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Editorial: Connective tissues in Pandemic UFC

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The intimate, raw atmosphere of the UFC’s first 3 main events during the COVID-19 pandemic has not made them any easier to watch

MMA: UFC 249-Ferguson vs Gaethje Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Part of what makes sports compelling is their ability to build a connection. People watch them to root for their favourites, or for tribalism, or to see some kind of worldview ratified. The reasons go on, but surprisingly few of them are really rooted in a pure mechanical interest in seeing people toss balls around, or hit each other or whatever.

With most of the world being locked in their homes, the sense of connection is at a premium right now, and the UFC is trying to capitalize. Its recent three event run in Jacksonville, Florida represented the first major sporting events out of the gate in the US, and can be interpreted from two angles: as the product of can-do entrepreneurial spirit, or a vile love of profit at all costs. Which one you pick depends on things like your general political compass, and how much you’re addicted to watching people punch each other in the face, and how much your paycheck involves you staying in the UFC’s good graces.

As a nod to containment, the fights were held in an empty arena in Jacksonville. NPR’s Cardiff Garcia in the Indicator podcast (in an episode featuring BE’s own John S Nash!) talked about the strangeness of watching the fights.

“You could hear it - really hear it - when Justin Gaethje landed a right cross, left hook combination to the face of his opponent.”

He played the clip of the impact and his co-host Stacey Vanek Smith recoiled

“Oh my God... how do you watch this?”

It was hard to blame her. “Pandemic UFC” has been uncomfortably intense. You can hear the shuffling and thuds of the feet hitting the floor, and the cornermen shouting advice. The breathing of the fighters and the punches and kicks landing are clearly audible. It reminds you that there is something unpleasantly complicated about the way someone getting hit in real life sounds when compared to the clean smack of a punch in a movie, filled with elements like the popping of pockets of air, the slurp of gum and cheek, and the bassy clonk of bone on bone.

The three main events under this dynamic felt like they had been specifically made to draw on the raw, cramped intimacy. “You wanted to see something personal?

Well, here you go.”

MMA: UFC 249-Ferguson vs Gaethje Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

UFC 249: Ferguson vs Gaethje

Going into UFC 249, Tony Ferguson held one of the most impressive win streaks around, turning away everyone he fought on his path to a title shot, which would never appear. It had been a long time since any of those fights were easy. He was mounted and beaten up by Kevin Lee, dropped by Anthony Pettis, and hauled his way through ugly and ragged exchanges with Donald Cerrone until he buried the Colorado fighter in volume and swelled his eye shut.

The janky style carrying him through these fights had been built in ways unique to MMA. There are few sports which allow someone to pick things that they find cool and build an entire career out of them. You want to build a physical language that defines you via wing chun-type parries, and salsa dancing footwork; you want to turn your momentum into spins and dodge rolls? Sure, if you’ve got the toughness and focus to make it work.

Ferguson had these traits in spades, but he needed them more as time went on. Holding onto a #1 contender spot for about five years increasingly looked like an exercise in pure will, as he suffered a serious injury, and something very much like a nervous breakdown. When his first booked fight against Justin Gaethje was cancelled, he cut weight for it anyway. It was worryingly masochistic.

When they eventually fought, Gaethje adroitly disabled Ferguson’s weapons of eccentricity and pace. Rather than chasing the longer man, he let Ferguson step forward, and met him with a right hand. Up close Gaethje punched harder and more efficiently, and had better defense to boot, and as Ferguson tried to whirl or exit Gaethje closed the door on him with the left hook. Occasionally kicking out the lead leg which Ferguson stepped in on was the last ingredient in the recipe for a mauling.

By the fifth, Ferguson was a dead man on his feet, unable to stop himself from stumbling into the meaty report of repeated shots. It was a jab which ended it: his eyes emptied a little and the things which were uniquely part of him were shuffled. The way that he spins and recycles his momentum became him turning to the fence, touching his palms to it like he was looking for escape. The mental toughness became shaking his head, denying his body shutting down on him. That personal and developed language of the way he fought rearranged to spell out different things than usual, something like “no more” and so Herb Dean called the fight.

It felt both sad and appropriate to see his streak end like this. Gaethje had knocked out the last three men he’d fought with his first clean punch, and Ferguson hadn’t even been officially knocked off his feet while taking five rounds of them. The weird mind which had carried him through the long years was still whirring away somewhere, unimpeded by his body falling apart.

As a fight between two of the greatest action fighters in the sport, it did not leave me feeling the way I might have expected. I was not gasping with adrenaline and thrills. It was bleak and visceral; watching someone who was extremely hard to break being slowly broken regardless.

UFC Fight Night Smith v Teixeira Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

UFC Fight Night: Smith vs Teixeira

Glover Teixeira is a sturdy Brazilian, with large and slightly mournful brown eyes in a battered face. If you ignore the scarring and cauliflower ears, he looks more like a sad restaurant owner than a cage fighter. Anthony Smith has a more typical MMA fighter look but defuses it with black-rimmed glasses and a soft-spoken, thoughtful manner.

