The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 193 | Fighting Spirit: On Mark Muñoz, Rocky, Blair Butler’s Heart, Hajime No Ippo, and the draw of the combat sports narrative

Leaving Proof 193 | Fighting Spirit: On Mark Muñoz, Rocky, Blair Butler’s Heart, Hajime No Ippo, and the draw of the combat sports narrative
Published on Tuesday, July 9, 2013 by
Still buzzing with excitement over UFC 162, Zedric Dimalanta revisits Blair Butler’s MMA-themed comics miniseries Heart, digresses on Jōji Morikawa’s Hajime No Ippo, and muses on what we find so compelling about combat sports narratives.

All I can say about the most recent UFC pay-per-view is, “Wow.” There was a lot of great mixed martial arts technique on display—although there were the odd sloggy fights as well—and the storylines, if you will, made the fights that much more compelling for the plugged-in viewer.

Edson Barboza (left) became the first UFC fighter to record to knockouts by way of leg kicks.

Edson Barboza (left) became the first UFC fighter to record two knockouts by way of leg kicks.

The card proper began explosively with former UFC heavyweight title contender Gabriel “Napão” Gonzaga knocking out Dave “Pee-Wee” Herman in just 17 seconds (the argument can probably be made that referee Kim Winslow’s stoppage came too quickly—although as always, I will take a premature halt over a too-late one any day). The next fight however, was a sterling example of what an elite kickboxer with sharp takedown defense can do against a grappling/submission specialist with decent, but not exceptional, footwork and striking ability. Once-beaten Brazilian lightweight Edson “Junior” Barboza practically liquified Rafaello “Tractor” Oliveira’s lead leg with vicious leg kick after vicious leg kick on the way to a second round TKO victory. The muay thai expert got in 28(!) leg kicks in the first round alone, each landing against his countryman’s limb with a wince-inducing crack. When, early in the second round, the left pants leg of Oliveira’s shorts briefly rode up in a failed shoot attempt, the Las Vegas audience audibly gasped at the sight of the fighter’s thigh, which was in horrendous shape, red and swollen all over. Referee Herb Dean made the right decision in calling an end to the bout after a visibly limping Oliveira was knocked down multiple times by leg kicks and it was clear that the brave-but-outclassed fighter was staring at the very real possibility of permanent damage to his appendage.

The next two fights featured decision wins—Ireland’s “Stormin'” Norman Parke earned a unanimous nod over Japanese judo/boxing specialist Kazuki Tokudome and Andrew “Highlight” Craig eked out a split decision win over cagey veteran Chris “The Crippler” Leben in tactical fights—that left the audience restless. And then it was time for the middleweight bout between former Oklahoma State grappler Mark “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” Muñoz and Tim “The Barbarian” Boetsch.

Let me set the match up for those of you who don’t follow the combat sports. Mark Muñoz is one of the most decorated high school and collegiate wrestlers currently active in mixed martial arts. He was a two-time California State Wrestling Champion (189 lbs.) in high school, an Asics First Team All-American, and the 1996 NHSCA National High School Champion. While studying towards a bachelor of science degree in Health Science at Oklahoma State, Muñoz earned back-to-back All-America honors at 197 pounds, finished third in the 2000 NCAA Division I National championships, and won the Division I title in 2001, becoming the first Division I athlete of Filipino descent to win a National Championship in any sport. Muñoz was also a member of the FILA Junior World Wrestling Team while in college, landing second place in the FILA World Championships Junior Freestyle (182.5 lbs.) in 1998.

Muñoz' TKO of Chris Leben set him up for a title elimination bout.

Muñoz’ (left) TKO of Chris Leben set him up for a title eliminator bout.

Muñoz became a professional mixed martial arts fighter at the relatively late age of 29 in 2007 as a light heavyweight (205. lbs), reeling off five straight wins before being knocked out by the hearing-impaired fighting phenom Matt “The Hammer” Hamill in his UFC debut in 2009. Afterwards, the decorated former Oklahoma State Cowboy dropped to the middleweight division (185 lbs.) and then set about compiling an impressive 7-1 record against a succession of just-a-hair-below-elite middleweights (among them Brazilian jiu-jitsu savant Demian Maia and an at-the-tail-end-of-his-prime Chris Leben) and gatekeepers that placed him in the short list of fighters lined up for a shot at the middleweight title held by MMA legend Anderson “The Spider” Silva (more on him later).

