In his 1912 work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life LINK, sociologist Emile Durkheim sets out a theory that all religions contain elements of the sacred and the profane, stating, “Whether simple or complex, all known religious beliefs display a common feature: They presuppose a classification of the real or ideal things that men conceive of into two classes – two opposite genera – that are widely designated by two distinct terms, which the words profane and sacred translate fairly well.” Loosely, the sacred are those things that inspire awe within a religion, and the profane are those things that are mundane and secular.
Putting this framework on the “religion” of mixed martial arts, we saw several examples of each over the past few days. Durkheim pointed out that sacred did not necessarily mean “holy*” and that profane was not necessarily “evil.” For the sake of simplicity, however, as applied to MMA I’ll only use examples where sacred is good, and the profane is bad. Since this past week was UFC’s annual International Fight Week, there was a lot going on. Most other major promotions took the week off, so most examples here will be UFC-related.
Sacred – UFC Hall of Fame Induction
UFC Hall of Fame 2017 Inductees (Photo credit: Sherdog.com)
Before the fights even started, we had our first example. On Thursday night, the UFC Hall of Fame gained four new members, former heavyweight champ Maurice Smith, “The Gracie Hunter” Kazushi Sakuraba, long-time matchmaker Joe Silva, and former WEC featherweight champ Uriah Faber. All are worthy inductees, but honoring Sakuraba felt special. Sakuraba fought in only one UFC event, winning the Japan 1996 tournament early in his MMA career. His inclusion in the Hall of Fame likely resulted from his legendary fights in Pride and other Japanese organizations, most notably wins over seven UFC champions. He became known as the Gracie Hunter after defeating Royler, Royce, Renzo, and Ryan Gracie in a series of fights in 1999 and 2000. Sakuraba belongs in any overall MMA hall of fame, and it’s nice to see the UFC recognizing him despite his limited involvement in the promotion.
Kazushi Sakuraba vs Royce Grace, 2000 (Photo credit: Sherdog.com)
Profane – Gabi Garcia vs. Megumi Yabushita
It was very early Friday morning here in the United States when an event in Japan called Shoot Boxing Girls’ S Cup 2017 took place. While not strictly mixed martial arts, shoot boxing is similar. It basically is kickboxing with the addition of standing submissions. One of the matches pitted thirty-one-year-old Gabi Garcia, at 6’2” and well over 200 pounds, against Megumi Yabushita, a forty-five-year-old who stood only 5’ 2” and weighed about 135 pounds. Additionally, Yabushita was on a 9-fight losing streak dating back to 2010. Japanese promotions love their freakshow fights. Even the UFC is not immune; having given us CM Punk vs Mickey Gall last September, but that was a few orders of magnitude milder than this mismatch. Predictably, Garcia battered her opponent easily. It got worse, though. The fight ended with Garcia landing an illegal soccer kick to the head of her downed opponent. The fight was ruled a No Contest.
If you’re so inclined, you can watch the travesty here:
Sacred – The Redemption of Jesse Taylor
Jesse Taylor Chokes out Dhiego Lima (Photo Credit: Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com **)
The 25th season of the Ultimate Fighter was titled “The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption,” with the theme being that all the participants had competed in previous TUF seasons but had since struggled in their careers. The redemption motif was particularly relevant in the case of Jesse “JT Money” Taylor. He had competed in TUF Season 7, won all of his fights and was set to fight in the finals, but was removed from competition due to some drunken bad behavior after the series finished filming. He was later given a UFC fight after attending Alcoholics Anonymous but was cut following a loss to CB Dollaway. Since then, he had bounced around numerous organizations, compiling a good but not great record. For the TUF: Redemption season, he beat Mehdi Baghdad, Hayder Hassan, and James Krause to make it to the finals Friday night against Dhiego Lima. Taylor was dominant on the ground against Lima in the first round, got knocked down at the start of the second round, but quickly recovered to sink in a rear naked choke to win by submission, earning the title of Ultimate Fighter winner and a check for $290,000. At the post-fight press conference, he said, “It’s not about the money. Don’t get me wrong – it’s going to change my life and my kids’ life. But it wasn’t really about the money. It was about the story. About redemption. That’s what it was about. I just wanted to show my kids, to be a good role model.”