Their fight presented some of the elements of Gaethje-Ferguson, played out half again as big, twice as slow and two thirds as skilled. Namely, a long, tall fighter against a squatter opponent who played off the right hand and left hook.

The main difference was in direction. Smith does not have much defense apart from being long and tall, and if he is sat down and delivering jabs and front kicks then he struggles to defend himself from return fire. On the other hand, he has great handspeed, good power, and mixes up his targets, which makes navigating his range a tricky task.

Teixeira is shorter and slower and so he steadily tried to bob and weave his way inside. Without a quick step-in or great defense this largely became a process of trading distance for damage, one which got him beaten up for the best part of two rounds. Eventually he knocked Smith into the fence with a flurry, and kicked him in the head. This was enough to slow Smith and make him more cautious in the third, giving up precious ground to the fence where a looping uppercut sent him foetal.

Teixeira likely could have unloaded a salvo of punches into the American’s shoulders and coaxed a stop from the referee, but he is a profoundly honest man, and so he tried to finish off his man in an honest way, by choking him. Smith had enough of his wits about him to keep squirming out of checkmate positions, which served to allow him to eat more damage as Teixeira softened him up with punches while he looked for the neck.

The same kind of thing happened in the fourth, and another part of Pandemic UFC appeared, namely the way the fighters seem more compelled to fill the void left by the crowd.

“Sorry, part of the job” Teixeira panted, dropping punches from top position.

“It is what it is,” Smith said with a mouthful of blood and without malice, men exchanging regrets about the necessities of their profession.

Smith slumped into his stool, looking broken. His orbital bone was probably fractured by this point, and staring at the floor, he told his corner that his teeth were falling out. They ignored him, and advised him to look for knees and hooks up the middle. He duly walked out for the fifth round and got smashed again until Jason Herzog stepped in to save him.

It wasn’t the first time that hard questions of responsibility between corner and fighter and ref have been raised by a beating. That it played out the gasps and grunts and the impacts turned up was, once again, particularly uncomfortable to watch.

UFC Fight Night: Overeem v Harris Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

UFC Fight Night: Overeem vs Harris

Alistair Overeem is huge and muscular, someone who looks like what he was: a bully, a problem in the gym and roughhouser outside of it. Nowadays he is one of those rare people who seems to have been made a better man by prolonged exposure to this pitiless sport. The Groundhog Day experience of competing, and winning, and being knocked out, and coming back, and competing, and then getting knocked out again seems to have paradoxically made him kinder and more sympathetic to those in the same cycle. It’s flattened out the uglier protrusions of his personality like a panel beating.

He wasn’t the man that people were rooting for, because that was Walt Harris, fighting for the first time since his stepdaughter had been tragically murdered. In a video package he spoke about how he would be fighting for her memory.

A big, quick, powerful southpaw, Harris is a poor grappler, but oddsmakers and analysts mostly favoured his speed and power on the feet to be too much for the ageing Dutchman. He came out to the cage carrying a T-shirt with his daughter’s face on it. If this was a movie, then he would have been given unstoppable strength by the power of grief.

It wasn’t a movie. He knocked Overeem down, and came close to a finish, but remarkably (uncharacteristically), Overeem struggled his way back up. Harris threw an ill-timed kick and essentially fell over as Overeem flailed against it. The Dutchman pounced on top of him, and Harris was trapped for the rest of the frame. In the second round, both men had figured out how bad the ground was for Harris, and he tried not to overcommit. This was a mistake: crafty Overeem lured the other man into a kick and overhand, and then jumped back on top. From that point the finish was academic, as the Dutch fighter flattened him out and punched him around the ears until the referee had seen enough.

Overeem knelt beside Harris on the mat, and they exchanged some words. Overeem said that they should train together. He did the same when he himself was knocked out by Curtis Blaydes. I think it was the best salve he had to offer.

UFC Fight Night: Overeem v Harris Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The true face

The three events didn’t provide much of what you might hope to see from a sporting event in hard times: they weren’t cathartic, or uplifting. They showed the limits of willpower, the physical cost of stubbornness, or in the case of Harris, simply a flat reminder that there’s nothing to say that when life is bad, that it can’t still get worse.

They did feel personal, though. It was hard not to feel for Ferguson’s lost opportunities, for poor wounded Anthony Smith walking out to get crushed, or for Harris’ chance to set the world a bit right. This sport might be ruthless and random, and often frankly kind of stupid, but if there is one thing it does not lack it is a sense of connection.

The most honest link the small series of fights made might be with MMA itself, then. Shorn of crowds, it has obliged in showing something closer to its true face. It pays people less money than it should to fight each other until they can’t any more. That can be something amazing to see, but it can also produce very dark outcomes.

It can be tempting to posture about this; to pretend that this is only a sport for the people who can handle the brutality, but that is a dumb, childish way of looking at things. In the end, the question that Vanek Smith asked (how do you watch this) is something people have to ask themselves, too. The UFC owners might have wanted this first series of events to be something which captures a new audience. Those who tuned in will find that the kind of connections which this sport offers are real. Given what they saw, new viewers just might not choose to take them up.