April 11 was the kind of day that makes you wonder if the problem with fighting is that it can't be justified.
Over in Abu Dhabi, a faded, 37-year-old all-time great was knocked unconscious by a series of methodical, telegraphed right hands. Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira may be a legend, but he's absorbed monstrous punishment over nearly 15 years in the game, and the signs of slowing he was already exhibiting when he entered the UFC seven years ago are now neon and blinking incessantly. The man has an exhaustive injury list, and there have long been rumors that he's partially blind in one eye. Unstoppable in his first 37 fights, he's now been brutally finished in five of his last eight. For extra sadness, this most recent knockout was delivered by a fighter lauded for being out of shape and noted for bold race relation stylings, in a building that may well have been constructed by slave labor.
The whole dirge was mild relative to what took place later the same day, at a Resurrection Fighting Alliance card in Wyoming.
Between the fourth and fifth rounds of a title fight against Matt Manzanares, flyweight Junior Maranhão passed out and fell to the canvas, apparently unconscious. His corner roused him and propped him back up on his stool; the ring doctor barely glanced at him and simply asked his corner if he was OK, and the referee did nothing in particular. Thankfully, he survived to the final bell, but the entire fiasco left a nauseous feeling and a long list of uncomfortable questions.
When fighting isn't making you wonder when someone is going to die, it serves up everything from casual misogyny to anti-marketing. Given how appalling it can be, why does anyone keep coming back? Leaving aside bloodthirsty vultures who feed on carnage and loud noises, a surprising number of intelligent, reasonable people wade through a sea of utter bilge to take in the fights. Why?
The answer is that we watch because despite its horrific flaws, fighting—in theory, and just often enough in practice—can be beautiful. As unlikely as it may seem, we watch because of Jonny "Bones" Jones.
Jones is the greatest light heavyweight the sport has yet seen, maybe the greatest fighter full stop. Signed to a UFC contract as a 21-year-old after only four months of fighting professionally, he became the promotion's youngest-ever champion within three years. He's 19-1, the lone loss a controversial disqualification in a fight he was dominating. At one point he defeated five former light heavyweight champions in a year and a half. He's worthy of any superlative you want to throw at him.
If what he's done inside the cage has been consistently awe inspiring, though, what he's done outside it, and what's surrounded him throughout his career, has been far less so. Jones is the exact point where two valid arguments—"How can you watch this shit?" and "This is why I watch this shit"—meet. He is, for worse and better, MMA.
Jon Jones stands 6'4'', with a frame large enough that he will almost certainly eventually rise to the heavyweight class. His reach is listed at 84 and a half inches, which is absolutely unrealistic and not a typo. Despite all of this, Jones is also faster and more athletic than any of his opponents. He springs into flying knees and hits whirling elbows with astonishing fluidity, and strikes from distances and angles that are unthinkable or impractical for most. He rewrites the rules, and throws off the curve.
During the early days of the sport, fans were enraptured by the mere fact that it existed, fulfilling all our wildest Hollywood fantasies and arcade daydreams. That these fights were somehow actually occurring—that the most basic questions about whether a boxer could beat a wrestler, or a wrestler could beat a judoka, were being answered—was enough.
As the sport developed, and the talent pool deepened, superior athletes with improved technique found their way to the cage, and the level of performance rose dramatically. Better athletes gave us higher quality fights and more moments that knocked us off our couches. We witnessed Anderson Silva put Tony Fryklund to sleep with an impossible reverse elbow and dodge Forrest Griffin punches like they were choreographed in a Wushu movie. We watched Shinya Aoki choke Joachim Hansen with his shin. We listened to Stephan Bonnar scream "HE RAN OFF THE WALL LIKE A NINJA!" after Anthony Pettis ran off the wall like a ninja and kicked Ben Henderson in the head in the closing minutes of the last round of the last fight in WEC history.
We've seen the rise of dynamos like Cain Velasquez and José Aldo and Demetrious Johnson, so much faster and more technically refined than the best fighters of the past that they don't even seem like they're competing in the same sport. Jones may be the best of them.
Six years ago, in his UFC debut—a short notice matchup with the highly favored Andre Gusmão—Jones struggled a bit, at times looking awkward and unpolished, but immediately gave us a glimpse of what was to come. In the first round, while in the clinch, Gusmão made the small mistake of leaning his weight into Jones and marching predictably forward for just a few steps. It was a few steps too many, and all Jones needed to channel his momentum into a blink-and-you-missed-it lateral drop that landed Gusmão flat on his back. Not only could Jones wrestle, but he could do it with flair.
As the opening round came to a close, Jones feinted a level change, reaching down towards Gusmão's leg, and then pivoted and unleashed a high spinning back elbow. It didn't connect cleanly, but it was audacious and brilliantly innovative. This would not be the last time we would see this elbow. Not all of his opponents would be fortunate enough to have it miss.
