The year 2016 has been an interesting one in the mixed martial arts, and interesting is one of those words that swings both ways. USADA is cracking down on any manner of cheaters (and even some of those who ingest tainted supplements unknowingly), making the road to fight night that much more of a mountain pass. Jon Jones is suspended again, and he’s turned into a whatever metaphor you like. Personally, I see his suspension like a high wire between two buildings connecting the thing he was and the thing he could have been. How does it play out? It remains to be seen. Hopefully in 2017 this column includes some "thankful for the redemption of Jon Jones" type of blurbiture, but right now he’s hovering over the gulf.
Still, there are plenty of other things to be thankful for in this year of Fighter Awareness. Suddenly the professionals are wanting to be treated that way, which is unique. The fight game, on principle, has never been about good sense, or even logic. Personal quests are just that — personal. They don’t band together and form unions. Unions have nothing to do with the fire of a competitor who believes so much in the power of his own individuality — in his own ability to bottle a tempest into a jar, and be accountable to nobody but himself — that he takes off his shoes to prove it.
No, fighters, by nature, do the opposite of band together. Or at least that was traditionally been the case. In 2016, things are changing. Why? Because so many alphas are waving their hands over their heads and finding themselves dumbstruck by the puppet strings. When people who thrive with the idea of self-control realize they aren’t actually in control, it tends to change some motivations.
It’s 2016, and there’s a lot going on in MMA.
Here are some things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
RED PANTY NIGHTS
The truth is, you may be sick of Conor McGregor. You may find him too bombastic, or too coddled, or too Irish, or maybe you hate white minks. You may not love that he tempts the national media to check in on our cages, and next thing you know Shannon Sharpe is saying that Nate Diaz can’t make 155 pounds. I get it. We must protect this niche.
But then again, holy shit. McGregor has single-handedly carried the UFC through 2016 by being perfect in the moment. Even when he lost to Nate Diaz, he lost perfectly. He handled himself so well that the rematch a few months later broke the UFC’s pay-per-view record. He avenged the loss in a fairly insane fight that at times inspired some guilt, watching the daylights get beat out of one just to return and then get beaten out of the other. He then headlines the first show at Madison Square Garden and makes the history he intended to in March, by winning the lightweight title (to go along with his featherweight title). That left hand. That left freaking hand.
McGregor, as a firebrand and as a star, was definitely pivotal in the UFC sale. Without McGregor doing what he does — while Ronda Rousey was still AWOL, and Jones still mired in judicial sludge — there wasn’t much else to hang the hat on. But what he’s doing is also infectious. Here is a fighter with the big picture always in mind. He is always thinking two steps ahead in a cliché-driven industry that says not to look past anything. He is the Rand McNally for all fighters to find their bearings. What he does is give a new angle to old truths. Everybody loses in MMA; it’s not the end of the world. We knew this. But McGregor proved it’s true. Everybody wants to be paid what they’re worth. Everybody knows this, but McGregor demands it.
Whether it’s self-infatuation or just an unshakable self-belief, it’s strong, the thing that drives McGregor. Not everybody is Conor McGregor, and nor should they be. He took a couple of blue prints, extracted what he could, but ultimately formed his own way in this game. "Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old," as the parable goes. "Seek instead what they sought." If you do this, especially with McGregor, resentment can turn into admiration with a quickness.
Fighters are starting to look past McGregor and onto the great wide open that he’s looking at, and that’s an evolution. For that you’ve got to be a little thankful.
Maybe I’m a romantic, but seeing that old beige sweater with the Rothko-drawn lines again — tranquil yellow, green, light blue, lavender — takes me back to a simpler time. A time when Emelianenko, still on an unprecedented unbeaten streak that seemingly went back millennia, was picking Andrei Arlovski out of midair like he’d just heard "pull" at the pigeon-shooting range. Those were good times. The best of times. Unsustainable times.
