Now that Fox television and Nike and Gatorade and respected sportswriters and Pulitzer-prize winning newspapers and most of the states in the union and even my mother have finally come around to the realization that mixed martial arts is a sport and not a carnival sideshow and that mixed martial artists are athletes and not hired goons, it’s not unreasonable to hope that the days of the cage-fighting freakshow are behind us, right? Well, then you wake up and realize you live in America, where freakshows are celebrated and goons applauded, where any washed-up celebrity will do anything for a dollar, or at least some attention--and you sigh and give up.
Enter Jose Canseco, the crown prince of desperate lunges for attention. For years, the former baseball player, admitted steroid user, Surreal Lifer and A-level stool pigeon has been putting himself out there as a sort of mixed martial artist court jester. Having convinced himself that a little bit of training justifies a walk to the ring, and knowing that will always be people willing to spend money to see one-time celebrities degrade themselves as long as those celebrities make a fuss about it on social media, Canseco earned himself a fight against towering Korean kickboxer Hong Man Choi back in 2009, a fight that ended with Canseco tapping out to strikes after realizing there are only so many places in a boxing ring you can run to. You would think that after embarrassing himself like that, Canseco would have gathered up what remained of his dignity and called it a day, but men like Jose Canseco exist outside the bounds of embarrassment. Soon enough he was setting his sights on Shaquille O’Neal, calling the former NBA superstar out on Twitter first in 2011 and then dozens of times since. Smelling his own opportunity to stay relevant in his post-basketball years, O’Neal responded in kind.
For years the Shaq-Canseco Twitter spat was spotty—a post here, a post there, the occasional New Year’s resolution, all fun and games and reality TV bluster—but this week things got heated, leading some to think that the fight might actually get made:
This is depressing in so many ways it’s hard to keep them straight, but for real MMA fans the potential for a Shaq-Canseco superfight is the worst, yet most predictable, kind of news: the moment that comes along every once in a while and forces you to admit that your favorite sport is still susceptible to the worst kind of nonsense.
One of the charms of MMA, one of the reasons it’s become so popular so fast, is because it's so easy to understand, so instinctual. You may find the rules of cricket byzantine and the stops-and-starts of football indecipherable, but it doesn’t take knowledge of the intricacies of jiu-jitsu or the subtleties of the Thai clinch to know who’s winning a fight. You can just feel it. That’s the baseline impulse that first draws fans to the sport, a desire to be close to something that primal. Everything else—the subtleties and the intricacies—comes later.
It’s also what drives so many fans to the gym. I’m the same way: After watching enough fights, I started asking myself the question I imagine a lot of MMA fans ask themselves: Could I do that? The answer, in most cases (and in mine), is obviously No, but that doesn’t stop us from approximating the experience of an MMA fight as best as we can—by going to the gym, hitting pads, rolling around, even sparring. And it hasn’t stopped O’Neal or Canseco, both of whom have been training in MMA gyms for years. And good for them.
The problem is when people who have no business actually fighting decide it’s their time to fight a real fight. You can train all you want, but not everyone is meant to get into a cage. Doing so is bad for them and bad for us. Physical peril aside, any time two unprepared people step into a cage, especially when those two people are retired celebrities still seeking the warmth of the spotlight, MMA gets degraded; it slides back to the early, darker days of the sport, when fighting in a cage was simply a matter of will. Not skill, not athleticism, not ability--just will.
Call this the gym-goers delusion: the misguided belief that a few sparring sessions and an innate “toughness” are enough to make a fighter. As former professional athletes and longtime MMA fans themselves, Shaq and Canseco should recognize it and know better.
If you can't do that much for the sport you say you love, Shaq, at least be sure to watch out for this: