Big Nog, Jake Shields and the Inconsistency of MMA Fans
Mixed martial arts fans, by and large, are an unnecessarily insecure bunch about their sport of choice. I always chuckle when my brethren feel the need to speak about MMA in hushed tones around their more team sport oriented friends, or hide their passion from co-workers for fear of a negative stigma, or immediately apologize for their affinity while explaining they “hate most MMA fans” and pointing at their non-bedazzled shirt. Let’s leave aside Dana White’s patently absurd “safest sport in the world” nonsense, if we can, for just a moment and ask the sporting public whose shunning burdens us to this day:
What is inherently more human, more civilized, or less damaging to the participants about being a fan of American football and professional hockey? Is being a fan or MMA or professional wrestling a special kind of evil?
Perhaps due to taking dozens of hits per contest that, were your car subjected to them, would set off the air bags in your steering wheel, Eric Lindros sustaining four of his six career concussions within a five month span and Justin Stzelzcyk driving into a tractor trailer while speeding away from the cops (and whose post-mortem brain examination prompted comparisons to those of boxers) have muddled that question. The most infamous and terrible examples of former professional athletes from all sports involving repeated, heavy collisions don’t know any of the social distinctions which govern how people look at, talk about and (don’t) defend mixed martial arts from its detractors. Ken Caminiti and Mr. Perfect, both felled by cocaine overdoses and hearts weakened by years of poor decisions. Steroid abuse and CTE, unlike sportswriters and fans, don’t selectively apply their judgment based on what their sufferer is doing for a living.
In the movie Any Given Sunday, Lawrence Taylor’s character (another reminder that the UFC isn’t the only professional sports organization with miscreants held in high regard) is seen begging his coach for the opportunity to play towards the end of the movie. One sack away from a $1 million bonus, Taylor rejects the medical evidence showing he’s at risk of paralysis if he plays, knowing his career is nearing its end and vowing to “shake like a Goddamn coconut” in exchange for the bonus. In keeping with the movie’s no-holds-barred, NFL Blitz-style look at professional football (including James Woods as the fact-faking, steroid-injecting team doctor, sexual harassment in the locker room and of course), Taylor is allowed to play, records his sack, and fractures his neck. He is seen smiling as he is carried off the field on a stretcher.
I’ve long been a (lonely) advocate for the athletic commission system. For all its imperfections, it represents a bulwark, an extra layer of potential complications for a pipeline of corruption like the ones seen in Any Given Sunday (and frequently theorized regarding actual sports leagues). In order to fight for the UFC, one must be licensed in the locale, and in order to be licensed, one must comply with rules and regulations (and agree to be subject to punishments) that have nothing to do with the UFC; this simply isn’t the case in the NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB. Zuffa, for all its worldwide resources and friendly foreign destinations, could choose to circumvent this arrangement (for instance, vowing to rebel against the NSAC’s decision to cease issuing TUEs for TRT, or giving suspended fighters bouts in areas outside of AC jurisdiction); mercifully, they have not, going as far as to publicize and punish drug tests for which no sanctioning body was present (key examples are Chris Leben-Michael Bisping and Antonio Silva-Mark Hunt). Were they to do so, they would be monstrously abandoning independent medical/disciplinary actions in flagrant disregard for fighter safety (and would be criticized here for doing so). They would also be moving towards the model followed by the largest, most successful professional sports leagues on Earth.
And now, back to the title. Brent Brookhouse, Bloody Elbow editor and self-proclaimed Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira mark, remarked on Twitter that he was reviewing forum posts and threads bemoaning Big Nog’s career continuing and urging him to retire… in 2007. While admittedly not there live – and I plan on abusing the Fight Pass and its recent addition of the PRIDE catalog to explore this further – I’ve always found it interested that Nogueira, after avenging his loss to Josh Barnett, became old between his last PRIDE fight and his first UFC fight. The man went 2-0 to start his UFC career, defeating Heath Herring and submitting Tim Sylvia to become the 31 year old interim UFC heavyweight champion (he would, of course, eventually beat Randy Couture when that fight happened 18 months later at UFC 102, but of course Randy magically became old between beating Sylvia/Gabriel Gonzaga and losing to Brock Lesnar. You have to be mindful of that). However, after losing twice to former champion Frank Mir, once to current champion Cain Velasquez and former #1 contender/lineal heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, the din Brookhouse was reading before I even discovered the sport had grown louder and louder.
Much like the one calling for Wanderlei Silva to retire after he lost to Chris Leben.
Today is a crescendo for that movement, as Nog lost his first fight to a non-elite heavyweight in Roy Nelson at UFC Fight Night Abu Dhabi II: Electric Boogaloo. Indeed, there will be those who wish to see Nog retire now not out of some humanitarian urge, but rather out of a disdain for his recent performances. Given Nog’s age (38), price tag (last available fight is UFC 92 v Frank Mir, for which he received a flat $250,000) and lack of drawing ability outside of Brazil, he seems like a potential victim of Zuffa’s ever-swinging sword anyway, but today, the argument before us is one of a mercy cut. Should the UFC go above and beyond the athletic commissions? Should they decide a sanctioned fighter – with a win over a current top 15 heavyweight (Brendan Schaub) – should, in fact, go unlicensed?
And if the answer to that question is yes, then why wasn’t the UFC doing Jake Shields a charitable favor, giving him a helpful suggestion as to his fight career, when they cut him? What makes the two different – that Shields is 35 instead of 38 and is more aesthetically pleasing than Big Nog? Does that mean his brain has endured less trauma, especially over the last few years and he – both – have slowed and stagnated? Can someone explain to me how you can root for Jake Shields to continue to fight and root for other fighters to retire due to health concerns?
Every fighter has health concerns, especially CTE. Every football player has health concerns, especially CTE. Every hockey player has health concerns, especially CTE. Every pro wrestler has health concerns, especially CTE. These are all powerfully unsafe and dangerous ways to make a living, and not a doctor on the planet would recommend engaging in any of them on a professional level. Do we decide to move in the direction of other sports, where the promoter/league is in sole control of deciding who is and isn’t fit to compete?
To that, I say no. It’s a damn shame that it’s the NFL’s place to decide when it’s unsafe to put a player on the field (and, of course, when to allow them to receive testosterone replacement therapy). It’s a damn shame that Eric Lindros and countless others were told by coaches to “tough it out” before concussion protocols were established. It’s not Zuffa’s place to decide when it is unsafe to put a fighter in the cage .To those calling for Big Nog to retire, please don’t assign a position to me that I haven’t adopted. If Big Nog announces his retirement tomorrow, I will applaud his career and wish him well. Our system – where a third party entity, rather than the promoter/league itself, sanctions and drugs tests competitors – is the lesser of two evils. And if that means that Big Nog wants to keep fighting and he’s cleared to fight by a real-life doctor that actually examines him, then I don’t want the UFC to overrule that judgment.
Unless, of course, you believe that the athletic commission doctors, be they in Nevada, Brazil or on the UFC payroll when they promote overseas, are actively colluding to put fighters in fights when the medical evidence says not to.
And if you truly believe that, then how the fuck can you defend being a consumer of any of the above?