With how fast things move in MMA, it’s the small things that kick your ass. Fedor is one of those holy institutions in fighting, a man who still stands for something that borders on "dignity," but perhaps unfolds closer to "delusional faith." Most fighters love the idea of the dictation of wills, a control over their own fates (and a disruption to the fates of others). Emelianenko seems to plug his fate into the celestial top, completely absolving himself of any harm he may do to an opponent, yet with total understanding if those same governor’s think his own faces needs a good pummeling. Emotions? Emotions are for people who don’t give themselves over to God’s will. Look in his eyes. Dude is unwavering. Fedor is an abyss of straight, steady lines, straight as the ones on his sweater.
Does he have a chance against Matt Mitrione? Of course. Carl Seumanutafa dropped Mitrione in June and should have finished the job but got a little foolish. Fedor can catch him. But realistically? It doesn’t look good. These are more complicated times.
Still, that sweater is glorious in how much it explains the man.
New York (and by extension, Marc Ratner)
By now we’ve celebrated the UFC’s first show in New York City, and we’ve come to realize that Sheldon Silver was a menace, and that culinary unions hold stock in grudges. Yet behind the scenes, for years, the UFC’s Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner, fought the good fight. He was in Albany each year educating, lobbying, and setting the record straight on MMA, futilely for the most part.
Yet he remained optimistic, year in and year out, and finally this year the UFC made it to Manhattan. Nobody should have felt as good walking into Madison Square Garden as Ratner, who did everything in his power to make it happen. He’s also a mensch who sees the good in things. Look at his Twitter feed. Ratner stands content in every temple, even the ones housing a rat race.
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
KOREA'S DO HO CHOI, JAPAN'S TERUTO ISHIHARA
Doo Ho Choi goes by "The Korean Superboy," and he looks like the sweetest, most dependable member of the church choir — which is a lie. He’s a killer. Teruto Ishihara likes himself some "bitches," and he lets the world know each time he gets a hot mic. He even pulled a fresh crop during his tour stop in prudish Salt Lake City. That’s other level magnetism, if a little fresh by today’s standards.
It’s great to see the next wave of Asian fighters becoming known fixtures in a North American-driven market, especially with the countdown having already begun to unearth the next Conor McGregor. The "Fireball Kid" Takanori Gomi, Sakuraba and Yoshihiro "Sexyama" all came along back in the nichest days of MMA, and "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung has been away with a military obligation, though he’s established a cult following. Choi and Ishihara represent the times.
Of the two, Choi has the chance to really emerge (you get the sense fighting ability outpaces libido in the long run).
Why be thankful for these cats? I don’t know…it just feels good knowing they’re out there.
The ability to measure your worth on the open market in MMA is the big story of 2016. Many are fighting out their contracts to see if, as whims and hunches dictate, the grass is greener somewhere else. Or, you know…if at least the paper is.
So far, a couple of name fighters have found out for themselves. Rory MacDonald was the last big name to play out his contract with the UFC and sign with Bellator. He was coming off of a back-to-back losses, it’s true, but the first was a Fight of the Century candidate against Robbie Lawler for the belt, and the other was against Stephen Thompson, who is one of the hardest to solve puzzles operating right now.
Other guys have gone, or thought about it. Benson Henderson signed with Bellator, and bantamweight Aljamain Sterling dipped his toe in the open waters. Lorenz Larkin is negotiating, and Gegard Mousasi says he’s going to fight his contract out as well. Ryan Bader, perhaps the last viable name at light heavyweight behind Johnson-Cormier-Jones, just entered free agency. Again, there’s a feeling of "growing up" going on this year in MMA, that begins to vaguely resemble the behaviors going on in other sports. So long as Bellator president Scott Coker is out there with the Viacom checkbook, there are possibilities in play that simply didn’t exist before.
