I’ve been binge-watching videos on the SB Nation YouTube channel and related channels, specifically ones produced by SB Nation Labs creative director Jon Bois. There’s also the Deep Rewind series, which is also fascinating, even if it involved sports I don’t give two shits about. Recently, he came out with a five-part documentary series called “Fighting in the Age of Loneliness.” I watched it as it came out and am pretty depressed now because of it.
I know Jon Bois for three things—his weird and interesting writing style, prodigious use of charts and Google Earth, and damn good sports storytelling. His series Pretty Good is all about stories—mostly related to sports, sometimes outside of it—that are “pretty good.” I’ll have a blog post on that sometime in the near future because I think it hits the same notes as old Cracked articles, but with a lot more poignancy and great music selections.
He then went on a hiatus this year, and then came out with this five-part documentary series on the history of mixed martial arts in collaboration with Felix Biederman, a host of the Chapo Trap House political comedy podcast. Biederman wrote and narrated it, while Bois directed and produced it. What they came out with is one of the best series I’ve ever seen, both educational and sad at the same time.
Fighting in the Age of Loneliness
This series is a bit of a wild ride. They set it in what looks like the middle of a black hole and it’s all about how people seemingly needed outlets like modern gladiatorial combat in the midst of political uncertainty, economic distress, and societal chaos throughout the years. I know I definitely needed it during the late 2000s to early 2010s.
The trajectory of this series is that of a bell curve—it starts from the bottom, it goes way up, then slowly comes all the way back down. If you care about MMA at all, then this will make you feel sad. But perhaps it’s also empowering in that the only way to go from here is back up.
Mind you, this series does treat other combat sports like boxing and kickboxing like they’re an afterthought, which is a disease that MMA aficionados had throughout the mid to late 2000s and even the early 2010s. Not as many people think like that now as boxing refused to die and has somewhat gained new life in recent years and kickboxing has been adopted by more MMA promotions these days.
Episode 1: The Invention of Fighting for Money
The pre-UFC days, especially early to mid-20th century, were not as much as wild west as it was Westside Story. There were gangs, there was bullying, and there was a lot of branding. There was the Judo brand, then there was the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu brand, and there was also Kyokushin karate and Jeet Kune Do (which were not mentioned in the video).
While the Gracie family had indeed been instrumental to the spread of grappling as a legit art, they’ve also been known throughout their history to be thuggish with their approach to their defense of their honor and their brand. After all, they’re the descendants of a rich businessman from Scotland and scions of troublemaker kids.
Episode 2: The Unwashed Masses Clamor for Weird Men Brutalizing Each Other
Much of BJJ’s current fame is due to the efforts of Rorion Gracie, who came up with what will become the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In fact, MMA is an ongoing advertisement for BJJ, which isn’t entirely a bad thing, but it does mean that it keeps Gracies rich and powerful in the modern fighting world.
Some people may think shoehorning political talk in here is uncalled for, but everything that happens in the real world tends to be a product of the times. Therefore, the recently-departed George H.W. Bush’s presidency and later Bill Clinton’s may have paved the way for the UFC’s creation.
I do think the UFC as a concept wouldn’t have come up and eventually become popular in any other time than the 90s.
Episode 3: The Yakuza Find Something to Do with Their Money
This is perhaps my favorite part of modern MMA history due to the yakuza being involved. I eat up most things yakuza, and I’ve even written briefly about their involvement in Pride on this blog before. You should look more into what they did in relation to Pride as it makes for some fascinating (and fairly visceral) reading.
It may have been a money laundering thing. With that in mind, there may have been no way Pride would’ve existed past the 2008 recession. MMA is still struggling to reach its former glory in Japan to this day, with promotions coming and going. There was Pride’s successor Dream, as well as World Victory Road. Both folded in the early 2010s.
Nowadays, there’s Rizin. They’re doing a bit better with the whole “Next Pride” thing. Pancrase, Deep, and Shooto had always been there, but they’ve always remained domestic throughout the years. Combat sports in Japan is still alive, but it’s more niche. It reminds me of the StarCraft II scene.
Episode 4: As the World Fell Apart, the Only Magic Was in the Cage
The 2000s were pretty gut-wrenching. It’s like really bad shit has to happen at the start of a new century, no matter what. It was also an enchanted time when the Internet has dominated the world, yet there was still a good degree of freedom as people have not fully figured out what kind of demented things were possible.
It was a simpler time, yet also very heartbreaking. Once 2008 rolled around, shit really hit the fan and both distraction and outlet were more important than ever. MMA being there and everything that launched the UFC to the stratosphere were necessary to keep things going for a lot of people who were in the outskirts of society, myself included.
The late 2000s was when I did most of my martial arts training. While I’ve since tapered off from training a decade later, I look back to those days with both fondness and regret. On one hand, it was a great time for learning. On the other hand, I was nowhere near mature enough to truly learn from my masters. Throughout it all, I had MMA to watch and dream about.
Episode 5: Sometimes, We Feel a Little Self-Conscious About Our Dumb Sport
As I started to turn away from martial arts training upon realizing I had deeper (mental) problems to deal with, the MMA landscape started to shrink. Nowadays, it’s back to being an island, no longer the continent it was at one point due to the mismanagement of its biggest name. The UFC is now mostly owned by a talent management firm. That can’t end well since they’d be more focused on creating one or two big names rather than highlighting the spectacle itself as a whole (talking out of my ass here, mind you).
Yes, people know about UFC and MMA these days. No, not everyone looks at them in a favorable light. Household names they may be, but perhaps spoken in the same hushed tone as serial killers. That’s always the problem with martial arts as most people are afraid of it in some way. Being “casually afraid” of something is the worst as it’s mostly due to misconceptions and hearsay. It’s like how most people don’t even know the first thing about cannabis and credit cards.
For now, all I see in the MMA world are short-term solutions to long-term problems. It’s depressing and I want to dig a hole in the sand and stick my head in it.
That was one of the most depressing series of videos I’ve ever watched, although it’s also one of the best. I became an MMA fan at the tail end of Pride’s existence, so I came in with the regret of not getting into it earlier. I spent the next few years downloading their events through torrent and alternating between binging on that, Top Gear, and MythBusters. I became a Shogun and Gomi fan when they were starting to flounder.
As of this writing, we’re potentially at the tail end of the McGregor era (I think Khabib has stolen the last bit of his mojo). Meanwhile, ONE Championship is vying for dominance in the Asian market, Rizin Fighting Federation is trying to recapture that Pride magic, Bellator is continuing the war against the UFC that EliteXC, Strikeforce, and many other American promotions failed, and all other promotions both big and small around the world continue to go about their business.
Years ago, MMA promoters, pundits, and fans were enthusiastically declaring that boxing was dead and MMA was the future. Nowadays, that forecast seems a bit silly. While the sport can still end up being the be-all-end-all combat sport that it can potentially be, until we get an equivalent in the Olympics (alongside kickboxing), it may not gain that widespread legitimacy it truly deserves.
Meanwhile, we can keep being mad at the UFC and its current owners for having set the sport back by at least 5 years, taking it one step forward and three steps back with its current strategy. That’s me speaking as a passionate MMA fan and I may actually be talking out of my ass.
What I do know is Biederman is right in saying that this is what will happen to everything you love. He’s right. Just look around you.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below.