Recently, my partner Alison and I had the opportunity to see firsthand what we’d previously only experienced on pay-per-view: a title fight as part of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. We had spent the previous weeks in private mourning over the loss of that great American icon, Anna Nicole Smith—an underrated artist, whose most magnificent performance was as herself in the public eye, most notably in her TrimSpa commercials, where she projected a pulchritudinous mix of Marilyn Monroe and Jessica Rabbit that captivated me every time. I was elbow-deep in a trough of hot wings at (ironically enough) Hooters when the crawl at the bottom of the 47 television screens broke the news of her tragic demise. The devastation rippled through the crowd, and at the table next to me I heard one of the patrons proclaim that Anna Nicole “had a great rack.” Even an insightful cultural commentator such as myself couldn’t put it better.
Only the promise of Randy “The Natural” Couture coming out of retirement to reclaim the heavyweight title was enough to bring Alison and me back into public life.
The rise in the UFC’s popularity has confused and concerned some—including the hopelessly befuddled, soon to be two-time presidential primary also-ran, John McCain, who once called mixed martial arts “human cockfighting”—but it has not surprised me. I have been following the sport since its earliest days, when jujitsu master Royce Gracie dominated the initial tournaments held in backwater rodeo arenas normally reserved for tractor pulls. But in more recent times, as I watched Tito Ortiz deliver his signature “ground and pound” to Ken Shamrock’s face as part of UFC 61: Bitter Rivals, turning the mien of the valiant but overmatched “World’s Most Dangerous Man” into ground chuck before referee Big John McCarthy stepped in to stop the bout, I knew that the UFC had finally tapped into the same primal force that animated the greatest era of human civilization we have ever seen: Classical Rome.
Don King has fiddled furiously as he’s watched professional boxing burn into dying embers of its former glory, but the UFC is rapidly taking its place as the most popular and dynamic combat sport since organization president Dana White (playing the role of Emperor Trajan) took the sport mainstream by banning strikes to the top of the head and hair pulling. White has recently relied on too many mismatched rematches (people would rather see President Hillary than Ortiz v. Shamrock IX), but the UFC 68: The Uprising card displayed a pleasant mix of established stars and fresh talent.
Coming out of a recent showing of Norbit, I posited that Murphy may be the first actor to earn both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations for the same movie. Entering the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, that night must have felt akin to being present at the Coliseum for the great gladiatorial combat of antiquity. The arena buzzed with anticipation, and Alison clutched my arm as we made our way to our front-row seats, spotting a number of notable faces en route, including Eddie Murphy, who was robbed of a well-deserved Oscar by Alan Arkin in that mushy testament to family values that is Little Miss Sunshine. Ever since seeing a 17-year-old Murphy’s early version of the testicle-hugging-leather-suit-wearing performance at the Philadelphia Chuckle Hut that was later captured in the concert film, Delirious, I have championed his talent. In the otherwise slack Dreamgirls, he displayed James Brown-like virility and verve in his portrait of James “Thunder” Early; it’s about time Murphy’s genius is at least closer to being recognized with statuettes to go with his massive box office receipts. Coming out of a recent showing of Norbit, I turned to Alison and posited that Murphy may be the first actor to earn both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations for the same movie for his performances in the roles of Norbit and Rasputia, respectively.
(As an aside, I have seen some critics remark that Little Miss Sunshine is somehow “subversive” in its portrait of an unconventional family coming together as a statement against “conformity,” but I found the film unbearably twee despite—or perhaps because of—Abigail Breslin’s adorable pot belly. That this film is hailed as the standard bearer of “independent” cinema is only further evidence of the decline in intellectual rigor among the commentariat that I alone buffet against.)
Alison is a fan of recently deposed former welterweight champion Matt Hughes, who was part of the undercard—matched against the dangerous Chris Lytle—as Hughes tries to work his way back to a revenge title rematch against current champion Georges St. Pierre, a French Canadian with a devastating arsenal of Muy Thai skills. Hughes is pure, farm-bred Americana: buff, but not ripped, strong, but not in a showy way. As I watched him enter the ring, serious of purpose and resolve, I realized Hughes was a kind of living embodiment of what our American superpower should and could be—had it not been squandered by the overmatched, callow former cheerleader George W. Bush—quick, muscular, and crafty, equally able to land a deadly flurry of punches to the face or employ a lightning submission in the form of a kimora, or rear naked choke. (No, I’m not talking about Abu Ghraib here.) We could do worse than replacing some of the chickenhawk Bushites with ultimate fighters. Defense Secretary Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell has a nice ring to it.
I was one of the few who recognized Fear Factor for what it was: a subtle co-opting of the American bourgeois historio-cultural illiteracy. After a close call with a Lytle attempt at a guillotine choke, Hughes dominated the rest of the fight with a series of takedowns and elbow flurries, just missing an armbar submission in the last round. An easy decision for Hughes.
Prior to the final featured match (champion Tim “The Maniac” Sylvia v. Couture) I had the additional unexpected pleasure of being singled out by the announcer, Joe Rogan, as one of the notables in attendance, and as the spotlight shone down on Alison and me, I thought I heard the beginnings of a crowd chant—”Iconoclast, Iconoclast, Iconoclast”—but the spotlight moved on to that little whore, Dakota Fanning, and the energy was quickly sapped from the room.
(Incidentally, I was one of the few who recognized Joe Rogan’s former show, Fear Factor, for what it was: a subtle co-opting of the American bourgeois historio-cultural illiteracy, as the largely reviled “gross-out” food challenges were, in actuality, a throwback and tribute to Mayan culture, where pig testicles smothered in scorpions and plague was the traditional meal prior to their legendary ball game, which was played to death.)
Ultimate Fighting is derided by the ignorant for its alleged indiscriminant brutality, but my keen eye for the truth sees the sport for what it is: chess with elbow strikes and knee strikes, the jerking of limbs out of sockets and occasionally people being bludgeoned into unconsciousness. The five-round title match between Sylvia and Couture was a perfect example. On their feet, these fighters moved with the grace and power of Balanchine’s dancers with the added difficulty of throwing (and dodging) devastating overhand rights. On the ground, they were as lithe and sinuous as the greatest yoga masters.
Couture dominated the fight, repeatedly hammering the larger Sylvia with right and left hand bombs. By the end of the fight Sylvia’s left eye was more closed than Dick Cheney’s mind, or China, prior to the underappreciated Richard Nixon’s visits there.
All in all, a great evening. Signing off until my next column, where I will for sure say something about the vagina dentata.