Sports  Rolling with the punches

Mixed Martial Arts skeptic Michael Lee-Murphy goes to UFC 124

I have always been dubious about Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) – also known as Ultimate Fighting – having long been a bigger fan of its older brother, boxing. Despite the obvious political and social dilemmas that bloodsport creates, the discipline and strategy of the sport, and the histories of resistance represented by fighters like Joe Louis and the mighty Muhammad Ali, are immensely appealing. The filmmaker Ken Burns once termed the tendency of the legendary turn-of-the-century prizefighter Jack Johnson to drive nice cars and wear expensive clothing at a time of extreme oppression an “unforgiveable blackness.” It always seemed to me that MMA lacked these kinds of figures – people who fought outside the ring for something greater than themselves, carrying the emotions and reinforcing the feelings of self-worth of entire peoples.

In recent years, MMA has exploded in popularity and now there are far more writers in North America focusing on MMA rather than my beloved boxing. I figured it might be time to give the sport a chance, and the hosting of UFC 124 in Montreal’s Bell Centre on December 11 provided the perfect immersive opportunity. The main bout was a welterweight title rematch between hometown hero George St-Pierre – or GSP to his fans – and Californian Josh Koscheck. Ringside seats were going for as much as $600 apiece, but the magic of a press pass allowed me to get as close as I wanted without paying a dime.

To call the fight a grudge match would be an understatement. In the months leading up to the fight, the trash talk between the two had been fierce. In pre-fight publicity Koscheck seemed entirely content to play the part of the “heel” (or villain), insulting the French language in the run-up to the fight. Each time Koscheck’s face appeared on the Bell Centre mega-tron (once to say, “This is about pissing off 23,000 French-Canadians”) the entire crowd would boo as loud as at any Bruins-Habs game. Likewise, St. Pierre’s face would inspire ecstasy and minor sonic booms among the sold-out Bell Centre crowd.

For Quebeckers, GSP obviously bears some of the cultural-hero status that I thought alien to MMA – his thick accent and fleur-de-lys tattoo serving as symbols of his pride in being from la belle province in an American dominated sport.

If boxing is called  the “sweet science,” then MMA would be Thomas Hobbes’s description of the war of all against all: nasty, brutish, and short. Rather than boxing’s typical twelve rounds of two minutes each, MMA fights have three rounds of five minutes each, with devastating knockouts common. The standard MMA glove leaves the fingers and thumb exposed, in order to facilitate the holds and grappling that is as much a part of MMA as standard punching. Indeed, MMA takes boxing, removes all the elements of strategy and patience that slow down a fight, and replaces it with kicks, wrestling, and elbows. The cultures of the different sports break along similar lines. In MMA there are more tattoos, more blood, and skimpier bikinis on the ring girls.

In the ten undercard fights, the most exciting by far was a welterweight bout between Matt Riddle and Toronto-based Sean Pierson. Their battle was as furious and gripping as those on ice that the Bell Centre usually hosts. Each time the two exchanged a frenzied flurry of punches, they would high-five before resuming, congratulating each other on putting on a good show for the crowd, and acknowledging each other’s efforts mid-fight.

The title bout, which couldn’t have come sooner for the record-breaking crowd assembled, was fairly one-sided in the end. Title bouts go for five rounds, and thanks to a devastatingly powerful jab from GSP in the first, Koscheck’s right eye was swollen shut for most of the fight. Any time the leather of GSP’s glove connected with the flesh of Koscheck’s face (often), the crowd would erupt with approval. The cage, splattered with the blood of previous fights, took on an almost holy quality as all 23,000 pairs of eyes watched GSP dance circles around an obviously inferior Koscheck.

At the final bell, after the referee had almost stopped the fight numerous times on account of Koscheck’s eye, something incredible happened. The fighters dropped all of the animosity of the previous months, embraced, and congratulated each other for their competition. One would get the sense that the sheer brutality these two men subjected each other to had created a bond between them; one that might be absent from my beloved traditional boxing.

Indeed, the differences between MMA and boxing remained plainly evident throughout the night.

Perhaps the greatest example of the difference between boxing and MMA is thus: where once Muhammad Ali was once an important political ally of Malcolm X and the world’s most famous war-resister, and the humble Manny Pacquiao – currently the greatest fighter of this century – is a Philippine cultural hero of unparalleled magnitude, George St-Pierre is more likely to be spotted at such dignified and demure locales as Club Tokyo on St. Laurent, cruising for female companionship, according to several accounts. In essence, MMA presents a more marketable and profitable aesthetic than that of boxing. The style and cool aplomb required of boxing no longer captivates an audience the way it once did, and now the spray-tanned glitz and hyper-violence of MMA has taken its place.