Tuesday, September 25, 2007

UFC offers much more than your average schoolyard scrap

I should have listened to Larkin sooner.

It’s tough to take his word. Sure, he steered me onto Lost, whole wheat bread and Rotoworld.com. But he’s also suggested Survivor, baby food and Oprah.com. So you can understand why I didn’t exactly scramble for the TV remote when he started nagging me to watch UFC.

But damn, was he ever right this time.

I’d heard the arguments from him and his friends numerous times. “Mixed martial arts (MMA) is the fastest growing sport in the world, there’s so much skill and strategy involved, it’s vastly underrated, blah blah blah.” Give me a break. Unless Mike Tyson is fighting a kangaroo, I’d rather spend six hours in a sauna with Mike Holmgren while he polishes off a four-gallon tub of potato salad than watch boxing at this point; why would I bother with a trashy, second-rate version that’s a cross between WWE and kickboxing?

That perception, however, couldn’t be further from reality. Last Saturday, Larkin convinced me to watch this month’s pay-per-view, UFC 76: Knockout. Expecting a sloppy, barbaric tussle resembling a couple of pudgy elementary school kids fighting until they were exhausted, red-faced and their t-shirt necks stretched down to their chests, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. These guys don’t just climb into a ring and beat each other’s kidneys until their urine turns red – I mean, they do – but rather display an impressive array of styles and techniques. There are Jujitsu masters, Muay Thai fighters, NCAA wrestling champions. And yeah, there are even “strikers” who stick with a good old fashioned pummelling by fists.

I could ramble on for a few paragraphs about how surprisingly skilled and graceful MMA is (well, as graceful as you can be when you’re repeatedly elbowing a dude in the face), but you know what? I’m new to the sport. I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about. But that’s part of the appreciation of MMA. Only now is it beginning to achieve mainstream success and it’s a blast learning about a new sport, particularly the nuances. We all love hockey, baseball, football and basketball, and most fans are always learning something new about their favourite sport, but it isn’t often an entirely new sport comes along into which we can engross ourselves. It was fun learning throughout Saturday’s event, picking up on things in the final match that I never would have noticed in the first. It’s like the first time I started watching offensive line play in football instead of following the quarterback. You enjoy a growing appreciation for the game.

Throw in the fact that some of these guys are real characters and you’ve got yourself a hell of a sport. Ultimate Fighting Championship is probably worth following for Forrest Griffin alone. The brawling everyman is as humble as he is fun to watch in the ring. After his win over Mauricio Rua, an ecstatic, child-like Griffin said he’d promised his mother he wouldn’t curse during interviews before happily exclaiming “I ain’t that great, but I’ll fight anybody.”

Griffin highlights the interesting fact that not every fighter carries himself with the arrogance and pomp of boxers. Some of these guys were intelligent, honourable dudes. They’d go out of their way to say yes, of course they want to win, but that they respect their opponent. After the “Dean of Mean” Keith Jardine dispatched former champion Chuck “Iceman” Liddell (that’s another thing – everyone has a cool nickname. There’s Rampage, Shogun and my personal favourite, Axe Murderer. You know the Axe Murderer is 100 per cent badass), he was sure to compliment Liddell during a post-fight interview, noting he was honoured to beat the former champ and referring to him as the greatest fighter in UFC history. A pleasant but far cry from boxers constantly labelling themselves as the greatest ever, yes? And don’t worry – there’s still some cocky douches thrown in for good measure.

After watching Saturday’s event, there’s no doubt in my mind UFC should be a regular favourite of most sports fans. Maybe this article is pointless. Maybe you’re saying “Hey, dickwad, everyone has heard about UFC – thanks for joining the bandwagon three years late.” But I watch a lot of sports and if I’m not watching UFC, it likely means there’s a lot more people out there who would enjoy it just as much if they gave it a chance.

Download UFC 76. All five fights essentially went the distance and it features a variety of styles and fighters; it’s the perfect event for your first UFC experience. Do you prefer raw savagery and violence, like a strong safety gliding over the middle and ear-holing a receiver? Mixed martial arts has it. Interested in strategy and nuance, like a crafty veteran forward letting the puck pass through his feet so a teammate can bury it for a goal? Mixed martial arts has that, too.

Just be open minded and give the sport a shot – hey, it’s not like I’m asking you to check out equestrian (though, if I learn they’ve got a rider nicknamed the Axe Murderer…)


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