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Oct. 23, 2018

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FIGHTING

Unwatchable

What becomes of a sport when nothing much happens, and there's no guarantee it will ever end?

"This guy is basically just defending himself."
"Yeah, but it’s not good. It’s not right."
"It’s not a sport and it’s not entertainment."

Pride Fighting Championships commentators Stephen Quadros and Bas Rutten, near the end of round three of Renzo Gracie vs. Sanae Kikuta.
 

No one can tell you what a sport is, at least not definitively. We broadly agree on the outline: there’s a degree of competition; physicality is implied; there's a set of rules, or at minimum a goal. The rest is wonderfully hazy. There is no algorithm to determine the proper proportions of athleticism, regulation, and spectacle.
 
There’s certainly no consensus on who or what that formula should benefit. The foundation of athletics in our particular moment is an uneasy alliance of athletes, fans, sponsors, and wealthy capitalists. Professional sports especially are a negotiation, tethered to market considerations in the usual depressing ways. The sports we watch en masse are not an attempt at athletic purity, they’re a tenuous contract between competing interests.
 
In the absence of clear edicts, we’re left instead with individual interpretations, as any roomful of barstool pedants will happily prove. Would-be gatekeepers might declare golf a sport, while ice dancing not, and competitive video games an abomination. But that same ambiguity also  leaves space for activities outside our traditional definitions.  We draw our own lines. Half-an-hour into an English voice-over of Pride Fighting Championship’s second ever card, announcers Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros drew theirs.
 

When Renzo Gracie and Sanae Kikuta met at the Yokohama Arena in Japan in March of 1998, mixed martial arts—that is, an open-style, full-contact fight between two competitors—was still in its infancy. Groundbreaking organizations like Shooto, Pancrase, and RINGS had set the stage for something bigger and more grandiose, but fans weren’t quite sure yet what to expect from Pride FC.
 
The North American equivalent, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was just four years old, and had already fallen into dark times. Reasonable concerns about the dangers of cage-fighting had melded with misinformation, moral panic, and political grandstanding. Shows were blacklisted from cable pay-per-view. No one could agree on what MMA should ideally be, if it should even exist, or whether the American business model could survive.
 
In Japan the outlook was more optimistic. Pride’s arrival coincided with the rise of K-1 kickboxing and a surge of pop-culture interest in combat sports. At its inaugural show in October of 1997, forty-seven thousand fans bought tickets to watch the apex predator of the Gracie grappling family, Rickson Gracie, methodically dismantle professional wrestling star Nobuhiko Takada.
 
The Gracies were both myth and continent-crossing industry before Pride was even an idea. As the story is told, teenager Carlos Gracie learned judo from the legendary Mitsuyo Maeda in 1917 and taught it to the rest of his family. His frailest sibling, Hélio, curated and adapted the movements, prioritizing patience, leverage, and technique. Together they built a self-defense system focused on neutralizing brute force, securing safe positions, and taking opponents out of their comfort zones. Instead of always beating a prized racehorse with speed, they could water down the track, and perfect running in the mud. Even better, tie the horse to the starter’s gate. Why kickbox an expert kickboxer, when instead you can force him to fight on the ground? Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Gracie jiu-jitsu to the trademark-conscious, was born.
 
The family's strategic innovation was matched by its marketing instinct, as it spread its influence by challenging everyone in sight. Most of the techniques were derivative—similar concepts have been used from Greek pankration to catch wrestling, Russian sambo, and judo itself—but their refinement and evangelism of ground fighting and submission holds helped reinvent expectations of combat. Stand-up fighters, and onlookers raised on boxing and action movies, were stunned.
 
In a true fight, one unrestrained by needless rules and pageantry, the Gracies claimed to be unbeatable. But a "true fight" wasn’t always available. They lobbied for largely uninterrupted combat—by both referee and by clock—and no judges’ decisions, lest they threaten the family’s apocryphal version of an undefeated record. If mixed martial arts was to be a sport, the Gracie's thought, it should be on their terms.
 
Rorion Gracie, Royce’s older brother, was the founder of the first Gracie academy in the United States. In an interview with  Black Belt magazine, he explained his view on time limits. “You can discover a lot about a man’s character when you leave him in the middle of the jungle without an expectation of rescue," he said. "Some people get busy using all their resources to survive. Others may panic and have a heart attack. But if you leave that same man in the jungle and tell him ‘I’ll be back to pick you up tomorrow,’ his mind-set is different. The uncertainty element is gone, and he’s going to try to conserve his energy and just survive until he’s rescued the next day. That’s what the clock does in MMA. It tells a fighter who’s losing to try to stall until the bell rings, rather than use his resources to find a way to defeat his opponent.”


