I used to love NBA basketball.
It was my sport, my one concession to the overwhelming pull of American athletic obsession. Football bored me, soccer disappointed me, hockey confused me. But basketball: Basketball was elegant, it was fast, it had the high scoring excitment soccer could only dream of and allowed for the kind of personal identification between players and fans that football would be delusional to hope for. (Look at a man in a pair shorts and a T-shirt, no matter how tall or strong or athletically gifted that man is, and you can see something of yourself in him; look at a man covered in pads and helmets and black visors, and all humanity and empathy vanishes).
Today, two weeks into the 2013 NBA playoffs, I look back on my days as a fan and feel nothing. Like a romantic partner who’s fallen out of love with the person who once ruled his imagination, I can hardly remember now what it was like to feel what I used to feel for basketball. It’s gone now, replaced by a new love, MMA, which never teases me with offseasons or “inconsequential” early-season games. In the sport of professional face-punching/arm-wrenching/neck-choking, every fight has consequences for the participants, so every fight feels meaningful to fans.
But that’s not why I love MMA more than basketball. Nor is it just because a sport based on face-to-face physical human conflict provides visceral thrills and primordial satisfactions (and depths of identification) that a game built around putting a ball in a basket simply can’t.
No, fundamentally why I think MMA has stolen my heart right away from basketball--why I’m here in New York City, with the New York Knicks just beginning their second-round playoffs series against the Indiana Pacers, playing for a chance to take on LeBron James’ Miami Heat, perhaps one of the best teams in NBA history, and all I’m thinking about is Cain Velasquez fighting “Bigfoot” Silva, a fight that isn’t even happening for three weeks--all comes down to my desire for direct experiences.
A few years ago, just at the beginning of my MMA education, and while still in the thrall of the NBA, I got to see the then-world champion San Antonio Spurs play the same week that I saw my first live MMA fight. I had seen several NBA games live by that point and had always felt, but couldn’t quite put into words, a feeling of emptiness afterwards. After comparing my first live fight to that playoff game at the AT&T Center, I finally realized what the problem was and understood why I was probably destined to fall out of love with basketball and marry mixed martial arts instead.
The difference was this: At the Spurs game, the fan response to every moment was governed by unseen forces living somewhere in the arena rafters. Basketball, like all sports, is ruled by moments, by shifts in momentum, by elusive patterns of tension and release. The knowledgeable fan, or even just the fan sensitive and attuned enough to the unspoken language of drama and human empathy, know when to rise from his seat or when to sit on her hands, feels when extra cheering is required to help a favored team through a tough spot, understands in his or her bones and blood that certain moments in games are the moments and that those moments are to be cherished and communed with, to be participated in. Given the opportunity to do so, an arena full of even marginally educated fans will respond involuntarily at these moments because, deep down, they’re as human to us (and as desired by us) as breathing.
But these days, the CEOs and corporations that run basketball arenas, and their teams of market researchers, don’t want you responding involuntarily to anything; they aren’t willing or wanting to hand over the experience at their arenas—which will ideally include the purchase of numerous food and clothing items--to something as risky and unpredictable as spontaneous ecstatic communion. That sort of behavior can’t be quantified and, once it’s given into, can’t really be contained. So instead, basketball arenas curate the basketball-watching experience down to the smallest moment. They tell you when to stand and when to clap and when to cheer and when to boo and when to laugh and when to dance and when to sing. The result is a roomful of impassive observers or, at best, unthinking enablers looking to the Jumbotron for guidance, validation, and corroboration. Every movement at an NBA game has been ritualized to the point of lifelessness, the entire three-hour experience an exercise in predetermined responses and prefabricated enthusiasm. Which doesn't mean fans don't care, only that they're forgotten how to care.
Compare this to an MMA fight. From UFC events in enormous areas down to the smallest regional, underground shows, it’s always the same. When two fighters suddenly get into a violent punching exchange, everyone shouts; when one fighter manages to slip out of a submission attempt, everyone applauds. After every landed head kick, the heads of everyone in the audience pull back involuntarily; with every closeup shot of a bloody face, they recoil intuitively. In the last minute of a 25-minute title fight, the crowd spontaneously applauds the efforts of the two fighters who managed to make it that far. I guarantee any flash knockout in any fight at any event in any town will cause everyone in the crowd to jump to their feet. The Jumbotron has no power to govern responses because the Jumbotron and the people behind it have no idea what’s going to happen next. Which means all that we in the crowd are left with is our involuntary, human responses to real stimuli, our actual instinctual moments, our legitimate group reactions born out of ungovernable identification with the fighters inside the cage and a desire for something real. MMA fans lose themselves in the collective consciousness of a true crowd experience, rather than hand themselves over to the dictates of a piece of technology and the marketing wizards behind them. And in this world--this neat and tidy, preprogrammed, sanitized, marketed, curated world--what more could a sports fan ask for?
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