Opinion: The Grisly Allure of Broken Bones

By: Eric Stinton
Jul 14, 2021

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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In the main event of UFC 264, which will likely be the biggest mixed martial arts event of the year, Conor McGregor joined the dubiously exclusive club of UFC fighters who have lost due to horrific leg breaks. Prior to him, only Chris Weidman, Anderson Silva and Corey Hill had done the same.

It was hard to see what happened in real time, but it was much harder to look at what actually happened on any of the innumerable replays -- especially for someone who has suffered ankle injuries throughout his life. You may point out that technically he broke his tibia, not his ankle, to which I say it really doesn’t matter; it happened close enough to the ankle to look like an ankle injury, and the psychological damage that has already been done cannot be undone.

Yet there I was, watching every slow-motion replay, cringing and consoling my legs for the psychic damage I was inflicting on them. It reminded me of the Weidman break earlier this year, and how afterward I went back and watched it -- and the Silva and Hill leg breaks, too -- multiple times. I suppose I had long internalized Bart Simpson’s advice: if you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it.

I can’t imagine I’m the only one who did that, though; I’m not special or unique enough to be the only one who thinks or does something. The sudden and grotesque physical devastation of a mid-fight leg break is hard to ignore, no matter how much you want to look away. Part of the reason we watch this sport is to see the absolute limits of the human body. This includes seeing it in its most vulnerable and shattered state.

There’s the sheer visceral horror of the injury, witnessing the frailty of all that human stuff down there just floating between skin. Deep cuts, swelling hematomas and other gnarly injuries also seize our disgusted fascination in a similar way: think Jon Jones’ pretzeled toe against Chael Sonnen, Robbie Lawler’s dangling lip against Rory MacDonald, or Evangelista Santos’ dented skull from Michael Page. Even damage that is less visually striking, like Urijah Faber’s deep purple leg after the Jose Aldo fight, still captivates us. It’s incredible to see the trauma the human body can both administer and withstand.

Yet there is something different about a bone breaking. In a warped way, it fulfills the promise of a foundational aspect of the sport: no matter how strong or tough or skilled a fighter is, nobody can overcome a snapped limb. This was the revelation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and one of the many ironies of McGregor’s loss.

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But leg breaks are not the result of an opponent’s technique. They are the natural byproduct of weaponizing your limbs. Injuries like McGregor’s are ruthless reminders of how brutal fighting is when it’s unconstrained by referees and rulesets. When a leg bone bends in the complete opposite direction, there is no courtesy of a slow crank or opportunity for a gentlemanly tap out. There is only the drastic consequence of combative collision.

It should make you reconsider the ethics of what we’re spending our money on for entertainment, at least a little. If you remove referees from most other sports, they would still be fundamentally watchable in the same ways. MMA without refs, however, would regularly produce violent smut impossible to stomach for even the most well-traveled fan.

Imagine Sean O'Malley pouring it on Kris Moutinho uninterruptedly until he collapsed in a battered heap, or McGregor continuing the fight on pure stubbornness and insecurity, getting kicked in his broken shin and pounded out until Dustin Poirier decided to stop. In a way he’d be both lucky and unlucky to be fighting Poirier in that circumstance: unlucky to be on the wrong end of a battle-tested buzzsaw, lucky that Poirier seems to have a conscience and basic human decency. One does not need to wonder if McGregor would have thrown the same post-fight tantrum had there been no officials around.

While most people thought McGregor's comments about Poirier’s wife went over the line, what really bothered Poirier most were the hyperbolic death threats from McGregor. His logic is sound: “[My wife cheating on me with McGregor] is zero chance, but there is a chance that somebody could die,” he said at the post-fight press conference. A gruesome leg break like McGregor’s is a reminder of the dire stakes of competitive violence, even when all the right guardrails are in place.

Although McGregor insisted in the leadup to the fight that the only real conclusion is a knockout, he suffered a grisly rebuttal to that claim. In any of the scenarios McGregor has found himself in, real or imagined, from barroom brawls to ancient battlefields, a snapped tibia is about as final as it gets.

As for the rest of us damaged souls with thick callouses preventing us from realizing just what it is we’re watching, it was a necessary shock to the system. It should compel us to turn away for good, or to keep watching the slow motion replays in hopes that we’ll get desensitized to it in time for the next one. Advertisement
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