In 1950, in the second season of the newly merged National Basketball Association, the Fort Wayne Pistons visited the reigning champion Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers were blessed with league scoring leader George Mikan, and a bench full of talent the Pistons could not match. Realizing that any time spent playing was a losing proposition for his Pistons, coach Murray Mendenhall confronted the problem head-on: To beat the Lakers, they’d play as little basketball as possible. He instructed his team to hold the ball, and, when the crowd booed and the referees begged them to play, hold the ball some more.
 
The meeting was mostly loitering punctuated by the occasional outbreak of athletics. According to Stew Thornley’s account, Minneapolis held an 18-17 lead into the last minute. With nine seconds left, the Pistons forced a turnover, Larry Foust hit a hook-shot over Mikan, and the Pistons won. The box score is awe-inspiring, the thirty-seven combined points are by far the lowest total in NBA history.
 
Per Thornley’s recounting, one writer called it a “sports tragedy.” Others defended the strategy, with Dick Cullum saying “it is a low conception of sports to say that a team’s first duty is to give you a lot of senseless action instead of earnest competition.”
 
At the highest levels of competition, when money, power, and even just winning itself are at stake, exploiting loopholes becomes obligation. If you do not tell the 1978 Oakland Raiders, explicitly, that fumbling the ball forward to advance it is illegal, you will get the Holy Roller play. If you structure the last game of a World Cup group stage so that everyone knows which result will send both teams safely through to the next round, you end up with the Disgrace of Gijón.
 
Four years after Mendenhall’s ruthless masterpiece, the NBA instituted a twenty-four second shot clock. Combined with the later addition of the three-point arc, it radically reshaped the sport into something unrecognizable, something that allowed for Steph Curry, LeBron James, and the delightful, wildly profitable league we know today.
 


There are only a few ways to conclusively end a professional fight. As in a boxing or kickboxing match, you can bludgeon your target, hoping to knock them out entirely. Alternatively, as the Gracies preferred, you can force your opponent to admit they’ve been bested and submit. You can climb a grounded fighter like playground equipment, and works to isolate a joint and force it in the wrong direction. Or, wrap up the neck to stop cellular respiration. A submission hold can result in an unconscious fighter or a horrifically broken limb, but, more often, a check-mated opponent will tap the mat and walk away relatively unscathed.
 
No one could have predicted the result exactly, but, heading into Pride 2, there were some hints at how the fight might end. Kikuta’s judo experience prioritized taking his opponents to the ground and controlling them once there. Gracie, while less rigidly orthodox than some of his family, was willing to work off his back from the mat in gradual pursuit of a submission. There was not going to be a knock-out, not even much punching or kicking. The fight was structured as an unlimited set of ten-minute rounds, so it would it would end when it ended: two men in the jungle with no hope of rescue.
 
This was the pattern: Standing, the fighters would exchange a few awkward punches. Kikuta would franticly blitz forward and wrap Gracie in a clinch. They would struggle, waltzing into a corner, until Kikuta tripped him to the ground. Kikuta would land on top, between Gracie’s legs in guard. He'd squeeze him, and wait for a chance to improve his position. Gracie would throw half-hearted punches and wait for a safe opportunity to attack. They'd lie there, and wait for the bell to end the round. And then, it would repeat.
 
The analysts, retroactively dubbing the English-language voice-over well after the fact, quickly grew frustrated. By the sixteenth minute, announcer Bas Rutten was fed up. “This is, again, I say, this is not a fight.” Almost fifteen minutes later Stephen Quadros pleaded, to no one in particular, “If you’re going to be able to pay fighters money, and get crowds to come see the fights, then something has got to happen other than two men laying on top of each other for thirty minutes.”
 
By the fiftieth minute the commentators, perhaps recognizing the absurdity of narrating the replay of a fight with nothing much to narrate, had all but given up. “What is the point?” Quadros asked. “There is no point because nothing happens,” Rutten answered. “There is no point.”


Crowning a “worst fight” in mixed martial arts is mostly a fool’s game. For some, the worst fight might have nothing to do with the actual athletics. Combat sports promotion is a natural habitat for unscrupulous carnival barkers and worse. There are fights that are bad because they were likely, or certainly, fixed, and fights marred by catastrophic equipment failures, officiating negligence, or other miscellaneous chaos. Renzo Gracie himself was involved in a notorious meeting with Eugenio Tadeu whose result was noted as “No Contest - Fans Rioted.”
 
