It’s hard enough to be successful. To be original is about as close to impossible as you can get without Tom Cruise and suspension wire.
If you want to be both, you basically need some kind of trickery. You need more than skill; you need a little pixie dust.
Michael Page, probably the biggest phenom in the Bellator MMA promotion, might be the rare professional who could conceivably thread that needle. He hasn’t proven his mettle against top competition (and he'll need to), but he has the tools to get there. The electrifying welterweight from London will try to build his bridge a little farther out when he fights Nah-Shon Burrell Friday at Bellator 128.
“I think creativity is one of the most important things, to me, in fighting,” Page said in an interview with Bleacher Report. “I want to let people know who I am. I want people to enjoy what I do. To me, everything is about expression, about not being bound by fear of losing or your opponent.”
The son of two kung fu fighters (his father was his first instructor), Page, 27, is undoubtedly skilled, bringing to bear a striking arsenal so difficult to predict that it's, well, unpredictable. It's also incredibly effective; he's 5-0 with five stoppage wins, all in the first round, with three by knockout. But that still doesn’t capture it. One of the knockouts came by tornado kick. Another happened in 10 seconds.
At the same time, he takes heat for what many fans see as a taunting style inside the cage—a charge Page acknowledges but humbly deflects. His soft-spoken interview style stands in direct contrast to his brash on-camera persona. It makes you wonder which persona is closest to the real thing, and whether or to what extent such questions matter when choosing which athletes to support.
Fine questions to ponder, but because of that striking there's no question Page is going to wow the living socks off of anyone tuned to the proper channel. After winning just about everything there was to win as an amateur kickboxer, Page tried MMA. The talent was there. So were the physical tools—he stands 6’3” with a 77-inch reach and, what's more, he says he doesn’t have to cut much weight from his default mass of 84 kilograms (about 185 pounds) to reach the welterweight limit.
But when he started, the Page precedent wasn't entirely set. It still isn't. Sure, there are the obvious antecedents like Anderson Silva and Anthony Pettis. Page is nowhere near as accomplished as those guys, but his MMA striking, in its own context, might deliver more pure voltage than the others. His footwork and speed are excellent, but it's that creativity that really galvanizes the needle. There's jumping. There is also spinning. Sometimes there is both at the same time. And at the end of it are devastating, heat-seeking blows.
It's that universal, video game sort of style that anyone can cheer. Though it's rooted in his parents’ kung fu, it can’t be traced to a single influence.
That's entirely intentional, by the way. Page likes to watch Jackie Chan flicks and other action movies. He'll see a certain move and “my brain will just start working,” he says. In other words, it's the same thing we all do when we watch those movies. He just has the tools to actually, successfully deploy it in an actual fight. So, that's crazy.
Another source of his unorthodoxy? The ultimate source of unorthodoxy: kids.
“I love watching the juniors fight,” he said. “With the younger ones, there are no guidelines. They will try anything. But [older fighters] are safer, less creative. A certain move might be technically wrong, but maybe I can try it. Maybe it will work.”
It's not hard to see the dancing elements of fighting when Page is in the cage. And therein lies the foundation for those claims of arrogance, with the way he lowers his hands and extends his neck, begging the other fighter to take a swing before, in the next instant, that poor dude is flat on his back.
That sort of thing gets you noticed, but it will earn you some detractors, too. Page defends himself against critics by asserting that his fights are a creative extension of his personality, not the personality itself.
“A lot of people think I’m disrespectful because of my fighting style,” Page said. “But I was raised on martial arts. I bow when I walk into the class and I bow when I’m leaving class. Both of my parents were in that world, pushing me forward.”
But Page also is mindful of fans. Many fighters are quick to shrug off public opinion or retaliate against critics with a list of credentials. Page stops short of doing so, addressing his supporters while ignoring the chance to directly address detractors.
“Even the supporters, when they come up and say they know you’re going to win the fight, that adds pressure. What people say is powerful,” he said. “They don’t even realize they’re doing it sometimes; they’re just trying to support you. But it does add pressure. I just have to worry about myself. That helps.”
On Friday, Page will probably feel some pressure. It's only his second fight of 2014, on the heels of a 2013 that saw him fight only twice because of a knee injury (he says the injury is now behind him). He'll have a lot to lose against a big underdog in Burrell, a power puncher with stints in the UFC and Strikeforce. Burrell packs enough wallop to end anyone's night but lacks the wrestling pedigree that, if overcome, could convince critics Page can hang at the highest levels of MMA.
If nothing else, Page doesn't have to convince anyone to watch.
“I don’t think I have too much more to prove to anybody,” Page said. “I just have to go and do me.”
The Beaten Path is a series at Bleacher Report highlighting intriguing prospects in MMA. For the previous interview in the series, click here. All quotes obtained firsthand. Scott Harris covers MMA and other topics for Bleacher Report and other places. Follow him on Twitter if you feel so inclined.