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Race and the Race to UFC 98

(Matthew Polly is Fightlinker’s resident Rhodes Scholar and published author – crazy huh? His first book, American Shaolin, covered his years in China training with Shaolin monks. Now he’s in the middle of a similar MMA experience that will eventually turn into a second book if he doesn’t get killed in his first mixed martial arts fight. For now, here’s his first UFC 98 report from Vegas!)

It’s been over a year since I first subjected myself to the glory that is the UFC weigh-ins. It was Montreal and I learned several things. First, never get into a drinking contest with the Fightlinker boys. Second, never underestimate Canadian nationalism. They may barely be able to keep their country unified, but “Serra sucks, eh, and GSP is rocks!”

In contrast, the 4000+ strong crowd at the Mandalay Bay arena’s weigh-ins had odd loyalties indeed. Rashad Evans received the most boos of anyone at the event (causing him to make a plaintive “Can’t a brutha get some love?” pose as he was undressing), while Lyoto Machida was warmly welcomed.

This may be in part because the “Countdown to UFC 98” was overtly devoted to building up the Machida legend—no one can hit him in the ring, but he can take a good smack or three from his Japanese manager—to the detriment of Rashad’s. It was striking how imbalanced the hour-long video was. Based on the relative airtime, I’d say Dana has Lyoto as a 3-1 favorite.

(As for why: Maybe Papa White is that grateful for Mr. Karate Elusive sticking the final nail into Tito’s coffin. Or maybe management is hedging against the probable: two UFC champions who need the same Brazilian interpreter to thank God and / or apologize for another coma-inducing fight.)

But that still doesn’t quite explain why an overwhelming white middle class, fanatical (this was the weigh-ins, after all) American MMA audience would jeer Rashad and rise up for Machida, who is as oddly foreign, boring, and efficient as a Hyundai. For that you need to talk about race.

I’ve never forgotten a debate that Joe Rogan had with a boxing promoter on ESPN a few years back about how MMA was kicking boxing’s ass. At one point, the boxing promoter, rather overwhelmed by the Rogan testosterone onslaught said something to the effect of “Yeah, MMA will do well so long as it has white champions.” At the time, the UFC champions were not only white, but lily white: Tim Sylvia, Chuck Liddell, Rich Franklin, Matt Hughes, and Sean Sherk.

Flash Forward a bit: Joss Gross is interviewing Rampage after he’d knocked out The Iceman. The question was something to the effect of whether he enjoyed fighting in Japan or America more. Rampage’s answer, to paraphrase, was “Japan, biyatch. They never fucking booed me like they do here.”

Rampage had in Japanese Pro-Wrestling fashion invented himself as the uber-black stereotype (the teeth, the chains). And then he came back and knocked out every white boy’s favorite Mohawk warrior. So they booed him as if he were the reincarnation of Jack Johnson. Rashad is the show-offy, juke-n-jive, nipple tweaking brutha, who not only pissed off Matt Hughes with his antics but also slapped his crotch and blew a kiss to Forrest Griffin, the UFC’s self-deprecating savior white boy, before knocking him out. Then he ended Chuck Liddel’s career with one punch. Do you remember how he danced afterwards?

Say what you want, but fighting is always a tribal sport. What is interesting about Rashad Evans v. Lyoto Machida is that white Americans prefer a boring light-skinned Brazilian (of Japanese decent) to an exciting African-American.

Obama might have ended race in the highest office but in fighting’s red light district it seems alive and well.