Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev at The O2 Arena (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Combat sport catharsis

A night outside the Longhouse

Artillery Row

Justin Gaethje, given victory moments prior by the judges, stands with his paunchy, small-town American parents in the illuminated Octagon. He raises a gloved fist, stretching out tattooed pale skin, accepting the sold-out O2’s adoration.

The young guy in the seat next to mine (white sportswear, black eye) is applauding passionately, on the verge of bona fide tears.

Gaethje, widely considered the most exciting UFC fighter of all time, has earned the love of these humble sadists many times over. He did so again across the three five-minute rounds of the night’s co-main event. Rather, his opponent, Rafael Fiziev, a Shia blacksmith from Azerbaijan, did so on his behalf — exiting the cage with a face that might have been freshly slammed into a steering wheel.

At this point, UFC 286 strikes me less as a sporting event than a freakshow, servicing a special sort of traumatised pervert. Something like Crash, the musical. Gaethje — whose nickname, “the human highlight reel” carries a heavy hint as to the kind of bodily performance art on show is the spectacle’s apotheosis — is its king freak.

A UFC event offers itself as a rare night outside “the Longhouse” — the semi-mythical abstraction blamed (by the esoteric, terminally online right) for our contemporary emasculation.

More than anything, the Longhouse refers to the remarkable overcorrection of the last two generations toward social norms centering feminine needs and feminine methods for controlling, directing, and modeling behavior.

Call her (with nods to Lacan and Orwell both) Big Mother. She has been all over sport, seemingly. Take English football for Exhibit A, with its rainbow laces, female pundits, taking the knee, Gary Lineker …

The sinister (or impressive, depending on your meta-politics) thing is how firmly sport retained its grip on the universal male mind regardless of all the compulsory growth and change, becoming thereby an insidious instrument of Big Mother’s broad program of social improvement.

MMA is perhaps the last mass entertainment in which cancellation is all but impossible

The UFC however seems a bracingly toxic exception. Feasibly, the blunt nature of Mixed Martial Arts — with its arm-bars, flying knees, elbows, knockouts, submissions, CET — deters any serious effort of moral domestication.

It is perhaps the last form of mass entertainment in which cancellation is all but impossible.

This is no exaggeration. When up-and-coming US Featherweight Bryce Mitchell recently asserted on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour (the sport’s largest platform) that mass shootings were frauds orchestrated by the US government, MMA shrugged — in quick agreement that a man willing to fight other men inside a cage for a living is entitled to his opinion.

The UFC’s position — or its role? — as a cultural outlier and exception was underscored through Covid. Within weeks of the global lockdowns, CEO Dana White was actively looking for a way to “safely” resume fights.

The world took sufficient note as to be unanimously appalled at such fecklessness. Under direct political pressure, Disney (owner of UFC broadcast partner ESPN) demanded White ease up. That was all he did: in May 2020, the UFC hosted the first major sporting event of that still-frozen world (initial drop of the slow global thaw). In 2022, it was the first to bring crowds back inside the ghost-ship arenas.

Worldwide, the UFC’s fanbase bloomed like a black eye through the years of the new normal. Returning to the UK for the first time post-Covid last year, it received a rapturous welcome.

The regard is mutual. The British are commonly referred to across martial arts as “the world’s best fight fans” — both for our in-person enthusiasm for organised violence and our willingness to pay for the chance to get as close as possible to the live flame.

Having grown up in a coastal English town, I knew the national predilection for violence quite well. It was no accident, I reckoned, that we’d invented boxing. As recently as last summer we filled Wembley stadium (94,000 souls!) to watch heavyweight champion Tyson Fury toy with Dillian White.

For their latest London visit, the UFC had sold out the O2’s comparatively modest 20,000 seats. Demand was sufficiently high, however, for the average ticket price to be second only to the Super Bowl — accruing a record-breaking $9M gate.

