In the trenches of World War I, the German soldier Ernst Jünger kept a diary which later formed part of his war memoir known as Storm of Steel. Amidst reflections on the camaraderie amongst soldiers, the hellishness of war, moments of short-lived flirtations, and deep pain, we find a passage which seems to carry more weight than the brief note would first suggest. Jünger states – and I paraphrase – that the most violent measurements of force are the scale on which man is weighed.

Heading toward the O2 I was reminded of this insight, about to witness a great test of force – mental and physical. Arriving at the arena, queues were beginning to form but having arrived early at the suggestion of the UFC to take part in the “UFC Fan Experience” I made my way to the meet and greet where I was kindly ushered in to meet Joanna Jędrzejczyk, whom we have interviewed, and Tom Aspinall – who remarked that he hasn’t been interviewed by us yet, which we shall have to remedy anon. Meet and greet over I made my way over to the media room where the press was assembled, eagerly expecting the athletes and management team who would be coming through the door successively. 


The arena felt empty at first as so often is the case. Only the hardcore fans make it to the first fights, thereby missing superb action such as Lerone Murphy vs Gabriel Santos who were both previously undefeated. Murphy walked home with the victory, allowing his experience to triumph over the enthusiasm of the up-and-coming Brazilian. The respect for the youth was apparent, and several fighters spoke about the hunger they have all experienced when they first started competing at the highest levels. 

One fight in the prelims struck me as hitting the nail on the head regarding what it’s all about. Muhammed Mokaev, a Dagestani-born refugee to England, was caught in a brutal kneeler by jiu-jitsu master Jafel Filho. He most likely tore his ACL or some part of the knee, but he refused to tap. Mind triumphed over matter. My mind was instantly drawn to Zaire over 50 years ago when another Mohamed – Ali – defeated George Foreman. Foreman was the champion, and probably the strongest, meanest, most vicious heavyweight boxer of his era. Yet, when he pummelled Ali with all his strength, Ali leaned over and whispered “is that all you got?” Foreman has spoken in subsequent interviews about how he knew, right at that moment, that he had lost his title.   


The transition into the main event was relatively smooth, opening with an immediate bang as Vettori faced Dolidze. Two heavy hitters, neither of them bending under the immense pressure put on the other. Maia delivered an upset to rising star O’Neil, once again showing experience can bring home a win – but that lesson was far from universal at UFC 286 or indeed at any event. You can’t merely rest on your laurels. 

What was more universally true of the evening was the second point regarding the essence of MMA. If the mind must triumph in the octagon, even more so must it be dominant outside of it. The press room was graced by the presence of Colby Covington who had flown into London as a backup fighter should one of the main event athletes fall ill or otherwise be unable to fight. His opening statement acclaimed that this is indeed showbiz and should be treated as such. He made large claims, called out fighters left, right, and centre, and reminded the British of their loss against the Americans in 1776. But before stepping on the stage he stood quietly like any normal human being, staring at his phone. As he walked out he calmly and courteously greeted members of the press. A cynic might say that he was faking it, but that wouldn’t nearly scratch the surface of what transpired. WWE is a fake sport; it is pure entertainment. On top of that, you also have the showbiz element. MMA is showbiz as Colby stated, but he also delivered the central truth about his sport: it is the purest sport. 

The reason Colby can deliver such truth and yet be such a (for lack of a better word) obnoxious character, is that he truly loves his sport. He, like Conor McGregor, can switch on the showbiz element when it is needed. Just like Ali did in his time. It is not faked, because when it is faked it can be sensed immediately and instantly jars with the fanbase. It’s a part of who these people are. To compete at this level, to keep training at this gruelling intensity, one must have an extraordinary mental toughness and larger than life persona. As Gaethje said in his post-fight media scrum:

nobody could survive a few days in our shoes.


The final aspect these athletes touched upon, more in passing than being an actually developed reflection, was how MMA is by no means the most dangerous sport, but it is the most violent. This distinction was also made by Gaethje, who had just survived the rapid onslaught of muay thai veteran Rafael Fiziev. Many sports can be dangerous, but violence stands at the heart of MMA. It is key to the entire enterprise, and it brings me to the final battle: the main event. 

Edwards vs Usman III. Three times these men have shared the octagon. Over an hour of fighting each other locked in a cage. Edwards who brought home the victory valiantly and successfully defended himself from all of Usman’s take-down attempts. The arena rose in uproarious ecstasy every time Edwards got out of one of Usman’s clawing grips, amazed at the way he deflected the attacks Usman has made to his signature mark. Usman’s speech after the fight, acknowledging his defeat, spoke right to the essence of what this sport is about:

you guys get to come here and be entertained by us, but a lot of you guys don’t know what we go through in training camp just to prepare for this. Just to get in here and to give you guys a show. So guys, much respect to the fighters. We put on a lot for you, each and every time.

As Jünger stated at the beginning of the last century, in great moments of colluding force, the real measure of a man is taken. Mentally and physically, faced with pure violence, a human’s spirit shines through. Some people can be born with a showbiz aura, and they can translate that into energy to be spent in training. But they still have to put in the work. Others, some might say like Usman, don’t have that charisma as naturally, but they have the vital mental toughness to keep pushing when others would have given up long ago. Whichever way one looks at it, violence is on display, but the road taken to endure that violence is one which few can fully appreciate. So what is the essence of MMA? It is to showcase the human spirit at its purest, most naked manifestation, where the spiritual – or mental – toughness translates into physical prowess. 

Showing our support for Nordic superstar Gunni Nelson!

Inlägget The Essence of MMA: Report from UFC 286 dök först upp på Fighter Magazine.