If you’re a regular reader of this column — nobody does Sudoku anymore and you’ve got to have something to do while you poop — then you might assume that I only think about two things: politics and combat sports. It’s the reason why most of these articles are deliberate, sometimes misguided, attempts to superimpose the generalities of one onto a bit of news involving the other, and also why my browser history looks like that of the world’s laziest, yet most specific private detective.
This column will do nothing to dissuade such assumptions.
Last Saturday night, Stipe Miocic knocked out Fabricio Werdum to become the new UFC heavyweight champion. While not a monumental upset, it was definitely not expected: Werdum had just lifted the title from presumptive long-term champion Cain Velasquez, and, at 36 years old, was believed to be entering the prime of his career, complementing his otherworldly jiu-jitsu with a powerful kickboxing game. He was patient, calculating and complete. Miocic, a better-than-competent wrestle-boxer who earned this shot on the strength of a modest three-fight win streak, was thought to be a minor challenge, a footnote on the path to a Werdum/Velasquez rematch.
Obviously things didn’t turn out that way, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Werdum, perhaps unconcerned with Miocic’s punching power, perhaps caught up in the magnitude of defending the title in his hometown of Curitiba, Brazil, abandoned the strategy I’m sure his team had devised coming into the fight, and waded forward, winging 1-2s at Miocic. Miocic had never been known as a KO artist, though he’d finished several opponents by way of prolonged beatdowns. But these are heavyweights, and when you combine forward momentum with the natural power that comes from being a human built like the granite monster from “A Neverending Story,” you can be sure that someone is going to be woken up with smelling salts, answering every question “Flerp” for the rest of the day.
Miocic, back pedaling, rammed a single straight right hand right down Werdum’s pipe, sending him into the kind of face-plant that belly-flop competition judges might call a “9.5.” The crowd went silent, Miocic and his team went completely bonkers and, somewhere halfway around the world, a butterfly that had flapped its wings six weeks before sat twirling its mustache.
Because fate is a cruel and mischievous bitch, the conversation leading up to this fight centered on how Werdum was primed to become the greatest heavyweight of all time. Such talk wasn’t entirely unfounded; this was the man who finally toppled Fedor Emelianenko, submitting him with a triangle choke in the first round of their Strikeforce fight. He then returned to the UFC and cut a swath through a series of legit heavyweight talent, including a KO of the iron-chinned Mark Hunt, a TKO of Travis Browne and a guillotine submission of Cain Velasquez. His skills were finally all clicking together, and a lengthy reign seemed inevitable.
I say all this to try and get something of a grasp on approximately what “greatness” entails. Best I can tell, it is a composite of actual ability and proven track record in one’s field, propped up with more than a bit of partisan mythology and speculation. Emelianenko, still arguably the consensus GOAT, certainly did his legacy many favors: defeating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira three times, dominating Mirko Cro Cop, besting Semmy Chilt and Heath Herring in the infancy of his career, and generally fighting not only two weight classes above where he probably could have if he had just cut down on the ice cream, but against a succession of roid-monsters in the notoriously regulation-light PRIDE Fighting Championships. However, he also did himself no favors by taking freak show fights against professional wrestlers and sub-par competition, then capping off his Strikeforce run with three consecutive defeats.
Conor McGregor is another pertinent example. Though he largely built his following and fortune on an outsized public persona, he had the skills to back it up, slicing through the UFC’s featherweight division and knocking out long-time champion Jose Aldo in a scant 13 seconds. He followed that up with an ill-advised move up to welterweight for a fight against Nate Diaz, in which he was knocked out in the second round. Contract negotiations with the UFC have stalled, but McGregor wants to stay busy…
…so of course he’s angling for a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, and the two sides are legitimately trying to make this happen. It won’t, but let’s say for a minute that it does. Let’s further say that McGregor beats, even stops, Mayweather. It would be a massive accomplishment, but would it derail Mayweather’s status as perhaps the greatest boxer of his generation? It’s hard to say. Taint it, perhaps, but complete erasure is another matter entirely.
Believe it or not, there’s a parallel here to current state of Democratic presidential politics. Bernie Sanders, who has done a great deal of good in his role as long-time senator, is stepping up in a big way during this primary. In many ways, he carries with him the same attributes as many all-time great fighters: a solid and consistent record, a series of wins at the highest levels of his chosen field and a quasi-cult following to drive the whole thing forward.
He’s not going to win this primary. He’s just not; the math is against him, and math doesn’t lie. He and his supporters will likely carry the fight all the way to the convention, which is worrisome for Democratic voters as a whole, as Clinton’s camp will have precious few months to woo the contingent of Sanders supporters to a more general cause.
I don’t profess to know how Sanders will proceed when this primary is finally over. He says he’ll do everything in his power to stop Trump from being elected, and I can’t help but believe him. His supporters, however, might be another story, and I understand it — I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.
There is a feeling, I think, among Sanders backers, that if he doesn’t win the nomination, it will somehow cancel out all the good work he’s done, and will render him ineffectual for the rest of his career; that he will be de-legitimized, and so will they. But it’s not like that — it doesn’t have to be. Sanders has done so much good. He will continue to do so much more, and supporting him and his cause is not mutually exclusive from being cognizant of the larger stakes here.
Sanders is smart; he knows this, and it’s time to start planting the notion with his followers that taking their ball and going home is not the answer. He certainly won’t. If his acolytes are true believers, they won’t either.