So, if you know anything about me or at least follow me on Tumblr, you know that I watch a lot of old MMA, most of which is stuff I’ve already watched before, or at the very least stuff that I was aware of when it happened. It isn’t a thing a lot of people do, watch old MMA. For as many parallels that MMA and Pro Wrestling have, the nostalgia market that is so strong in Wrestling, see the 7000 review podcasts on iTunes, isn’t something that MMA has, for better or worse. It is, for me anyway, a puzzling situation.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what attracts me to these fights from ten or more years ago. For sure, some of it is nostalgia, that’s undeniable. I’ve been watching a lot of IFL lately and it isn’t good, per se, but watching it brings me back to a time when I would read the play-by-play on Sherdog and then wait weeks, yes weeks, to watch the show on Fox Sports Net. The Pull of nostalgia is strong, but its not that strong. I can’t help but feel there’s another component to it, one that I struggle to define.
I think a big thing that attracted me to MMA and still attracts me to it, is that it is a sport with a huge amount of potentiality. In every fight, there is a huge chance that something interesting will happen, from almost every position, there is a chance of something truly dynamic taking place, even from the most “boring” of positions, something incredible can happen. Think about the first Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen fight or the first fight between Jorge Santiago and Mamed Khalidov. Incredible violence and spectacular finishes are hanging over both fighters at all times, but I think that element is slowly fading away.
The more crystallized MMA becomes, the more that the techniques become uniform, the more defined the position become, the more that special feeling seems to fade. Go watch Travis Fulton fight Jeremy Bullock. Jeremy Bullock is some skinny Tae Kwon Do dude from Utah, we know now, 20 years later, that he has no chance. But this is 1998, we don’t really have a clue what MMA is going to be, what is going to work, where the fights are going to take place. Maybe this dude who looks like Taryn Manning’s troubled cousin is gonna hit the Dim Mak on Travis Fulton, it isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. There is a magic in that, in that idea that anything could happen. Now what actually happens is that Travis Fulton basically Rock Bottom’s Bullock into the living death, which is magical in its own right. (The last two sentences were ghostwritten by Bjorn Rebney.) There is no comparing this fight to, let’s say, Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez. For all that Poirer was able to accomplish, for all the potential for violence that existed before the bell even rang, there is an element to every fight from 1998 that takes on a different energy, an even greater sense of potential, even if the fighters are less skilled. We lost this element somewhere along line. I don’t know where exactly, but if I had to guess, I would say it started when Matt Serra beat Georges St. Pierre. After that, things seemed different, a shift happened. It wasn’t just that fighters became more conservative, I don’t even think that was the case, but around that time, fighters got a lot better, the competition improved and has continued to improve as a steady rate.
The better fighters get as a collective, the less disparity between fighters, the less likely we are to see the sorts of moments that drew me to MMA, the less likely we see a fight like Tim Sylvia-Andrei Arlovski II. a fight I loved so much I embedded it on my MySpace page a fight that I still point to as the moment that I decide that this MMA stuff was worth really getting in to. Today’s heavyweights would never do what Arlovski did in that fight, rock Sylvia and then immediately look for a leg lock, it just wouldn’t happen, and in some ways that is an improvement, and, I think, in a lot of ways it isn’t.
No one really wants to admit this, people like to pretend that they watch sports to admire skill, but the real draw of sports, in as far as sports in an entirely aesthetic experience, isn’t mastery, but mistakes. It is the mistake that creates the jump-up moments, the truly exciting aspects of sport. If you need any proof that skill isn’t as relevant as most make it out to be, we live in a world where people wouldn’t cross the street to meet Demetrious Johnson. Not that DJ ins’t capable of incredibly moments, but those moments have come against perhaps his weakest opponents as a champion. Tim Elliot and Ray Borg can’t really hold a candle to Kyoji Horiguchi or Joseph Benavidez. So when you have a fighter, be it Mighty Mouse or Travis Fulton, who is so much better than his opponent, they can exploit that difference, force their opponent into making mistakes. This doesn’t happen as much when fighters are evenly matched.
Of course, this is all the natural progression of things. Athletes and fighters were bound to get better and more skilled, that is just the reality associated with the passage of time. And this isn’t to say that modern day MMA isn’t great, it is. On Saturday, we’ll get to see two great title fights, featuring great fighters. I’ll watch it and I’m sure I’ll love it, but it will be different than the IFL show I watched earlier today, there is something missing. It doesn’t mean that the IFL was better, I can guarantee it wasn’t, but even as prosaic and modern as an IFL show might appear when compared to a fight from 1998, there’s still something there. For all the strides in competition and skill that have been made, as MMA plots an upward trajectory in those terms, MMA lost something that it won’t ever get back. Maybe it was essential, something we had to lose, but I miss it and I want it back.