Last Saturday at Portland's Rose Garden, Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira met in what is already being considered a classic mixed martial arts (MMA) bout. The fight was initially perceived as an exercise in nostalgia — a sop to two aging fighters who were either too pigheaded or too punch drunk to accept their pending retirement. Fans showed little enthusiasm for the fight, referring to it as a match-up between two dinosaurs. And it's true that both Couture and Nogueira, and even the language MMA fans use to refer to them, are veering toward obsolescence.
As a sport, mixed martial arts moves with ruthless speed. Couture and Nogueira are regularly referred to as legends of the sport — which is just another way of saying they're models from a different era. At 46, Couture is a grizzled embodiment of will and testosterone. At 33, Nogueira has amassed a litany of injuries that have left him with the body of a man at least a decade older. No knowledge of MMA is required to understand this. Everything is written in the body. There are crevices and caves, things that have broken and healed askew. As with the bodies of all fighters, there are almost too many stories, too much narrative, told upon the surface.
This is one of the paradoxes about fighting that most intrigues me. It was what led me to write a novel about MMA, and to center the writing of that novel around the attempt to capture the rhythm, structure, and physical feel of a single fight. On the one hand, every fight adheres to the most basic of narrative structures. There is a winner and a loser. There may also be the story of a comeback, or a grudge match, or a fall — there are only so many stories to be told, even if they are good stories that each have their own persuasion.
But, to me, the real drama of a fight is in the material details of what happens in the ring. Formally speaking, fighting is unexpectedly close to fiction. In many ways, it is a thing of total artifice. It takes place in a ring or a cage; there are clearly demarcated rounds; there are rules and regulations and a referee. But even within that morass of construct, a good fight touches upon something unmistakably urgent and unmistakably real. That's not unlike what fiction strives to achieve.
In writing the book, I kept the structure as minimal as possible. There is not very much backstory, and the novel very rarely steps outside the perspective of its two central characters. I always thought the real story was located in the bodies of the fighters. What I hoped to do in writing about MMA was to achieve as kinetic and immediate a language as possible, one that would be less about "story" and more about the physiological and psychological state of the fighter and of fighting.
Cal, the central character of the book, is only 29. But in almost every way, the book is about the process of aging. About the fracture between the mind and the body; about the moment when the body suddenly demands that you stop taking it for granted in the old way. In the end, Couture vs. Nogueira exceeded all expectation. Both fighters came with something more than skill and training; they brought into the ring the charisma that all great fighters posses. Fighters are fearsome people. They have a deep capacity for violence. But when a great fighter is in the ring, you fear for him. You wince at every blow; your heart leaps into your throat when he is in danger.
The fighter who best exemplified this particular form of charisma was, of course, Muhammad Ali. But to some extent both Couture and Nogueira also possess the same quality, which is why they inspire more than simple admiration in their fans, why they cause their audience to sit in fear and anticipation. On Saturday at the Rose Garden, what the crowd feared most was not each fighter's concrete opponent, but the disembodied specter of age, which is the only thing that will finally beat both fighters.
They have so much heart, and so much skill, but at some point that will not be enough. And that sense — which sat heavy in the stadium, despite the euphoria of the crowd, despite the dazzle of the lights and the sense of a show that had successfully delivered — was what made the fight such an unexpected triumph. Couture vs. Nogueira was a titanic match, one that captured the essential story that haunts every fight. It happens to all of us. But for some of us, it happens on a stage, in front of thousands, for all the world to see.