Mixed Martial Arts
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By In Mixed Martial Arts

Refereeing the referees

When Tanner Boser knocked out Raphael Pessoa in the second round at UFC on ESPN 14, it was weird.

Boser crumpled his opponent with a solid left hook to the orbital and proceeded to land 10 unimpeded follow-up shots while Pessoa was on the floor in the fetal position. Commentators Paul Felder and Dan Hardy became less excited and more concerned with each extraneous punch, shouting “Boser’s going to get the finish!” one moment and “It’s over, ref!” the next. A brief silence emanated from both men once referee Herb Dean finally intervened. In retrospect, it sounded a lot like two fighters biting their tongues.

They would extend no such courtesy when Francisco Trinaldo knocked out Jai Herbert four fights later. Less than two minutes into the third round, Trinaldo sent Herbert to the mat with a huge overhand. The fight appeared to be over right then and there, and Dean looked as if he was about to intervene. Trinaldo hesitated, but when he realized the fight was not getting stopped, he whipped a few extra shots directly to Herbert’s head before the fight was stopped. Hardy immediately erupted at the veteran official…

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A New Ceiling

In 2011, the Ultimate Fighting Championship brought together all of its champions for a “Super Seven” media event ahead of UFC 129. The Super Seven included all of the promotion’s champions from bantamweight up to heavyweight; flyweight would arrive the following year, with women’s divisions to follow. It was a fitting name for the group, consisting of Dominick Cruz, Jose Aldo, Frankie Edgar, Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez — luminaries of the sport who are guaranteed to end up in the UFC Hall of Fame, if they aren’t already there.

At the time, it was considered the greatest gathering of mixed martial arts talent in a single room, and it’s easy to understand why. With the exceptions of Edgar and Velasquez, everyone else has a legitimate claim as the greatest fighter in the history of their respective division. A defensible MMA Mt. Rushmore could easily be sculpted from the Super Seven. At that time – and including Aldo’s and St. Pierre’s wins at UFC 129 — they sported a combined record of 124-10-1 overall, or 67-5-1 if narrowed down to UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting fights. They shared 21 total title defenses between them, excluding Edgar’s title retention via draw. By any metric, it was an insane group of talent and accomplishment.

Yet nine years and three additional divisions later, a new group has emerged that may give the Super Seven a run for its money as the most talented group of champions at a single point in time…

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The Fights Worth Fighting

A small majority, including two of the three people whose opinions actually matter, saw Holloway taking the first two rounds cleanly, while Volkanovski edged the final three. The rules say that’s a win, but it intuitively feels wrong. How is a round won by a few extra leg kicks the same as a round won by inflicting real damage? A basketball team wins because of its cumulative score, not by outscoring the other team in more quarters. This is the inherent tension of trying to wrangle the chaos of a fight into the necessary bureaucracy of athletic contest.

This scoring system and the unending cycles of conversation it engenders sucks for everyone, no matter how you scored the Holloway-Volkanovski fight. It sucked for Holloway for obvious reasons, but it also marred Volkanovski’s first defense with an imaginary asterisk. All the robbery talk has undermined the incredible work he did to reverse a vintage Holloway onslaught in the middle of the fight. He stopped a boulder barreling down on him and pushed it all the way back up the mountain, an incredible feat of toughness and intelligence that got completely lost in persnickety hairsplitting…

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By In Mixed Martial Arts

Pandemic Preparation

Though the UFC will no doubt take more credit than it deserves—and it does deserve credit—much of its success compared to other major sports has been a result of similar structural advantages: not having large groups of athletes frequently sharing spaces, having a rolodex of replacements to run down in case of a positive test, being able to negotiate with individual athletes instead of a union of them. Thus, it stands to reason that fighters and their camps deserve at least as much credit as the UFC for making these events as successful as they’ve been.

This wasn’t a given. With gyms closing and budgets tightening, you’d expect more bizarreries to occur; MMA is weird enough already. It’s a credit to the fighters that they’ve been this professional about their preparation during otherwise challenging circumstances. There have, of course, been a few exceptions…

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By In Mixed Martial Arts

Mythmaking in Real Time

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is among other things a brilliant marketer of itself. This is embodied by longtime UFC President Dana White, by design the promotion’s biggest star. White has so successfully mythologized his role in the rise of the UFC that it may be now be functionally fact.

That’s the genius behind the craft, though. Not only does White repeat the Myth with enough frequency and conviction to drown out reality, but he weaves it into the promotion’s present-day narrative, perpetually in motion nearly every weekend of the year. The Zuffa Myth is one chapter in an ongoing story where White plays the protagonist, bearing the weight of the sport on his shoulders so that it might live another day. Another chapter of that story is being written, and it was taking root in real time at UFC on ESPN 11 on Saturday…

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