“Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which,” Meryl Streep announces on stage at the 2017 Golden Globes, swiping her index finger right to left for added sass and emphasis, “are not the arts.”
Hear that? That’s the sound of mainstream America, fight fans. Specifically, the sound of Hollywood seal-clapping as mixed martial arts advocates everywhere offer their own version of Vince Vaughn’s thousand-yard stare which sits somewhere between shock, disappointment and violent intent. They are laughing at us, we tell ourselves. All of them. The men and women we pay to watch on big screens in cinemas and on smaller screens in our home. The men and women acting, playing parts. The men and women who originate from all over the world, sure, yet demand and receive fees for acting, for playing a part, which are so obscene they could one day choose to rule the world. They, the privileged masters of make-believe, are poking fun at us.
But here’s the worst part. Even if we accept the fact it polarises and is not one of the arts – we get that, Meryl – to run mixed martial arts down and use it as a punch line in a speech predominantly about the Hollywood elite’s hatred of Donald Trump is to make a mockery of hard-working men and women all around the world – world, Meryl, not just America – who devote their lives to a combat sport and practise it on a daily basis, men and women who more often than not come from nothing and whose bravery isn’t rewarded with gargantuan pay-checks and Golden Globes. Men and women who have to fight. The real world, Meryl; a world in which stage school isn’t an option.
What’s more, just as an Adam Sandler film doesn’t define the acting profession, or Mamma Mia! define Meryl Street’s otherwise stellar body of work, nor does one-time mall cop Kevin James playing a school teacher-cum-cage fighter in Here Comes the Boom, likely Streep’s MMA point of reference, define or even get close to explaining mixed martial arts. Indeed, delve a little deeper and you’ll find it’s much more than the simplistic, dumbed down, cookie-cutter version of it Hollywood chooses to project in pursuit of box office bucks. That it’s not Jon Favreau getting pounded in the head to impress Courtney Cox in an episode of Friends. That it’s not even Tom Hardy and Joel Egerton doing their unconventional brotherly love thing in Warrior. Give it a chance and you’ll discover it’s actually real, this mixed martial arts stuff, too real for many (and that’s just fine), and that it happens to feature some of the most exhilarating, awe-inspiring and, yes, artful moments you are ever likely to see.
For your consideration, here are a few such moments, moments we believe are beautiful enough, in their own rugged way, to rouse genuine emotion from even the tautest of faces in Hollywood.
Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin (2009)
It has long been described as mixed martial arts’ take on The Matrix, and there’s probably no better way of summarising the way Anderson Silva used otherworldly composure, poise and elusiveness to steal Forrest Griffin’s confidence, ambition and then his soul in less than three-and-a-half minutes. Never has the art of making a man miss punches seem so damn scary. And, equally, never has a man appeared so awestruck during the process of being repeatedly punched in the face.
Cody Garbrandt vs. Dominick Cruz (2016)
Though a recent addition to the sport’s canon of artistry, there can be no doubting the way Cody Garbrandt, once heavy-handed slugger, turned the tables on Dominick Cruz and bamboozled him with a bit of bravado, a bit of boxing, a bit of boogie-woogie and a ton of brain power deserves its place. It was a five-round performance so perfect it should be studied by aspiring martial artists the way aspiring filmmakers study the works of Kurosawa or Bergman. It was that smooth, that faultless, that good.
Cowboy’s four-punch combo (2016)
“Oh, but he’s just punching him in the face and body,” Streep might scoff. And this wouldn’t be far from the truth. But, even so, just for one moment appreciate the economy, the precision and the technique in the work Cerrone unleashed on poor Rick ‘The Horror’ Story in 2016. Slow it down if need be and watch as ‘Cowboy’ reacts to a lazy Story left cross by immediately pouncing with a jab to the face, a right straight to the body, another left to the face, and then a right kick to the face, all of which somehow land, all of which combine to resemble some sort of choreographed dance move when viewed at normal speed. Story thinks he’s surrounded. Seconds later, the fight is over.
Machida’s karate kick (2011)
Lyoto Machida, in his prime, was unquestionably an artist. He painted landscapes in the cage, all gentle brush strokes and water colours, but could also explode with violence, as Randy Couture, the Hall-of-Famer nailed by one of Machida’s Karate Kid-inspired head-kicks in 2011, can attest. A dip of the hips, a fake with the left leg and a split-second later Machida had planted a front-kick on Couture’s face and their fight was finished. Couture, one of the old guard, had never seen anything like it. And neither had we.
Hazelett’s arm-bar (2008)
Dustin Hazelett doesn’t look like your typical artist, much less one who might frequent Hollywood, but there can be no disputing the beauty of the uchi mata ankle pick to arm-bar sequence he used to tap out Josh Burkman in 2008. Almost too abstract to describe, like a David Lynch film it needs to be seen to be believed.
The Korean Zombie’s twister (2011)
Chan Sung Jung, the self-styled ‘Korean Zombie’, takes Leonard Garcia’s back, wraps him up, locks down his left leg and right arm and, with seconds of the round remaining, proceeds to twist the hell out of him until he taps. Unconventional, improvisational and wonderfully creative, the Zombie’s twister was as shocking as anything Hollywood has produced since Haley Joel Osment said he sees dead people.
Pettis’ Showtime kick (2010)
As Benson Henderson retreats, a mop of black hair obscuring his vision, Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis decides there’s no better time to run up the mesh fence of the cage, cock a right head-kick mid-flight and then have the temerity to actually time it so that it connects on his opponent in one seamless motion. You can keep your crouching tigers and hidden dragons, Hollywood. We’ve seen it all before.
Imanari’s knee-lock (2005)
Masakazu Imanari, the Freddy Krueger of knee-locks, haunts opponents with the threat of taking home their limbs. Here, in a fight which occurred in 2005, he misses with a head-kick at centre ring only to then shrug his shoulders, slide beneath Mike Brown and rip his left knee apart instead. The look of terror and anguish on Brown’s face as he found himself tangled and unable to do anything but flop backwards kind of said it all.
McGregor’s trash talk
Watch and learn, Hollywood. This is how you do it. This is how you promote and entertain. Conor McGregor, the charismatic two-weight UFC champion from Crumlin, Ireland, has talked (and fought) his way to the top of a multi-billion dollar industry, apparently runs every town he inhabits and has Hollywood A-listers begging Dana White for tickets to his fights. Forget your Scorseses and your Kubricks, Conor McGregor might be the greatest director of them all.
*** Feature originally published in the March 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***