In the old (and new) martials arts movies, there was always a character, often the lead, who defeated his opponents through the use of some hidden knowledge, or even a supernatural mystique that would propel him to victory. So we came to believe that it was perfectly plausible that a 130-pound Bruce Lee could kill 200-pound Chuck Norris with his bare hands when pushed far enough, or that 70-year-old Mr. Miyagi could karate chop opponents a third of his age. They were movies, but the belief endured- it didn’t matter how big or strong your opponent was- it was possible to beat him using your hidden knowledge.
The birth of modern MMA in some ways shattered and in other ways gave new life to that belief. The vaunted disciplines of kung fu, karate and taekwondo fared poorly in the beginning, taking them off their Hollywood pedestal and changing the way martial arts were looked at. But at the same time submission grappling came up and filled that void, with smaller men like Royce Gracie, Frank Shamrock or Kazuchi Sakuraba tying their bigger opponents in knots.
Much of the excitement that comes out of MMA has been a result of the clashes between the seemingly more physically gifted athlete and the more experienced one we hope can pull out the win. Wrestlers have never enjoyed the same popularity as other styles because despite the skill involved, as wrestling so often looks to most eyes like a bigger guy pushing around a smaller guy. The hatred that Brock Lesnar received I always felt was less about his mouth than about the fact that he shattered everything we loved to believed about MMA. Here was this big strong MMA neophyte that could crush more experienced people because he was a physical beast. Ditto Tim Sylvia. Hard to cheer for. Many of us believed, and probably most of us hoped, that Shogun Rua would somehow be able to out-experience and out-smart a much bigger, faster, stronger athlete in Jon Jones to victory. He didn’t even come close, and now Jones is probably the least favourite fighter round these parts these days.
On the other side of the coin, some of our favourite athletes are the ones who help us preserve our belief that the wiser, zen-like master can defeat his more agile opponent despite his physical limitations and vulnerabilities. Randy Couture, who beat the crap out of the much younger Tim Sylvia. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, maybe the collective “favourite fighter of all-time” who so often took a vicious beating and prevailed to win, confirming our beliefs.
But arguably no one has embodied this ideal better than Fedor. He’s always had the action hero background. Born in the USSR, trained in a Russian military art, lives in a middle-of-nowhere village humbly with the same two trainers for the past God knows how many years, eschewing money and fame. At a somewhat doughy 230 pounds (even at 223, he doesn’t look particularly svelte), he spent most of his life destroying more physically gifted or at least larger athletes.
And he did it with the mixture of utter brutality and vulnerability that’s been so enthralling. His highlight reel is arguably the best in MMA, but that’s only half the story. Look at almost any one of his opponents, and you could almost always see a way his opponent could theoretically beat him. His history seemed to confirm that- Fujita had him on rubber legs before Fedor pulled off a brutal RNC. Randleman dropped him on his head. Hunt had him in a keylock. Rogers was GnP-ing him with very hard shots.
But every time he came through, like the action movie star. Every time he stepped into the cage his fans could wonder if this time was finally going to be it, if maybe we weren’t deluding ourselves that a smallish heavyweight from an unknown camp could destroy virtually everybody he faced, from squash opponents to the best in the world. But as time went on, his mystique simply hardened into something that wasn’t even to be debated. It was there, maybe best exemplified by Andrei Arlovski laying glassy-eyed face down on the canvas, having paid the price for doubting it.
Finally it ended, not so much by Werdum’s triangle, a ten-second blip that shouldn’t have happened. But it was the sight of 280-pound Antonio Silva brutally beating him for five minutes that did it. It was the bigger, stronger fighter finally overwhelming Fedor, who kind of looked like he should have trained harder for the fight. The Fedor-aura is gone, and ironically now the only reason he’s coming across as a bare 5/2 favourite over Dan Henderson is because he’s the bigger, stronger, and younger fighter.
His career might end on Saturday night, and that would be it, followed by gloating from the people who bizarrely vilified him this whole time. The other option is he redeems himself by finishing Dan Henderson, and we can go back to believing he can become the best fighter in the world again.
Rationally it may be a little difficult to still believe, but then sports is never about rationality anyway. Looking back at his career, I see no reason not to cheer for him to pull it off, and to believe he can. Go Fedor.