There’s no such thing as perfect harmony in fighting, but the closest I think this outlying society came as a whole was 10 years ago when the UFC debuted on FOX. So excited to kick off a union that was officially set to begin at the start of 2012, the UFC put on a one-hour special show on Nov. 12, 2011 featuring a heavyweight title fight between Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez. Not only was one of the most coveted heavyweight fights actually happening, it was airing for free.

On national freaking television. 

Where things like college football took place, and baseball, and pro football — the hallowed and halo’d sports that the population at large had long accepted as the norm. MMA had never been the norm. MMA had always been the taboo that was being polished to a shine in hopes of one day finding broader acceptance. Back then people concerned themselves with words like “mainstream” and “legitimacy” when talking about MMA. Being on FOX accomplished both, somewhat directly and abstractly.

The thing is, everybody who’d talked about, written about, promoted, or competed in combat sports could claim a small piece of that feat. Anybody who’d spent an awkward family gathering trying to explain why MMA was on the verge of exploding could now simply point to their own televisions as confirmation that they weren’t lunatics. There was affirmation in the air. All the insecurities that festered in the world of cage fighting began to vanish, just like the blood spots in the cage did under the spray of production paint.  

It’s hard to truly give a sense of things to a newer MMA fan who came in either during that FOX run or later when ESPN took over the partnership. These days a fight can play in the background at a bar and nobody notices, but back then the translation was tricky. Anybody who’d watched MMA had seen Edwin Dewees’ blonde hair turn red with blood. They’d seen Diego Sanchez’s thoughts after BJ Penn opened a crevasse on his forehead in Memphis. Did the average sports fan have a stomach for fighting? For such extremes? 

It was exhilarating to sit tight to find out. 

Before that FOX partnership Dana White had more use for the “MMA media.” He would hold court after the press conference of a big event and do his best to answer whatever was on anybody’s mind. These “scrums” felt off-the-record in their intimacy, but the brilliant thing was they were very much on the record — very much. Though media might be reluctant to admit it now — and maybe the same is true for the UFC — there was a common goal back then that everybody was fighting for. 

Everybody wanted MMA to succeed. Everybody wanted to know what it would mean for the UFC to have a major television broadcasting partner. Everybody was seeking justification for what they’d been doing, and therefore everybody celebrated in the milestones. In April of 2011, it was a big deal that the UFC sold-out the Rogers Centre in Toronto with 55,000 paid partisans for Georges St-Pierre and Jake Shields. You could practically hear bottles popping in the auxiliary press area up top, where so many laptops were partially closed as GSP made his walk. Jon Jones had only recently become the youngest champion in UFC history, and had a fight with Lyoto Machida booked for a month after Velasquez-JDS.

The sport was going through its boom period, with marketable champions and what we suspected were burgeoning stars, and the FOX deal proved that. Not that there wasn’t grousing, because there always is in MMA. People couldn’t understand why a No. 1 contender fight like Clay Guida’s against Benson Henderson would be relegated to Facebook (fucking FACEBOOK), rather than showing up on the telecast. There were heated debates going on over that. 

But the idea was to center on a single event. To give Velasquez, who’d won all seven of his UFC bouts and had bulldozed Brock Lesnar to win the heavyweight title a year earlier, against Dos Santos, who was also 7-0 in the UFC. 

The gravity in the air was meant to match the gravity of the accomplishment itself. When Curt Menefee showed up on the scene to host the festivities, the correlations to The Broader World were undeniable. Curt Menefee in the same room as a belching GEICO caveman like Clay Guida? The ghetto was creeping into Beverly Hills.

Of course, the fight was over in just over a minute. Junior Dos Santos knocked out Velasquez very quickly and anticlimactically to win the title. It had all the build-up and let-down of what health class books refer to as “premature ejaculation.” We’d later find out that Velasquez was injured for that fight, but wasn’t about to miss being part of a historic event. In some ways it was poetic. If the world was going to look in on MMA, why not get a feel for just how much is being concealed at all times? 

Looking back, I think a certain kind of fan began to walk away that night in Anaheim. The ones who watched all the way back to the Dark Ages of MMA, before Zuffa came on board and the unified rules and all that. Those initial diehard fans would give no small amount of shit to the ones who came in during that Bonnar-Griffin breakthrough bout in 2005. These people were active up until the sport got to where it was headed all along, and they wanted to remember it in more lawless ways. The mainstream was a step too far. They’d hoisted it up to the spotlight, leaving it up to all the newbs to take over and give it a narrative.

Say what you want about where it all ended up a decade later. Reebok, the women’s MMA takeover, transcendent stars like Rousey and McGregor, the sale, ESPN, all that. People love to hate on the UFC for good reason, people hate to give props to the UFC for the wrong reasons, people are divided on just about everything that goes on in the sport and in the UFC in particular. The successes are in constant battle with the failures these days, and, in between, fighting whichever side suits them in the moment, are the ever-shifting perceptions of the whimsical fan. 

These days MMA is an ongoing argument.

But 10 years ago we aligned for one big night. Old fans and new huddled around televisions to watch the UFC on national television. Stodgy old media and bright-eyed new media reported on it. Words like legitimacy and mainstream were being typed and filed with the confidence of a GSP jab. The promotion celebrated with those who’d stuck with it, and everybody had a part. It was the last time everyone involved in MMA was in harmony over something, and it lasted all of about 64 seconds. 

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