If childhood for boys is a prolonged preparation for violence, then sport is the practice of making that violence incidental. Like the weather, its rulebook can’t be exactly predicted, but it’s always there in some form. For someone acquainted with and made uneasy by out-of-control schoolyard fighting, the contained version——in wrestling, or in mixed martial arts——is endlessly appealing.
The first time I saw a full MMA fight on a roommate’s bootlegged UFC tape, I felt the way an alcoholic does when he takes his first drink in youth. A total peace overcame me. The traumatized parts that had felt frail and disjointed, unable to bear any social or emotional weight, became suddenly relaxed and legible as belonging to my body. These parts had purpose in the context of men stripped to their shorts and told——no petty reason provided——to punish each other in every conceivable way. Arms could snap. Jaws could fracture. Though the rules have changed over the years, almost everything was permissible in the earliest UFC tournaments, with only eye gouges, biting, and groin strikes prohibited. The battle metaphors and concealed tension of baseball or basketball, always on the verge of bursting into a fight over one brushback pitch too many or an errant elbow under the basket, lost their pretense on the stage of MMA. The drama was not in awaiting the moment when a fight might break out, but in watching for the moment when irreparable damage arrived.
Fedor Emelienenko was a center of gravity in this universe, a pudgy Russian man just under six feet tall, who, for a brief period in the mid 2000s, was unbeatable. Nicknamed The Last Emperor, he was detached in the ring, eyes cast downward and face always neutral. He was majestic. In victory he would never sprint circles around the ring or bask in his cheers, but only walk back to his corner as if, rather than pummel his opponent into hopelessness, he had done nothing more interesting than return an email. His body wasn’t good; he was an overfull upright wheelbarrow pouring its contents into a pair of spandex shorts, and yet his upper half was nightmarishly strong, thick and iron-like. He moved with a speed that imparted a kind of animal warning. Just seeing him evoked hallucinatory flashes of the damage he could inflict, an effect that, when taken alongside his Russian Orthodox quietude, became sublime.
Read More | “Unswung” | Mike Thomsen | Adult Magazine