part 2 here
"They have cleaned up the sport to the point, at least in my view, where it is not human cockfighting any more. I think they've made significant progress. They haven't made me a fan, but they have made progress." - John McCain
The Champion / Challenger Mentality and Flying Knees
For almost any modern MMA fighter, the culmination of their dreams and ambitions is to win a UFC belt. For those achieve this goal, it is quite literally life-changing, altering not only their financial status and image in the world, but their attitudes and approach to the fight.
The challenger works his way up the mountain to the peak. The drive is forwards, and upwards, to take and to achieve. Those in front of him hold what he wants, and he must tear it from their grasp. The attitude this begets is one of fearlessness and aggression.
Once that challenger holds the belt, everything is different. Others are coming to take what he has earned. The focus becomes on defence and maintaining position, that precarious balancing act on the needle’s point.
Welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre is often criticized, with varying degrees of accuracy, of being a risk-averse champion who changed when he won the belt, but there is little unique about his attitude. The shift in mentality from champion to challenger is evident to a degree in virtually everyone who has strapped on gold.
In 2011, light heavyweight Jon Jones obtained his title shot at then-champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. The meeting between the two was viewed by many to represent a clash of styles, with Rua representing the skilled striker, and Jones the powerful wrestler. The bell rang, and Jones came forward. There was no double-leg wrestling shot, no tie up for a clinch. No jab to establish range, and no waiting for the more experienced fighter. Jones took to the air and threw a knee into the champion’s jaw. He proceeded to viciously dismantle a dazed Shogun, before being crowned the UFC’s youngest champion at 23.
On his own path up through the ranks, featherweight champ Jose Aldo was a murderous finisher, a compact whipsaw rebuttal to outdated concepts of lighter weight powerlessness. Perhaps his most infamous stoppage came in his WEC title eliminator against Cub Swanson, where he finished the Jackson’s MMA product with an double flying knee seconds into the bout.
Aldo or Jones do not throw significant amounts of flying knees any more, and particularly not to open rounds. Instead, they have largely adopted more patient, defensive postures, punishing their opponent’s mistakes and finishing them off if and when opportunities arise.
There have, of course, been champions who have retained flashy, aggressive fighting styles. It makes for a popular fighter, but one who is inevitably gambling with their career. The best example remains Uriah Faber, the popular long-reigning featherweight who threw a spinning elbow off the cage against Mike Thomas Brown and was smashed into the mat by the Oregon wrestler.
The single moment would come to define the California Kid. He received two more title shots at featherweight, one in a rematch against Brown and one against Aldo, and was defeated in both. He moved down to bantamweight, and lost to Dominic Cruz for the 135 belt, and then lost to Renan Barao for the interim 135 strap when Cruz injured his knee.
Still fighting today, he remains a salutary lesson in the value of conservatism in a champion.
UFC 131: Carwin versus Dos Santos
Carwin: 12 W, 1 Loss
Dos Santos: 12 W, 1 Loss
With Lesnar deposed, the UFC’s strongest draw was no longer their belt holder. The organization attempted to maximize his exposure by having him coach against Dos Santos in the reality TV series, The Ultimate Fighter. At the end of the season, the two coaches would face off, and the winner would get the chance to take on Velasquez for the belt.
Lesnar suffered a flare-up of the diverticulitis which had kept him out of competition for a year. He was forced to drop out of the fight at the end of the show, and was replaced by Shane Carwin.
Like Lesnar or Velasquez, Carwin had been a successful collegiate wrestler, but where Lesnar took people to the mat, and Velasquez had a varied, volume assault, Carwin was a one-hitter-quitter, a puncher with appalling power in his fists. In one matchup with former title contender Gabriel Gonzaga, he was hit in an exchange, and threw a reflexive, clumsy right hand. His balance was off and the punch didn’t travel far, but it buckled Gonzaga and ended the fight.
He was what trainer Luis Monda mentions that you look for in a hitter: "A guy who hurts people by accident"
All Carwin’s fights in the UFC on his way to Lesnar had ended in the first round, and there were many who still insisted that that bout should have been stopped in his favour as well. He had shown better than expected footwork and strike variety, steady improvements from his reputation as a one-dimensional slugger.
The fight between him and Dos Santos was to be the match-up between the division’s greatest knockout artists. It was a slaughter.
Dos Santos battered Carwin around the cage. He was faster, younger, more skilled. He rebuffed every attempt to take him down. Carwin showed heart and a stout chin, and Dos Santos wearied a little with the work of the drubbing he laid on the older man. Carwin clipped him once or twice, pyrrhic blows with little effect, and ended up wheezing at his opponent through a mask of blood.
To add insult to injury, Dos Santos dove in on the third frame and dumped the wrestler to the mat with a picturesque double-leg takedown. Brazilians still had a reputation for being weak at wrestling, and while the takedown didn’t affect the course of the fight, it ominously indicated that whilst Dos Santos didn’t wrestle in his matches, it didn’t mean that he couldn’t.
The Carwin-Lesnar fight had been well received. This was the fight which finally invalidated it, which confirmed who the two best heavyweights on the planet were.
The road of the UFC and MMA in general has been intertwined with a quest for legitimacy. Much of what fuelled its early success was a queasy fascination with its sheer brutality and the thrill of the violent underground.
It remains abhorrent to a great many. It is still banned in the state of New York (with the unfortunate and unsurprising result that illegal, unregulated "fight club" amateur MMA events are numerous). John McCain infamously once described it as "human cockfighting."
As it has become increasingly popular, MMA has struggled to reconcile that earlier violent image with one of a legitimate sport, to become relevant in the modern landscape without alienating the fans who brought it there. The fissure runs right down to the level of the individual combatants, the high speed redux of the "athlete" versus "fighter" debate that played out for boxing in the 20th century.
