Am I fighting a losing battle in loving combat sports?

If you think about it even for a second, combat sports are brutal things to be a fan of. For every dreamer categorising a knock-out as beautiful, or a broken ankle as something akin to art, the basic fact is that people like to get off on two men doing whatever they can to beat the shit out of each other. Nothing more, nothing less – take two men, stick them in a ring, or a cage, or even in Kimbo Slice’s case a dishevelled street, and you will get people watching. What’s the difference between two blokes duking it out behind the local boozer, and a Las Vegas PPV event? A cynic would say PR, a fan would say skill.

I sit in both camps. I’m a long-term boxing fan, and a relatively recent convert into the world of MMA. For reasons I can’t quite explain to myself, many a late night is spent watching people of whom I have nothing in common with fighting each other in the name of entertainment. A counter-punching masterclass, a well-timed heel-hook, or a stirring, against all odds knockout in the last round all evoke as much emotion in me – if not more, than seeing a last-minute winner for my football team, or a rousing tennis success. In fact, it’s only athletics to me that can conjure up as much magic inside of me as MMA, or especially boxing.

One of my all time favourite moments in sport is Great Britain’s 4x100m success in the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Mark Lewis-Francis tearing down that home straight, as Maurice Greene chased after him like a man possessed has always lived long in my memory. The underdog fight and spirit those four men showed in that race almost made a 14 year old me burst into tears. It’s odd,  I’ve no affinity to Lewis-Francis, or to the majority of boxers or fighters I watch, which bizarrely makes me more emotionally attached to them. As to why, I have no idea – perhaps it’s the idea that the less I know about them as people, the more I can excuse the savagery.

But a thought always strikes me every time a character grabs my attention in combat sports. If two people genuinely dislike each other, is it more or less justified that they have an actual fight to settle the score, than if there is no real resentment between the two of them? From a sporting level, there is of course much more interest in a grudge match. Look at the impending fight between David Haye and Dereck Chisora, which has broken beyond a mere boxing match, and into a mass debate on the sport – and society, as a whole. Like it or hate it, it’s happening, and a large reason of that is the genuine animosity between the two men. The press conference shenanigans of February was the culmination of years of apparent rivalry. Here we have two big, strong, dangerous men who quite apparently don’t like each other.

This isn’t the pantomime farce of David Haye v Audley Harrison, whose rivarly was a fake as the WWE, this is as a real as it gets in boxing circles. Many will remember Haye’s gang-rape comment regarding the Harrison fight, which to me was the culmination of the sheer farce of the build-up to that fight. Have a look at this clip here, as Haye attempts to justify his comment, while Harrison sits on the other side of the sofa clearly trying not to break into giggles.

Here’s the dilemma – the gimmicks worked, the trash-talk – from both parties resulted in a massive PPV audience on Sky, and a sold out arena in Manchester. The fight was terrible, nobody was left satisfied – but nobody was left hurt.

With that in mind then, is it right that a situation like Haye/Chisora should end in a ring, with shots being shared as the claret flows into the East London night? As with a lot of things in life at the moment, it feels like we as a culture are reverting back years to a time of haphazard morals twisted to suit our needs as and when we need them. Morally, spiritually, or however it needs to be spun – is it really right for two men who dislike each other to the extent that a press conference was obliterated after a boxing match, to punch each other in the face to see who is the better man?

The tens of thousands of tickets that have been sold already indicate that there is massive public interest in the fight. I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t going to watch it – my subscription to the channel it’s being shown on was made today. I have to see this fight. The burning curiosity inside of me which once saw me watch – and review every single episode of Sex And The City just to say I had, has bewitched me enough to order the fight and view it. It’s very likely that the fight will be an anti-climax. From a boxing fan’s perspective, Haye has been a cagey operator at Heavyweight, rarely showing the excitement of his Cruiser-weight days, while Chisora is a competent, decent boxer who in any other era wouldn’t have been near a sniff of a world title shot anywhere. But there is always the opportunity for fireworks in a boxing ring, it’s just a shame that it’s taken smashed glass bottles, and copious amounts of ill-feeling to get to it.

It’s not just boxing of course. The biggest MMA fight of this year takes place on Saturday night, as Chael Sonnen attempts to become the UFC middleweight champion by facing Anderson Silva in a rematch of their epic 2010 bout, which saw Sonnen defeated with under two minutes to go in the 5th round after completely dominating the fight.

Chael Sonnen makes me feel sick. He makes me feel sick because despite all my feelings on gimmicks in sport, on fakery and on cheats, he is by far my favourite sportsman on the planet right now. He is a professional wrestler in a fighters clothing, a one man quip machine who makes every other mixed-martial-artist seem incredibly dull in comparison. And he is the daddy of the put-down. Check out this clip here, after his first fight after his defeat to Silva, and after a lengthy drugs ban. The man is pumped, he’s just beaten a decent fighter in Brian Stann, and this is how he chooses to introduce himself back into the mainstream of MMA.

It’s pure farce, and it’s rubbed people up the wrong way, and it’s easy to see why. To a lot of MMA fans, he’s a phony with a fake wrestling character who blew it when he had the chance to become a champion. To a lot of fans he’s a cheat who hasn’t convincingly beaten anybody of a world-class caliber and is only in the position he’s in because of his mouth. But to me – that’s the endearing quality about Sonnen. He knows exactly what he’s doing, he’s played the game to get him noticed, and he’s continually bashing on that joystick to define himself financially, and to define his legacy if he somehow, against all the odds defeats Anderson Silva.

The difference between Sonnen and Haye could simply be down to their shtick and how it’s perceived. I find Sonnen wildly funny and creative, but that could be because MMA hasn’t really got the over-the-top characters that boxing had in the past. When I think back to the boxers I loved growing up, in Prince Naseem Hamed, Ricky Hatton, and Lennox Lewis, they all had a unique character which turned them from mere fighters, into warriors. Hamed was entertaining as hell, a dare-devil in and outside of the ring who made each fight an event. Hatton was a true people’s champion, who carried British boxing through a real period of horror, where boxing was in severe danger of having its cord cut as a mainstream sport. That’s what Sonnen is to me – he’s a man who has rose above normality, and has entered the pantheon of being bigger than the sport he is in.

There is a line in the middle of being a lovable rogue, and simply being a boring arsehole, and it’s one I’ve been teetering on for the best part of my adult years. This is what life is all about, and sport as a consequence of that. It’s about the eternal dilemma between right and wrong, and choosing what direction you want to take, while battling which ones you can. Perhaps that’s why people try to justify what they watch and do under the guise of ‘beauty’, and of substance. To convince themselves that the choices they make aren’t an explanation of who they are as human beings.

If that is the case, then we all needn’t worry about trying to prove that watching boxing, or MMA, or kick-boxing, or whatever is actually something it’s not. It is what it is. It’s there. The only art in it, is the idea that it’s ingrained in all of us as people anyway. A psychologist might say that the entertainment and satisfaction we get from watching the bravado and bravery in the ring is just our subconscious screaming out that we haven’t evolved as much as we might think we have. You would think in a world where any form of knowledge and enlightenment is just a click away that we should have moved past the basic grunting desire for physical violence, but it’s always there, and it’ll never go away, no matter how many bloody noses, or bloody minds.

Is that a good thing or not? Well that all depends. How does this make you feel?


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