We've heard a lot in the last two weeks about Vitor Belfort, the old lion from the sport's primitive years who is challenging one of today's modern marvels, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones this weekend at UFC 152.
The fight itself is of little interest—Belfort is about to get smashed Blackstreet style. No diggity. No doubt. But what Belfort represents will never die. He embodies a simpler time, one that is near and dear to the hearts of all hardcore fans.
I was reminiscing today with some of my long time MMA friends. Like me their fandom was forged in the 1990's and early 2000's, when being an MMA fan wasn't just a past time, it was more like a job. That may sound ridiculous, but ask anyone who was there: You didn't just become an MMA fan by happenstance.
There was no The Ultimate Fighter to ease you in, no Jon "Bones" Jones Nike gear. If you wanted to be a fan of the sport, it required serious diligence and work.
Just getting your hands on a UFC event took effort. Someone in your circle needed a dish, because it wasn't happening on cable. But the UFC was just the beginning.
There were promotions all over the world, each wackier than the one before. Different rules, different fighters, completely different levels of presentation and professionalism. It was like entering the world's best carnival, or maybe a super violent swap meet, a kaleidoscope of flying fists and brutal submissions.
In the ensuing discussion, a thought hit me squarely between the eyes, an inkling that kind of made me happy and sad, all at once, emotions swirling like the wind:
It was more fun to be an MMA fan back then.
I can hear the hue and cry already, but it's true. As my hero Kurt Angle would say "It's damn true."
Will today's MMA fan ever find themselves in a Japanese grocery store, looking for tapes of the 1994 King of Pancrase tournament? Surrounded by the oddest smells and strangest sights, I found the "puroresu" section just down the aisle from seaweed flavored rice cakes. These are the moments I'd never give back and that today's fans will never have.
Will today's MMA fan ever know the joy of Andre Roberts? Mildly obese, angry and all Indian, Andre Roberts represents the fighters who will never know fame (let alone fortune) in today's MMA landscape. Roberts had to wear a t-shirt to cover his jiggly parts, but if you told me I needed someone to guard my back in a biker bar, that's my first call.
Will today's MMA fan ever know the simple pleasure of a package arriving at the doorstep, filled to bursting with pristine VHS tapes of the old International Vale Tudo Championship? Bootlegs from Brazil, chock full of early Wanderlei Silva fights? That's a slice of heaven, one that made me the king of the tape traders for several months.
I understand that fighters today are more skilled, better athletes, richer and that the sport is in a good place. I don't know that I would turn back the clock, even if I had that power.
What I do know is that I share a common bond with people like my friend Alan, a shared experience that used to mean so much. When you identified yourself as an MMA fan a decade ago, it meant something—you had to care, and deeply, just to make that claim.
I miss it every day. And while I won't root for Vitor Belfort, never that, I will be rooting for everything he represents.
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