It’s perhaps fitting that a year dominated (sullied) by hype and histrionics and staggering greed – thanks Conor, thanks Floyd – ends with a series of lower-key, crowd-pleasing fights for the traditionalists and the bloodthirsty.
The last numbered UFC event, UFC 217, was littered with them, full of dramatic moments and finishes, and the next one, UFC 218, set for this Saturday (December 2), appears, on paper, to continue this trend. The main event between Max Holloway and Jose Aldo, a rematch for the UFC featherweight title, should be every bit as action-packed and unpredictable as their first battle in June, a heavyweight ding-dong between Alistair Overeem and Francis Ngannou will announce the next UFC title challenger and presumably be very quick, while a lightweight brawl between Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez should contain enough violence to make us forget all about the events of August and ‘The Money Fight’, as well as everything else that has bemused and depressed us and blurred the lines between sport and entertainment industry this year.
Gaethje versus Alvarez is MMA stripped back. How it’s meant to be. How it used to be. It’s the sort of fight good for us, those ogling from a safe distance, and bad, really bad, for them. They know it, too. Fighters like Gaethje and Alvarez prepare for it, physically in training, and then mentally on fight night. They prepare to go places other men, mere mortals, wouldn’t be prepared to go; places fellow fighters, those who boast a similar brand of bravery, often also refuse to go.
There are levels to everything and the bravery of mixed martial artists is no different. They are all brave, of course, for getting in there in the first place; bravery is a prerequisite of the very thing they call a job. But some are certainly braver than others, just as some are better than others, some more exciting than others, and Gaethje and Alvarez, on account of the way they choose to fight, figure to be two of the bravest going. If they weren’t, it would never work – their style, their future prospects in MMA. And it’s this superhuman bravery that endears them to fans and makes them popular. It’s this bravery, and what it allows them to produce on fight night, that has so many people excited to see the results of them colliding on Saturday night at UFC 218.
Both have history. They are well-versed in this kind of anticipation, these kind of fights. Alvarez had a bunch of them in Bellator, has had a few in the UFC, and his last fight, a no-contest with Dustin Poirier, was boiling up to become one of the fights of the year before it ended prematurely. Gaethje, meanwhile, built his reputation in World Series of Fighting, where he held the lightweight title, and knocked out most of the men he fought (but only after soaking up an unhealthy dose of punishment en route). He then lit up the UFC in July when stopping Michael Johnson on his UFC debut, a fight that was probably the best of the year so far, so ferocious was the action, so dramatic the ebb and flow.
That win announced Gaethje not only as a genuine UFC lightweight contender but as something more than that, something better than that. It announced him as a fan favourite, a hero, the Arturo Gatti of MMA, a throwback to a time when fighters cared little about pay checks, TV appearances, bling and fancy cars and decided to fight, first and foremost, because it was as natural to them as sleeping, s***ing or breathing. Without it, without this outlet, this opportunity to fight, they’d be lost, and Justin Gaethje, when fighting, reminds us of this, doing so through his enjoyment, devilish smirk and honesty. Basically, he’s the fighter the sport needs going into 2018.
In Eddie Alvarez he would appear to have the perfect foil, the ideal dance partner with whom to pitch a rival to his own ‘Fight of the Year’ contender against Johnson. A veteran of the game, and a former UFC lightweight champion, Alvarez still harbours title ambitions, but, like Gaethje, knows the sport, and one’s success in the sport, hinges on more than just ability and win rate. At 33, he knows his role. He knows his pros and cons. He knows why fans gravitate towards him, why they like to watch him fight, and he knows what is expected of him on Saturday night in Detroit.
“I’m going to be honest, I don’t f**kin’ know, I don’t have a crystal ball,” he told MMA Fighting when asked how he expected the fight to go. “I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m not going to lie to the fans.
The Gaethje camp, according to the UFC 218 Countdown show at least, have adopted a similar gung-ho approach to the task at hand. The fighter’s coach, Trevor Wittman, for example, calls this impending fight an “offensive seminar”, the implication being that rather than working on the rough edges of his pupil’s game, his weaknesses, his defence, he has encouraged and sharpened everything he does well: the swarming attacks, the aggressive, suffocating pressure, the body shots.
This “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra is yelled loud and clear on both sides and it can afford to be, too, because Gaethje and Alvarez are essentially fighting mirror images of one another. When it’s like this, when the problem is so easily understood and solved, there’s less of a need for nuance and strategy and Plan B. They know exactly what they’re going to get and, for the most part, will be giving back exactly what it is they are getting.
Ultimately, that’s what makes the prospect of seeing these two men lock horns so appealing. It’s MMA without the bulls**t, without the razzmatazz, without any sort of ulterior motive. In this extreme case, it’s MMA without game plans.
Void of pretence, Saturday’s fight between Gaethje and Alvarez is one for the ages, a time capsule, a nod to simpler times, and we should cherish it while we still can.