In the first decades after the UFC debuted in the United States, martial arts training went through a unprecedented boom as gyms started popping up all over the world to train fighters for the new sport and to cash in on the new wave of students drawn to training in MMA to get in shape. Instead of the tightly controlled secrecy of the old system in the new one, the effectiveness of the technical innovations made by fighters and their trainers were proven in the unforgiving crucible of the ring. The mechanics of fighting leapt ahead exponentially as different styles experimented with the best ways to counteract the strengths and weakness of others. First, it was BJJ then wrestling, then strikers developing takedown defense, then Muay Thai developing as a reaction to grapplers, Greco roman dealing with Muay Thai- etc. on and on. A new uber martial art developed by taking what worked best from each discipline and ruthlessly discarding everything else, in an open sourced messy renaissance. In my work I would travel to many of the prominent gyms in the sport where these advances were being made and it was in these places that I saw the real heart of mixed martial arts.
Randy Couture, all smiles, climbed on the scale in front of a large crowd of cheering fans.
“222.5 pounds,” shouted announcer Joe Rogan. Couture, a natural light heavyweight, had bulked up for this fight. The truth was that despite being a former Heavyweight Champion, Couture had probably always been too small to fight in that division and often when facing bigger men he ended up being manhandled.
Couture’s career was marked by extremes of both crushing defeats and scintillating victories. This was a comeback for the 42-year-old MMA pioneer and if he lost, which is what most people in the know expected, it would most likely be his last fight.
Next the Champion, Tim Sylvia, lumbered from backstage to a chorus of boos from the fans in the arena.
“ No love for the big man?” Rogan egged the crowd before announcing“ 263.’” When Sylvia stepped off the scale to face off with Couture he playfully extended his long left arm and put it on Couture’s shoulder to demonstrate two of his many physical advantages over the aging UFC legend—7 inches of height and 5 inches of reach. Photographers snapped away and the two men slapped hands and hugged. There was something about Sylvia’s body language, the way he carried himself, I thought as I watched from the press section: he was too friendly and lackadaisical, too unstressed and happy for the day before a big fight.
Twilight on the edge of the Mojave Desert. A jackrabbit the size of a terrier loped into the middle of the road, where I stood outside my parked car. I made eye contact with the animal and it stared back brazenly before darting off. I hadn’t realized it was possible for a rabbit to look mean but that one sure did. Huge crows flew overhead and a rooster called somewhere in the background. All around me, dozens of Joshua trees writhed eerily in their fibrous, fire-resistant bark. In the distance a wiry feral dog, maybe a coyote, eyed me opportunistically.
The starkness of the California Desert was a counterpoint to the mist of perplexity back home. My life was going well on the surface but underneath things weren’t clicking. My work at Fight! Magazine, which had begun as an attempt to ferret out the nobility of an obscure and eccentric sport, was I feared, devolving into mere sophistry. I had becoming copywriter not a journalist or artist. I was disheartened by the legion precisely tuned psychological manipulations that were the stock and trade of media and which seemed necessary to keep the culture functioning. The tidal wave of knowledge, disinformation, art, banality, wisdom, absurdity, beauty and vulgarity that was the information culture had behind it, I dimly perceived, some force directing it forward towards an unknowable end, propelling it through the momentum of a billion chattering voices. What was it into which everything was being so rapidly absorbed, an invisible hand bidden by a new global mind?
Social media, the great boon to marketers, journalists and revolutionaries, was turning individuals into brands and what is a brand but an illusion, an agreed upon construct. We had become our Avatars. Everybody was playing everybody else, managing images, wearing masks. It was a thin reality and slipping into nihilism but people couldn’t log off long enough to realize it. Those existential crises you hear about really exist because I was having one and it was a doozy.