Postliminary: UFC Fight Night 158

Photo credit: Ultimate Fighting Championship

As mentioned in a recent post, I attended a UFC Fight Night event in Vancouver, British Columbia over the weekend whose headliner featured two of the sport’s most popular and elite fighters at 155lbs. It ended in one of the two ways I had anticipated with a first-round finish (technical knockout) by the self-anointed “Highlight” Justin Gaetjhe. In promotional material prior to the fight as well as in interviews with media, Gaethje drew the following distinction between himself and his opponent Cerrone: “He starts slow, I start fast; we’ll see who can make the better adjustments.” This, of course, is a simplified contrast of their skill sets, but also a bullseye.

Cerrone for his part does not shy from this fact, and has credited it for many of the losses he’s suffered in early rounds throughout his career, such as his championship defeat to Rafael Dos Anjos just over a minute into their rematch. This flaw finds balance, however, in his increasing lethality the longer a fight persists. Despite his technical kickboxing finesse, “Cowboy” is less matador than bull rider; if he can survive the disparity in energy expended by his opponent at the outset, he is able to settle into the chaos and rise above it as they pay the cardiovascular consequences.

Gaethje, to his credit, allowed no such transition. While I along with every person inside Roger’s Arena hoped for the back and forth war we knew was possible from these two, what we got instead was a blowout. Cerrone, characteristic of previous losses as mentioned, was out of the fight before he began it. Nevertheless, the knockout was a dramatic conclusion on what was, on the whole, an entertaining and memorable card. There were wars of attrition on the undercard, a triad of knockouts, and even a surpassingly rare Peruvian Necktie submission.

Before my attendance I had mentioned that I would be writing my reactions once home, and with an emphasis on how the live experience differed from watching behind a screen. A former friend who has attended several UFC events believed the experience was lesser in person (no, this is not why we’re not friends anymore) and from a strictly visual perspective, I found the two different enough to defer to personal preference on this point—with the exception of ground exchanges which sometimes force you to look at the overhead screens to see what is happening in detail. In person, anyway, is not simply a viewing experience; the acoustics of the entire spectacle of two human beings fighting in a cage are heightened by default in this environment, as is one’s participation, which is by comparison nonexistent from a couch.

The first thing one notices is the canvas itself, whose thunderings are often barely noticeable on TV and which, to my surprise, emanate from every action large and small. If a fighter sits down in their stance to throw a leg kick with power, you hear and feel it even thirty rows back as I was. And when someone is taken down or falls from a hit, you feel it all the more. This, in conjunction with the up-close viscera of the titantrons, makes the combat much more immediate in its effect, and it is the potential for one to contribute to the atmosphere and mood swings of the crowd one is apart of that makes the fights more interactive. Not only that, but when the crowd quiets you really do have an opportunity to engage the fighters.

Midway through the main card Jamaican-American striker extraordinaire Uriah “Primetime” Hall was being tied up and controlled on the mat by multiple-time Brazilian jiujitsu world champion Antônio Carlos Júnior. Hall is an athletic wonder but has had an incredibly turbulent career in which the fear and psychological pressure of fighting has often proved too much, but he is now on another win-streak and I was more invested in his victory than for any other fighter on the card. As such I felt compelled when there was a lull in the cacophony to shout encouragement at the top of my lungs. Whether he caught it or not I don’t know, but the possibility is enough.

In fact, the atmosphere of a fight happening literally before you, in the same air, does—as is often claimed—bring something out of you which arises in almost no other scenario in life. A giving in to its basic exhilaration, and again, invitation to be a part of rather than just witness to. What I witnessed was my favourite sport, the greatest and still one of the most misunderstood, in a way I now wish I could experience it every weekend. The Vancouver fans showed up early from the first prelim, and while there were a few in my vicinity openly broadcasting their ignorance in the form of “do something!” and “boring!”, on the whole the crowd was engaged and supportive of all the athletes.

I had an amazing time at UFC Vancouver and encourage anyone and everyone with an interest in MMA to attend one yourself. Combat sports have rules and imposed artifices like any other sport, but they are also fights, a primal and universal language. This inherent tension alongside the unique identities of both the fighters and their styles, their strengths and weaknesses and how they interact, is what makes elite-level fighting an endless fascination. It is brutality and beauty, unified, as if by some ordained mistake. It is also, I can now say, more brutal and beautiful before one’s very eyes.