I love the UFC. Several years ago, I caught a couple of episodes of the UFC reality competition series, The Ultimate Fighter. I am a reality TV nut, and I am a casual fan of boxing, so I really enjoyed the show. One season later, though, and I had forgotten all about it. That changed around six months ago.
I think the new obsession began when I was going on a trip and wanted to load up my iPhone with TV shows and movies to watch. I am like a 3 year old that way; I must be constantly entertained. I researched via message boards the best season of The Ultimate Fighter, which led to a series of downloads. In total, I probably watched 8 of the prior seasons, or so, often as marathons. I loved watching the fighters develop, but even moreso, I was entranced by the physical skills and determination it takes to be a real fighter.
Fast forward several months, and I had tapped out my resource of The Ultimate Fighter seasons available online. I needed more, so I started to download recent fight cards. Finally, I stumbled upon the payload, all prior UFC PPV events. Like the completest I am, I started with UFC 1, and have now reached UFC 17. It has given me an opportunity to watch some current fighters when they were first starting out in the octagon. But more interestingly, I have been able to see the development of the sport, from its early days when the fighters literally did not know what to expect in the ring, to the development of defined, UFC-inspired fighting styles.
Surprisingly or not, watching MMA (mixed martial arts) develop as a sport has really helped me appreciate the developments in poker over the years, both on a personal level and on a macro level. On a personal level, we all know what it is like first stepping into the poker “octagon” with little skills or understanding of the game and how it works. Even if you’ve read up on poker before your first game, there is no substitution for experience.
But I was even more interested in the parallels on a macro level. The UFC and MMA is constantly developing. In the early events, Royce Gracie was head-and-shoulders above the other fighters because he had well-rounded skills, learned from his family’s own style of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, known as Gracie Jiu Jitsu. He and Ken Shamrock, who was experienced in submission shoot fighting, were literally in a class above the rest, who were a mish mosh of kick boxers, boxers, karate, and other striking fighters. Over the years, the wrestlers took over (amateur wrestling, not WWE), because they had strength and could dominate on the ground. Fighters like Dan Severn and Mark Coleman were main eventers. Power had trumped technique, at least somewhat, but the developments didn’t stop there. Now that I am at UFC 17, where contemporary fighters like Dan Henderson began fighting, I can see the next class of MMA fighters, trained in a particular discipline, but knowledgeable and prepared to use the best (or defend against the best) techniques of the other styles. Henderson, for instance, was a wrestler, but in his UFC debut, he showed off an impressive skill at striking and jiu jitsu defense. We are probably now in the middle of another phase, the super athlete. Now that the UFC has become a big hit, thanks in large part to the popularity of The Ultimate Fighter, fighters are being raised to fight MMA from a very young age. It has prestige, so super athletes like Anderson Silva and Jon Jones are the big dogs, able to combine their natural physical prowess with skills in various disciplines. It was common belief in MMA that there was no room for certain techniques, like Kung Fu, but these super athletes are able to make moves previously thought to be improbable into reality.
Isn’t that the story of poker? It was a backroom game, like the early brawls at UFC 1, where players played on intuition. Players like Doyle Brunson were able to get a leg up on the competition using aggression, something that was uncommon amongst the other players. Over time, the game became more popular and people started to learn different styles, thanks, in large part, to books like Brunson’s Super/System. Suddenly, a new class of player emerged, many of whom became the stars of poker when the poker boom hit. But the developments didn’t stop there either. Math kids got in on the action, finding success. And we found our own “super athletes”, like Jason Mercier or Tom Dwan, raised with poker and able to use a mix of fearlessness, aggression, intuition, and an understanding of the risks of the game to dominate the field.
Maybe that’s why I love the UFC and MMA so much. It’s not unlike poker. On its face, it is a brutish pursuit, but in reality, it is a constantly evolving art form, where the real competition takes place between the individual competitor and the sands of time. Things change, and if you don’t change with them, you’ll end up like a UFC 1 karate fighter. You may be good at your one thing, but it doesn’t apply anymore.
Until next time, make mine poker!