Ultimately Jones earned a clear, though not dominant, win over Gusmão. We did not yet recognize his real potential, but we would only need to wait for his next fight. It came against seasoned veteran Stephan Bonnar, and it was fabulous.
Jones immediately established spacing with a variety of kicks from such a distance that Bonnar had no obvious response. When Bonnar managed to close the gap, it didn't improve the situation. Jones tossed him around like a fleshy hay bale, hitting so many different techniques from the clinch that it eventually seemed like he was checking off items on a takedown scavenger hunt. (At the end of the second round he tried a flying scissors sweep, because why not.) Once Bonnar was conditioned to be terrified of being launched into low orbit every time they touched, Jones was able to land sharp knees and work dirty boxing inside. After catching a kick, Jones unleashed an even more spectacular spinning elbow than the one he had attempted against Gusmão. (Bonnar would later say that he hadn't seen it coming at all, and actually thought that someone in the crowd had hit him with a bottle.) The performance wasn't perfect—Jones struggled to keep control on the mat or do damage after his throws, and he faded significantly toward the end of the fight, allowing Bonnar to land some punches and rally—but it was all fantastically entertaining and loaded with possibility.
Because we're not allowed to have exquisitely nice things, every remarkable feat we've seen Jones perform in a fight has been matched by something impossibly stupid he or his handlers or promoters have done. All of it amounts to an index of the sport at its worst and dumbest.
Most recently, we got someone using Jones's Instagram account to send homophobic taunts at a Swede who'd trolled him on Twitter. It was variously claimed that his phone had been stolen, or lost, or hacked, or that someone from his management team had done it, possibly using the wrong account and possibly as a branding exercise. None of this was very convincing.
Before that, Jones managed to entangle himself in legal troubles compounded by hypocrisy. After telling USA Today, "I think if I was a knucklehead and I was a guy who you would have to worry about getting a DWI or going out and doing something really stupid, they simply wouldn't promote me," and telling MMAWeekly, "You never have to worry about me with a DWI... or doing something crazy," Jones plead guilty to a DWI charge after crashing his Bentley into a telephone pole in New York in May 2012. There is no brand expert alive capable of spinning that.
There's plenty more where that came from. (His public relations team once somehow managed to spin Jones taking some time off to rest an injured hand into Jones ducking a title defense against former friend and teammate Rashad Evans that he wasn't actually ducking.) The most cringemaking because unnecessary stuff, though, has to do with the way his promoters have handled someone who should—whatever his flaws—be their biggest drawing card.
A pointless burial by UFC figurehead Dana White? Of course. When Jones's planned opponent Dan Henderson pulled out of their UFC 151 fight with an injury and Jones understandably refused to put his belt on the line against a replacement on extremely short notice, White unloaded a dumptruck of dirt. The event was cancelled, White spit bile in the general direction of Jones and his camp on every possible platform, and the company went so far as to issue a press release saying that Jones had "murdered" the event.
Indefensible championship matchmaking? Jones—light heavyweight champion, solidly established as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet—was made to defend his belt against Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen, middleweights who hadn't won significant fights at 205 pounds in years, but were, in theory, marketable.
Racism? For all of the perfectly good reasons there are to dislike Jones, much of the ire directed at him has appears to have more to do with the fact that he's young, gifted, and black than anything else. (This was embodied fairly well in the barely coded rhetoric that prominent social justice crusader Chael Sonnen leveled at Jones.)
This is an abbreviated list, all of it is dreadful and indicative of the worst mixed martial arts has to offer. But when Jones enters the cage, none of it really matters. It all falls away, and what we're left with is exquisite.
After fighting Stephan Bonnar, Jones ran through every gatekeeper in the division. The outcomes were formalities; no one was interested in what he'd do, only in how he'd do it. He continued to improve his kicks, and stuffed four Jake O'Brien takedown attempts before landing yet another back elbow and following up with a power guillotine from the kind of angle only allowed by a seven-foot wingspan. Totally decent wrestlers Matt Hamill, Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko were all treated to seemingly effortless takedowns followed by a torrents of arcing elbows. Jones wasn't only putting everyone in sight on the floor, but punishing them badly once he got them down. And lest anyone assume he was limited to ground-and-pound on the mat, while thoroughly out-grappling Ryan Bader he gorgeously cycled through north-south, D'Arce, and guillotine choke attempts before eventually getting the tap.
Whether or not Jones was ready for a huge step up in competition, his exponential growth had earned him one in the eyes of UFC matchmakers. He would face Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for the belt, and we would see if he could continue doing these incredible, improbable things against a UFC champion.
The fight wasn't even close. Jones's style, in case anyone was wondering, was all in the service of substance.
After getting to top control with a trip from the clinch, Jones's rock solid base, constant posture adjustments, and superior strength bricked all of Rua's attempts to work a deep half guard game. The futile effort quickly wore down the champion. Once Shogun fatigued, Jones was free to land whatever he wanted standing up, and he did, throwing everything from knees to spinning back kicks to superman punches. It was only a matter of time, and Rua wilted by the third round. Jon Jones had won the light heavyweight belt, and he'd barely been touched in the process. (Fightmetric has Rua landing nine significant strikes in 12:37.)
