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Blood Sports For the Gentle Soul

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When was the last time you saw real fear on someone’s face?

How about pain? Shock? Rage-fueled fury? I’m not talking movies here, either, no, I mean real people displaying real emotions. When is the last time you saw something utterly raw?

I see it plenty. See, I’m an MMA fan.

MMA stands for mixed martial arts, and it’s a sport rapidly rising in popularity both in the United States and abroad, fueled by franchises like UFC and stars such as Ronda Rousey. If you’ve never seen an MMA fight, it’s an anything-goes match between two trained fighters. There’s more to it than that—it bars a few of the more dangerous strikes and there are weight classes and mouth guards and knuckle protection involved—but it’s basically putting two human beings in a cage and saying, “Get ‘em, tiger.”

Barbaric? Maybe. Fascinating? Oh my heavens, yes.

Because I ask you again: when is the last time you saw something raw that was real?

Last winter, I was watching a re-run of Top Gear with my mother and my husband. In this episode, the three presenters had decided to demolish a house. So they did what Top Gear does, which is buy completely inappropriate vehicles and proceed with their demolition in the most ridiculous way possible. A typical episode, all-in-all.

Except for one single scene.

Richard Hammond, one of the presenters, was in a tank, and when he rammed it into the house (as you do), the building fell on the tank, trapping him inside. Not a big deal, it was a tank, after all, but he still needed to be gotten out. Does Top Gear call the rescue squad?

No. Jeremy Clarkson, another presenter, comes to the rescue with his enormous mine clearing vehicle. Not by digging Hammond out, but by using the sharp rotor arm to clear the debris from the tank.

Now, those of you even vaguely familiar with this show will see the danger here. Jeremy Clarkson is not a delicate man, nor is he one who thinks carefully about what he is about to do. When he decided to attack the debris, he stated his intentions as he began the operation, the machine growling to life, blades swinging at fantastic speed, in his tank, Richard Hammond had an Unscripted Moment.

For one single second, no more than a few frames, Richard Hammond was terrified for his life. And it was electrifying. In a world of fake-silly TV, that moment was real.

I once asked my brother why he likes college football, why he gets into that rather than the pro teams, and his answer, at the time, baffled me. He said he likes them because they don’t get paid. Those athletes fight for honor rather than money, so they must fight hard every time, because while money will make you comfortable any day, honor must be refilled.

I see the same thing when I watch a fight. When a fighter enters the cage, they are agreeing to go all-out, to do anything they can to win. Sometimes that means a long stand-off match of exchanging strikes, other times it’s fifteen minutes of wrestling on the mats. Still another the entire match consists of a quick two minutes of exchanges before one opponent crumples to the ground, the referee hanging over them as if trying to ward off carrion eaters.

There is gore, but it has a reason, a start and an end. I watched the title fight between Lawler and MacDonald, where Lawler walked away with his lip split up to his nose, literally split. They interviewed him while he was still high on adrenaline and victory, the blood pouring down his face as he flashed gums with every moment of his mouth, hurt yet exhilarated, oblivious to the wounds that would soon pain him. Pain triumphed by victory, that’s what it looks like, for all I had to look away every time he opened his mouth.

MMA is a blood sport and there is blood, yes, and sometimes there is blood everywhere and it is shocking and gripping and puts me on the edge of my seat wondering how these two people are still going?

My mother hates that part of it. She’s fine with the sparring, the trade-offs of blows, but to her that split second where one fighter sees an opportunity and leaps on the other is not an amazing triumph of human ability, but brutal, obscene. It crosses a line.

I can see her point. I myself have a weak stomach for blood. I didn’t dissect anything in biology class, and the time my dog crunched a live bird? I about threw up. Every time red spatters the mats during a match, I wince and cover my mouth.

Yet I can’t look away, because when I see a hard hit in a match, I don’t think ‘Gosh, what special effects,’ I think, ‘Wow, that’s going to hurt tomorrow.’ This spectacle isn’t a product of Hollywood cleverness, no, this is actually happening.

As a writer, that’s something I need to see, and frequently. MMA isn’t the foreground of my novels, it’s a background piece more than anything, a steady beat of a drum rather than the singing guitar melody. But even if I were writing fantasy sword fights or Kill-Bill style slash-and-hack, I’d need to be able to accurately depict what my characters go through in tough physical situations. And in turn, seeing the reality informs me how to best deliver it to whoever’s on the other side of the paper.

This Saturday is the big Aldo vs. McGregor fight. I’m looking forward to it, have been since last May, when I found out about the original fight. Six months and a postponement later, I’m ready to see this happen. When those two touch knuckles, I’ll be on the edge of my seat, ready for anything. As many rounds as they go, whatever happens, injuries, victories, elation, defeat, I’ll be watching

Because for all the pageantry and rules, the pads and press? It’s real, and I know I’m not alone when I say that I just can’t get enough of it.

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