What makes a great fight? A Fight of the Night? Of the Year? We'd ask for something exemplary, a fight that we can hang our banner on ("MMA" it reads). A fight that shows off the best that mixed martial arts has to offer: studied kickboxing, cannonball wrestling, feverish clinch work, python submission attempts, unfailing will, fearlessness. And a violence tactical, and a brutality sporting. Those last bits are important for us. As fans of a developing, occasionally maligned sport, we worry about its perception, and eagerly dismiss whatever might impede MMA's growth and acceptance. We want to impress, and dub mixed martial artists like Georges St. Pierre and Lyoto Machida and B.J. Penn our cultural champions. These are sportsmen, technicians, and artists who promise to erase MMA's reputation for thuggish, talentless cruelty. These are men who bring a form to the otherwise chaotic struggle between two barehanded men. And then there's Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung.
Saturday evening, April 24, 2010. Leonard "Bad Boy" Garcia and "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung stand before the judges, sweating through their logo-covered t-shirts, waiting for the scorecards. Between the exhausted featherweights is a trash heap of telegraphed kicks, exposed jaws, and reckless haymakers far off the mark, piled one on top of the other, over and over. No otherworldly jiu-jitsu was to be had in their 15-minute fight, and no immaculate boxing, either. Garcia vs. Jung was a dog fight, a game of chicken, a trench war 1914. It was the sloppiest, most reckless, bullheaded display of mixed martial arts we've seen in months. It may be the best fight we've seen all year.
Garcia vs. Jung was bell-to-bell thrilling, but we can still imagine what the MMA skeptic might call the fight: crass, witless, ultra-violent junk. Or something like that. We know better, though. There's a gut feeling: Garcia and Jung's brand of violence is exceptional. Mad, maybe, but not stupid. And while apologists might be tempted to concede that Garcia vs. Jung is something like a guilty pleasure, that would be a mistake.
Garcia vs. Jung followed close on the heels of several high-profile, promising, and ultimately stale fights. MMA paragons Georges St. Pierre, Gilbert Melendez, and Jake Shields all, in recent weeks and months, emerged from the ring triumphant, but left us somehow disappointed. Looking back it seems that their performances were so flawless as to become near-lifeless. Their fights were cumbersome with strategy, and formulaic to the extreme. St. Pierre's unending assault of double-leg takedowns, or, say, Frankie Edgar's relentless hit-and-run campaign against B.J. Penn, were game plans followed so carefully as to leave the fighters looking somehow mechanical. There was no apparent passion, and raw fighting spirit in these instances seemed not paired with, but obscured by, technical prowess.
By contrast, Garcia vs. Jung seemed all passion. And while critics might say that any two bums could do what Garcia and Jung did, let me say first that I know for sure, bums cannot. It's a rare person who could throw themselves into battle with Garcia's same gleeful abandon, or slip and wing punches as tirelessly as Jung did that Saturday night. It was rough stuff, to be sure, but it was artful. And so let's take a second to say that, indeed, MMA is more than a sport. That it is, after all, art. And with that in mind, let's consider that whenever someone likens Garcia and Jung to drunken tough guys, they are committing the same error suffered by artists like Matisse and Picasso whenever some incredulous viewer claims "My 8-year-old kid could paint that."
To date, nobody's kid has painted a Guernica, and I have yet to see or hear tell of any Average Joe who can bring a non-stop fury as potent as can Garcia and Jung.
Potent and transformative. Because in showing us the ragged edges of humanity, Garcia and Jung fulfilled that mission of art which is catharsis. In seeing Garcia's swollen grin, or Jung's stoicism in the face of danger, in watching them bravely, unceasingly set to demolishing each other's bodies, our own tensions were purged. That's not New Age bullshit, either. Aristotle called it when he judged the Greek tragedy-replete with insanity and violence-as worthy art.
Fighters like Kenny Florian or Lyoto Machida, fastidious in their game-planning and mindful of all dangers and advantages, represent a triumph of the rational over the whirlwind of chance and hazards that a fight represents. That is art. Garcia and Jung-as if possessed, moved by forces greater and more violent than their own rational nature could generate-chose instead to enact that chaos in as pure a way as we could stomach. They spoke to the nagging suspicion within your hearts and mine that, though our lives are day-to-day sanitary and ordered, the universal struggle for life is still pretty bloody. That, too, is art.
Garcia and Jung are primitivists. On Saturday night they reintroduced the primal-raw, sincere, and violent-into an art form that has become, at the highest levels, occupied with spotless technique. Deceptively amateurish, Garcia vs. Jung is the Art Brut to Lyoto Machida vs. Shogun Rua's Renaissance, Basquiat to Leonardo da Vinci. The fight offered us a peek at total chaos and irrationality. It was in Garcia's bruised, laughing face, and in every one of Jung's footsteps as he marched through a rain of punches. With genuine, ecstatic savagery Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung took the wilds of a brawl, and they made it transcendent.