The suited hustlers have no qualms about unjustifiable bookings, so long as they sell tickets. Jose Canseco vs. Hong Man Choi, James Toney vs. Randy Couture, Phil “CM Punk” Brooks vs. Mickey Gall. These cards generate hype but almost always result in terrible viewing, unless you enjoy watching someone woefully outmatched get brutalized. At the very least, though, they provide some action, albeit mostly senseless.
 
This is not the case for every awful fight. Derrick Lewis and Francis Ngannou’s listless debacle this July—zero takedowns, thirty-one total blows landed—was the most recent example of a more sedentary genre.  At UFC 9 in Detroit, fighters Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock were informed the day of the fight that closed-fist punches to the head might result in their arrest under state law. Their fight turned into thirty minutes of mostly circling. Nobuhiko Takada and Mike Bernardo barely made contact for three rounds on New Year’s Eve 2001. Kalib Starnes was once so hesitant to engage against Nate Quarry, he resorted to literally running around the cage.
 
Yet even these minimalist disasters offered hope: they had the courtesy to have a relatively near and clearly demarcated a finish line. Gracie vs. Kikuta was more experiment than fight. What becomes of a sport when almost nothing happens, and there is no guarantee it will ever end?
 
When athletes turn professional, and can focus on their craft full-time, the ceiling of human potential rises to fantastical heights. It also necessitates the buy-in of fans, advertisers, and financiers. In our culture of consumption, the entitlements expected from that investment seem endless, and the demands on athletes impossible: win at all costs, while also honouring the beauty of the sport; contort yourselves into competitive machines, but ones driven by creating joyful art; never admit that you, like everyone else involved, might be motivated by money. Given the suffocating grip of commerce, unburdening athletics of these expectations is doubtful. Instead, governing bodies can resolve some of those demands by incentivizing entertaining tactics—not with unwritten expectations or nebulous outside pressures, but within the codified laws of the game.
 
Prizefighting is not a street fight and it is not warfare. Mixed martial arts is not no holds barred combat, and hopefully it never will be. MMA, including the semi-legitimized contemporary UFC, does a terrible job at being a sport, both in the professional and athletic sense—like most alleged meritocracies, it falls apart under the slightest scrutiny—but at least in theory it’s supposed to be two people challenging each other to an athletic contest within a given set of rules.
 
Renzo Gracie vs. Sanae Kikuta is the worst fight I’ve ever seen. From a competitive standpoint, though, there’s nothing strictly wrong with it. Both fighters were physically engaging and trying to gain an advantage. They were given unlimited time to work, and they weren’t shy to use it. Bas Rutten’s exasperated claim that there is “no point” was wrong. There were points being made emphatically: it’s just that one of them is a sport isn’t inherently worth watching.


In the sixth round, after fifty-one minutes of remarkable inactivity, there was finally relief. Gracie locked Kikuta in a front-choke and dragged both fighters to the canvas. He squeezed, harder, until an exhausted Kikuta tapped on Gracie and the mat repeatedly, ending the fight.
 
What Gracie vs. Kikuta was, exactly, is largely dependent on your definition of sport, and where fighting fits into it. The early UFC cards, co-created by Rorion Gracie, were primarily a style vs. style advertisement for his family’s business. In a few short years the competition evolved past that model. Other athletes saw what worked under the sparse guidelines, and crafted strategies to beat them.
 
Mixed martial arts is fascinating because it provides an unusually pure venue for competition. It’s a contest of wills with such high stakes, and so few constraints. In practice it’s largely indefensible, but it’s also raw and dramatic. When it all works, it can be beautiful in deeply human ways. But once the athletes start testing the boundaries, it’s subject to the same stresses and pitfalls as any other sport. How far can you strip a sport of its restrictions before it’s too dangerous to sanction, too unwieldy to organize, or just plain lousy to play or watch? For its sake, Pride eventually settled on time limits and judges. The UFC, and every other major organization, did too. Referees can now interfere when the action is stalled. Whatever Renzo Gracie and Sanae Kikuta were involved in, the market wouldn’t bear it.
 
By the end of the fight the commentators, still grappling with the purpose of their existence, were elated. “Oh my god. He got him with a half guillotine, Bas,” Quadros screamed to his partner. “Thank god.” Rutten concurred; “Thank god.”

Josh Tucker is a writer based in Columbus, or wherever he's parked.

Glenn Harvey is a Toronto-based, Philippines-born, freelance illustrator. You can see his work in publications like the New York Times, ESPN, and Vice.







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