Train for long enough in mixed martial arts and you reach a odd point where pain is not only an accepted part of your day, but a wished-for one. Sometimes, owing to the vicissitudes of New York scheduling or the demands of an unpredictable social life or simple laziness, I’ll let a week slide by without training, and by the end of weeks like that my body feels fine—no aches, no pains, no bruises, no limps. In most circumstances, fine would be the ideal state for a body, but I never feel quite right when I’m free of pain. On placid days like those my body feels disconnected, both from my brain and the world. Fine always feels a bit like what I imagine death will be: the absence of sensation and feeling. It’s a cliché, but when I’m hurting I know I’m alive
I can’t say for sure but I would imagine that most people would say the opposite--that a day without pain is a good one—and I can’t argue with them. They’ve made a choice, whether conscious or not, to avoid getting hit in the head, and it seems like the far more reasonable approach. Still, I imagine that the people I train with (and especially the people who train at much higher levels) feel much the way I do: That a day without pain is a day detached.
This weekend in the main event of UFC 163, featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr. broke his right foot in the first round of his fight with Chan Sung Jung. Though no one mentioned it until after the fight, on the replay and in pictures you can see Aldo’s foot swell up like an overripe fruit after crashing into Jung’s knee. It was the kind of injury that would reduce most rational human beings to tears and resignation, but Aldo barely seemed to blink.
Then three rounds later (!), I guess Jung decided to one up the champion. He threw a big right hand that connected on the back of Aldo’s head, and in the process dislocated his own shoulder. It was a hideous and helpless moment, but rather than point out the injury to the referee and call it a day, Jung tried to pop the shoulder back into place. In the middle of the fight. Which is crazy. He was unsuccessful, however, and in the attempt he gave away his injury to Aldo, who promptly jumped on it, throwing several high kicks that Jung was forced to block with the affected arm before crumbling to the ground in pain, where Aldo followed him and finished him off.
(Let me say quickly before I move on to my point: I would never claim that I could fight through the kind of pain that Aldo and Jung did last Saturday, only that as someone who trains MMA, I feel a certain kinship with them and that, in some (very) small way, I am like them. Aldo’s broken foot is my stubbed toe, Jung’s dislocated shoulder my bloody nose. It’s not a one-to-one equation, obviously, but I figure god gives every man only what he can handle. Which makes me The Korean Zombie of my own little world.)
Anyway, so there they were, Aldo and Jung, with only three workable arms and legs between them, and the tableau made me wonder, again, about the possibility of true and expansive, NFL-sized popularity for MMA. To the devoted fan their fight and the injuries they had to fight through were proof of the beauty of the sport and summed up nicely why we watch: the desire to see men and women overcome in the name of something great. But for the casual fan and the curiosity seeker? Would they see, or hear about, a fight that left one man down a leg and the other down an arm and think such a state of affairs had to with the pursuit of beauty? Or would they see it as proof of madness? And would they say that appreciating such a display has more to do with communal bloodlust than with the desire for a proxy visceral experience? Most of my friends disapprove when I tell them about my favorite fight-made cuts and bruises; they can’t understand my desire for them. What about the average sports fan, raised to believe that champions overcome pain and suffering in the name of victory--what do they think about champions who go out in search of pain and suffering, who accept them as inherent elements of their profession and then ignore them (or jump on them) when they arrive?
The image of Jose Aldo leaning back on his broken foot so he could kick Chan Sung Jung’s dislocated shoulder is a world away from that of Michael Jordan playing with the flu or Curt Schilling pitching with blood pouring into his sock or Kirk Gibson hitting a home run in the 1988 World Series on two bad legs. American sports fans love to romanticize about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Well, what about the agony of victory? And what about achieving victory by exploiting an opponent’s agony? There are plenty of people out there who look at the pain of the mixed martial artist (both the pain they receive and the pain they deliver) and turn away in horror, convinced the desire for that kind of pain is a form of psychosis. I realize those people are out there, but as an MMA fan, and as a guy who just feels better when he feels worse, I can’t understand them.
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