Behind the noise of the fans and the showbiz, perceptive fans will have seen the focus of the athletes at last night’s press conference: the profession they have chosen and the battle that they are about to fight.
Arriving at Magazine London before the press conference last night you would have seen a long queue to enter the building, stretching far back and, like a serpent bending its body, it licked the curve of the surrounding walls. The attendance must have been in the hundreds, fewer than the last time the UFC came to London and held the press conference in the O2. Fans could enter free of charge; perhaps a welcome opportunity for fans and hangers-round to try to catch a glimpse of the athletes they – hopefully – aspire to emulate in some of their virtuous ways, without paying about £300 for a semi-decent ticket.
The venue wasn’t filled, but after all the event is mainly for the athletes to answer the questions of the media; those whose job it is to scrutinise the fight game as well as promote the event. But here at Magazine London, the striking contrast between fan expectation and sports practice came to a visible clash.
Step into any MMA gym and you will – typically, exceptions naturally exist – find athletes helping each other, spurring one another on to do just one more rep, to endure just one more round of sparring. Encouraging, comforting, congratulating, all in the arduous attempt to reach the always sought-after state of perfection. Rarely do you see men so emotional and close as in a gym where blood, sweat, and tears have quite literally blended in the hope that the process will produce a well-rounded athlete.
Now, seated in front of fans both in person and watching from afar, the athletes take on a different, more extravagant demeanour. Their focus must remain unwavering, but the fans desire but one thing: spectacle. Kamaru Usman entered to wild boos and every utterance of his was drowned by the amassed crowds of British fight fans. Leon Edwards was cheered on by the tagline he in a moment of inspiration came up with after “head-kicking Usman into the shadow realm”: headshot, dead. The statement was music to the fans’ ears who in unison composed an orchestra of glorified violence.
That’s where the contrast become apparent. The camaraderie of the gym is exchanged for the spectacle of selling a fight. Edwards and Usman in a gym would, likely, show respect. Show each other techniques. And then fight. But placed in front of a crowd it’s all about the weakness of the other, mental and physical. No doubt about one thing: they have to fight, so they don’t have to be best friends, but often one sees this respect between competitors clearly. On a global scene, the spectacle takes on its own life and athletes, instead of carrying it, are carried by it.
The contrast is not one I am the first to observe: the fighters themselves spoke about it during the press conference. Drowned out by the cheering crowds, the subtler answers of the athletes were quickly forgotten. Justin Gaethje who faces Rafel Fiziev remarked that “this (meaning the press conference) is all bullsh*t!” We all get to enjoy the show, while fighters try to outwit and outstrike one another. “We deserve respect,” he added.
Usman picked up on this stating that at the end of the day they are here to fight. All the crowd-pleasing will be forgotten the moment they step into the octagon. All that exists are two athletes locked in a cage. The world becomes smaller. So I asked Usman about this; behind the show, behind the event, is there beauty to the sport? The question is not whether fighting is justified and beautiful like a flower, for example, is beautiful, but rather: when one practices the sport, can it be called beautiful or is there another term that is better suited? Sublime? Repulsive? Usman sticks to beautiful, and his response is worth sharing in full:
Absolutely. I grew up in Auchi, Nigeria and immigrated to the US and finally get to this point. Leon as well, from Jamaica and to the UK and getting to this point. We are from two different walks of life, but somehow our paths crossed where we merged. And we are going to go in there and we are going to put on a spectacular show for you guys. And at the end of it, you earn each other’s respect in there.
Usman sees that the fan experience matters, too. It is a show put on for others, much like a painter paints for the painting to be exhibited. There is an exhibition and the art is fought on the canvas of the octagon. But at the centre of his answer was him and Leon. Man versus man, earning respect for the paths they have wandered and which have led them to a crossroads. Saturday is about what the next steps on that journey look like. Only they can pave that path. The fans are – in this case – necessary for that next step to be taken, but at the same time, the spectacle is a mere epiphenomenon to the actual event. Two athletes. One cage. One winner.
The beauty of the sport resides in that fact, and the rest of us are there to see it.Lyssna på det senaste avsnittet av Fighterpodden!