There was a time when the Baddest Man on the Planet was the boxing heavyweight champion of the world. The phrase was Tyson’s, but Norman Mailer pre-empted him by around 15 years.
Combat sports have faded a little in popularity since then.
In 1992 the Ultimate Fighting Championship put on its first event, billed as a no-holds-barred tournament to determine the most effective martial art.
It caught something, snagged a bloody piece of the public consciousness at that juncture of pro-wrestling, extreme sports, and the Karate Kid. It started small, but the UFC and the sport at large grew in jolts and bursts.
It would become a bizarre hyper-accelerated model of 20th century athletic competition, a rollicking sprint from the days of hardnosed bruisers and carny barker freakshow matchups to the modern day sports-science athlete, made all the more strange by being played out in the modern day. Time compression had its own relativistic effects upon perception and nostalgia. It’s not uncommon to see a grizzled veteran fan of the UFC hold forth to a neophyte, explaining how they’ll never be able to truly understand what it was like in the real golden era, all those years ago. Way back, in 2005.
With a degree of mainstream acceptance the UFC cast aside its "no-holds-barred" tag line to become a purveyor of Mixed Martial Arts. It’s a multi-billion dollar worldwide sport now, where men and women compete in the eight-sided cage over a multitude of weight classes. There are other MMA organizations (Bellator, OneFC, Invicta, WSoF) but the UFC is king.
Levels of exposure and understanding are very different throughout the world, so it is important to clarify- it is a sport, and there are rules. There is no eye gouging, no strikes to the groin or the back of the head, no small joint manipulation, a host of other legislature, big and small. However, it is still closer to that strange, semi-imaginary ideal of a "real fight" than its cousin boxing. In time, Tyson’s phrase was co-opted by UFC president Dana White to describe his organisation’s heavyweight champion.
The heavyweight division of the UFC has always been a troubled one. The underlying reason for this is a fundamental dearth of athletic talent. Speed, endurance and power are a trade-off, and as size increases beyond a certain point, power may rise alongside it, but the others fall away in all but the most extraordinary individuals. Compounding this issue is how jealously guarded and quickly raided the meagre pool of large athletes tends to be. In the U.S. in particular, there is a cost/benefit rationale – if you’re big, strong, and fast, there are better defined growth-routes and more money to be made in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association. MMA is too new and poor in comparison, the cultural and financial incentives simply not there.
David Epstein talked about Usain Bolt as an example of the innate filters which direct athletes into specific sports.
So, for much of its short history and across most of its roster, the UFC’s heavyweights have been fighters making it difficult to lay the accolade of "Baddest Man on the Planet" at their feet without trepidation: athletically deficient and compensating with some measure of technique, or technically poor and compensating with a degree of athleticism. Exceptions are few and far between.
Junior "Cigano" Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez, the two men who will contest the belt on October 19th, are exceptions. Both men are quick, and powerful, and technically proficient. If the one man did not exist, the other would likely rule the division unchallenged.
Combat sports illustrate perhaps better than any other competition the conflict of personality. To fight is to deceive, to disguise intent, and condition, tell the other how you’re going to hit them high and then take their legs out. With this being said, every lie is a card played. With each punch connected or blocked, each submission hold or sneaky trip, a little more of the underlying truth of the cage and the ring is revealed.
The demands of exhaustion and physical punishment eventually leave no room for falsehood. If you witness Frankie Edgar take a five-minute mauling as brutal as any implausible Hollywood construct, then physically shake it off, bob his bloodied head, throw fists again, you feel like you have learned something real. Even if he’s a stranger to you, watching Chan Sung Jung desperately try and force his shoulder back into its socket to try and fight back as Jose Aldo falls on him tells you a little bit about him. As artifice and pretence are stripped away, the fundamental nature of each man illuminates that of his opponent.
The exotic melange of disciplines in MMA in particular allows for a unique clash of archetypes. An element which kept pundits and fans interested in a potential fight between Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre was the ideological conflict: Silva, the fluid, probability-bending striker, a representation of art within the sport; St-Pierre, the analytical, logical game-planner, an exemplification of science.
To pare Velasquez and Dos Santos down to their essence in this manner is harder. At their stylistic roots, they are opposites, a wrestler and a boxer. However, their characters and mentalities as displayed in the fight and their public appearances speak to two closer and more closely interwoven concepts: those of will, and of heart.
