As I write this, it is currently nine AM pacific standard time. I've yet to sleep since making an all nighter to watch DYNAMITE on a crappy stream on my computer. I tried to sleep, as any sane man would be want to do after binging on MMA...But what I saw last night (this morning?) left me with an unshakable urge to write about what I saw. So instead of fighting that urge and sleeping, I decided to write this.
I saw many people laughing, mocking, or throwing around words such as "joke" or "travesty" towards the Shinya Aoki vs. Yuichiro "Jienotsu" Nagashima match. And to be fair, it was kind of a train wreck in the traditional Japanese MMA fashion. Two fighters from very different systems, unique rule structures, and even cross dressing. But where others simply saw a freakshow, I instead witnessed something completely different. I was observing art.
I am a life long Pro-Wrestling fan. I was born into it as my grandfather, a life long fan himself, would watch TV programming while holding me before I was even the age of one. Literally, the earliest memory I have is of WWF Superstars. That's not a joke. For the last thirteen years (since I discovered "Insider" sites around 1997) I've devoted myself to understanding pro-wrestling's inner workings. While I'll never be a wrestler, or be able to break in creatively (It's an insulated business afraid of new ideas), it's still one of the few passions I have. My other main passion? MMA. I discovered a love of MMA in 2000 through old UFC tapes. As most pro-wrestling converts will testify, you feel an immediate connection between the sports. If you accept that pro-wrestling was "real" or at least claimed to be, the basic fundamentals of the two are similar. A test between two men to see who is the superior athlete. One just happens to be real while the other fake. One is a legitimate athletic competition and the other is a significantly straining play. Still the same stock just a different variety.
To be honest it's more a burden then anything. Since I'm a convert who has studied these elements, I take serious stock in what will "sell" to an audience. Who has "heat" with the audience. Who is a "strong heel" or a "natural babyface". Who are currently in a "feud" against each other. This has put me at odds with most MMA fans. And if Luke Thomas saw those keywords, he probably considered banning me. When I watch pro-wrestling, I don't see fake fighting. I see a riveting (when done correctly) dramatic athletic play. And all the things that sell pro-wrestling can be naturally positioned in MMA. Some happen artificially such as Chael Sonnen's diatribes. But most happen organically, such as the case of Wanderlai Silva & Quinton Rampage's feud. A complete pro-wrestling "feud" (that included a PRIDE pull apart) that fueled three historically significant fights.
And yet never in my life have I seen a more perfect example of this correlation then last night. When I look back at the beauty I saw I honestly become a little moved. In one fight I saw the perfect example of a true "Pro-Wrestling match" is...in MMA.
Shinya Aoki had all his actions planned out. He knew his plan from the moment the fight was announced. This was a farce of a fight and deep down he probably didn't believe Nagashima should even be in the same ring with him. At the press conference, he wouldn't even look at Nagashima. This man somehow offended his very sensibilities. He mapped out all of his actions so as to both avoid any possibility of damage from Nagashima in the K-1 rules, but also to infuriate him. Aoki wanted Nagashima to know what he was doing. He made absolutely no attempt to hide it.
When the Kickboxing/K-1 round began, like any great "heel" Aoki skirted the rules. He clinched relentlessly. He shot in on Nagashima multiple times. He even attempted to take Nagashima's back. When the referee (Yuji Shimada which only enhances this) admonished him for not fighting, Aoki gave no indication of regret, remorse, or hesitation. Once the fight resumed he did it again. And again. He threw pro-wrestling style dropkicks. He threw abisegiri's. All so blatantly obvious his goal to run down the clock. To avoid Nagashima. To escape the round without any damage. Nagashima's frustration grew as Aoki's tactics paid off. Nagashima played the nice guy despite Aoki's actions. Anyone else in his situation might have been tempted to hit Aoki after he threw the fifth dropkick or retaliate when Aoki leaped onto his back but Nagashima refused to. He stayed to the rules while Aoki flagrantly abused them. Nagashima decided to take the high road and continue to attempt to fight despite his opponent's obvious efforts to avoid it. A pro-wrestling educated audience half jeered and half cheered when Aoki's tactics paid off. You had to admire his tenacity at being a douche during the course of the round. Like every great bad guy, you admired his plan of action, not the man himself.
At the start of the second round; the MMA rules round, Aoki was on cloud nine. He had taken down Nagashima at will during the K-1 portion. It was too easy for Aoki to simply grab Nagashima and pull him into the abyss. It was almost laughable to think of Nagashima lasting any amount of time with him. The fight would be over in seconds. Aoki would submit Nagashima and then be ready for bigger and better fights in the near future. With little heed to caution Aoki shot in from far out of the range you would normally. He simply didn't care what Nagashima offered. He was in his world now.
With one leaping knee all of Aoki's carefully crafted masterwork of a plan came crashing down. As did his consciousness.
Aoki, ever the perfect heel in this fight, had fallen for the single trap of all great heels. He allowed Nagashima a chance to make a comeback and get comeuppance. And with one knee Nagashima clearly, and definitively, ended the evil plans of Shinya Aoki. Good triumphed over evil once again, as the man who refused to break the rules despite the constant cheating of his opponent stood victorious. Not only had Nagashima triumphed over Aoki, but in his post fight comments, Nagashima declared this as a victory for kickboxing in general. He not only defended his honor, but the honor of his sport. Nagashima shouldn't have won the fight. He had no hope once MMA rules were employed. Aoki's plan was virtually perfect. But like any great villain, Aoki allowed his own hubris to overwhelm his vision. He honestly believed his plan to be so perfect, and Nagashima so unskilled that at the dawn of the MMA round his victory was assured. He was wrong. Because in the end Nagashima had two tricks left: fantastic timing and a warrior's heart.
All the elements of what pro-wrestling is, and should be when done correctly all embodied in one fight. This is why Japanese MMA crushed Japanese Pro-Wrestling during the early 2000's. And it's why UFC is crushing WWE. Pro-Wrestling can deliver dramatic moments full of narrative both spoken and unsaid, They can deliver epic battles between good and evil where the stakes hang in the balance. They can deliver once in a lifetime matches of gargantuan statute and scope.
The problem is MMA can do all of this too.
And for all the scripting, careful planning, and orchestration pro-wrestling employs. It will never have the one advantage MMA has over pro-wrestling.
The advantage of being real.