"If X is less than the cost of a recall..."
If you've seen the movie Fight Club, you might remember a bit where the narrator discusses the car company he works for. It's a film that you tend to come across as an impressionable teenager or college student, and on first watch the monologue blends seamlessly into the overall themes of corporate cynicism:
"A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."
You might look back on it and scratch your head when you're older, though, because... it's not that crazy or cynical at all, really. If you think about it, what do you expect the company to do? There's no such thing as a perfect car, and the narrator neglects to explain how likely such a failure actually is. Does one car in ten thousand fail? One in a hundred thousand? Is the fault even traceable? The reductio ad absurdum is to demand that every car company doesn't put out vehicles with any potential safety faults at all, and that they subsequently go out of business.
The Fight Club speech works because it tugs at an innate revulsion at an idea of quantifying human life, yet as we get older we understand more and more that this is something which has to be done. Couples weigh their budgets and living arrangements against the idea of having a baby. The terminally ill weigh the time they have remaining against potential suffering. This kind of cold, ugly mathematics comes to athletes early, and fighters more than most.
Speed and sliding scales
Bigfoot Silva got knocked out again on Sunday within minutes, for the second time in two fights. His acromegaly made him one of the few fighters on the roster who legitimately needed testosterone replacement therapy. After the treatment was banned in February 2014, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his pituitary gland, and since then, he hasn't looked the same.
Perhaps, as some have suggested, he was just nervous at fighting in front of a Brazilian crowd. He's often been a slow starter, and maybe it took the edge off. It doesn't seem likely, though, because Bigfoot didn't just look out of sorts. He looked fundamentally physically diminished. Silva has always been bony and physically dense, a man who is large in uncommonly angular and craggy ways, with a chest which wasn't so much a barrel as it was a crate. In his fight with Mark Hunt (where, coincidentally, he popped for elevated testosterone), he looked the best he ever had, lighter on his feet and visibly more muscular.
By Sunday 22nd of February, 2015, those muscles looked like they'd just melted away. His arms were sticks passing into a torso which had dwindled into an softened adipose bell shape. The combination of the skinny arms, the bulbous midsection and the big head reminded me uncomfortably of pictures of starving children.
He put his hands up in the classic fighting pose, and didn't do much, and then Frank Mir hit him, and he fell over, and then Mir hit him some more, and the ref called the fight.
Silva has always been a man who has compensated for a lack of speed with a focus on technique and fundamentals, but there's a sliding scale in effect here. At some point a lack of speed is simply a hard barrier, and it doesn't matter whether you're throwing straight punches or taking your head off the center line if you move like you're wading through molasses. There is a very distinct possibility that Bigfoot is unable to fight at the level that he used to, and that he may have to look at the mathematics which dictate the sum of his future.
There was another fighter that we didn't even see take to the cage on Sunday. T.J. Waldburger passed out in an elevator and hit his head following his weight cut, and on a doctor's advice was pulled from his fight with Wendell Oliveira. If this was someone else, this might have been simply glossed over, but it's difficult not to think of Waldburger's last two losses, where he was knocked out in particularly brutal ways. Most notable was his fight with Adlan Amagov where Waldburger was loaded onto a stretcher at the cage and taken to a hospital for a CT scan.
It's hard not to draw a connecting line between those incidents. Waldburger is only 26, but he's been fighting as a pro since he was 17. In his first fight, back in 2005, he got knocked out. His brain may be sending him warning signs, that it switches itself off a little too easily, and will only do it more frequently and with more risk as he goes on to take more and more trauma in the cage.
What happens in these situations is that the fans and the pundits will often call for the fighter in question to retire. There are number of reasons here, which range from the selfish ("I don't want them to get hurt and make the sport look bad") to the sympathetic ("I don't want them to get hurt") and these often merge and blend together into a kind of righteous moral soup.
The thing is that from where we stand, the numbers which make up the mathematics of life aren't visible. A fighter needs to tot up how much he thinks he has left in the tank; his financial situation; how much he fundamentally loves fighting; what continuing fighting will do for him, and, in the end, what it will do to him. That individuals sometimes, or even often, seem to get these equations wrong doesn't give us the right to claim that they should surrender their volition and just retire the minute the crowd decides that they should. Some may feel that they are more educated on the negative repercussions of fighting than the fighters in question, but they also don't know those fighters' situations, and the potential benefits of them taking another fight. Most pressingly, many fighters will earn a lot more money for a single bout than they will for almost anything they'll do in the future.
MMA is built on a foundation of consent: the idea that bad things may happen to people, but that they have taken some personal responsibility for it. While very few would dispute that it was a good idea that Chuck Liddell was forced to stop fighting for the UFC, we sometimes have to let fighters take choices that we don't agree with. Demanding that they retire feels right, because it obviates us of some of the responsibility of watching them do this to themselves in the first place. We feel less like enablers for a slow physical destruction, and more like we're supporting and protecting the men and women in question.
But in the end, to indulge in watching MMA is to be an enabler. It is to allow a declining fighter to step into the cage and risk getting knocked out because they'll pick up a paycheck which will allow them to put their kids through college, or even just because they think they can win; it's to allow them to weigh the balance of their present against their future. To do this, and know that we are doing this, forces an unpleasant, chilly algebra back upon us, compelling us to re-examine and perhaps enumerate exactly how we feel about the sport itself.