The final frozen image of the movie Rocky III, the one that signals the credits scrolling to the song "Eye of the Tiger," is a fan's dream of what can occur when two valiant warriors do battle for our amusement. Rocky Balboa's powerful straight left and Apollo Creed's overhand right are freeze-framed before impact, and we imagine they will each connect in simultaneous glory, each man taking the other one out, solving nothing and everything at once.
In real life, that's not how it works. In real life, two punches, thrown at seemingly the same moment, will arrive at their target milliseconds apart. Which is another way of saying, one will arrive, one will not. Thus, one man, not two, will go down. And he will go down hard.
This is what happened on September 6, 2008, at Philips Arena in Atlanta. That's the night that crowd favorite Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, arguably at that point still the biggest star in UFC history, threw a second-round powerful right uppercut too late by a skosh (in neural-firing terms). Because his Light Heavyweight opponent, severe underdog "Suga" Rashad Evans, landed his overhand right just as Liddell's punch was reaching its target. Liddell's head and neck jerked to his right with such force it seems comical in slow motion. Liddell went down to one knee, then onto his side, unconscious before his head hit the floor.
The punch stunned UFC fans — 14,735 of them went silent in Philips Arena. (One did not: Evans' pregnant wife, who screamed so loudly for so long the bout's announcers had to acknowledge to the Pay Per View audience the source of the shrieking.) This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen, in their minds. The story line was supposed to be: beloved longtime champion takes out brash, arrogant newcomer. In actuality, it propelled Evans into his status as one of the game's top fighters (albeit one who still has to endure his share of claims that he won on a "lucky punch" and that he's "a 'B' fighter.")
If the punches were reversed, perhaps that would not have been the case. But just as in boxing (the sport to which MMA-style fighting is most often compared, for obvious reasons), the story lines that lead up to a fight are always in danger of being erased and rewritten by the small matter of the fight itself. As it was true that night for UFC 88 in Atlanta, so could it be true this Saturday at UFC 145 at Philips Arena. The highlight bout that evening again features Rashad Evans, once again a steep underdog. But this time he's the old man (34) going against a young (24), charismatic champion — his former friend and training partner, Jon "Bones" Jones.
The buildup has everything: comparisons to the greatest boxing fights of the century (Ali-Frazier and Ali-Foreman); the young star actually being compared to and mimicking Muhammad Ali; allegations of stealing moves from each other, of fakery, of ass-kissing, of loutish ignorance; as well as the requisite number of compelling elements to any mixed martial arts fight, namely that a punch or elbow or knee could send someone into dreamland before you get settled in your ringside seat.
It also has the game within the game: two fighters at once trying to embrace the marketing surrounding the match, knowing that (most) all publicity is good publicity for a fledging sport, and reflexively distancing themselves from the Ali-Frazier comparisons.
All of which makes this Saturday's UFC card a seemingly seminal moment in the maturation of a sport that even the UFC President, Dana White, acknowledges is not yet "in the mainstream." (See sidebar interview, p. 34.) But it sure feels as though UFC is at mainstream's door, boasting record TV ratings (UFC signed a multi-channel seven-year broadcast agreement with Fox Sports last August) and an expanding global reach (last week's big UFC event was in Sweden). This is fueled by an impressive UFC marketing machine that expertly tells its story through social and traditional media means, and that works hard to keep negative images of the sport out of the conversation. Example: For this story, UFC would not give us any of the more violent images we requested, understanding fully that we love hyping that noise. The UFC rightly points out that, violent as it is by its nature, its only serious injury has been a broken arm.
Besides, the Jones vs. Evans story line is pretty dramatic on its own, and the real animosity the men have for each other, coupled with the circus that surrounds such large-scale events (be they boxing, pro wrestling, or MMA bouts), could substantially aid UFC's continuing efforts to invade the national sports conscience.
Which is something UFC President Dana White understands. "The next two years are more important than ever with getting new viewers," he says. "But at the end of the day it's still up to them [the fighters] to perform."
In an early, pivotal scene in the movie Warrior — a wonderful, underappreciated movie, by the way — the high school principal is telling the mixed martial artist-turned-physics teacher that he can't be fighting in local MMA tournaments held in seedy strip club parking lots, no matter how much he needs the money. He makes his point clear, the teacher agrees, and there is a pause as the principal wonders just what sort of badass he has in this mild-mannered prof.