A knockout loss to Chris Weidman dropped Muñoz down the middleweight pecking order.

A knockout loss to Chris Weidman dropped Muñoz down the middleweight pecking order.

And then the Muñoz train went careening off the tracks. Scheduled to fight Chael “The American Gangster” Sonnen in a title eliminator fight set for February 2012, Muñoz had to withdraw due to an injury sustained in training (Sonnen would go on to fight Silva for the title twice, losing both times). Returning to action eight months later, Muñoz faced undefeated up-and-comer Chris “The All-American” Weidman (more on him later), a fresh-faced grappler whose collegiate wrestling accomplishments rivaled Muñoz’ own. The fight, Muñoz’ first as the main event headliner and another title eliminator, was a disaster for the older man. Showing clear evidence of cage rust, Muñoz was utterly dominated in stand-up and on the ground, and was knocked out in the second round by a combination of accurate elbows and fists. (It would be later revealed that Muñoz also broke his foot early on in the bout.)

Losing a shot at the middleweight title two times in a row, dealing with the injury bug, and perhaps facing the prospect that he was getting older and his chances at landing a shot at the title were shrinking, Muñoz sank into depression, stepped away from the cage, and fell into a pattern of binge-eating, eventually ballooning to a patently unhealthy 260 pounds. Little was heard of Muñoz until he was announced as an opponent for Tim Boetsch on the undercard of UFC 162, where the main event was a Silva vs. Weidman showdown for the title. In the publicity build-up to the event, images of Muñoz began circulating on the Internet, showing the dramatic weight loss the fighter underwent in preparation for the fight, dropping over 60 lbs. in the course of five months:


Muñoz dominated Boetsch en route to a unanimous decision win.

Muñoz dominated Boetsch en route to a unanimous decision win.

The fight against Boetsch started out, as most pro MMA fights do, with the combatants looking a little tentative and overly-cautious, taking the measure of each other’s tendencies and mindset. By the end the first round however, Boetsch had already scored a clean (and surprising) takedown although the round could have been scored either way. It was all Muñoz from the second round onwards, though, the elite grappler displaying his full arsenal of ground striking techniques and healthy submission defense on the way to a unanimous decision win and an emotional post-fight interview.

It’s hard for combat sports fiction to compete with the real-life drama of actual combat sports. The stakes are palpably higher in the latter, the emotions rawer, the action more visceral, and the context deeper and more meaningful.

Sylvester Stallone's screenplay for Rocky placed character over plot, to the film's ultimate benefit.

Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay for Rocky focused on character over plot, to the film’s ultimate benefit.

Combat sports fiction succeeds both as entertainment and as a window into the world of professional prizefighting the same way the spectacle of real combat sports does when it focuses less on the notion and action of the protagonist fighting a de facto “villain” in the ring or in the cage and more on the internal struggle for self-improvement and the battle against the gremlins of self-doubt, out-of-the-ring distractions, and sometimes, the temptation to gain an unfair advantage. Sure, there’s an inherent entertainment value to reading a well-drawn and well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat action sequence. And yes, framing a fight as some sort of good vs. evil (or even good vs. not-as-good) match-up lends a familiar and comforting structure to a narrative centered on combat sports. But the best combat sports stories are ultimately about the fighters, and not the fighting, because really, if readers/viewers want to see a good fight, they’re better off just reading about or watching the real thing. Rocky made viewers care about Sylvester Stallone’s mush-mouthed pugilist because they saw and understood the real person wearing the boxing gloves first and foremost. Rocky Balboa’s fights were an important part of the film, but ultimately, they served as the backdrop for a larger story about a washed-up fighter trying to earn a measure of self-respect the only way he knew how while negotiating a burgeoning, if awkward, romantic relationship. Rocky‘s genius is in the fact that towards the end of the film, with a battered and bruised Balboa awaiting the decision of a closely contested fight against world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, the audience is more interested in the (melo)drama of Rocky and Adrian seeking each other out in a crowded ring, as Bill Conti’s score soars in the background. The question of who won the fight is made almost irrelevant.

