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Whether you’re a mixed martial arts newbie or a grizzled veteran, there was much to be learned -- or relearned -- from this weekend’s Ultimate Fighting Championship card. If you could get concussed by enlightenment, then UFC 239 was like an extended, badass “Ted Talk.” Three immutable truths were demonstrated on fight night, and since Jorge Masvidal wasted no time getting down to business, neither will I.
1. Greatness is ephemeral.It doesn’t seem like long ago when Gilbert Melendez was one of the greatest lightweights in the world. His run from 2009-2012 was legendary: seven straight title fight wins in Strikeforce, including names like Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Josh Thomson -- twice. As the UFC title bounced from B.J. Penn to Frankie Edgar to Benson Henderson, “El Niño” had a legitimate claim as the No. 1 lightweight in the world at that time. Until he arrived in the UFC.
The question isn’t why he has gone 1-6 since making his Octagon debut in 2013. There are a number of explanations for that: better competition in the UFC, bad style matchups, USADA. Rather, what’s interesting to consider is just how quickly his greatness was forgotten. Melendez still boasts one of the best lightweight careers ever, and he has the hardware to cement his status as one of the GOATs. He came painfully close to winning the UFC title in his first attempt, and laid the blueprint for beating Anthony Pettis in his second crack. Yet none of that was enough to offset the four-fight losing streak and get him off the undercard, where he was soundly defeated by 25 year-old prospect Arnold Allen. That’s how the fight business works, though. One moment you’re the greatest ever, the next you’re résumé padding.
2. Change is not growth.If only Luke Rockhold and Ben Askren were bigger C.S. Lewis fans. Maybe then they would have realized that changing divisions or organizations is not the same as evolving as a fighter.
Lewis wrote that “A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn't grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next.” It speaks to how real growth requires adding the new on top of the old without forfeiting either, and also how easy it is to confuse mere movement with substantive change.
Despite Rockhold’s increased musculature, it wasn’t exactly surprising to see him get brutally knocked out for the third time in four fights. If there was any hope that a smaller weight cut would help his durability, it has since been dashed. A glass jaw is an unforgiving hindrance in combat sports, but it’s not always a death sentence either -- just ask Andrei Arlovski. A glass jaw is a death sentence, however, when you don’t alter your game to accommodate it.
This weekend, Rockhold looked like a bigger, slower version of the same fighter he’s always been. He still keeps his hands low, still enters and exits on a straight line with zero lateral or circular movement, and is still content to kickbox at range despite having the most vicious top game in the sport. He’s changed, but he hasn’t grown.
The same could be said of Askren. He spent the majority of his career dominating competition that was, for the most part, below him. He’s always been a one-trick pony, but that one trick was so dominant that he never needed to evolve beyond it. Transitioning to the UFC was the ultimate litmus test, but so far, he has shown what doubters thought all along: he was a mid-sized fish in a small pond. He barely escaped his Octagon debut with a controversial win and a headache, and got absolutely demolished in his second outing because he’s one-dimensional and predictable. Crushing lesser competition didn’t provide an impetus for developing new wrinkles to his game, and he paid for it in record- and face-breaking fashion.
3. Cage-fighting is, in fact, cage-fighting.It’s safe to say that Askren’s most punishing offense happened in the weeks leading up to the fight. His verbal strikes were trounced by Masvidal’s real ones, leading many to think that whatever ill feelings they had were resolved. Masvidal disagreed, taunting his unconscious foe immediately after knocking him out. Apparently, this upset people. Which begs the question: what do those people think they are watching? Is doing a not-nice thing really worse than launching your knee into someone’s head?
There’s a deeper incongruity at play, though. With few exceptions, you rarely hear anyone clutch their pearls over pre-fight trash talk, but for some reason post-fight showboating is unacceptable to a certain group of Very Serious People. If you don’t like either, I get it, but you can’t separate them any more than you can separate heads from tails. Askren made fun of Masvidal before the fight, and Masvidal made fun of him after. You may think it wasn’t necessary, but Masvidal didn’t, and he’s the only one whose opinion on the subject actually matters.
If you trashtalk and win, you get extra glory. If you trashtalk and lose, you get extra embarrassment. That’s just how the game goes. More important than anything is that fighters act true to themselves, and if you watched Masvidal at the presser, there’s no doubting his sincerity.