"UFC?" the principal asks the teacher.
The teacher nods.
"Son of a bitch."
There are many clichés in the movie, but its central conceit — that someone could fight (in unmemorable fashion) in MMA's top-level league, retire, and then come back and compete again is not far from the truth. In part, MMA's rise is tied to the ease with which its fans can fantasize themselves being in the Octagon. Many fighters (again, addressed in the film) have gained a following on YouTube before being showcased in high-profile UFC fights — and usually come up wanting. Boxing, on the other hand, has traditionally had a much slower, more selective route to success, as do most amateur sports with a longtime amateur system in place. In this way, UFC's rise reminds me more of professional poker, a world in which skillful new stars burst onto the scene and quickly become name brands.
MMA's fan base, however, reminds me more of soccer's: a small but passionate group of people who alternately say they want the sport to grow and yet look down upon anyone who doesn't know its history or nuance. Like wine snobs or comic book lovers, those who champion the sport seem so angry that you're just now discovering its glories that they would rather ostracize you than let you in their group.
Don't let this intimidate you, because you can get caught up on current MMA story lines in an afternoon if you have a decent Internet connection. One of the glories of the sport is that its entire history lives online, a Google search away. I wasn't at the Evans-Liddell fight in Atlanta in 2008, but I've seen it in its entirety. I heard Evans' wife screaming and the commentators discussing it. I read reports from those in the crowd describing the bloodlust that ran through them as they cheered for Evans' defeat, and the pall cast when Liddell fell.
That rabbit hole leads you to "related videos," of course, in which you can see Evans' progression from showboating villain (something I don't fully understand, since his bravado seems to pale compared to many boxers I've watched) to now a figure of empathy as he takes on Jon Jones — himself seen as too cocksure, as well as too pre-fab and polished. There are blogs (BloodyElbow.com and SherDog.com are particularly good, but there are dozens) and MMA reporters at major news sites like Yahoo and USA Today. And if that's your thing, you can sift through the trolls and racists that populate any commenters' section and get plenty of compelling fan takes on which fighter is washed up and which one is a budding star. You also get a stream of predictions about what will happen in Saturday's big match. The consensus is that "Bones" beats "Suga," that Jon Jones is too crafty, has too much reach, for Rashad Evans to handle.
But that's not to say you'd find that said prognosticators are happy about this. For if you listen to fans online (and in person, I should add) you quickly realize that the story line for this week's fight is a bit out of control, that it's been twisted as it's progressed from UFC's mouth to the fans' ears. Which just makes it all the more compelling.
The story is this: Jon Jones is emerging as UFC's answer to Muhammad Ali. He's young, smart, and (arguably) charismatic. Which makes Rashad Evans — older, angrier, meaner — Joe Frazier, and suggests Atlanta is the stand-in for New York (their first fight, the "Fight of the Century," took place at Madison Square Garden). Or perhaps UFC, which has actively promoted the Jones-Ali story line, thinks this fight is more applicable to Ali vs. George Foreman, the "Rumble in the Jungle" that took place in Zaire. That would explain why they put out a video montage of Jones to a sample from Jadakiss's song "The Champ is Here," which features Ali's famous yelling of that phrase when he invaded Foreman's training session. That paled to the controversy surrounding Jones' posing underwater for the cover of UFC's magazine, a photo that mimicked a famous shot of an underwater Ali in a fighting stance.
On the media call with the two fighters last week, Jones was asked if the Ali comparisons bother him. Even though he was careful to say he didn't compare himself to Ali (despite what some reporters suggested in follow-up articles), he did say he willingly succumbed to the marketing.
"I never came out and was like, 'Oh, I want to be Ali. Put me on the cover underwater.' That was the UFC's idea," Jones said. "That's the people on the outside looking at me in a positive regard. I'm truly honored and I think it's awesome.
"I definitely don't consider myself Muhammad Ali," Jones said. "I thought Muhammad Ali had many flaws in the person that he was. At the same time, I love Muhammad Ali. I've watched every interview he's ever done. I've read a Muhammad Ali book. ... I'm a huge fan, but I don't strive to be Muhammad Ali. I strive to be the best Jonathan B. Jones that there ever was. I want to do things better than Muhammad Ali."
This did not quell the backlash against Jones, as you may imagine. Earlier this week, someone even hacked the Wikipedia entry for the word "cocky" and inserted, under the heading "cocky may mean," the phrase "Jon Jones, Mixed Martial Artist." (It was promptly removed.)
