In the original 1968 version of the Night of the Living Dead, the only way to kill a zombie was to shoot it directly in the head. Otherwise those undead bastards just kept coming. On the 50th Anniversary of that movie — as well as the 25th anniversary of the Ultimate Fighting Championship — Yair Rodriguez got that memo at the eleventh hour. During one last skirmish in his 25-minute scrap with the Korean Zombie, Rodriguez ducked out of the way of a punch and upsprang an elbow right into the black spot on Chan Sung Jung’s chin. Jung crumpled in a heap, and lay twitching with his head facing the canvas.
It took 24 minutes and 59 seconds, but Rodriguez finally finished off the Zombie. As he snatched victory from the certain jaws of defeat, all the jaws in Denver dropped in unison. The only sound to be heard across the Mile High City was, “Holy shhhh…”
And that’s how you commemorate the wildest, most politically incorrect sport to ever turn up in our DNA profile — you have Yair Rodriguez stand in on short notice and flatten the Korean Zombie in a main event. Improbably. Insanely. In a fight he was about to lose. In a sequence that didn’t make sense. They were finished and already out the door, but came rushing back in as if they’d forgot to leave a tip.
Back in the day, when the UFC put on its first show at McNichols Sports Arena which sat just across I-25 from where the Pepsi Center now resides, it was Teila Tuli’s tooth that came flying out of his mouth after being kicked by Gerard Gordeau. Twenty five years later that kick would be illegal, but the hysteria of seeing a good finish remains. We can never get enough of somebody being forced to relent through a tap. We positively lose our minds at the sudden loss of consciousness from a well-timed kick, punch, knee or elbow. The sport has smuggled its edge into the 21st century and — somehow — continues to shake civilization at its sleepy core.
The UFC was smart to bring back the vintage feeling, too, using the original UFC strong man art in the center of the Octagon as well as the old graphics and the old music. The only thing missing was the odd static line running up the screen to emulate the warped tape from a VHS rental. Otherwise the underground was brought up to the surface, yet the taboo of two men fighting for audience gratification held up. Only a quarter of a century removed from Royce Gracie’s coming out party, we’re well past the guilty phase.
We’re well into the “what else you got?” phase of the UFC.
That’s what made Rodriguez’s late elbow so brilliant. The timing. That it happened at a celebratory event, in Denver, when all the old feelings were being spliced with the new. That it happened in the last moments, just when it seemed like the cause was lost. That it communicated the beautiful essence of the sport while at the same time slamming the piano keys, like a diabolical thing that still enjoys jarring us out of our doldrums. This sport operates best when it turns us into witnesses to something truly improbable. The brotherhood comes from those moments when everyone is asking everyone else permission to believe their own eyes.
The UFC couldn’t have asked for a better finish for such a show. The company itself was defeated and ready to accept its fate before Griffin-Bonnar landed that figurative elbow. The UFC went through many layers of hell to end up back in Denver. For one night those struggles were embraced, and then embodied. Yair provided the Cliff Notes to the UFC’s history by persevering long enough to do the improbable.
All of which is poetic in other ways, too, because the UFC cut Rodriguez back in May for turning down a fight with Ricardo Lamas. He settled his differences and ended up stepping into a showcase event against the most accommodating dance partner imaginable. The Korean Zombie, who lived up to billing by just torching Rodriguez in inventive ways for good segments of the fight, was in fine form. Rodriguez — who was coming back some 18 months after getting steamrolled by Frankie Edgar — had his moments, too. There were kicks and jabs and cartwheels and rolls. There was enough technique to make the original show in 1993 feel like it belongs to the Mesozoic Era. There was enough heart to make it a memorable affair even if it had made it to the judges.
Yet it was that elbow that crashed home and gave it permanence. Rodriguez just performed a slam dunk for Knockout of the Year. It’s an event that can be puzzled over forever, full of regrets, desperation and endless surprise. That elbow couldn’t have landed if Jung doesn’t engage, if he decides to stay out of harm’s way knowing he’s up on the scorecards. But it’s not a Zombie’s style to lay off. He happily engaged at the end because that’s what he does — he keeps moving forward. He was signing off on another violent masterpiece. He was putting the final touches on another conquest.
Then the elbow sprang from the depths below, and the next thing he knew they were waking him up with smelling salts. It was one of the craziest knockouts in UFC history, and it happened on a show commemorating 25 years of fights. It was a thing of violent beauty that rose up out of nowhere, not unlike the eight walls surrounding him.