The Arc and the Line
This is the definition of the anthropological term "robust" from Darren Conroe in 2009:
Mammals respond to harsh environments, like extreme heat or cold, with increased blood flow to skeletal insertion sites for muscles, tendons or ligaments, causing osteoblasts which lay down more bone. Therefore "robust" with respect to humans refers to individuals or groups with thicker structures like brow ridges, cheek bones. They are often stocky and powerful. Velasquez, the Mexican American, is robust.
There is a more traditional definition.
That is Velasquez as well. A slightly flabby physique belies a tireless athlete who bulldozes opponents with an endless barrage of takedowns and strikes.
Shortly after joining American Kickboxing Academy in 2006 -a gym already overflowing with prospects- he would quickly be earmarked as their brightest light and a potential future champion. Stories would leak out about AKA’s new fighter, the speed with which he picked up new skills, how he would continue to train long after lighter weight fighters were exhausted. Will was built atop determination, layered and beaten and forged into greater will in turn.
He appears uncomfortable in interviews, often struggling to articulate his thoughts… you know? dark eyes flicking away from the interviewer, brow slightly knotted. The impression is not of a stupid man, but of one who has given his life over to a singularity of purpose, who has selected or had the cage and the fight selected for him as the locus for a steel resolve, unsure or even nervous of the consequences of dedicating that beam of intent elsewhere.
He is startlingly aggressive in the cage. The line between himself and his opponent is drawn, and then erased as he closes quickly at the start of the round. He came from a collegiate wrestling background in Arizona, and while most wrestlers who convert to MMA learn hooks and overhands, his striking tended from the beginning to focus more on straight punches and Muai Thai leg and body kicks, to eschew broad swings in favour of the shortest distance between two points.
The taller man and more of an obvious physical specimen, the jug-eared Brazilian radiates likability. In contrast to Velasquez, the fighting style of Dos Santos follows the arc rather than the line. He is a devastating offensive boxer who fights at the outer edge of his range, throwing scything punches: hooks to the head, the lead upper. His primary straight strike is a rapier jab to the body, a distraction to lower the hands and set up the knockout. Counters to a boxing-focused offensive include maintaining distance with kicks, and using wrestling takedowns, yet Dos Santos overcomes these with sheer speed and power. He steps in and crashes counters to kicks. He explodes back to his feet when taken to the mat.
If Velasquez represents a focused channel of sheer will, then Dos Santos is something wider and more inclusive. He is a man with great affection for the world, full of a surprising, unashamedly boyish enthusiasm. When asked about his favourite music by TMZ he said "I like Katy Perry, I love Adele too. I love Adele," and then sang one of their songs, touchingly out of tune and laughing his infectious guffaw. Where his counterpart uses determination to forcibly narrow reality down to the win/loss boundaries of the cage, he is the optimist in a realm of beneficial possibilities.
In combat, too, he is one of those rare individuals where the world seems to open further for him as the fight progresses. His most surprising moments- the whirling head-kick knock out of Mark Hunt, the sudden charge and double-leg on Shane Carwin- came in the last rounds of those fights, as the generous reality that he loves reciprocated in turn.
On the up
The potential of Velasquez was heralded from the start, but Dos Santos came into the UFC with relatively little fanfare. The young Brazilian had started sports training late, taking Jiu Jitsu at the age of 21 in order to lose weight. He was a sacrificial lamb for the highly-ranked Fabricio Werdum, on the latter’s path to a title shot.
Dos Santos knocked out the older man within a round, the shock waves of an uppercut visibly shuddering Werdum, propagating through the MMA world. Upset Of The Year, 2008.
When a prospect defeats a ranked fighter, they often cannibalize some of the other’s hype and earn a quick rise. It was not to be the case for Dos Santos, who took a hard, slow path to his title shot.
This was before the rise of Brazil as a financial powerhouse fuelled by a burgeoning middle class, before it became the UFC’s favourite new market, and before Anderson Silva was considered a "draw". The heavyweight title was captured by former professional wrestler Brock Lesnar, a hulking, divisive figure who would bring in more pay-per-view dollars per event than any athlete in UFC history. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the title was protected from the foreign knockout artist.
Over the next few years, the two men rose upwards through the heavyweight division. Velasquez was given the prospect’s route, a slightly better fighter each time he won, while Dos Santos fought tough veterans and fallen champions on the downswing. Velasquez was the wave, drowning men in a surging rapid-fire assault more suited to a fighter three or four weight classes lighter; Dos Santos the storm, opponents sprawled and boneless after the lightning had struck.