Mixed Martial Arts
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By In Mixed Martial Arts

Two Ways To Be Number Two

Memory is seldom kind to second place. Google “second place sayings” and a litany of familiar sentiments emerge. Second is the first loser; no one remembers who came in second; either you’re first or you’re nothing. These are harsh ways to think of those who are better than every single person except for a single person.

The way we think about individual competitions is binary — there is a winner and at least one loser — so we tend to scale up that Boolean framework to encompass an entire field of competitors. It doesn’t matter if winning a silver medal means you beat 100 people. Silver is only as significant as the loss it necessitates. This is compounded in MMA, where number twos abound. Sometimes the number two fighter in the division is actually the number one fighter, but he or she simply hasn’t had the opportunity to prove it yet. Assuming the champion is in fact the ichiban, it’s still not entirely clear how to determine the second best. Is it the loser of the most recent title fight? Depends on who lost and how. While only one person can claim the number one spot in a division — or two if the Ultimate Fighting Championship thinks slapping an event with some interim gold will yield some increased green — any number of fighters, from proven veterans to untested prospects, could make the claim that they are the second best. You’ll be hard-pressed to hear anyone vocalize that, as second is the first loser, after all…

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By In Mixed Martial Arts

A Zombie Realized

Losses are typically more educational experiences than wins. If you win a fight, it may be because you fought well or because your opponent didn’t, though usually it’s some combination of the two. If you win because you fought well, there isn’t a whole lot to learn from that; it’s just a single display of skills and strategy against a single opponent on a single night. With some obvious exceptions, it’s hard to extrapolate much from that other than “keep doing what you’re doing.” Yet if you lose, even if your opponent excelled, there’s always something to learn, some nugget of insight to apply and improve upon for the next time.

Chan Sung Jung’s win against Renato Carneiro at UFC Fight Night 154 on Saturday in South Carolina was especially unenlightening. He didn’t just win; he won in under a minute, absorbing exactly zero strikes in the process. On top of that, it was only his third fight in the last six years, as he was sidelined with injuries and compulsory military service. In an increasingly competitive 145-pound division, it’s hard to figure out where “The Korean Zombie” fits. Blitzing “Moicano” in 58 seconds, impressive as it was, doesn’t make it any easier to know where he stacks up in the Jenga tower of the featherweight hierarchy. Losses, however, hold more secrets, and Jung’s four big-league Ls say a lot…

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By In Mixed Martial Arts

Farewell to The Bad Guy

It’s a silly human foible to want to reduce everything to its most elemental parts. It’s a product of our innate impatience, inattention and existential self-absorption. We don’t want to trudge through the bogs of caveat-addled nuance — just get to the point, and make sure the point is somehow about me. This is why our primary exposure to complicated issues about immigration, foreign policy and economics is shouty three-minute news panels and why political campaigns are more concerned with aphoristic slogans than actual plans.

In MMA, this inclination has recently emerged as several high-profile fighters have retired. We look for shorthands and summaries to capture the entirety of a career, a decades-long journey of broadcasted wins and losses on fight night, as well as the unseen obstacles and untold trials in gyms and saunas. There was Jimi Manuwa, who took up the sport at 26 and made his pro debut two years later. He started his career undefeated for five years and 14 fights and knocked repeatedly on the door of the sport’s highest prize. He is now simply considered an exciting journeyman action fighter. Likewise, the career of Alexander Gustafsson — a trailblazer for modern European fighters and co-author of some of the most dramatic Ultimate Fighting Championship title fights ever, a man who took the two best light heavyweights of all-time to their absolute limits — is bowdlerized as “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” or “the best fighter that never won a title.”

It’s not that the Cliff’s Notes versions of their careers are inaccurate. Manuwa is, in fact, an exciting action fighter, and Gustafsson very well could be the best fighter to have never won a UFC belt. However, these abbreviated legacy appraisals are incomplete. It’s simply impossible to do justice to a life of fighting in a single sentence…

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By In Mixed Martial Arts

No Exaggeration Needed

Hyperbole is so common in this sport that it can be hard to make in-the-moment sense of what we see. This is especially true when commentary and fight promotion tilt us further in the direction of unreality, where every other week there is a new Greatest of All-Time coronation. When the aim of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is to simultaneously appeal to casual sports fans and keep the attention of diehard MMA purists, it isn’t enough to simply say a performance was “great” or that a fighter is “really good.” Fights have to be epic on a near-weekly basis, and fighters have to be not just “once in a lifetime” talents but “once ever in human history.”

Yet at UFC 238 on Saturday in Chicago, three genuinely special performances occurred. In a sport where hyperventilating hyperbole is normal, Tony Ferguson, Valentina Shevchenko and Henry Cejudo were all exceptionally dominant…

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By In Mixed Martial Arts

Cutting Losses by Cutting Winners

When watching fights is a weekly habit, it can be strange when a weekend arrives and there are no fights to watch. It’s like when you try to quit cigarettes and all those pockets of time spent on smoke breaks suddenly become awkwardly and impatiently idle. If the absence of fights takes you by surprise, it can be hard to kill your newfound time, even though you should be cherishing it and seizing the day. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, which usually occupies its time by showcasing fighters on its roster, kept busy this weekend by removing fighters from it instead.

This usually isn’t newsworthy. Fighters come and go all the time, mostly for reasons that are immediately understandable and reasonable. Wilson Reis, for example, has definitively lost four of his last five fights, three of them by stoppage. Marcelo Golm is on a three-fight losing streak, and Eric Shelton has gone 2-3 across the entirety of his UFC stint thus far. There’s a good chance average fans have no idea who any of them are, unless they tuned in to watch Reis get dismantled in his title fight against Demetrious Johnson two years ago.

Yet Elias Theodorou’s release was somewhat unexpected…

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