Rizin and the Return of MMA Madness

Something arises from deep down in the sport’s ugly, wonderful past

Jan 2 2016, 7:48pm

And then all of a sudden it was back, the horror and the spectacle. The mania. The MMA madness that had slowly vanished over the years until it was barely a memory, just a wisp of something from the past — chaos snuffed out by regulations and evolution and progress and decency and commerce and the other great levelers of American culture, unstoppable in its endless march to the middle. Where mad spectacle once was king, now we had civilization. MMA had become watchable, tolerable, mainstream even, and better that our glimpses of its circus past remain just that: glimpses.

Eight years after Japanese promotion PRIDE Fighting Championship shuttered its doors for good; after eight years of increasing legitimacy and maturity for a sport born and bred in madness, a madness that reached its maniacal, circus-like apex in Japan; after eight years of turning a fundamental indecency into something decent, something acceptable, a sport we can share with our children, the lights once again went up at the Saitama Super Arena (home of true MMA madness!) this week, and the great drums pounded, and the announcer shrieked, and the Rizin Fighting Federation arrived, and with it came the return of MMA hysteria.

Witness what we got this week in Saitama, for our sins. A descent into the absurd, something horrible from MMA's deep, dark, not-so-distant past. But also something honest, something true about fighting that has gotten lost in the last decade, buried under all those endorsement deals and talk-show appearances and other indications of mainstream American approval. Something true about fighting and our love of violence, about spectacle and brutality and the lengths human beings will go to entertain and be entertained. Remember, the earliest UFC events were pure spectacle and shock, and PRIDE FC merely picked up that mantle and ran with it. But then spectacle became sport and the UFC became the NBA. Now Rizin, founded by former PRIDE President Nobuyuki Sakakibara, has arrived to pick up the pieces and remind us who we are. To save, perhaps, cage-fighting from the better angels of its nature.

So we watched the King of PRIDE, Fedor Emelianenko make his return after three years in the wilderness of Putin's embrace as a predictable (could it have taken place any other way?) conquering hero, a great lion fed a sacrificial lamb to guarantee a triumphant return to the sport and the promotion that made him and that he made. As inevitable as death, Emelianenko took the overmatched and overwhelmed Jaideep Singh to the ground, where the Indian kickboxer had no business being, and pounded on him with those legendary fists until Singh was forced to concede to the inevitable. Fedor's legacy will always be marred by the perception that he was handed circus fights and tomato cans to demolish to burnish his reputation as an invincible force. Last night was a return to order at the expense of a lesser fighter's health and a great fighter's reputation. But it was thrilling, wasn't it?!

Did you witness the weigh-ins? Did you see Bob Sapp, 43 years old and looking every inch the compromising beast he was in PRIDE — a man who would throw a fight to his grandmother if the price was right — try his best to convince the world he had malice in his heart for former sumo wrestler Akebono, 46? Did you see Sapp glower like a professional wrestler and take his shirt off and gently toss it at Akebono's midsection like he was aiming for a laundry hamper, and did you witness Akebono taking off his shirt in response? Two middle-aged men displaying their molted feathers.

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And the last-minute announcement that retired kickboxing legend Peter Aerts, huge at 240 pounds, would fight Estonian sumo wrestler Baruto, who would dwarf him at 375? What could be more honest? This is a fight, see? Weight classes only came later to MMA, as part of its great Push for Acceptance. But in the beginning there was just the fight and the belief that fights, true fights, don't concern themselves with delicacies like comparable weights and relative ability. Only hostility and will and blood matter.

Don't believe me that this week's fights felt like a return to MMA's frontier days, to something dark and mad buried deep in the collective memory of the sport we love that won't die no matter how many ways we try to kill it (Hello, Reebok. Hello, Sage Northcutt. Hello, Jimmy Fallon.)? Witness the brawl between the impossibly imposing Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion Gabi Garcia and her hapless opponent, though also imposing, Lei'D Tapa, whose fighting life up until this point was composed only of scripted professional wrestling matches (remember when Mirko Cro Cop nearly killed a professional wrestler — wearing a luchador mask, no less! — back in the glory of his PRIDE days?), and weep. After seven years as an MMA fan nothing turns my stomach, but this fight did it: It was too ugly, too awkward, with too much violence and too little art. It was a giant leap backwards, an exercise in retrograde spectacle free of technique or ability, a return to the darkest and worst days — but still, those honest days — when you would turn on an MMA event and more than likely witness a bar fight between too brutes that had been moved inside a cage. Garcia is an artist in a gi, but when punches are being thrown, she's a carnival attraction and a reminder of our ugliest and most bloodthirsty desires as fighting fans, as lovers of the spectacle.

And so we watched as the legend Sakuraba nearly get himself killed, and we witnessed a referee complicit in the near-murder, and for what? For what, Sakuraba?

But still those 10-minute first rounds, which at first seemed uncivilized after years living under the very decent Unified Rules, soon felt real and somehow more authentic. The first round of a fight should be exhausting and never-ending; it should make fighters feel like they've gotten themselves into something deep they can't get out of, like they've made a huge, life-changing decision. That first round should be depleting and bruising and hard to watch and a reminder to them and to us that fighting is not just about fame and money and new suits and future color-commentating gigs. It's a bruising, bloody, taxing, wonderful business that speaks directly to the darkness inside us and exposes both fighters and fans for who they are. With the arrival of Rizin this week, 10-minute rounds and soccer kicks and knees to the head of a downed opponent and circus fights and endless beatings of one-time greats have appeared out of the sport's past like an admonition, as if to proclaim that the sanitized MMA we have now, made safe for American television and American endorsement deals and marketing strategies, is a lie. Fighting is an uncivilized spectacle, a collective psychosis. Deny it at your soul's peril.