Anthony “Showtime” Pettis has nabbed more column inches than the gun control debate over the past few weeks. The 26-year-old Milwaukeean has not only established his place at the top of the MMA food chain, but he is one of a few fighters who has signaled that the sport is entering into the next stage of its evolution.
In our 200,000 years on this planet, humans have developed a world filled with the kind of awe-inspiring innovation that would be, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, indistinguishable from magic in the eyes of our ancestors.
Despite the colossal technological, scientific and philosophical leaps we have made, it seems that we have only recently discovered the most efficient means of expressing the most fundamental of biological imperatives: Our instinct for self-preservation.
This seems utterly improbable, yet the undeniable truth is that our knowledge of unarmed combat was, until only a few years ago, practically equivalent to a first century understanding of flight. Indeed, we developed the means to fly a man to the moon before we figured out the most effective way to defend ourselves.
Armed with current knowledge, I cringe when I think back to the first “fight” I was ever involved in as an impressionable 11-year-old boy. I say “fight” because the truth is that I was goaded into a physical confrontation by virtue of an imagined slight. But I digress.
Having internalised the filmography of Jean Claude Van Damme, I started the fight by karate-chopping my unsuspecting foe square in the nose. As my unwitting antagonist stood in front of me, with tears streaming down his face, I decided to finish him with a sidekick to the face, in true Mortal Kombat fashion.
Fortunately for the conscience I would later develop, the kick felt short of the poor lad’s face by about six or seven inches. In retrospect, witnesses to this bizarre scene must have thought I had assaulted an innocent child and then launched into an impromptu martial arts demonstration like a victorious Tekken character.
My point, you ask? At no time did it occur to me to shoot for a takedown, secure double underhooks or throw an inside leg kick. In common with everyone else at the time, my knowledge of fighting had been informed almost entirely by a steady diet of 80’s action films.
The evolution of our understanding of fighting had, until relatively recently, been constrained by normative values that eschewed violence in its purest form. Sure, certain fighting disciplines had existed in the mainstream, in isolation from competing and—as we would later find out— complementary forms of violence, but a collective approach to fighting was largely absent.
We now have a much fuller understanding of what is likely to work in a real fight—even if MMA, strictly speaking, is not a real fight. In 2013, attempting a standing sidekick against anyone with even a passing interest in MMA is liable to end with you on your back, feasting on the other person’s fists.
Since the mid-noughties, MMA “theory” has been largely stagnant, after a decade-long pugilistic enlightenment, leading to the fusion of various fighting styles into a single potent approach that blends elements of wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai and Brazillian jiu jitsu.
This particular mixture of styles has been so successful and so thoroughly reinforced over the past eight or nine years that it is tempting to think that mixed martial arts has reached its final form. The sport has undergone a period of homogenization that has led to a qualitative boom while simultaneously stifling its future development.
Fighters have, quite understandably, stuck to a formula with a proven track record of success. Unfortunately, one could argue that this has suppressed creativity. Still, there is reason to think that this period of creative constipation may be coming to an end.
Fighters like Anthony Pettis, who are willing to think outside the box, are garnering more and more attention not just because they are flashy, but also because they are effective. They have shown that there are paths to success within mixed martial arts that go beyond its familiar core elements.
Disciplines like Karate and Taekwondo are not as effective as the core disciplines of MMA, but the likes of Pettis, Lyoto Machida, Ronda Rousey, Benson Henderson, Daron Cruickshank, et al. have been able to adapt their backgrounds in traditional martial arts to a style that is suitable for the cage.
For several years, Anderson Silva existed almost as an anomaly within the sport. We looked forward to watching him compete not just because he was the best, but because his creative style was practically unique.
Perhaps it took time for other fighters to catch on, or maybe we just needed a few more of them to take some risks inside the cage and have them pay off. With the demonstrable success of these techniques, we can expect to see more and more fighters implementing them into their game.
This may be the next evolution of the sport: more creativity, more diversity and more borrowed techniques from traditional martial arts.
Increasing diversity within the sport can only be a good thing. As compelling as MMA is in its current form, I can’t help but imagine how exciting it will be when a fighter like Anthony Pettis is more the rule than the exception.