(Editor's note: A satirical look at MMA's debut at the Rio 2016 Olympics.)
RIO DE JANEIRO – The unofficial slogan of these Rio Olympics makes the case that “One Little Insect Can’t Beat a Whole Country.” True as that may be, we learned today that an arachnid can invigorate a whole country—all while doing some severe damage to the face of another man. In front of a packed stands at Carioca Arena this afternoon, Anderson “The Spider” married slick movement with accurate striking, landing a spinning backfist to the head of Britain’s Michael Bisping.
By the time Bisping had cleared the Spider’s cobwebs the fight was called off and Silva had won Olympic gold in this debut year for mixed martial in the Summer Games. At age 41, he became one of the oldest Olympic athletes to medal at these Games. And if indeed this was his last fight as has been widely rumored, Silva cemented his twin legacies as both an iconic MMA fighter and an iconic Brazilian sports hero.
“It’s an incredible feeling that reminds me of the first time I won the belt, but somehow feels much different,” Silva said afterwards, through an interpreter. “To accomplish this in Brazil—my homeland and also the ancestral home for this great sport—makes it even more special.”
Last month Silva had declined an opportunity to fight Daniel Cormier as a last-minute replacement at UFC 200, citing his preparation for the Olympics. That decision drew ire at the time—not least from the UFC’s inflammable president, Dana White—but looks wise in retrospect. For his four fights in the MMA event, Silva looked uncommonly fresh and limber, recalling the fighter in his prime years. “For me, fighting these three-minute rounds helped focus my fightplan,” Silva said. “The recovery wasn’t bad, either.”
Silva became the second Brazilian Olympic MMA champ at this event. Last night, in front of a comparably raucous crowd at Carioca, Jose Aldo exacted a measure of revenge, outpointing Ireland’s Conor McGregor in the lightweight final. Other gold medalists so far have included featherweight Demetrious Johnson (United States), welterweight Dominick Cruz (U.S.) and upset winner Khabib Nurmagomedov (Russia) in the light heavyweight division.
In tomorrow night’s much-anticipated final bout, Ronda Rousey fights for the women’s gold medal against Brazil’s Cristiane Justino. Having won a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Games in Beijing, Rousey is already assured of becoming one of a small handful of athletes to win medals in two different sports. The Rousey-Justino fight is expected to rival television audiences for gymnastics, track and swimming and continue the ratings boom that MMA has provided for rights-holding broadcasters.
Mixed martial arts had to ground-and-pound simply to get on the Olympic docket. Among many of the hidebound IOC members, MMA drew opposition on the grounds that it was simply too violent to be staged at the Games. American combat sports advocate, Joseph Rogan, made a compelling case that so many of MMA’s component disciplines—wrestling, boxing, judo, Greco-Roman wrestling—are already Olympic sports. Rogan later added that gruesome injuries can occur in virtually every sport, a point that proved prescient in the first day of these Games when this and this happened.
In order to address safety concerns, the Olympic rules closely resembled those of successful amateur tournaments. Fighters wore shin guards and 8-ounce gloves, far heavier than conventional UFC gloves. Fights lasted three rounds of three minutes each.
In keeping with the IMMAF, fighters were required to fight at their “walking around” weight and had to weigh in within two pounds for each of their fights, eliminating the weight fluctuations and potentially dangerous weight cuts. As a result most athletes fought in higher divisions than they do in the UFC. “If anything it was nice to concentrate on fighting,” said Johny Hendricks, an American heavyweight, “and not be overly worried about the scales.”
Critics were also concerned that a tournament format would recall the UFC’s wild and wooly early days when winning fighters competed multiple times in the same event. In the 16-draw tournament format, winning and losing fighters were granted a minimum 72 hours between fights and winners were required medical clearance before moving on. At the 2016 IMMAF World Championships, out of 210 participants in 13 weight categories and 190 matches, there were just seven injury byes—usually on account of head injuries or lacerations—after the start of competition. A similar ratio held in Rio.
After initial concerns that fighters under UFC contract would not be able compete in the Games, competitors were pleasantly surprised by the flexibility. “Thankfully, the UFC realized that having the best pros—not amateurs—compete in Rio was going to legitimize mixed martial arts,” says Bisping. “For whatever the UFC may have lost in the short term, the promotion gained so much more by the worldwide interest generated by these Olympics.”
McGregor was more direct. “Let me get this straight. Trampoline—that thing kids do in the yard before it gets boring—is in the Olympics? Dressage—and I don’t even know what that is or I’m pronouncing that right—is in the Olympics? And we’re even having a discussion about mixed martial arts, this growing, global, two-gendered sport with some of the most elite athletes in the world? Give me a $*%ing break. Thankfully, common sense prevailed.”