Seven years into my MMA fandom and I still feel a small thrill every time the sport gets even a passing mention in the mainstream press. I still remember how excited I was the first time I heard Stephen Colbert talk about MMA on The Colbert Report. It was 2009, just after Brock Lesnar had beaten Frank Mir at UFC 100, and though Colbert was dismissive (“Ultimate fighting has it all—from the occasional moment of action to the 40 minutes of awkward spooning), I felt like a proud parent. “So this,” I thought, “is what it’s like to see your kid finally get a little good press after a lifetime of truancy reports, bad grades, nasty looks, and other acts of adult disapproval.”
The last five years have seen a big uptick in these kinds of media mentions, but the thrill hasn’t gone away yet. Each mention outside the world of sports broadcasting is still a delight—no matter how brief, bizarre, or arguably counterproductive.
And what more powerful, influential, and generally zeitgeist-y media outlets could you hope to be mentioned by than Jon Stewart and Buzzfeed? The first is still the arbiter of all things worth mentioning; even as The Daily Show has slipped deeper and deeper into the morass of slapstick, it’s still the place that bestows a sense of relevance on all the things it mocks. As for Buzzfeed—I don’t know if I could adequately describe what it is, but to argue that its “first-person enthusiastic” tone and curated, LOL-fueled approach to cultural criticism hasn't completely changed the way the Internet deals with the world (from 90s nostalgia to animal videos to natural disasters) is to willfully bury your head in the sand and hope for a return to simpler, less list-filled times.
No, Buzzfeed and The Daily Show are the places to look when you’re looking for pop culture relevance, which is why the past few days have been such a great (if inevitably fleeting) moment for MMA. Neither mention was particularly insightful, nor all that positive. But they weren't all that negative either. Which is something. Instead they both felt casual, conversational, as if mentioning MMA isn’t like mentioning murder or illegal drugs anymore. The tone of assumed knowledge—that there is no longer any need to explain what MMA is before talking about it or apologize on behalf of the sponsors or warn sensitive souls about what they’re about to see—felt like a step forward. These are the small victories we look for. Eventually they all add up to something.
First there was Buzzfeed’s list of “22 Reasons You Should Never Step Into an MMA Ring,” complete with gifs of particularly devastating head-kick knockouts, pictures of bloodied faces and monstrous hematomas, and the snarky but wise sub-header “Bad Things Happen Here.” No problems: Buzzfeed isn’t saying there are 22 reasons not to watch what goes on inside an MMA ring (which is an article they may have published five years ago), merely that there are 22 reasons not to go inside one. Which is hard to argue with. I love MMA almost more than anything, and I could come up with 100 reasons not to get in a ring. Buzzfeed, I’m with you.
And then there was the brief mention of MMA from Jon Stewart during his extended rant about the fresh scandal involving brand-new New York City mayor Bill De Blasio, who was recently caught eating his pizza with a knife and fork in Staten Island—just the kind of controversy that would have sunk De Blasio’s chances if it had come out during the campaign.
In his defense, De Blasio said that he was simply paying tribute to his ancestral homeland of Italy, where they don’t eat pizza with their hands. “I often start with a knife and fork, but then I cross over to the American approach and pick it up when I go farther into the pizza,” he told reporters.
“Oh! You start over there and you bring it over here?!!” Stewart says. “What is this: mixed martial arts?!!”
How great is that? Five years ago, Stewart’s protégé Colbert called MMA “ultimate fighting” and mentioned only its predisposition toward spooning. Five years later, Stewart, with all the world watching, called the sport by its given name and made a joke referencing not that MMA is violent or bloody or full of tattoo-covered meatheads but that it’s a sport that blends together the techniques of several different disciplines and therefore is comparable to switching from utensils to your hands while eating pizza. And the audience not only got it. No need to explain. I don’t know much but it seems like humor requires at least some level of shared understanding to work. Shows you how far we’ve come, I guess.
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