1. In March, The Guardian’s Andy Bull went inside the world of mixed martial arts to report on how a journey from reviled ‘human cockfighting’ to mainstream acceptance has transformed it into a hugely profitable industry.
To understand the success of the UFC today, you have to go back before what Lorenzo Fertitta calls the modern era. In the US, MMA grew out of the Brazilian tradition of Vale Tudo, “anything goes” contests between rival martial arts gyms, each with its own fighting style. The concept was exported to the US by Rorion Gracie, grandmaster of jiu jitsu, scion of one of the most famous fighting families in the world, and, as a 1989 article in Playboy put it, “the toughest man in the United States”. The UFC was concocted by Gracie and three partners. One was John Milius, who wrote and directed Conan the Barbarian. Another, an advertising executive named Art Davie and the last the promoter Bob Meyrowitz, a pioneer of pay-per-view TV. Milius thought the fights should take place in a pit. Davie suggested a ring surrounded by a moat filled with either sharks or alligators. In the end they settled on an eight-sided cage.
2. The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh on how the shadow of Ronda Rousey loomed large over last March’s bantamweight title bout between Miesha Tate and Holly Holm at UFC 196.
On Saturday night, during the third round of a thrilling U.F.C. bout between Holly Holm, the bantamweight champion, and Miesha Tate, the challenger, one of the announcers broke an unwritten rule. Throughout the battle, which was broadcast on pay-per-view, the commentators had been trying to keep their focus on the two women in the cage, and trying to avoid talking about a certain absent star who cast a shadow over the event. But eventually Mike Goldberg, the play-by-play announcer, couldn’t help himself. As Holm and Tate circled and feinted, he asked, “What is going through the mind of Ronda Rousey right now?” And then both men went uncharacteristically silent for nearly ten seconds — enough time, perhaps, for them to try and fail to think of an answer, and to refocus on the matchup in front of them. Then they changed the subject.
3. Following his untimely death in June, Bleacher Report’s Mike Chiappetta paid tribute to iconic fighter Kevin ‘Kimbo Slice’ Ferguson.
Away from the cage, Slice, known as ‘Ferg’ or ‘Big Ferg’, was soft-spoken, gentle and insightful. He was also unaffected by his celebrity. Years ago, I was scheduled to interview Slice at a hotel in New York City. When I arrived with a media relations person that morning, we knocked on his hotel room door to find him and a group of family members, some sitting around, some laying around. On the floor, on the bed, on the couch. Everywhere. The media relations person asked Slice how they liked the accommodations. It’s a little cramped but otherwise OK, he said. “The other room, too?” the media relations person asked him. “What other room?” Slice asked. While a TV network had booked multiple rooms for him and his entourage, they had slept six or seven to the one room without complaint. When the interview began, he was polite but reserved, so I decided to switch gears to open him up. I had read that his son was an excellent football player and asked about him. His eyes lit up, and we spent much of the rest of the interview discussing his family and his motivations.
4. Ahead of Nate Diaz’s rematch with Conor McGregor at UFC 202 in August, MMAFighting.com’s Shaun Al-Shatti produced this brilliant and comprehensive profile of the popular Stockton fighter.
Ten years and 25 fights, perhaps the sport’s strangest and most winding road to UFC stardom, but it happened. Nathan Diaz is a star. A genuine star. Now and forever, and headlining what will likely be two of the most profitable pay-per-views in UFC history will only help that fact. Maybe this took longer than expected. Maybe the UFC just never understood what it had, how a hardscrabble figure like Diaz could have such broad appeal. Hell, maybe this was all just luck, and the perfect dance partner simply found the perfect dance at the perfect time. It doesn’t matter. If Diaz hit free agency after UFC 202, win or lose, he would be among the most coveted free agents of the past decade. And he did things his way.
5. In August, Michael Crowley of Politico examined the involvement of US president-elect Donald Trump in the short-lived ‘Affliction’ MMA promotion
His name was Fedor and other men feared him. He had a shaved head, deadpan eyes and construction-worker muscles. He was a Russian army veteran who called Vladimir Putin a friend. ‘His thing,’ Donald Trump said, ‘is inflicting death on people.’ And he was Trump’s newest business partner. It was 5 June, 2008 and Trump had called a news conference at Trump Tower to announce a new venture into the business of mixed martial arts — a blood-spattering blend of boxing, wrestling and karate often fought in a caged octagon. In that world, Fedor Emelianenko was king. Fedor, as everyone called him, was a heavyweight champion who made his name in his native Russia, cracking ribs in places like Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg and Moscow. He had never killed anyone, despite Trump’s quip in an interview that summer. But he was known for his devastating blows, including a nasty punch dubbed “the Russian hook.” And his fans included his country’s president, Putin, a black belt in karate who watched Fedor battle from front-row seats and sat with him at dinners and sports events. Now Fedor, 31, was the star fighter for Affliction Entertainment, an upstart mixed martial arts company Trump had partnered with to host pay-per-view fights in the US and a reality television show to be filmed in Russia.
6. Jonathan Snowden of Bleacher Report did the unthinkable by putting Conor McGregor and Muhammad Ali in the same sentence but the end result was a superb assessment of the UFC star ahead of his bout against Eddie Alvarez in New York in November.
In a sport built on respect, on old values bred in martial arts gyms around the world, McGregor was an aberration. His trash talk, often incredibly personal and sometimes racially charged, defied the established paradigm. The result was a fighter as divisive as anyone since the great Ali — a fighter with whom he was often compared. It was a comparison initially rejected by almost everyone in the sport, including McGregor himself. But as the wins mounted and box-office records fell, the most hallowed names in the history of boxing became reasonable benchmarks for a fighter who had already vanquished every peer in the new sport of MMA.
7. A week after McGregor got the better of Alvarez at UFC 205, Eamonn Sweeney gave his take on the divisive UFC featherweight and lightweight champion in the Sunday Independent.
That’s Conor McGregor. First he tells you to look at his shit and then he comes out and puts on a show. I don’t think he’s the greatest Irish sportsman of all time but I can see how someone who grew up in this culture might. To them, our middle-aged objections make us as boring and fuddy-duddy as Frank Sinatra seemed to kids who’d just seen Elvis on Ed Sullivan. If the comparisons which spring to mind regarding Conor McGregor come from the world of entertainment rather than sport, that’s hardly surprising. For better or for worse, he is beyond sport now. He is bigger than sport. That’s how great he is.