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The Ultimate Fighter, Fighters, and Artists

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I usually fast-forward through most of the inane idiocy that is “house life” on The Ultimate Fighter. But in one of their best episodes last night, what happened outside the cage was far more compelling than what happened in it.

Training the cameras on Roy Nelson as he sat on the porch talking shop, he described his strategy for the upcoming match: he was going to get Kimbo Slice on the ground, pin him in a crucifix position, and hit him lightly but constantly and conspicuously until the referee was forced to stop the fight. Sure enough, when it came time to step in, Kimbo was able to land a few shots in each round and display a little takedown defense, but Roy got him to the ground both rounds and executed perfectly, forcing Herb Dean to declare him the winner after two separate salvos of indefensible head-taps.

What we saw from Kimbo outside of the fight was a training regimen and a discussion of his struggle to make the transition from fighter to martial artist; inside, we saw some new dimensions to his game but sadly, the same inexperience on the ground that we figured would cost him the fight.

Frankly, the fight was a snoozer and I thought it was the least interesting part of the episode. What interested me were all the little looks at the differences between men who are fighters and men who are, and want to become, stars in the UFC.

Kimbo certainly knows how to win a fight, but Nelson knows how to win at MMA. And that made me ask myself: “Why do we watch this?” Are we here to see fighters fight, or for artists to ply their trade skillfully? How much does heart matter in this game?

I watched the Kimbo backlash after his EliteXC run centering on his lack of MMA skill, but this morning I woke up to something entirely new: commenters and Tweeters ripping on Nelson for running the MMA version of the four corners offense or the QB kneel, the “lay and sway”. How fickle we are, to penalize Kimbo Slice for not being an artist and Roy Nelson for not being a fighter!

I thought the editor’s choices of stories for the episode also telling. We saw Marcus Jones, a “sensitive man” who talked about his love of Dungeons and Dragons, of flowers and of comic books. Rampage Jackson asked him if he “needs a tampon”. If Marcus was “on his period”. Jackson, who talked trash all episode well before he finished the season and claimed to quit MMA because of the trash talked at him. James McSweeney, who displayed the quick temper endemic to men who punch other men in the face for a living. Fighters, all.

But if you watch the fight again, look at Kimbo’s face; it jumped out at me from the opening bell. He didn’t look like the cocksure street brawler that I was used to seeing. He was lost in thought; you could see the gears behind his eyes rattling along as he went through the infinite series of “if-then” possibilities a practitioner of MMA needs to think about. He looked strained, like a man struggling through an LSAT, but he wasn’t just fighting anymore. If you – and Kimbo – take one thing from Slice’s loss Wednesday night, remember that look. It’s the face of a man who’s trying to cross over from fighter to artist.

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About Matt DeTura