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I have a distinct memory of the first time my jaw went slack watching a mixed martial arts fight. I was 16, give or take a year, and a trip to the video store -- which has long since been paved over -- had netted a desperation rental of UFC 2. I do not recall what the motivation was to pick it up, but when you're a teenager, ad copy that promises "the bloodiest, most barbaric show in history" is probably reason enough.
That was the event in which Royce Gracie won the promotion's first and only 16-man tournament. While that was obviously impressive, and watching a slightly built man in a gi control more intimidating opponents had its intended effect, it was another bout that might have done more for the UFC's popularity at the time: Patrick Smith against "ninja" Scott Morris, with Smith pounding Morris until his mouthpiece popped out and blood began shooting from his face like a sprinkler. Morris had no concept of the mount, had no idea how to escape, and wound up getting smashed. It was so severe that Smith himself stopped attacking, having an innate sense that he'd better quit before someone went on trial.
It was terrible. And we watched it over and over again.
This was the moment when viewers could fully understand the gravity of what these guys were doing. Gracie tapping out larger men was impressive by itself, but what we needed to see was the worst-case scenario -- the punishment for failure. It gave Gracie's performances far more weight than if we hadn't understood what he was working to avoid.
(The argument that Teila Tuli's flying tooth in the first fight of UFC 1 did the same thing is reasonable, but the fact is that most fans were enrolled through the home video release of UFC 2 -- which somehow happened before the distributor released UFC 1.)
That's one way of articulating it; the other is to just accept that a lot of us have a fascination with violence stamped in our DNA. It's why the "Saw" franchise will never stop at seven movies, no matter what the studio says.
Morris/Smith was our first real concept of fight gravity, but it was also sensational footage: the 'Oh, s---' play of the era.
What Anthony Pettis did Thursday was provide a very clear mark in the evolution of what we consider a highlight. The kick that was circulated online, replayed on "SportsCenter" and celebrated as a landmark fight sequence was not particularly violent -- did not, in fact, even finish Henderson off. But no one seemed to care about that. Still, it was accepted purely as an athletic moment.
Pettis; Anderson Silva pulling off a clutch triangle; Toby Imada's inverted triangle; knockouts that are as sterile-looking as they are in boxing: The fabric of the "Oh, s---" reel has changed considerably. Violence for violence's sake is no longer an attractor. Instead of being titillated by blood and guts, we're fretting over brain trauma and orthopedic issues and calling for unions and health coverage. "Clean" knockouts and submissions are valued over bloodbaths.
MMA used to be remarkable for how unhinged it was, much in the same way boxing and football attracted fans (and critics) with comical disregard for the health of their participants. But the novelty wore off, and eventually the audience evolved along with the sport. Pettis' kick is being perceived as a sign of another era in MMA, in which strikers are learning to use the cage as well as grapplers. That's fine, and probably true. But it's also a sign that the sport's fans are no longer sticking around because of the possibility of a car accident in the ring. They're watching to see a language develop, in which blood is the unfortunate side effect and not the attraction.
The scene with Morris wouldn't play today. Not because it's violent, but because we've come to expect so much more.