In a way, the marketing of this fight is understandable. Jones, 24, is young and, according to those who know, a fighter who could give the sport a longtime champion (something that seems to elude it, at least in the way boxing had superstars who stayed relevant for decades). It gives people like me — 44, lapsed boxing fan, intrigued by the fury and power of the sport — a narrative shorthand I can read, puts the battle in context, gives me rooting interest. In that way, it tries to take the best of pro wrestling (larger-than-life characters, clear story lines) and combine it with the most-appreciated aspects of boxing (great skill, technique, and training).
But in this case, with the Ali-Frazier comparisons, it's wholly unnecessary.
For one reason, the Ali association could equally work for Evans (for whom I'm rooting; gotta support the old man). As Evans told Mixed Martial Arts magazine when asked why so many people have given him little respect throughout his very successful career:
"It's kind of crazy, but you got to keep it in perspective you know. And its just like Muhammad Ali — I'm not saying I'm Muhammad Ali — but those fighters in their time they weren't appreciated for what they were good at. Many people hated Ali, they hated his guts. Sometimes it may be good to be hated. Sometimes being hated means you're doing something right. One thing that I've learned just from watching other things in life, when people like you, they kind of devour you, they wear you out. So being in the position that I'm in right now is probably why I'm so successful. People don't like me, don't give me my respect, and I feel if it was the other way, they would devour me."
In the way, it seems, many fans are turning on Jones. So the Ali-Frazier comparisons just don't stand up to scrutiny, which is why they annoy so many. (Not to mention the social impact Ali had; whatever the equivalent of "Mad Men" is in 40 years, I doubt we'll see the 2012 version of Don Draper talking about Jones-Evans the way he talked about Clay-Liston.)
Besides, this fight already has a movie-ready backstory, one familiar to all MMA fans. The short version: Jon Jones became part of Rashad Evans' team, even though he was in the same weight class as Evans. They became fast friends, trained together, helped each other get better. The understanding was that they would never fight each other. Teammates first and all that. Then early last year Evans injured himself training for a title shot against then-champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. (Evans was trying to reclaim the title.) Evans suggested that Jones fight Rua instead. Jones won and immediately suggested he would be willing to fight Evans. This was seen as betrayal by Evans, who swears he would never have agreed to fight his teammate. Evans left the Arizona-based team to form a group in Florida comprised of African-American and Brazilian fighters — commonly referred to as "the Blackzillians" — with whom he trained for this fight. If you can't find the drama in that story, you must work for Disney.
All that said, UFC's White is right to suggest the company is on the forefront of using all forms of media to get his league's story told to fans outside the core audience. While diehard fans have gotten upset over the Ali-Jones comparisons, it has helped raise interest in the fight among those who are merely MMA-curious.
So UFC doesn't have to rely on mainstream print and digital media to get its story out. It has embraced social media like no other league of its size, ensuring fans can interact with and talk to players on platforms like Twitter. While the NFL (and big sports media companies like ESPN) worry themselves over what their employees say on Twitter, the UFC gives bonuses for players who use social media regularly. It produces behind-the-scene videos of training sessions and exclusive interviews that feed fans' information appetite.
It also helps generate interest in the city when a big event takes place. They have events open to the public in the days leading to the fights (Jones and Evans will hold training sessions at Georgia Tech on Thursday). Heck, the press conferences are open to the public. They have social media scavenger hunts for tickets and prizes, which is why you may see a well-muscled mob of folks downtown checking their iPhones before bolting in formation like a murder of crows. They have people stationed about town at sports bars to watch the Pay-Per-View fights with fans. UFC realizes that, in today's fractured entertainment world, to grow you need to break down walls between fans and stars, and that's something UFC has been impressive in doing.
Because most of today's UFC stars began as small-town unknowns, and within just a few years found themselves battling before sell-out crowds. To my mind, that's the UFC's biggest selling point: This can happen to you. The story lines write themselves in real time, not before a match, and you can be the next big thing. Because at the end of the day, it always comes back to the fight. This one will, too. It could be a story of ascendant greatness, the Jon Jones story. It could be the story of the formerly despised underdog making a last stand for himself, turning the crowd in his favor despite all odds.
Or it might be a boring-as-hell fight that everyone forgets about almost immediately. You know, like the second Ali-Frazier fight.
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