A small moment in the UFC 262 prelims hinted at a better future for the promotion. You probably missed it when it happened. But, let’s look into it.
In the second match, middleweight Jordan Wright made the capacity crowd lose its collective mind with a flurry of strikes that ended his bout with Jordan Pickett barely a minute into the contest. It was an impressive showing. In just his third UFC fight, Wright chased Pickett around the mat, yanked him into a devastating knee and beat the living fuck out of him while he was huddled over on the ground. The stoppage came quickly. It had to.
Wright was in the zone from the moment he walked out. I think I have an idea why.
Take a look at Wright’s walkout and see if you notice anything.
Do you hear that? Do you know what that is?
Jordan Wright got himself ready to pummel another human being into submission with a trap remix of the Guts Theme from the anime Berserk. If those words made any sense to you, you know how much that rocks.
Berserk is a dark and moody masterpiece that centers around Guts, a swordsman whose skill in battle is matched only by the weight of his psychological baggage. Like all the best battle anime, it’s painfully beautiful. As a show about the burdens of warriors, it’s perfect inspiration for a martial artist. And after news came a few days later that Berserk’s creator Kentaro Miura passed away, the moment was fitting tribute in retrospect.
Wright is hardly the first MMA guy to cite anime as a pivotal influence. Takashi Sato (who walked out to a Berserk song himself less than a year ago) started competing in judo after his father gave him a manga — inspiring him to fight. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya credits Naruto as a guiding force in his life.
While anime’s influence on a generation of fighters is undeniable, battle shonen like Dragon Ball Z may hold the key to breaking through the UFC’s promotional malaise.
UFC hypes up its big fights in largely the same manners. The company plays them up like wrestling matches. It makes sense. Circus promoters founded the company, and wrestlers have filled its roster since the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament. In the mixture of styles mixed martial arts necessitates, all of the company’s promotional bullshit would be right at home in the WWE.
We have classics like “every fighter hates their opponent” and “this fight is the most fightey fight of all fights” popping up event after event. Everything generally feels the same. That taste only really subsides when faced with actual enmity or narratives that stretch far beyond the octagon. But with the UFC’s newfound obsession with rematches and trilogies, the stories that animate the top of so many fight cards wind up stale and hollow.
But battle anime operate on a different set of rules. It can be hard to see in shows like Dragon Ball, Naruto and Yu Yu Hakusho, where demonic antagonists lurk at the end of legendary martial arts tournament arcs. But the thing that really animates shows about people who hit people is the sense of character progression from start to finish. When Goku goes Super Saiyan, it’s the countless hours of training and the unending motivation to push past his own limits that gives the moment its depth and weight. When Rock Lee drops the weights in his fight against Gaara, we’re astonished at how a chakra-challenged loser managed to transform himself into a genius.
It’s not always about defeating evil. It’s about outcasts staking out their place in the world through guts and hard work.
The one thing the UFC should never be strapped for is narrative. Every person who decides to make their living trying to kick the shit out of other people is inherently fascinating. Beyond that, it’s just about filling in the blanks as to why they got there. Are they like Adesanya, who started kickboxing so nobody could pick on him anymore? Are they like Jon Jones, who was 19 with a kid and no job prospects and found out he could practically download techniques he saw off the internet?
But instead of exploring their people, why they fight and what it means to grow in this line of work, every promo package hits the same numbed out marks. It’s particularly insidious when you remember so much of MMA’s popularity came because it grew up as the alternative to the scripted storylines of pro wrestling. By adopting the same marketing techniques as its rival and predecessor, the UFC and other promotions are eating away at the sense of reality that made them a big deal in the first place.
Fighting is competitive by nature. Please stop trying to convince me every single fight is personal with the same paint-by-numbers trash talk. Give me some Yusuke vs. Jin energy. Give me dedicated warriors with conflicting motives trying to reach the pinnacle of human achievement. Give me guys who like each other but can’t stand on the mountaintop until one knocks the other off. Give me anime.