Mixed martial arts, the velvet painting of the sports world, is coated with a sheen of the ridiculous. Like its artistic counterpart, it's something you're likely to see at a country fair. It's gaudy and awful and you can't look away.
But the colors pop like nothing else, and honestly, who doesn't love the athletic equivalent of dogs playing poker now and then?
Everything about it is lurid and over the top. Vladimir Putin, a cartoon of a man, is a fan for God's sake. The violence is absurd, eight limbs competing to bludgeon, choke and twist. The fighters are a cornucopia of tattooed glory, men with a decided lack of father figures and/or aptitude for more prestigious and lucrative sports.
Even the authority figures, Dana White in the UFC and Bjorn Rebney in Bellator, are living caricatures of an aging bro and sleazy car salesman, respectively. In this sport, the company president can lie with a straight face and then turn around and direct an expletive-ridden tweet at a fan or reporter. And no one will blink.
The only thing more ridiculous than the fighters are the fans who battle an inferiority complex that may never quite disappear. Mixed martial arts is most certainly not serious business.
I lead with this just so you understand that I get it. While I recognize that the consequences can be all too serious, the sport itself is a constant comedy show. I don't decry tomfoolery. I am all for it! You won't see me crying crocodile tears about who "deserves" title shots or attempting to stifle fun voices on the fringe like Nick Diaz and Chael Sonnen.
But there has to be a line. Some subjects are simply too sacrosanct to be broached without some significant thought. And that's why I demand, loudly and publicly, that UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey stop comparing herself and her posse to the iconic Four Horsemen.
Girls just want to have fun. I understand. And what's not fun about pro wrestling, a fake version of mixed martial arts where the violence and the muscular bodies defy even our wildest imaginations? Pro wrestling is the best. Watch this delightfully deranged Ultimate Warrior video and see if you can stop yourself from smiling.
The Horsemen, however, are no laughing matter. In parts of the South, in the 1980s at least, they were all but a religion. You might, in fact, miss church on Sundays. It was known to happen. But no self-respecting Southerner would ever miss their wrestling fix.
For decades, it was a tradition we could count on. At 6:05 p.m. on Saturday night, a generation of young men could be found gathered around the boob tube. Powered by Jim Crockett Promotions and the mighty satellite in the sky that beamed Ted Turner's channel 17 nationwide, wrestling ruled the airwaves.
And the Four Horsemen ruled wrestling.
Ric Flair was the leader. As the world heavyweight champion, it was his right and his place. Bleached blond, masculine yet flamboyant and never at a loss for words, he was the epitome of the cocky villain.
At his right hand stood Arn Anderson. A storyline cousin, he was the no-nonsense enforcer. You understood, implicitly, that he was a man who would sacrifice body, soul and even his own ambitions to keep Flair safe. A secondary title belt and a seat at the table were more than enough for "Double A."
To the champion's left was Tully Blanchard, the poor man's Flair. Like "The Nature Boy," Blanchard was a smooth, Scotch-drinking sophisticate. He wined and dined with the best of them. Rocked the sequin robes. Coveted. While Anderson was loyalty, you could practically see Blanchard's gears turning. He didn't want to be Flair's protege forever. He wanted to be Flair.
The fourth man, in the beginning, was Ole Anderson. A gritty veteran with a gift for violence and gab in equal measure, Anderson and his brother Gene owned wrestling in the Carolinas and Georgia throughout the 1970s. Though he never quite fit in conceptually, he was a bridge to wrestling's past, royalty if misplaced.
There had been factions in wrestling before the Horsemen. But to compare the Heenan Family to the Horsemen is to compare an Oldsmobile to a Ferrari.
In 1986, the Horsemen were now. Rocking Rolexes, barely buttoned Armani suits and Italian shoes, they were a small taste of luxury. They talked it and walked it, winning every title belt that mattered.
Women wanted them, and men wanted to be them.
They were bad guys but in name only. Wrestling, so long the domain of black and white, was changing. The Horsemen were the villains—but they were the bad guys that fans couldn't help but love. Fans started coming to the matches dressed to the nines, their best suit a solid proxy for Flair's finery.
Yes, they beat the living hell out of Dusty Rhodes, an overweight and overbearing older star hanging onto faded glory. They brutally assaulted the Rock 'n' Roll Express, babyfaced pretty boys that your girlfriend likely thought about way too often.
Was that really a bad thing? Wasn't there a small part of us that reveled in it all? That wanted to raise those four fingers and let out a long, soulful "Woooooo!"
Just thinking about the Four Horsemen makes me happy. I doubt I'm alone.
Which brings us, ever so slowly, to Rousey. The new queen of the UFC, she is one of the sport's brightest stars. She combines unspeakable swagger with a killer instinct unlike any we've ever seen from a female fighter. Part Flair, part Anderson, she's in the process of building a legend every bit as bright as her male peers.
Along the way, like many fighters, she's found her lifemates on the mat. Marina Shafir is her longtime friend and training partner. Jessamyn Duke is her protege, a young fighter whom she adopted while filming The Ultimate Fighter and decided to keep. Shayna Baszler is the grizzled veteran, a catch-wrestling practitioner who was fighting before the spotlight shined bright.
Baszler, a lifelong wrestling fan, has made WWE Raw a staple of their household.
"Since Shayna moved in, our group activity is that we sit down and watch Raw and all this stuff together," Rousey told After Buzz TV. "It's like our little family time...Shayna totally converted our whole house into a super pro wrestling house."
Like all right-thinking people, they've gravitated toward the Horsemen. Nearly 30 years after they first came onto the scene, the power of the idea is still that strong.
It's easy, in fact, to place their Horsemen analogues. Ronda—the blond, bombastic champion—is Flair. Marina, her rock, is Arn. Jessamyn, young and not quite ready to cede dominance to Ronda forever, is Tully. And Shayna is Ole, the holdover from a previous generation.
|Champion||Ric Flair||Ronda Rousey||Wooo!|
|Enforcer||Arn Anderson||Marina Shafir||Double A|
|Heir Apparent||Tully Blanchard||Jessamyn Duke||Slingshot Suplex|
|Veteran Presence||Ole Anderson||Shayna Baszler||Wrecking Crew|
But just because you can make a comparison doesn't mean you should. What made the Horsemen special was each man's individual accomplishments and pedigree. It was a special conglomerate because they were all champions in their own right.
The women's version has just one star—Rousey. The other women merely float in her orbit. Duke has yet to prove herself. Shafir hasn't even made her professional debut. Baszler, a gutsy and valiant fighter, has never stepped up and proved herself to be a legitimate world-class competitor.
This isn't the Four Horsemen. It's Lady Flair and the Job Squad.
Should there be a Four Horsewomen?
MMA and pro wrestling share a common heritage. In many ways they are mirror images of each other. It makes sense for concepts to float between them, the way Sonnen borrowed Superstar Billy Graham and unleashed him on an unsuspecting populace.
Graham, however, was an archetype. His patter, in turn, was borrowed from Muhammad Ali and Thunderbolt Patterson.
The Horsemen are bigger than that. They are a piece of Americana, among the greatest performance artists of their era. You cannot possibly recreate them. Should you try, you could never succeed.
Take something else from wrestling. Be silly. Mimic a match before training. Be the next NWO. Carry an oversized cell phone and call yourselves the Dangerous Alliance. But leave the Horsemen out of it. Some shoes are too big to fill.