MMA is an often-thankless profession where, if I understand it, people starve themselves and cut weight so that we may watch football in the glutton comfort of our own traditions. Many fighters, like Gray Maynard and Nathan Diaz, won’t be given the choice of tryptophan this Thanksgiving, because they are in the very throes of war. It’s one a hell of a sacrifice that they make. And they take these oaths of carb celibacy so that we, the people, can forgive ourselves that second helping of pumpkin pie.
In essence, all any fighter really wants to get out of his sacrifices is the same thing that Chris Leben wanted get after he ran his head into Michael Bisping’s fist a bunch of times, which is an answer to this: Are you not entertained?
As Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks, here are 10 MMA-centric things, numbered but in no particular order, that we can be thankful for.
10) Matt Brown
Maybe it’s the prehistoric shark eyes right before a fight, just brown pools of soulless bloodshed. Maybe it’s that he literally died one night in farmland Ohio from a drug overdose and then came back to talk about it in cool sober monotone. Maybe it’s that he anesthetizes young freelancers who try to step to him with their "jitsu" or their wicked "haymakers." Maybe it’s that he was left at Grim Reaper’s door yet again, this time career-wise in losing four of five fights in the UFC, only to yet rise a second time and peel off five straight victories. Maybe it’s because he’s always giving away MusclePharm products on his Twitter feed as if the casual follower’s life is somehow incomplete without it. Whatever it is, he’s the embodiment of "fight."
Bomb’s away, Matt Brown. And thank you.
9) UFC Matchmaking (sort of generally)
Boxing, for its centuries-long head start in the fight business, has a hard time sticking its best two fighters of the time in the ring together. One of its proudest traditions is feeding its champions viable (yet BB-ridden) cans. Not so in this heathen’s UFC that the kids are watching. The instructional manual to Joe Silva and Sean Shelby’s matchmaking kit reads that they must "make the standing champion(s) as vulnerable as is humanly possible, so as to render the sustainability of that station, and all stations thereof, untenable." That’s a little white lie, of course, but they do champion vulnerability by sicing only the meanest most hungry dogs at the titleholders. It’s a hell of a selling point, too, when Georges St-Pierre has to win by a margin so small that it requires the dissection of individual pieces of certain moments of specific flurries of the very first round to see an outcome. Chris Weidman is thankful for the matchmaking. So is Alexander Gustafsson, the Swede.
Speaking of which…
8) Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jon Jones
There was a small contingency of Swedish nationals who made the trek to Toronto to watch their golden boy, Gustafsson, get soundly smashed by the Not Quite Human light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. It was an admirable show of faith, because, you know, the most ridiculous marketing ploy in UFC history was giving Gustafsson’s height and reach the lion’s share of the competitive focus. It was hooey and we all knew it. Lusty Gusty (as Ben Fowlkes calls him) was being led to the abattoir just as sure as we were dressed in slick plastic sheets to catch the blood spatter, united in our pop-eyed voyeurism.
But then they started fighting. And Jon Jones, who’d never been taken down, was taken down. And Gustafsson, who was taken down by Phil Davis, was not. And the strafing jabs and long-legged push kicks were Gusty’s. The blood was Jones’. The eyes that were being rubbed were everyone’s (except maybe Eric Del Fierro, who knew). That fight was the only one on record that truly was a "don’t blink" affair. It wasn’t that you might miss a knockout, it was that you might miss even a millisecond of the plot unfolding. That spinning elbow that Jones threw in the fourth round restored order. It was the game-changer, the deus ex machina in one of the greatest fights on record.
And for that, thanks dudes.
7) Women’s MMA
Not long ago, Dana White said he’d "never" have women competing in the Octagon. Why? Because there wasn’t enough divisional depth. But that was before he looked into the untold wilderness of Ronda Rousey’s eyes and saw, through the dense canopy of arm bars, a single shining star. Suddenly we had women’s MMA, which wasn’t for everyone…there were plenty of people who could only tolerate the idea of men trying to ruin each other…but we had it. And now we rely on Alexis Davis for wars and Rousey for uncut rawness and Miesha Tate for her special blend of antagonism through non-antagonism. And we love Leslie Smith who, we have it on good authority, is the Diego Sanchez of women’s MMA. We love Cat Zingano, the UFC’s first mom, who cried joyous tears on her way to the cage. What’s not to be thankful for?
(Nothing. Thank you ladies for the breath of fresh air).
