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Fight City 

This Saturday's UFC headline bout in Atlanta could vault MMA into the mainstream. Or not.

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“Suga” Rashad Evans in his signature crouch before a fight, is the underdog. - NICK LAHAM/ZUFFA LLC/ZUFFA LLC VIA GETTY IMAGES
  • Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
  • “Suga” Rashad Evans in his signature crouch before a fight, is the underdog.

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.

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