Another shooting. Another round of horrific and senseless deaths that rattle every person with basic human empathy. This time it’s Las Vegas. For the combat sports world, it was an abominable act that hit particularly close to home.
Las Vegas is the capital of the fight world. It’s hosted most of the biggest boxing and mixed martial arts matches in recent history; it’s the headquarters of the UFC. Many of the fans who follow those sports closely have made a pilgrimage there to watch a fight card. Many of the athletes we follow call it home. Many journalists live there or have spent significant periods of time there. We have walked the halls of Mandalay Bay and sauntered up and down the Strip, laughing and smiling and making meaningful memories.
Everything about it will seem different this week, and probably far into the future. Today, we continue to mourn for the victims, at last count 59 dead and more than 500 injured, but as UFC 216 fight week begins, with heavy hearts, we will briefly — perhaps apologetically — turn our focus to sports.
There’s a saying often repeated in situations like this, that it puts everything in its proper perspective. It’s both true and a platitude.
In this context, sports is insignificant, yet its lure still pulls at us. Maybe for distraction, maybe for comfort, maybe to celebrate the incredible will of the human spirit to overcome.
Combat sports fans are occasionally asked how they could like something that can fairly be described as violent, and the answer is not a simple one. It can be even more difficult to rationalize when an event occurs in the shadow of pure violence.
But on days like this, days of reflection on the nature of brutality and whether it is OK to watch people voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way, it is an important exercise to undertake.
I like that MMA is a community that cares about each other and the world; the UFC will donate $1 million to the families affected by the tragedy. Countless others have donated money, blood and time.
I like that we can get together, choose sides in fierce battles, oppose each other vehemently and then leave in peace.
I like the honesty of the competition; it does not pretend to be something it isn’t. It’s not a sport built on metaphors.
I like that the athletes can literally fight each for 15 or 25 minutes of ferocious competition and walk away feeling not as enemies, but instead as if they now share a bond.
I like how quickly it can set aside differences; I have met fans from Russia and China and Saudi Arabia, people with different beliefs and political ideas, but who share an interest in which we can instantly bond.
I like that it is global, something that shrinks the world.
I like that it is something that brings us together instead of dividing us apart.
That matters, especially in weeks like this one. There is a group of people who consistently shout down anyone who uses the platform of sports for anything other than a discussion of athletic feats. But sports is community, and on Saturday, no one will object to us using sports to lean on in a time of need. We did it after 9/11. We did it after Sandy Hook. And now we will do it again, standing together and forming a positive mass of joy to blot out the darkness.
It will not be an easy task; not for anyone. You can see that in the reactions of Derrick Lewis and Kevin Lee, both of whom readily admitted to being distracted by recent world events, even as they prepare for pivotal moments in their respective careers. In interviews with MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani, Ferguson said he was surprised the show would go on, while Lee took pride in being part of a larger mission.
“It was hard for me to do the media that day. It’s still hard for me to do the media now,” Lee said. “It’s hard for me to talk about fighting because there’s bigger things in life. Me and Tony [Ferguson], we might have a lot of back and forth. We might not like each other. There might be a lot of disrespect. He’s not going to be happy with this result on Saturday, but I hope him nothing but the best. I hope he goes home, gets to kiss his girl, stay with his family and he lives a long and healthy life. Because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. This fight will be a celebration for the city. It’s going to be a celebration of life, because that’s where I feel most alive is during the fight. Nothing else matters in that moment. The past don’t matter, the future don’t matter. We’re just going to be living in the moment, and I hope that resonates with the people in the audience and the people watching back home. If I could put my body on the line to give them a little bit of entertainment, to take their mind off of other shit, then there you go.”
It’s a distillation both simple and deep. In the aftermath of a horrific night, our sport is both a diversion from the world’s problems, and deeply meaningful for its participants and many of its followers. It is a night that can be many things, and almost all of them are good.
Vegas is hurting. There is a heaviness that hangs over the city. The police are omnipresent and security has magnified. Scores of families are in mourning. None of that will change anytime soon. The Mandalay Bay will always serve as a reminder of those who died. And maybe as a reminder for everyone else to keep on living. It can be both at the same time. It can start on Saturday.