6) Ray Longo
Ray freaking Longo. This person is alive and actual. Forget about thank you... this is kiss the ground territory. Ray Longo is not a figment of our imagination, nor a Long Island myth. Longo exists. (Matt Serra, on the other hand, is lore).
5) Conor McGregor
He has logged exactly two UFC fights, yet his beard is now as famous as Uncle Sam’s and his tongue as wet as Gene Simmons’. The Irishman McGregor is a natural at the fight game. He has the skill set, yes, but he as the "it" factor that can only be got at superficially. He wears bowties, sunglasses and skinny pants. And the accent -- particularly when heard calling out the entire featherweight division, which to hear him tell it is a Land of Pansydom -- sounds to Americans like every ornery Leprechaun ever conjured. How good is McGregor’s talk game? He broke Nik Lentz out of hibernation, inciting the soft-spoken Minnesotan to famously belch out, "hey, slow your stroll sunnyboy." That extraction was worth its price in gold alone. Thanks, Notorious one.
Hey, say what you want about Ray Sefo and his World Series of Fighting, but his is a justice league for fighters who don’t fit to exact UFC specifications. Don’t want Jon Fitch, even if he’s 14-3-1 in the Octagon? Come see Sefo. Don’t like Ben Askren, who has two strong weapons in his arsenal (wrestling and nihilism)? Come see Uncle Ray. Nick Newell, with only one hand, or Rousimar Palhares, who turns his nose up at whoever is tapping under his brute strength, or Josh Burkman, who healed his body holistically through clean living and higher, harder to reach celestials? We’ve got some comforting letters for you, baby, and it starts with a W and ends with an F (with no T in between). It’s good that WSOF is an extra platform for the wayward (and the undiscovered). Thanks, Ray Sefo.
3) Dana White
You hate him, you love him, you can’t get enough of him. There’s nothing too petty nor too great for him to undertake. He glorifies and lionizes Georges St-Pierre one minute, then shreds him into a million little pieces the next. He vacations in Maine while he’s gambling in Atlantic City while he’s shooting down poor Ben Askren, an orphan of the fight game who is asking but for one chance to prove himself against the best in the world. Dana White is a million different people who just happens to be, miraculously, never anything other than Dana F---ing White. He doesn’t sleep, nor apologize for dumb things said (and never loses sleep over any dumb thing said or dreamed). He’s a motivational speaker, and his T-shirt selection on weigh-in day has become its own cult. He doesn’t know who Jake Rossen is, nor does he care. Bad s--- happens when his first foot hits the floor in the morning, but he still gets out of bed, and he still engages fans and enemies and fighters and critics and television hosts and reporters and Nick the Tooth and those poor unsuspecting Pinkberry employees. He sometimes makes it hard for people to live peaceably in the fight world, but the fight world is infinitely better off with him in it.
2) Matt Grice
In February, at UFC 157, Grice and Dennis Bermudez decided to strike a match and see if the barn would catch. It did. For three rounds they went back and forth in a fight of the year candidate that nobody saw coming. That was the second most remarkable thing Grice did in 2013. Months later he was sitting at a red light in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and never saw the car that slammed into him, either. He ended up in a medically induced coma with traumatic brain injuries, which required life-saving surgery. He had part of his skull removed. He had to regain his memories. And slowly, remarkably he began to recover. To the point that after nearly two months in the hospital, Grice was able to go home to his family. His nurse called him a "walking miracle." He even said, as absurd as it sounds, that he’d love to fight again one day, depending on how things go. It’s not necessary. But this is: Thanks, Matt Grice, for the courage.
1) Passionate MMA Fans
The media is full of "douches," as some have reminded us many times. We are "shills," and we are "tools" and, if we’re keeping everything on the level, there are more than a few "trolls" among us. Even the word "journalist" is best dressed in quotes for this particular riffraff. These words hold patents in hardcore MMA fandom. And you know what? Here’s toasting that unchecked (sometimes anonymous) passion. MMA fans are the greatest, most alive, most faithful and loyal bunch of hate-mongers in the sports forum. Mention any heated acronym -- UFC, WSOF, TRT, GSP, VADA -- and MMA’s hardcores descend like a gang of piranha. But you know what? Love you for it. Live events in MMA are like no other, and the fans make it a unique experience. It is perhaps a good thing that the skull-and-bones wear era of yesterday is being overtaken by the more classic Roots of Fight brand, but guess what? We know there’s a bold nipple ring underneath, and a tattoo running from the ribcage to the shoulder blades. And I suppose what I’m saying is, on behalf of "journalists" everywhere…"thank you."