These are lessons not lost on writer Blair Butler with her work on Heart, an Image Comics miniseries about twentysomething Oren Redmond, who risks the relative security of a dead-end McJob for a professional career in mixed martial arts and finding purpose, a renewed sense of family, maturity, and genuine self-knowledge along the way. As I noted in last year’s review of the Heart trade paperback

heart-tp-review_001Readers uninterested in [the details of MMA] will still find a lot to like about the everyman protagonist and his attempt to make a decent living out of his passion, no matter how improbable success might be: The story’s core conflict transcends MMA and sports…

… Butler wisely refrains from turning the bouts into lazy, good-versus-evil caricatures, focusing instead on the internal struggle against self-doubt and fear that fighters contend with when faced with adversity in the cage. The result is a sustained sense of existential peril that persists even during fights where Redmond is matched against inferior competition. Away from the action in the cage, the narrative splits the spotlight between his on-going quarter-life crisis and the somewhat harsh economic realities of full-time training in what is still a relatively young professional sport. The parallel subplots of Redmond’s MMA career and his maturation as a person fully coalesce about three-fourths of the way through the book and—without giving too much away and spoiling the story—the denouement is genuinely affecting, showing that finding the courage and conviction to pursue one’s dreams is more important than actually achieving them.

The idea that compelling combat sports fiction is as much about “conquering oneself” as it is about conquering an opponent inside the arena is also something fans of Jōji “George” Morikawa’s Hajime No Ippo (marketed in North America as Fighting Spirit) are familiar with. The long-running manga—it is up to 101 trade paperback volumes as of 2012—revolves around the life and career of Ippo Makunouchi, a young Japanese featherweight boxer who discovers boxing as a means towards building his confidence and finds genuine camaraderie and a second family in the gym. The action and dialogue in Hajime No Ippo (both the manga and the anime adaptation it gave rise to) are stylized to the point of absurdity as it is in a lot of shonen entertainment, but again, the fights ultimately function as intermissions and signposts marking Ippo’s character growth and development: As he gains experience in the ring, so does he become a more mature and measured person outside of it and vice versa.

On that knockout…

Sometimes though, the real world of combat sports offers up a convenient excuse for viewers and fans to slot in their own hero vs. heel narratives. Take the case of last Saturday’s main event. For the past seven years, Anderson Silva has dominated the UFC’s middleweight division. He holds UFC records for the most all-time knockdowns scored (17), significant strike accuracy (67.8%), win streak (16), title fight victories (11), title fight defenses (10), and title reign length (2,460 days).

Silva is arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of the UFC era, but at some point, his standing as the face of elite MMA has suffered in the court of public opinion. Whether it was because of a certain aloofness to his manner, his penchant for taunting and clowning his opponents, or casual fans just plain getting tired of seeing him drop one challenger after another, there’s been the perception of late that he’s lost more than a bit of fan goodwill and going into Saturday night’s title bout, the champion could be seen as the antagonist to Chris Weidman’s rising star.

There are few real “villains” in the combat sports outside of, say, criminals and cheats like Panama Lewis and Javier Capetillo. As Butler and Morikawa’s comics works reflect, most fighters and trainers are just in there doing their job, and trying to become better at it by knocking the other guy out. And Silva, despite his occasional antics in the cage and on the press conference dais,  is still more hero than heel to most fans and that’s the way it should be. His cockiness is both an affectation meant for show and a fight psychology tactic: By “getting cute” and dropping his hands in an apparent show of disrespect for his foe’s striking skills, Silva works his way under his opponent’s skin and gets him to engage in a stand-up striker’s battle, where the rangy Brazilian has a muay thai and speed advantage over all of the UFC’s middleweights and probably all its welterweights and light heavyweights as well.

Silva’s taunting in Saturday’s fight did seem to have an edge of controlled desperation in it: It was shocking to see Weidman take Silva to the ground so easily in the first round and if there was ever an opponent that Silva needed to keep from applying pressure in the ground game, it was Weidman. But against someone with the one-punch knockout power and relative speediness of Chris Weidman however, all that taunting ended up costing Silva the fight and the title he has hoarded these past seven years:

If that knockout somehow looks familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen Robbie Peden’s knockout of a taunting Nate Campbell in their 2004 fight for the USBA super featherweight title:

A rematch is almost a given at this point, especially considering the way Silva lost the title: Not to take anything away from Weidman, who absolutely earned the middleweight belt, but I’m sure in the days to come, pundits and fans will come out of the woodwork to suggest that there were mitigating circumstances surrounding his win. And the rematch will offer another tantalizing narrative: that of the former champion, blinded by his own hubris, on a path to redemption. And waiting on the wings? Who knows, but it could be Muñoz, finally getting his chance to fight for the ultimate middleweight prize. Stallone, Butler, or Morikawa couldn’t have scripted it better.

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