(As an asides, you know what today’s Bellator feels like? The UFC in the mid-aughts, closing in on that boom period. Maybe it’s because Chael Sonnen is aboard, and he was acting as a guest color analyst during the Bellator 165 telecast — like Randy Couture did for the UFC back in the day — or that Fedor is along for the ride, or that GSP is flirting in green rooms with Bellator brass. Whatever it is, there’s a feeling of something pending going on, to see how far it will all go. It has the feel of an unfolding adventure, which is the space the UFC lived in for so long).
Here’s thankful that Stipe Miocic had the strength to dead lift a 52-year curse off the entire city of Cleveland. People are slow to acknowledge it, but Miocic literally jacked open the vortex portal that swallowed the banks of Lake Erie whole back in 1964. Something like six weeks later, LeBron got "The Block," and now history wants to say that the Cleveland Cavaliers myth-busted that time-honored curse. Not the case. It was Miocic, who broke the spell against Fabricio Werdum. And then the Cavs.
The Indians came to within a game of becoming the third Cleveland sports property to jump through draught-loop, but they didn’t. And again, there’s much to be thankful for even in that, as the Cubs needed it more. There’s maybe a dozen people still alive from the last time the Cubs won it all in 1908. Cleveland even knew when to play it cool.
The sport changes, and "Mighty Mouse" remains the constant. We take him for granted, like we do the moon, and million-year old rocks. But he is a marvel just like any of those, if you really think about it. He’s got just as much astonishment packed in there to have a pretty good daydream about how small we all really are.
Look man, Michael Bisping barely got by Thales Leites to close out 2015. Nobody — and I mean, nobody — could have forecasted that Bisping would be the middleweight champion to close out 2016. When he was booked to fight Anderson Silva, it was a "lifetime achievement award" kind of booking, since he never got to face Silva when Silva held the belt (Bisping was a perpetual runner-up). Somehow, after looking like he was cooked during a ridiculous, existential sequence at the end of the second round, he won that fight.
Then, when Chris Weidman fell out of his title fight with Luke Rockhold, Bisping stepped in on two week’s notice — straight off a movie set! — to face the man who’d beat him breezily a year-and-a-half earlier. A proverbial lamb to slaughter, right? Wrong, sucker. Bisping, who was accused of having pillow hands for the bulk of his career, not only beat Rockhold to win the title, he knocked Rockhold TFO. Only in a universe this full of chance and patchwork and odd bits of symmetry does anything like this happen in sports.
For every situation that feels like a sure thing (like John Lineker missing weight, say), there is a Bisping who emerges out of nowhere yet who was right there under our noses the whole time. This sport has no rhyme or reason. It’s foolish to handicap fights, or bet on it, or even bet on a fight happening. Rarely does anything play out how it is meant to, or should. Bisping is the embodiment of that reminder.
One of the things to love about MMA is that we have no idea. Who’d have thought McGregor and Nate Diaz would end up in a back-to-back series at 170 pounds? Lord Chaos, as FloCombat’s Duane Finley likes to say.
Anyway, thanks Mr. Bisping.
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
Speaking of MMA’s unpredictability, there’s no better example of it than Ronda Rousey, who went to Melbourne on top of the world last November before Thanksgiving, was flipped Down Under by a head kick from Holly Holm, and spent 2016 in relative seclusion. To close out the year, Rousey is making her return. She will face Amanda Nunes for the women’s bantamweight title. Rousey remains the last and only one ever to defend that particular symbol.
She remains the only one who commands the needle in the pay-per-view sense. She remains perhaps the only one that uber-casual milquetoast schoolmarms can name on the UFC’s roster. She remains a defiant course of action for some ("I’m not a do nothing bitch"), and she’s now being quoted alongside Shakespeare in cyberspace ("I’m scared of failure all the time. But I’m not scared enough to stop trying.")
Love her or hate her, Rousey’s return is a big deal. How will she look? How deep did the psychological damage of losing go? Is Ellen in her head? How much does she hate media? Does she hate media more than Uriah Hall, or less? And is that in her competitive nature to care about? Does she want to out-hate Hall when it comes to media?
Hey, I’m thankful for the chance to find out the answers to these things. And to have her back, if even for a little while.