In 2011, the UFC brokered a $90 million a year deal for their programming to appear on Fox. It was an enormous coup for the franchise. In the early years, it had been on cable pay-per-view and home video, and had later produced content for Spike TV, the home of Blade: The TV Series, Deadliest Warrior, and Stripperella. Now it was moving to the one of the most famous cable channels in the world, home of The Simpsons.
For the very first event with Fox, the UFC scheduled Dos Santos vs Velasquez as the headliner. Looking to move away from its past as a vicious redneck sideshow, to put its best foot forward as 21st century entertainment, what better match-up could there be than a Brazilian and a Mexican American?
The first of the BRICs, Brazil has grown its middle class by an astonishing amount, over 30 million people over the last 5 years by some reports. The sheer spending money of the Brazilian customer has skyrocketed. Not only has the domestic market expanding - the UFC has swiftly begun targeting Brazilian events, with a reported dozen cards planned for Brazilian soil in 2014- but the wealthy diaspora and tourism exports have grown alongside it. You could hear the deafening, trademark chant of "Uh Vai Morrer!" ("You’re going to die") during Silva vs Weidman in Vegas, or in Renan Barao’s title defence against Michael McDonald in London.
The Latino market is no less powerful. Mexico itself is considered an "unnamed" BRIC. In Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, many predicted that the shifting demographics of the US meant that John McCain was fundamentally unelectable. The bare bones of the matter- the Republican party has, since the ‘60s, aligned itself with the white, religious South, and employed historically aggressive immigration policies. A steady tide of immigration from South America, amongst other places, means that the US is becoming progressively less white, and that those who arrive are not inclined to vote for the GOP.
As it turned out, those who predicted McCain’s demographic doom were entirely correct:
"In 2012, President Obama lost white voters by a larger margin than any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history. In his reelection, Obama lost ground from 2008 with almost every conceivable segment of the white electorate. With several key groups of whites, he recorded the weakest national performance for any Democratic nominee since the Republican landslides of the 1980s.
And yet, behind rousing support from minorities everywhere, and often much more competitive showings among whites in both Democratic-leaning and battleground states, Obama not only won reelection but won fairly comfortably."
As Brazil moved onto the world stage, the Latino demographic in the US literally determined the path of the most powerful country in the world. Both men had defeated their own, symbolic representation of the UFC’s prior dominant demographic. Both came from passionate combat sports culture - boxing in Mexico, and Vale Tudo, Jiu Jitsu and MMA in Brazil.
The Fox card would be the moment when the UFC would step into the sunlight. A new UFC, on a major network. An enormous audience for a contest many predicted to be the greatest heavyweight tilt of all time.
While trash talk has become increasingly popular, Dos Santos and Velasquez rarely evinced anything but respect for one another. They echo back to the previous generation of elite heavyweights almost ten years prior, a time when Dos Santos’ mentor and hero Minotauro Nogueira was the likable, courageous Brazilian and Fedor Emilianenko the quiet and reserved engine of violence.
As usual, much of the focus rested on Velasquez. Could he surpass Emilianenko? Dos Santos was not exactly a side-thought, but he was not favoured either. Velasquez’ more varied offense, his ability to outlast other heavyweights, was considered to outweigh the challenger’s punching power and athleticism.
UFC on Fox 1
Velasquez 10W, 0 L
Dos Santos 13W, 1L
Nothing went as the UFC hoped.
The first mistake was to make the focus of the live card entirely on Dos Santos and Velasquez. The strength of the UFC coming up was to ensure that they avoided making the mistakes that boxing often had, by putting on fights with strong main events and weak undercards.
UFC on Fox 1 had a strong undercard, notably the wild and woolly co-main between Benson Henderson and Clay Guida, but it was relegated to a facebook broadcast.
Much of the televised broadcast was therefore taken up with a lengthy, self-congratulatory buildup, where the pundits broke down the match and discussed how great it was that the UFC was moving to Fox.
As for the fight itself,
what is there to say for Velasquez, other than that he fought like a champion? A long fight favoured his more diverse skillset and endless endurance, so he conserved his energy. He attacked from the outside with leg kicks and jabs, a great gameplan against a strong boxer. He landed a short left hook as the two fighters closed. When Dos Santos kicked at Velasquez, the Mexican charged into a single leg takedown, and was spun away by the taller man.
Dos Santos sniped at Velasquez’ body. Each one of the champion’s attacks was countered just a touch more sharply. The boundaries of the cage opened up for Dos Santos, as they always did. He lunged in past an idle jab from Velasquez.
The cross counter lashed over the champion’s arm and caught him behind the ear. He stumbled and fell, and Dos Santos knelt by him on the cage floor, carefully struck away at the fallen champion, the image of a man devoted to a single workmanlike task. Like hammering in a tent peg. Yet, Dos Santos was not building or constructing. Rather he was breaking edifices down. The first, undefeated Mexican heavyweight champion. The UFC’s path to the Latino market. Their first Fox broadcast.
And then it was done. He walked around the octagon, fell to his back, overjoyed.
The fight had taken 64 seconds.
The UFC brass were furious. The fight had been a disaster, with 10 million viewers tuning in to watch just over a minute of action over the course of an hour. Neither fighter had shown much which would entice a new audience to tune in to further broadcasts.
The only people happy were Junior Dos Santos, his team, and his fans. He had toiled on the sidelines, in the shadows behind the Lesnars, the Carwins, Velasquez himself for long enough. Finally, the laughing Brazilian had come out into the sunlight, to be crowned the undisputed heavyweight champion, the baddest man on the planet, the greatest fighter in the world.