At UFC 184, on February 28th in Los Angeles, Ronda Rousey tapped out Cat Zingano in just 14 seconds. Following on from last week's depressing theme on fighter decline, Phil Mackenzie attempts to tie together some of the mental struggles expressed by those in the cage, and promises to write something more up-beat for the next event.
Fighters deal with fear all the time. The best are able to channel it. Georges St. Pierre talked about how he was driven by fear. There's a great promo video of Donald Cerrone talking about the doubt which he has to overcome before he fights.
Gay Talese wrote about Floyd Patterson in "The Loser", a heavyweight boxing champion who had terrible struggles with fear: he'd smuggle a false moustache and dark glasses into his fights so that he could leave the arena incognito if he lost; he'd sign autographs posing as his brother Raymond.
Unchecked, fear can be a relentless and recursive "what if" that gnaws like termites at the jambs and crossbeams of a mindset. If a fighter lives and breathes the idea that they are the baddest motherfucker around, then what of a quiet voice that asks them: what if you're not?
When it's not there
I thought Mark Munoz was going to handle Roan Carneiro. Munoz has shown a vulnerability to getting hurt throughout his career, but if there's one thing he hasn't struggled with, it has been grappling specialists. His blast double and takedown game never really translated to MMA but he had a natural knack for scrambling and picking up offense from strange positions. He even did well grappling against Demian Maia. The size difference on Saturday was big: Munoz is an ex-light heavyweight, and Carneiro is a welterweight.
I was very wrong. Carneiro took Munoz down almost immediately and Munoz looked helpless as Carneiro worked to his back and choked him unconscious, enabled by a terrible ref job from Jarin Valel.
Munoz fell to 0-3 in his last three fights, and he's landed three strikes total. Once a staple of the middleweight top 10, he looks like he's simply forgotten how to fight. This sometimes happens to fighters who have had particularly difficult or harsh losses, and they rarely come back from it. Often it's surprisingly hard for them to step away from fighting because they feel like they're still holding their own in the gym. BJ Penn said how well he had been doing in sparring before his disastrous third fight against Frank Edgar .Michael Bisping was shocked at how badly Munoz performed:
It's as though the neural pathways for actual competition deepen into a rut, some kind of new and unfamiliar configuration which makes fighting impossible, subconsciously registering the crowd and the cage and constructing a causal link that renders inaccessible the skills the fighter has built. Munoz is one of MMA's good guys: almost everyone who interacts with him has glowing praise for his work ethic and how he recovered from depression and injury, but sometimes, it's not about working hard or courage. This problem then becomes its own fear, that you can reach for what you've learned and what drives you... and what if it's not there?
Koscheck, Ellenberger and Microfractures
Josh Koscheck is really tough. He's one of the two remaining active members of the original Ultimate Fighter (three if you still count Mike Swick), and has bulled his way through a career built on a boisterous, heckling indifference. He luxuriated in a win over then-undefeated Diego Sanchez ("Nineteen and one!"), put Paul Daley on his back for three rounds while talking smack the whole time, to deafening boos. He has poked eyes and faked fouls and he unrepentantly did not ever give a shit about what the world thought, whether in the cage or out of it.
The Koscheck at UFC 184 looked different. If one of his historical problems has been that he had too much confidence in his stand-up, then that wasn't an issue on Saturday. He shot early and often on Ellenberger. When takedowns weren't there, he started to look lost. He began backing up and compulsively reaching up to touch his left temple again and again.
GSP broke his face back at UFC 124, when the champ cracked Koscheck's orbital with jabs and hooks. Between rounds Koscheck would flinch when his corner tried to touch a metal enswell to his swollen eye. Then he would walk out for five more futile minutes of jangling agony under the roar of the Montreal crowd. Like I said: tough.
Afterwards, Koscheck would never react to punches in quite the same way, but he made it through nip-tuck split decisions with Mike Pierce and Johny Hendricks and took hard shots along the way. The compulsive checking of his eye we saw against Ellenberger was something new.
If you've ever dropped a mobile phone and been relieved to see it remain apparently unharmed, you might be missing tiny, invisible microfractures in the glass. If dropped again these flaws suddenly propagate out and the screen is ruined. Koscheck's orbital didn't swell up again against Ellenberger, but it was like the fissures the injury and the GSP fight had left in his mind had just widened on impact. The bone didn't appear to broken, yet Koscheck looked unable to stop himself asking: what if it is?
This kind of visible discomfort is normally blood in the water to an opponent, but Ellenberger had his own issues. He's never been someone to come back in a fight. Like BJ Penn, if he ever tried to make his way back into a contest he was losing, there was something inherently forced about it, like he was convincing himself more than his opponent. After two blowout finishes and a massively uninspiring decision loss to Rory MacDonald, Ellenberger found himself balanced on the tightrope and unable to take the fight into his own hands. "I can knock this guy out... but what if I can't?"
The fight ended in a strange way when the two locked up, and Ellenberger worked his arms around Koscheck, and seemed to realize that he was going to win. He wrenched Koscheck to the floor and strangled him in one of the most brutal chokes we've seen in a minute, and if you want to see what fear looks like, find the picture of Koscheck in that choke.
Ellenberger's face in the win mostly showed the sheer relief of a man who had been trapped in a dark place for a long time, and had unexpectedly stumbled on a way out into the sun.
Lastly, of course, there was Cat Zingano. She didn't show any fear. The opposite, really, because she hurled herself straight at Ronda Rousey. If it wasn't stupid, it was at the very least an extraordinarily risky gamble- raw flying knees worked for Jose Aldo and Jon Jones, but they didn't for Caol Uno or Andrei Arlovski. In this case, it was a gamble which failed.
Perhaps she showed so little caution because she just thought her heart and her athletic and technical gifts would get her out of bad spots, as they always had before. They didn't, of course, and this is her first defeat, and it's a bad one. She wasn't just beaten but posterized, slotted into the record books, going in fourteen seconds from being Rousey's biggest test to being her fastest title defense.
Zingano was visibly choked up: "F*ck... I just want to do it again," just overwhelmed by that heart-wrenching, hopeless need for a do-over, to run back the clock and try and undo what had happened and push back the writing finger that having writ, moves on.
Going back to Patterson, boxing's patron saint of fear and vulnerability probably would have sympathized with her. Once on top of the world, the youngest champion in heavyweight boxing, Patterson lost to Sonny Liston twice, in short and humiliating blow-out losses:
"Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him," Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. "I know I can do better. . . . Oh, I'm not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know I wouldn't. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round."
Zingano is an extraordinarily tough, resilient individual who has bounced back from and overcome hardship before. There is no way that this loss can be thought of as "as bad" as what she has gone through already, but it has its own hazards. It holds the risk of a subtle fracturing; the fear that at some point when she steps into the cage, she will be unable to reach for what sustained her in the past; and that the feeling of "if only" that she must feel now will have warped and changed itself into the quiet and cripplingly ruinous "what if."