This was no kind of fluke. Four other former champions would fall next, all in a row.
Quinton Jackson was physically and technically outclassed, and fared little better than Rua did. Lyoto Machida troubled Jones for a round and a half with syncopated movement and sharp striking; Jones responded by taking him down and slicing him with an elbow, landing a huge right hand when they exchanged, and dropping him in a heap after choking him unconscious on his feet. Rashad Evans entered their fight without an obvious game plan, and Jones won a decision, taking the opportunity to demonstrate that the standing elbow can be used as a substitute for the jab. Vitor Belfort surprised Jones, and everyone else, by locking on a tight armbar early in their fight; Jones showed the resolve that some had continued to question by refusing to tap while his arm was torqued to its breaking point. It was all Belfort had to offer; Jones controlled the rest of the fight, broadening his own submission horizons by finishing Belfort with keylock in the fourth.
After that run, the UFC seemed to run out of ideas for Jones. Chael Sonnen had no business fighting Jones, and it showed; most of the drama was saved for after the fight, when Jones realized he'd finished the fight with a grotesquely broken toe. In his most recent fight, against Alexander Gustafsson—a stopgap contender, on paper—we finally saw Jones tested and pushed to the edge. It was an instant classic, in which Gustafsson showed that his boxing and mastery of angles were enough to put Jones in serious trouble. It also laid to rest any doubts that Jones was capable of grinding through real adversity. Jones met the most dangerous opponent he'd ever had by getting even more dangerous himself, the inflection point coming with, of all things, a perfectly-timed spinning elbow.
This dominance hasn't always been scintillating; rounds where Jones has seemed untouchable have not always resulted in edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Despite that, there's something incredibly compelling about a man who is somehow able to render former champions all but harmless. Watching Jones not only absorb and integrate complex techniques with frightening speed, but successfully employ them against the best in the world, can leave you with a feeling of wonder at the limits of humanity, and how some people can push past them.
Fighting is a game theorist's sex dream. Offense and defense play out fluidly and simultaneously, with limited interruption. There is effectively no equipment or specific field of play required. The only essential components are two people intent on imposing their will as directly and literally as possible and working toward the most definitive possible conclusion. There is no duration of time that must be satisfied, no score to play to. A fight can end at any moment, just because one fighter is no longer able to safely continue.
In other sports, a single mistake or an exceptional sequence can lead to a spectacular goal, or a fast break basket, or a hanging curve crushed 400 feet over the wall. In MMA, it can result in an instant victory or defeat, in a sport where you may only fight two or three times in a year. A loss means a neck was squeezed until consciousness was lost, or an arm was straightened until an elbow flexed beyond its limits, or a brain took traumatic injury. There are few sports where the stakes are so high.
What sets MMA apart from its cousins is that its rules create a strategic and tactical rabbit hole that seemingly descends forever. The seamless combination of striking and grappling, under rules that only barely limit the available targets and attacks, creates a landscape that allows almost unlimited creativity and a wildly high ceiling for execution. Periodically we're lucky enough to witness a fighter who tests those limits and expands the limits of the possible.
Even at its least cynical, fighting isn't for everyone, and there are compelling arguments that maybe it shouldn't be for anyone. In a civilized world, people probably wouldn't pummel one another for glory and money. Combat sports aren't just incredibly dangerous, but morally questionable in a variety of ways.
Still, they're different in degree, not kind, from other contact sports, including those undertaken by unpaid children and young adults. From skiing to skydiving to cheerleading to football, we embrace all sorts of athletic pursuits that are mildly dangerous at best, and occasionally fatal at worst.
Some of us take it a step further, and derive pleasure from viewing straight competitive violence. We may hate its consequences, want safety to be of the utmost focus, and believe that better regulation and a change in the culture can go a long way towards mitigating the damage, but we understand that fighting will never be truly safe, and that the danger is tied up with what we love about it.
When Brandon Vera gets complacent from his back for just a moment, and Jones takes the opportunity to smash him with a sharp left elbow, we're disturbed that Vera's face is broken and elated at the technical and physical execution, equally horrified and invigorated by the sheer impact and mastery of space. There's no way to separate the artistry from the brutality and its consequences. This is the complex nature of being a fight fan.
This weekend, Jones is defending his title against abundant puncher Glover Teixeira, who's won 20 straight fights since last losing in 2005. I don't know if Teixeira has any realistic chance of threatening Jones the way Gustafsson did. I know that, conservatively, a dozen things before, during and after the show will make me cringe and wish that MMA was better. I also know that I'll be watching regardless. A talent like Jon Jones can transcend almost anything.
Josh Tucker sometimes writes words. He mostly enjoys watching humans fight professionally, but is pretty conflicted about it. He's on Twitter @HugeMantis.
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