The main event was a big deal for British MMA. In Salt Lake City last summer, Jamaica-born Brummie Leon Edwards — son of a slain gangster — had conjured improbable victory in the dying seconds of a welterweight title fight: KO-ing pound-for-pound number one and large betting favourite Kamuru “the Nigerian Nightmare” Usman with an instantly iconic flash of shin to the skull.

Edwards — a graceful, technical, almost reticent kickboxer (his style the near antithesis to Gaethje’s sado-masochistic gusto) — had previously been an almost pitied figure in sport, with a long-suffering, jinxed aura.

Those two seconds in Salt Lake City had transformed him into a martial arts star. Furthermore, he was only the second Englishman to win a UFC world championship. A delirious hero’s welcome for the rematch was an inevitability.

The crowd constituting the welcoming committee was a suitably diverse cross-section of 21st century British machismo. From the glum London Muslims one row below me, emitting great gusts of blunt smoke and watermelon vape, to the stag-do units repping old-school, small-town, small-dick energy, and even a generous representation of sociopathic Scottish bonhomie (with vodka gloss) — you felt the need to keep your eyes firmly averted en route to urinal or bar.

This crowd wants violence the way most people want sex and food

The thing this crowd shares (besides overwhelming, if not quite unanimous maleness) is bloodlust. It wants violence — live and IRL — the way most people want sex and food.

Where does this come from? Trauma begets trauma, no doubt. Nature has its place too. Perhaps no form of entertainment since the Colosseum has sought so nakedly to satisfy (and exploit) such proclivities, however. MMA has its civilising constraints — eye-gouging and head-butts are banned, for example — but ultimately any submission or knock-out stoppage enacts nothing less than a narrowly thwarted killing.

It is precisely these that the crowd impatiently demands. This is particularly vivid through the dozen or so fights prior to the main events, where there is a lot less drama, glamour and prowess with which to cover the sport’s modesty.

If these lower-tier fighters fail to engage for even a few seconds, the crowd emits these strange high-pitched yelps. Sounding like scornful birdsong, it is a sonic white feather, demanding that these near-naked, scared-looking young men and women re-enter the range of hurt.

Given what it wants (concussive force … blood … unconsciousness), the crowd can be as explosively grateful as advertised. There was a common occurrence whereby an audience member would rise to his feet in a kind of priapic eruption, extending his arms to roar or growl or shout with otherwise inexpressible joy.

Gaethje (a gifted athlete, his multiple loose screws notwithstanding) had ultimately delivered the O2 with damn near everything it could want, cleaning palates for the more refined fare of the Edwards-Usman rematch.

MMA is part horror-show, part art-form. The near absence of formal constraints (and even rules) has paradoxically created a form of fighting in which thousands of years of combat traditions flow into a sensible, hybrid form.

In addition, the extraordinary stakes of the higher-level encounters often deliver equivalent levels of tension and drama, which do not necessarily require a sadistic streak (or much of one) to appreciate. Watching Edwards nimbly maintain distance from the terrifying but lumbering strength of Usman was like watching a man dancing upon a high wire above a pit of rocks. It made you gasp.

By the end of the fight I am on my feet too, hollering and barking. When the judges give Edwards the deserved win, my black-eyed neighbour and I are jumping up and down, arms about one another’s shoulders.

It was then time to steel myself. The journey home — getting out of the O2 and squeezing onto the tube with 20,000 others — looks analogous to exiting the world’s biggest provincial nightclub. We were there celebrating violence, after all; surely some overspill was likely?

Perhaps not. We stream through the long, large mall that girds the front half of the O2, under the constant glare of cameras, with police positioned in glass cubicles about the outer ring. The crowd seems blitzed but cheerful — those cravings apparently susceptible to vicarious discharge.

We spill out into the surprisingly warm midnight air. Thousands of mostly-male, happy punters fan out briefly into pockets of dispersed celebration, before compacting again into the long line for the tube. It occurs to me that we may well have just spent the night inside the Longhouse after all.

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