Apologies for the mawkish sentiment, but there's something heartwarming about the photo above isn't there? Some of the photos are funny to laugh at rather than with: for example, Butterbean looks like his picture was taken while the photographer was waving a chicken fried steak the size of Mitsuhiro Ishida in front of him. Then there's poor Olaf. That's probably not an actual picture: just a photo taken of a hallowed out Alfonso facsimile on John Shorley's mantle wall.
Others make you want to smile as bright as the fighters are themselves.
But then UFC 110 slaps us in the face like Cain's right hand, and reminds us that so many of these people feel more like ghosts. Or so says traditional narrative.
Is Nog washed up, or is Cain really that good? Did Mirko simply look good against a tomato can, or did he show signs of improvement? Is Wandy back, or is it telling that he couldn't put away a MW gatekeeper in Michael Bisping? The problem for a lot of people when answering these questions skirts an unfortunate sense of revisionism. On the one hand, there are fans and observers who mourn the depreciation of Mirko, Nog, and Wand. "These guys would have destroyed their UFC opponents in 2004", you can almost hear them say (if not outright).
Personally I think a lot of this misses the real narrative: the barometer for success is being raised. It's an obvious enough point I guess, but sometimes I suspect people still don't get it. There's a level of nostalgia surrounding the old hunting grounds known as Pride that reveals the fanboy in us all, but that fanboy sometimes looks less like a sucker for the past, and more like the Star Wars geek who is 40 years old, and ignored the social joys of being next to a living breathing female in order to rebuild his bed in the shape of the Death Star.
Am I a scrooge to mock sites like PrideNeverDie as nothing more than arrested development in Japanese-fetish clothing?
It's not that I don't appreciate Pride. It was a great organization. I missed (literally) the Sakuraba years, but became well acquainted with it in 2002, mostly through online results. And yes, like all good MMA, loved it. But I never felt the need to romanticize Pride, like some do. I get the sense that for some observers, both professional and non, Pride was as good as it got: the equivalent of the Ali era in HW boxing, or something incredibly stupid.
I've heard the phrase "the golden era" (of MMA) be used to describe Pride, but it's a phrase that is so laughably hyperbolic, I'm shocked it's ever been uttered to begin with. For sure, there were some incredible moments. Nobody who ever witnessed Bushido 9, or Final Conflict 2003 (among several others) can deny this. But the problems in Pride were similar the ones that plague organizations we currently criticize: lack of forward thinking (Dream), being averse to diligent prospect hunting (Strikeforce), and shoddy management (EliteXC/Affliction) were practically hallmarks, but they were problems easily glossed over by a grandiose product.
Yet look at Fedor's last 3 fights in Pride: Zulu, Mark Hunt, and Mark Colemen. Gomi's last 4 fights? David Baron, Aurelio, Ishida, and Diaz. Shogun's last 4 fights in Pride were to Diabete, Randleman, Nakamura, and Overeem before he swallowed Ed-209.
I chose those three, because they were more or less the cream of the crop towards Pride's end in their most heralded divisions. And yet look at that competition. Even without hindsight, many of those names are terrible considering guys like Shogun, and Fedor were already well established. There were no prospects being farmed, and the superfights were thinning. Pride's last card featured Jeff Monson and Kazyuki Fujita as the main event. Need I say more? But just in case: Aoki fought on that card but against an anti-prospect, Butterbean fought Zulu in a battle of sentient charter buses, and before there was Zaromskis, there was Zelg Galesic, who Zaromskis will ironically turn into unless his ground game improves.
The point of digging up Pride's "corpse" is that I think this prejudice sometimes blinds various observers and fans from seeing the big picture, and in some cases, stops us from truly appreciating what we have now. When Nog got obliterated, I sensed less optimism for the future, and more concerns about the past. But ask yourself? Even in Nog's prime, did he ever handle a well schooled high level wrestler who could put together crisp three punch combinations that were punctuated with solid low and high kicks? I don't mean that to be as rhetorical as it sounds, but I do believe the HW division as it good as it has ever been. Lesnar is essentially a prospect but is already champ. Valesquez, Carwin, Dos Santos, and even Duffee all seemed primed to make interesting challenges. Middle tier fighters have taken the form of men like Gonzaga (a far cry from Heath Herring) and I'll take a Pat Berry over Igor Vovchanchyn any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Hardcore fans may take offense to this, but as embarrassing as Berry's loss to Hague was, it can't be half as bad as being outboxed by Tra Telligmen.
Forget about "oversaturation" for a second, and look at MMA's own version of March Madness. Zuffa alone is presenting:
Georges St. Pierre vs. Dan Hardy
Miguel Torres vs. Joseph Benavidez
Frank Mir vs. Shane Carwin
Jon Fitch vs. Thiago Alves
Kenny Florian vs. Takanori Gomi
Jon Jones vs. Brandon Vera
Junior Dos Santos vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
Brian Bowles vs. Dominick Cruz
If this were a single card, it would stack up to the best Pride had to offer, and then some. Some people consider it a minus that these fights are being split across multiple cards but it's hard to ignore the many talented prospects/veteran beings showcased at the same time: Palhares, Taurosevicius, Guida, Kongo, Buentello, Struve, Nelson, Uno, Ronys, Okami, Ludwig, Pearson, Winner, Jim Miller, Bocek, Ellenburger/Saunders, Nate Diaz, Pellegrino, Almeida, etc.
All of this sandwiched between what turned out to be a solid February card (UFC 110), and what is looking to be an equally solid UFC 112 card. Some people look at that Dana White picture above and think unhappy thoughts. Go to a digital cesspool like the Sherdog forums, and it's practically an icon symbolizing the death of MMA. But that's because people don't seem to get that for all of Dana's bluster, he's a man that truly loves the sport. His curse-laden words may look to undermine that belief, but his actions in seeking to get MMA sanctioned in big markets like New York, and introducing the sport to places that were probably not even aware the sport existed (like Australia/Germany/Abu Dhabi) only validate it. Laying the roots for a European market for MMA speaks louder than the word "fuck" strung together too many times in one sentence.
All the while, careful consideration is being paid to the sport's future. And we see that in the sports' athletes. Look at Cain Valesquez: Cain didn't benefit from fighting a washed up Nog (although to be sure, Nog didn't look as good as he did against, say, Sergei Kharitonov). Rather, he benefited from careful grooming. Steps were taken to insure that Cain could develop his skills inside and outside of the cage without hindering his progress with aggressive matchmaking. Not to toot my own horn, but I picked Cain largely because of this. But the Cain that showed up that night wasn't the Cain that showed up against Denis Stojnic and that's why he won.
This, to me, was the real story of UFC 110: that the future is now. Watching icons of the past like Nog, Wand, and Mirko struggle all at once simply made it more obvious.
This not to say that MMA as is good as it will get, and the sport is not without its many problems. But like it or not, if there is such a thing as an MMA "golden era", we're a hell of a lot closer to that now than we ever were.