Sunday, May 20, 2012


Mixed martial arts is one of the few sports, and certainly the most successful one, whose invention took place in modern memory.  There are weird predecessor fights like Muhammed Ali fighting Antonio Inoki and whatever shit Helio Gracie got up to, but as an ongoing sport and not a freakshow it mainly dates back to the early 90s.  The consequence of this is that pretty much the entire sport has been recorded and is available for perusal by both legal and not-so-legal means.  And what's more, due to the relatively slow schedule, one can actually watch, say, all of the UFC events in order.

Doing this would, I imagine, have a curious effect.  On the one hand, the seemingly discrete fights and tournaments would merge into a broader narrative, one about the rise and fall of particular fighters, and the quest for legitimacy by the sport in general.  Narratives are what draw us into sports, and the narratives of mixed martial arts have the benefits of being largely true.  When we like a fighter, it's because of the way he presents himself, not because he's been slapped with a jersey with our hometown on it.  UFC 1 contains an easy narrative, one that's been reworked into founding mythology by the promotion in its later days: Royce Gracie, the smallest man in the tournament, comes in and beats everyone else because he simply has the better technique, and in the process demonstrates the efficiency of his Brazilian jiu-jitsu style over less effective martial arts.  In the new UFC intro video, the first thing we see is this event's fight between Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock.

At the same time, there are moments of narrative discord.  This is, again, the case with all sports: the facts rarely fit the predetermined narrative exactly.  The plucky underdog hometown team makes a decent showing but goes down in the quarterfinals.  The intimidating, dominant fighter gets laid on for three rounds by a dorky wrestler.  And so on and so forth.  We can see that even in the heavily mythologized UFC 1: the finals are not Gracie/Shamrock, but Gracie against the now-forgotten kickboxer Gerard Gordeau.  Gracie/Shamrock itself lasts under a minute, and while being one of the more competitive fights, still looks very sloppy compared to modern MMA grappling.  At the same time as sports tend towards narrativization, they resist it.

UFC 1 (the "1" was, of course, added in later) hardly looks like the start of a global sport.  It portrays itself as an one-off exhibition of martial arts, and the one-night tournament format certainly doesn't suggest attempts at an ongoing league.  It's very much a competition between sports, with the matches subtitled as "Boxing vs. Jiu Jitsu" or "Kickboxing vs. Karate".   Speaking of the graphics, they evoke less of a sense of epicness and more one of 80s cheese.  Which has kind of come back around to epic again.

(Wait, is that GSP?)

There's a general sense throughout that an 80s martial arts movie has escaped the limits of fiction and entered into the real world.  The announcers do their best to sell it as a legitimate competition, by focusing on the nebulous "strategy" and the martial arts credentials of the fighters involved, but they don't really have the kind of legitimating framework that Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan (today's UFC commentators) now do, and it's hard to make up these kind of things on the fly.  Curiously, though things are much more brutal than the present-day sport -- in the first fight, Gerard Gordeau knocks out Teila Tuli's teeth, two of which were allegedly embedded in his foot for the rest of the night, while the commentators bemoaned the fight's early medical stoppage -- there's much less focus on the brutality.  There are no nu-metal highlight reels of brutal knockouts, and no direct comparisons to the gladiatorial arena like there was in one long-running UFC intro.  Watching it, it's kind of hard to decide whether it's barbaric or totally lame.

Of course, UFC 1 has an ending fitting for an 80s martial arts movie, with the small foreign guy in a gi winning everything despite seeming to be an underdog.  However, to some extent the fix was in.  The Gracie family was a major force behind the creation of the event, and it was designed to showcase the effectiveness of their style.  You can tell this early on from the fourth commentator who seems to be there entirely to heap praise on Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  That's not to say that it was Gracie against a bunch of tomato cans -- Ken Shamrock was certainly a legitimate competitor who would go on to have a storied career -- but he was far from an underdog.

One can begin to discern this in his quarterfinal fight, against boxer Art Jimmerson ("ranked 10th in the world by the IBF!").  Jimmerson comes in wearing one boxing glove, an absurd moment that would soon go down in UFC lore.  This was caused possibly by the ad-hoc rules summit[1] between the fighters that only highlights the unstable foundation that the entire event rested on, or it may be a comically literal attempt to embrace the mixture of martial arts -- one hand to box, one hand to grapple.  In any case, it's the boxer that comes off looking like a fool, as he is flabbergasted by the ground game and taps out despite not seeming to be in any particular submission hold.  Even next to the sumo fighter Jimmerson seems like a joke.

Once again, this seems to be according to plan.  The commentators predict and then describe Jimmerson's loss as caused not by his own skills but by being a boxer -- he's said to have "too many rules" and to be too limited in a "real fight".  This is a deliberate shot across the bow of the most developed combat sport, and an argument that mixed martial arts (a name the sport had yet to officially adopt) is more "real".  The rivalry between boxing and MMA continues to this day, with everyone from fans to promoters routinely getting in arguments about it, and the UFC using Jimmerson as a fall guy might be the first shot fired [2].

Gracie/Jimmerson also plays into another curious factor about this first event: most of the fights are rather one-sided.  None of the fights go past the first five-minute round, and the only one that seems really competitive is a sloppy but enjoyable slugfest between Zane Frasier and Kevin Rosier.  This is mostly because of the uneven development of skills, but in a way it adds a kind of verisimilitude -- after all, most streetfights are quick and one-sided.  The present-day UFC, with its carefully even matchmaking, comes off as more of a sport but less of a spectacle.

And that's the comparison that one can't help but make.  The UFC today is in many ways what UFC 1 disavows.  The opening credits state that there are "no rules, no judges' scores, and no time limits" -- all things that the current product has, and for good reason.  Mixed martial arts has become a discipline just like boxing has, dependent on its rules, and of somewhat questionable application in a real fight (can you imagine Ben Askren in a bar brawl?)  The weird combination of brutality, 80s cheese and spectacle has morphed into a sleekly marketed, carefully regulated sport.  It's a sport I really like, and the dominant narrative of the sport cleaning itself up and becoming legitimate after these early wild days isn't wrong.  But something's been lost since this crazy, fly-by-night first UFC, and even if we've gotten something better in return it's hard not to miss it.

Next week: "At first I thought it must have been a dream, but I had these waffly black and blue marks all over my leg, and my complexion was totally cleared up."

[1]The early UFC events were often marketed as having "no rules", but this is mainly a marketing ploy -- low blows, eye gouging and biting were banned, along with a host of unstated rules that the system couldn't have functioned without, like no weapons.  The "no rules" bit is, however, one of the few attempts to market this early product for its violence.

[2]The modern UFC more or less repeated the Jimmerson fight when they brought in James Toney to fight Randy Couture a few years back, showing that these early freakshows sometimes pop up in the modern professional product in what could almost be described as the return of the repressed.  Toney faired about as well as Jimmerson did, although he got paid a lot more for it.

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