The original Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar fight went down in UFC history as a sort of contagion that spread across America through the oldest form of conveyance (word of mouth). That was in April 2005, and it was timely for the UFC back then, a promotion that had just completed a time-buy on Spike TV and was in need of a transcendent moment to help carry it forward.
That single fight was not only a slobberknocker full of table turning plot twists and tomorrow-less abandon, but it came off like two guys laughing and punching holes in Western civilization. It somehow conveyed for the greater masses the very spirit of the thing that for so long just hadn’t been communicating.
Now, I’ve always been hesitant to join the chorus that Bonnar-Griffin alone was the reason for the MMA boom, but it certainly didn’t hurt. What those guys did that night, whether they were aware of it or not, was bring the sport crashing through the barriers of the prevailing PC world, turning the glorious (and mostly sanctioned) underworld right-side up.
Cut to May 10, 2014, and we’re at the other end of that night’s opening of the cagefighting floodgates.
The UFC has had 120 more pay-per-views since Bonnar-Griffin I. It has gone global, and is sanctioned in every state (except primitive New York). It has a major network television deal with Fox. It has absorbed Pride, WFA, Strikeforce, the WEC, and, with women now stalking down each other in the Octagon, large chunks of Invicta. It has a fully interactive website known promisingly as Fight Pass, which not only streams events from far-off lands like Singapore, but also works as an all-inclusive library to the fights of yore (for a modest monthly fee). It now runs in the range of 50 events a year.
And in spite of all this progress -- or perhaps because of it -- the word "event" has been diminished. People are talking about the gray plateau, oversaturation, too many cards, too much ambition, too many pay-per-views not worth the money. There’s an undercurrent of being hoodwinked practically every show, that we’re being sold a bill of goods even when the fights are free and totally ignorable (if we so choose). Unlike in 2005 when MMA was all so new and full of future, the complaints have begun to out-scream the promotional efforts.
Which of course was the case for Saturday night’s Cincinnati card, too, known in the numerical canon as UFC Fight Night 40. Matt Brown and Erick Silva were a fun stylistic contemplation, but as a main event they were just more evidence of the slope. Brown, ranked No. 7 on the media-voted UFC rankings, was fighting a guy who was No. 14. There were no obvious title implications. Brown, from nearby Columbus, was fighting in his home state, riding an unheralded six-fight winning streak. Silva, because he was available and explosive, was pitted against him sort of randomly. The enthusiasm for the fight, which happened at a time when every weekend there are fights, wasn’t great.
Then they fought, and for a little more than 17 minutes all things going on outside of the fight turned trivial. The familiar pull of two guys unleashing hell on one another in real time came washing back over us, including those of us whose immunities have been built up through the years. Brown got kicked through the stomach early and was debilitated, and Silva was on his way to routing him. It was over. Then Brown, in survival mode for what seemed like a small pocket of eternity, got up. He got up. And from there it became a blur of exceptionalism from both sides.
The thing was being conveyed again. The thing and the reason.
Brown raced towards Silva for the rest of the night, changing levels, throwing combinations to the head and body. He was ceaseless, mindless, just a crazed animal who happened to maintain cool precision in his striking. Soon Silva was the one surviving, and that he was able to for as long as he did became its own heroic narrative. Both guys had walked the other to the brink, and yet neither could be pushed over. It became a vicarious thrill.
There was Brown, moving forward with an impossible pace, a manic who finally was being discovered all at once after years in the craft, making public the bigness inside of him. There was Silva, at the other end of the sublime, breaking the crowd out in goosebumps with his refusal to go gently.
Every now and then you get a fight like this, where inspiration mounts on both sides, and the ultimate unfolding is our own collective sense of astonishment. The type of fight where everyone watching it bands together in a fraternity of that astonishment, and use exclamation marks to emphasize the ways in which they are pinching themselves. That’s what the fight game can be. At its finest, that’s what it transmits. Deep fathoms of heart and perseverance, where thresholds become elastic.
Was it the greatest fight of all time, as Dana White declared afterwards? Once cooler heads prevail, who knows, it may not go down as even the greatest fight of 2014. But it was certainly a great fight. Like Bonnar-Griffin, that old wallbuster from back in the day, it held us spellbound while it lasted. Brown and Silva were dealing in each other’s essences. They were justifying every absurdity that goes into being a fight fan.
And it comes at a time when that sort of justification, if even as a reminder of how good it can be, was sorely needed.