Poirier, elevating his fight style to levels of awe-inspiring beauty. But in the third round, convinced that the decision was a lock, Swanson delved into the self-gratification of super groups like Jaco Pastorius’ Weather Report, listening to, and engaging, the crowd from the top position, as Poirier held on to a tight guard.

Next up for Cub was kickboxing ace Dennis Siver. And while the German-born Russian looked sharp in the first round, Cub pushed his game to an even higher realm of fusion, using offensive ground game and a guillotine choke submission as a covert defensive weapon in the first round. Swanson then dished out complex and risky BJJ techniques, even attempting an Omoplata, in the second round, before knocking Siver out in the third, a round where Cub’s quickness and imagination afforded him the ability to fake uppercuts en route to landing head kicks.

This “Fight of the Night” performance against Siver was both calm and chaotic, and straight forward and abstract at the same time, and best likened to Davis’ 1970 masterpiece Bitches Brew.

Now, seemingly on the brink of a title shot and a potential re-match with former foe Jose Aldo, to whom he was embarrassingly knocked out via flying knee in just 8 seconds, Cub Swanson must first do battle with the violent and heavy handed Jeremy Stephens. And although Swanson clearly possesses the style and artistry to dispatch of Stephens, he must first conquer the one remaining, large hole in his game: keeping his hands up.

Like many trumpet and saxophone greats, Swanson has a tendency to drop his hands when not using his instruments, fists. Stephens, a hard charging puncher, will no doubt take advantage of this gaping flaw, but, if Cub can muster up his finest solo at San Antonio’s AT&T Center, he’ll move one step closer to a championship bout, and all that jazz.


Check out this related story:

Cub Swanson: Winning Without Moving Forward