Jesse Taylor Redeemed (Photo credit: Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com)
Sacred – Justin Gaethje vs Michael Johnson
Gaethje vs. Johnson (Photo credit: Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com)
The main event of Friday’s TUF Finale marked the UFC debut of Justin Gaethje. Gaethje came into the fight with a record of 17-0 and had been the World Series of Fighting lightweight champion since January 2014. When the WSOF essentially folded earlier this year and morphed into the Professional Fighters League, he was signed by the UFC. For his debut, he was matched with Michael Johnson, who was ranked as the #5 contender going into the fight. For fighters coming into the UFC, there is always the question of how they will fare against UFC talent. While Johnson was not among the very top contenders at lightweight, he was in no way an easy out. The fight ended up being spectacular. I’m not even going to try to describe it, other than saying it was a wild back and forth slugfest, with both fighters throwing and receiving hard shots throughout. Gaethje won by TKO late in the second round. I would say it’s easily the frontrunner for Fight of the Year so far. If you missed it Friday, do yourself a favor and try to catch a replay on Fox Sports 1. I categorized the fight as sacred because it was a truly awe-inspiring example of two fighters giving everything they had. This is among the best MMA has to offer.
Justin Gaethje Victorious (Photo credit: Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com)
Profane – Nunes vs Shevchenko II Cancellation
Amanda Nunes at UFC 213 Weigh-Ins (Photo credit: Sherdog.com)
A few hours before UFC 213 was set to begin on Saturday, reports began to surface that bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes had come down with an illness and that the fight might be canceled. Not long afterward, it was confirmed, and Yoel Romero vs Robert Whittaker was bumped up from co-main to the main event. I’m sure most people suspected a bad weight cut for Nunes was the reason. I was guilty of that myself but decided to wait for more news before drawing any conclusions. Not much information came out of fight night, though. In the disappointment of losing the anticipated rematch between Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko, some fans – and even a few fighters – asserted that Nunes was ducking Shevchenko out of fear of losing her belt. Even Dana White said at the press conference “I think that it was 90% mental and maybe 10% physical… I think a lot of fighters have had times when they don’t feel right, and then we’ve had guys who were outright sick… These situations arise all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a situation like today, though. You know, where she was physically capable of fighting.” Nunes responded the next day, releasing this statement on social media:
Nunes Statement (Source: Amanda Nunes Twitter account)
If what Amanda Nunes says is correct, and I have no reason to doubt her, then the “she was cleared to fight” argument falls by the wayside. That refers only to the initial instance when the doctor checked her for hydration and weight cut-related issues. She could easily be cleared in that regard, but serious sinusitis as shown on the CT scan is an entirely different issue. A flare-up of sinusitis can badly affect the breathing, and also can disrupt a person’s balance. If that was the case, then Nunes was entirely justified canceling the bout. I personally find Nunes unlikable and was hoping for Shevchenko to win their rematch, but can find no fault in Nunes not wanting to fight with difficulty breathing and a compromised sense of balance. The “profane” in this case refers not to the cancellation, but to the reaction of some fans, and especially to Dana White casting aspersions on her professionalism.
Bonus Sacred – Joanna Jędrzejczyk Tries to Step Up
In the mad scramble that occurred after the news of Nunes dropping out, UFC strawweight champ offered to replace Nunes against Shevchenko. Of course on such short notice, the Nevada State Athletic Commission did not approve the substitution. There simply was not enough time to medically clear Jędrzejczyk to fight. Still, how badass is it that the 115-pound champ offered to take a 135-pound fight on a few hours’ notice?
On the whole, it was a bit of a letdown from the usual UFC International Fight Week. Sure, there were some sublime moments like Kazushi Sakuraba entering the Hall of Fame and the incredible Gaethje-Johnson fight, along with some controversies like the Nunes cancellation, but overall it just didn’t match the excitement of the past few years’ events. Not a bad week of fights by any means, just a minor misstep by the new UFC regime in trying to pull off the annual July extravaganza.
*For instance, some cannibalistic societies believed that the practice allowed them to absorb the spirit of their enemies. The belief that the spirit migrated from victim into the cannibal would qualify as sacred under Durkheim’s definition, but could hardly be seen as good for the guy who just became lunch.
** By the way, Esther Lin is probably the best MMA photographer working today. If you don’t already, giver her a follow on Twitter. ( @allelbows )