What makes for a good story? What is it about a story well told that taps into our desires, and understanding? Why do we seem so metaphysically attracted to narrative? I posed this question to everyone's favorite underground historian: SB Nation's 'nottheface'. Who better to ask then someone that has managed to find a narrative for MMA within the the Belle Epoque and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes?
"The short and simple answer is be entertained, but there is obviously more to it than that, otherwise narrative wouldn't be necessary for our entertainment, movies could literally be nothing but a roller coaster ride. What narrative does for us is offer causation and causation offers us meaning. Meaning in the real world can seem impossible to discern, fate capricious. Why do people get cancer, end up marrying their spouse, get robbed, have a loved one die, find themselves attracted to either gender? Stories tell us that it isn't due to the whims of fate, there is a reason. Even the most fantastical stories have to offer this otherwise we instinctively turn from them.
What they also offer is experience: with people we never met; with situations we've never been in; emotions we've never felt; places we've never been; events we've never taken part of. And since are minds are so flexible we can take these people, places, things we know we'll never meet, never visit, and never experience and project greater meaning on them via metaphor. Thus stories offer us experiences and meaning from which insidiously we can draw lessons. That what we've learned can easily be false seems to be of no import.
Our love of story and the meaning they supply leads us to find it where none exists and no where is this easier to do than in single combat. In the ancient world great importance was attached to single combat: it was customary for both the saravans of the Sassanians and the cataphracts of the Byzantines to send out a single rider to challenge a champion of an opposing army to single combat before the battle was joined.
To the Romans single combat held such a important place in their imagination that the greatest prize awarded by the Republic or Empire was the spolia opima - the claiming of the armor and weapons of an enemy leader a Roman general had killed in single combat. These individuals served as symbolic representatives of their armies, boiling down a mass conflict into something as comprehensible as a simple struggle between two men. The Romans tried to recreate this with their games. The Thracians, Samnites, Gallus were not only the names of conquered peoples but also types of gladiators. These gladiators represented the people whose name they bore in symbolic recreations of past battles.
This has been carried over to modern times. Jack Johnson vs Jim Jeffries wasn't just a fight between two boxers but between the White Race and Black Race. Louis and Schmeling's fight was between the democratic United States and Nazi Germany; Ali and Frazier was part of the American culture wars; even Gracie and Sakuraba took on greater meaning: Japanese professional wrestling vs the upstart Brazilian Jiu Jitsu . Just as the ancients wanted their conflicts to mean more than two men fighting, we do the same."
So what does this have to do with the UFC on FOX? I think it helps explain the chorus of virgin eyes and casual fans who shouted "that's it?!" What story were Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos representing? You'd be hard pressed to find one within the fight itself, regardless of your love of MMA. For Dana, the problem with Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos was that the fight failed to tell a story.
This criticism isn't as abstract as it sounds. We are creatures of narrative seeking continuity to make sense of the world. Ideas are often powerful when they're constructed as stories (see the photo above for an especially bad one). Religion is the obvious example, but I think even scientific principles have the same form: for Charles Darwin, he was seeking continuity in the natural world. The grand narrative for life he discovered in evolution was that we are creatures whose habits are chained to the landscape of the natural world. Not the landscape of religious dictum.
For Alasdair MacIntyre, even moral philosophy, and our responsibilities as moral agents is best seen through the lens of the story. "I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part"
It's also what I think Gary Poole of Esquire is trying to say in his criticism of the UFC. If he fails to say it, it's because he's either a) not intelligent enough to identify his own criticism or b) is unwilling to ignore the fanboy bias towards boxing that informs his criticism. Indeed, much of his argument is buried beneath invective, and the type of cursing you only see in the company of eighth graders playing a heated game of four square with their teacher standing 20 feet away.
If you dismiss the odor of Poole's writing, and keep from squinting, his article does help explain how sports fans are used to processing prizefighting. For Pacquiao and Marquez, the outcome may not have been satisfactory for many fans, but the fight answered many questions. Marquez answered questions about whether age would be a factor, and whether his wits would be enough to contain Manny's typical storm. The resolution for Manny's narrative was less clear, but the fight was no less compelling watching Manny deal with a crafty veteran who in another universe, could be said to have the superstar's number.
In short, the fight told a story.
Cain and Junior didn't get the chance to tell their own. This is essentially where Dana's bizarre response comes from. How would Junior deal with the intense pressure of Cain's wrestling? What would the fight look like going into the later rounds? Could Velasquez handle Junior's power?
Their fight explains why MMA can't be considered the 'sweet science: why it's not quite art (at least not yet). The fights just don't always tell a story. They either function predictably (Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra II), or end suddenly (GSP vs. Matt Serra I). This 'form' also explains why MMA fans are so rabid: like Dana, they're often left with their own assumptions. And with those assumptions, they're able to create their own narrative.
But how accurate is this description? Well, the counter to Poole's argument has two names: Clay Guida and Ben Henderson. Both men put on fantastic performances. If the show had been an hour and a half with the Guida/Henderson fight as a co-main (and therefore closer to how MMA is typically imbibed by its viewers), perhaps Poole would have a different impression.
This is what us MMA fans have come to accept: the fights do tell stories. But sometimes we get the cliff notes version. MMA is a sport of abbreviations. We don't always have those questions answered. It's like the last episode of The Sopranos. Just like The Sopranos, you can't process one episode (one fight) at a time. You need context.
With less than two decades to its name in America, the sport is a work in progress. Just as Manny Pacquiao looks at a lot different than Bill Lang in the ring, the athletes of mixed martial arts many years from now will be sharpened by their own appetite to make their own history, as Guida and Henderson did. Right now, that history just isn't there. But give it time. In a way, the main event on FOX was perfect. Because the outcome in the Velasquez vs. Dos Santos fight was exactly what we've come to expect from MMA: the raw force of the unexpected.