It’s all well and good to love something when it’s easy and exciting and doesn’t require anything of you. And fucked if I know anything about it, but it’s possible that true love is the love that forces you to look deep into a mirror and admit certain ugly things about yourself, things you would have been able to go on ignoring or denying if you had just been smart and kept your heart closed. Looking back on my relationship with Strikeforce on the Monday after the promotion’s last-ever event, I realize that this was the kind of love I had for it. Not the pure, innocent thrill I felt for Pride or the mature sense of commitment I feel toward the UFC. No, I’m talking about that messy, uncomfortable, humiliating, ultimately disappointing but still edifying kind of love that exposes you for all the ridiculous things you actually are. Here are four Strikeforce fights that forced me to admit some of my lousiest tendencies, in ascending order of shame.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Dan Henderson, July 31, 2011
Russian MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko’s loss to Dan Henderson was the fight that finally made me admit that, all protests to the contrary, I’m susceptible to feelings of favoritism, even passionate favoritism. For decades I prided myself on what I considered a noble detachment that, I believed, both kept me safe from the perils of emotional entanglements and provided me with a clear-eyed objectivity that the team fans, and other saps, of the world lacked. But just as six months on an analyst’s couch convinced me I’m not as impassive as I thought (or hoped), watching Fedor lose to Henderson forced me to admit that I’m capable of true vulnerability and susceptible to real feelings of loss. Watching the man who introduced me to MMA fall apart before my eyes was like having my heart broken. And for that I can never forgive him.
Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley, April 9, 2011
I’ve always believed that the only way to love mixed martial arts (and to defend it to skeptical friends and family members) is to try to find as many ways to distinguish it from the tough-guy lousiness of the everyday real-fight world. So I looked past the tattoos and the shaved heads and the heavy-metal walkout music and concentrated instead (both in thought and in word) on the athleticism, on the training, on the discipline. Mainly I concentrated on the sportsmanship. That was the thing that separated MMA from the depression of a real fight, I told myself: Real MMA fighters respect each other; they touch gloves before they fight and they hug afterwards. But watching Nick Diaz and Paul Daley’s one-round masterpiece of petulance and genuine distaste made me realize that sometimes even I want to see guys who are way too enamored with their own bizarre notions of masculinity mean-mug, trash-talk, and middle-finger-throw their way through a brawl.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Wabricio Werdum, June 26, 2010
Fedor again. This time in his second fight for Strikeforce, when the curvy Russian’s legendary 10-year unblemished record came to an end against Brazilian jit-jitsu master Fabricio Verdum. Though Fedor came in as a heavy favorite -- a living, breathing promise of human indestructibility -- he got cocky after an early combination, dove into the Brazilian’s guard, and got caught in an arm bar/triangle choke that he was forced to tap to. Sure, it was the end of Fedor’s epic 32-fight win streak, but more importantly it was the end of one of my ugliest delusions: the one where I convinced myself that, like any decent, caring person, I root for the underdog. The sense of personal loss I felt when Fedor lost to Werdum forced me to admit that no matter how many tears I cry watching Rudy or Remember the Titans, in real life I prefer the overdog. I do. Cheering for the underdog is a pleasant and sentimental diversion, and it may make us feel nobler to swear that we identify with the struggle of the little guy, but I like watching the best in the world at something succeed beautifully at it. It does nothing for me when a small liberal arts college in Maine beats Duke in the NCAA tournament because that team is just going to lose their next game against Michigan, and now I don’t get to see the two best teams play each other in a game that matters. I wanted to see Roger Federer in 2007 win, I wanted to see the New York Yankees in 2000 win, I wanted to see the Chicago Bulls in 1997 win, and I wanted Fedor Emelianenko to beat Fabricio Werdum. To claim otherwise has always been a romantic self-delusion.
Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate, March 3, 2012
This is the hardest one for me to admit. Because I couldn’t be a stronger supporter of women’s MMA, couldn’t believe more firmly that there should be women fighters in the UFC, couldn’t be more convinced that women MMA fighters are capable of putting on great fights just like their male counterparts. But, if I’m going to be completely honest, there is something about the actual watching of a women’s MMA fight that I haven’t quite reconciled myself to. There is still something about watching two women fight that upsets me on a base, instinctual level that watching men fight hasn’t made me feel in years. I don’t know what that instinct is, and god knows I wish it would die in me, but there it is – getting less powerful with every Invicta card but still stubbornly there. And the Ronda Rousey/Miesha Tate fight was a perfect example of my ambivalent relationship with WMMA. On the one hand, I loved the elegance and brutality of Rousey’s domination of Tate, of her technical mastery, of her unsentimental physical confidence and the effectiveness of her tricky headgames. On the other hand, I’m not sure I actually enjoyed watching the fight. Deep down, there is a part of me that rebels against the idea of women fighting. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I wish that women would actually be better than man and evolve past our ridiculous and self-destructive need for physical confrontation, the same way I wish they wouldn’t want to join the military or own guns. I don’t know, but please believe me when I say I could not be more embarrassed by this. Hopefully 2013 will be the year I finally grow up.
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