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“When I step into the cage, beneath all the fire and the technique there is some fear. There is fear that this person standing across from you is going to hurt you. It’s basic human instinct. It’s that fight or flight thing. In my mind, the quicker I put this guy out, the quicker I f---ing end him, the quicker I am out of danger.” - Carlos Condit
“If you come only to help me, you can go back home. But if you consider my struggle as part of your struggle for survival, then maybe we can work together.” - Aboriginal wise woman saying
Rafael dos Anjos weathered the early storm on Saturday night in Rochester, outlasting and outworking Kevin Lee until the “Motown Phenom” had had enough. By the time “RDA” sunk in the arm triangle choke in the closing minutes of the fourth round, it was nearly a formality that he would get the finish -- such was the contrast in the two combatant’s energy levels and body language.
With the victory, “RDA” has catapulted himself somewhere in proximity to the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title. It may need to change hands first -- his two previous fights were losses to now-champion Kamaru Usman and No. 1 contender Colby Covington -- but he’s there, securely “in the mix” for when the 170-pound division heats up again in the fall.
Conversely, Lee’s confidence and momentum has been severely compromised with the loss. Lee had moved up from the crowded 155-pound division to try to navigate a simpler path to a title, but now finds himself with a third loss in his last four bouts and no clear way back to contention in either division. A few hours after he exited the Octagon, he posted a video to his Instagram where he candidly questioned his future, attesting that the loss made him question “what [he] believe[d] in”.
The above juxtaposition -- between the triumphant and the trounced; the conqueror and the vanquished -- is a familiar one in sports, but it’s particularly pronounced in MMA. A loss in the UFC usually means the fighter only gets half of his or her pay check, and with most fighters competing only a handful of times a year, the taste of victory or defeat usually has a few months at least to gestate. Fighting in a division as stacked as lightweight or welterweight -- which together account for a full third of the UFC’s roster and long list of worthy title contenders -- is a compounding factor.
But there was one area of common ground where “RDA” and Lee might have been able to mutually benefit. Specifically, in relation to the ongoing campaign to pressure the UFC into creating a 165-pound division. In the build-up to the fight in Rochester, Lee proposed during a media scrum that he and “RDA” weigh in five pounds below the welterweight limit as a form of silent protest, telling a media scrum in Atlanta:
“If he’s down with it, I’d be down – and I’d cut an extra little five pounds [to 165] for that, make a statement, make some noise. It’s in our contract, we ain’t got to, but I like to push some buttons.”
Dos Anjos didn’t respond to Lee’s proposition publicly at the time, but addressed it while attending to his pre-fight media obligations some weeks later. More specifically, he characterised Lee’s request as a “deal with the enemy” that he wasn’t interested in, telling MMAFighting:
“I saw that, man, but there’s no deal with the enemy on fight week… It’s war now. There’s no deal. I’ll make the weight I signed to make, 171 with the extra pound. If he wants to make 165 to show he can do it, it’s up to him.
Given the lack of labor consciousness in MMA, a fighter refusing to participate in something approaching collective action isn’t particularly newsworthy. But it bears noting that after he categorically ruled out cooperating with Lee, “RDA” expressed support for his cause, stating that it would be “great to have [the 165 pound] division”. This echoed social media posts the former champ made last year calling for the new weight class, and his status as a former 155er who is competitive but slightly undersized at welterweight makes him a prime beneficiary of the new division were it to materialize.
It’s also important to emphasise that, unlike fighter unionization or the ongoing campaign to extend the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, there has been relatively little pushback from the UFC regarding the fight for a 165 pound division. UFC President Dana White is stridently opposed -- as he often is when presented with objectively good ideas -- but fans, fighters, regulators and the media have overwhelmingly been in favor. Weighing in five pounds light is hardly on the same plain as joining a picket line, and certainly wouldn’t put “RDA” -- a popular and well-respected veteran in a vitally important market -- in the UFC’s crosshairs.
All of this forces us to confront an essential truth: which is that fighters -- in underestimating their own power and influence, and placing faith in the wrong institutions and people to effect positive change -- are all too often their own worst enemies.
It’s fair to point out that participants in combat sports must often perceive their opponents in more binary terms than their stick-and-ball counterparts -- it’s one thing to feel trepidation at the speed at which a ball comes arcing across a baseball pitch; quite another to navigate a shin to the dome while trying to fire back one’s own concussive blows. However it's simply not the case that they can’t, or shouldn’t attempt to, act in concert when their interests align.
“RDA” missed a golden opportunity on Saturday night: to lead the headlines with more than just an impressive win over a young and dangerous foe, and take just the tiniest step towards fighters having a voice in decisions that affect them.
This kind of reticence isn’t new and may take years -- decades even -- to be superseded by a more ambitious and militant mood within the UFC’s ranks.
But my God, hasn’t it become tiresome?
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.