The mixed martial arts get accused of being unpredictable all the time, but this past week felt more like a front-lines assault on perspective itself. In the span of a few days the fight game’s greatest titan of his times, Muhammad Ali, died and -- while the memorials and tributes were still being devised -- hell came loose off its moorings.
Or so it seemed.
So here’s a little recap of one of the crazier fight weeks on record, with some thoughts to (perhaps) duct tape some of that perspective back together.
Michael Bisping is a what? A UFC champion? Get the hell out…
This was as left field as anything that happened. Because, come on…Bisping went through a recent stretch in which he went 3-4, nearly went blind in one eye, had several corrective surgeries, got teed-off on by a pulsating Vitor Belfort, got mugged by Tim Kennedy, got blown through by Luke Rockhold, and got comfortable in an analyst’s chair. Nobody saw this coming (and if you say you did, you should apply for a job as an MMA promoter, where good liars can reach the top).
Bisping is 37 years old, and for years has made up for his lack of knockout power with a high-pitched Mancunian whine, which divided people into a love/hate thing with him. After a decade in the Octagon, he was firmly entrenched as the Forever Contender who lost every penultimate battle. It was to the point that, though he was a pioneer on the U.K. circuit and paved the way for many others, the UFC wasn’t even going to England anymore. The ship had sailed, and Bisping was launching freaking podcasts.
Then he gets a Fight Pass fight against former champ Anderson Silva, loses that fight (yet wins), then slips in through the backdoor at UFC 199 on just a little over two week’s notice and beats the heavily favored Rockhold. Not just beats him, but knocks his ass out. So much for them pillow hands. Bisping’s run could go down as the story of the year, and yet — as hell came off them damn moorings — it wasn’t even the story of the night on June 4.
The Ban and the Lift
As you well know by now, before Bisping put Rockhold on the dream flow, Ariel Helwani — along with Esther Lin and Casey Leydon — had their credentials revoked and got banned for life. (I won’t rehash the trail of events, but it turns out a lifetime ban means something like 60 hours in MMA patois). In any case, there was a great irony to all of this, which got lost in the glorious outcry.
With Ali having died just the night before UFC 199, the UFC put together a touching tribute to "The Greatest," with — of all people — UFC president Dana White narrating. Ali’s presence brought out the best chroniclers the fight game has known since Cannon and Liebling, from Mark Kram to George Plimpton to Norman Mailer to Hunter S. Thompson. Media carried Ali and the golden era of heavyweights into the ages. And Ali, of course, has since become synonymous with Howard Cosell, the reporter who carried on a career-long (often complicated) relationship with the champ. During Ali’s greatest moments, there was Cosell, ringside, calling the action. There was Cosell in the lead-up to the fights. There was Cosell in the aftermath. There was Cosell being chastised by Ali, as time passed, yet Ali embracing the man with a warm understanding of how they will go down in history together. It was a great dynamic: Cosell was the conscience of the fight game, with Ali pumping the thoughts.
When I got to know Helwani in 2009, in a media room in Hoffman Estates as Fedor and his priests roamed the halls, he said he wanted to be for the UFC (and MMA) what Cosell was to Ali. It was a lofty thing to say, but nearly seven years later that’s essentially what he’s become. The difference was that Ali knew media’s function, and the UFC’s president — even as he celebrates the life of a man who lives on in large part due to media — doesn’t.
Anyway, it was poetic, in some wildly arcane and synchronistic way, that on a night when Ali tributes were rampant, and the UFC joined in the chant, the powers that be strong-armed and banned the Cosell of MMA. If Ali’s wild eyes told us anything, it was that he was seeing the big picture at all times. The UFC proved, yet again, that it takes the small view. And for what? Doing his job? For reporting (accurately) that Brock Lesnar was returning before they could drop that bombshell themselves?
It’s a sham that makes our times seem petty compared to the days of all, but speaking of Lesnar…
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
Brock Lesnar is back!
Wait…didn’t he opt for the WWE? He was done with the literal world of fighting. Yet boom, the pay-per-view slayer returns for the hallmark event of UFC 200, filling in for the noticeably absent Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. And he’s fighting Mark Hurt. Who hits hard. For a guy that doesn’t like to get hit, this seems…well, it just fuels the imagination is all.
How will he look some four-and-a-half years later? Because back in the day, even while battling diverticulitis, he was a behemoth — the biggest heavyweight name outside of Kimbo Slice. And that’s the other thing…
The passing of Kimbo Slice
A crazy week is bookended by the deaths of Ali and the brawler Kimbo Slice, real name Kevin Ferguson, who was only 42 years old. Kimbo did a number on the casuals who’d never watched fighting before, beginning with his back alley brawls in South Florida, which YouTube turned into gawkersville, and ending with his fights in the Bellator cage. He was the first truly transcendent star in this sport (check out this piece I did on the fifth anniversary of the EliteXC disaster when he lost to Seth Petruzelli).
I can remember meeting a group of friends at a bar for his fight against Tank Abbott, and it had the feel of the old Mike Tyson fights, when the odd feel of sanctioned menace bound us like an electric current of anticipation. I don’t think I fully knew how thoughtful he was until I spoke to his son, "Baby Slice" Kevin Ferguson Jr., who was debuting as an amateur mixed martial artist back in March. To get an idea, here’s the piece.
There was so much more to the man than we knew. And he’s gone too young. Kimbo’s passing ended what was one of the craziest, saddest, most triumphant and pathetic weeks the fight world has known. A week in which much was gained, and much was lost, and a good many toasts ended up with the shattering of the glassware.