Before Urijah Faber made Scott Jorgensen tap to a rear naked choke in the main event of the UFC Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale, Tupac Shakur’s “California Love,” shook the arena. The tunnel lit up, and out walked the 5’6” Faber, the perpetual bantamweight contender and former WEC featherweight champion. The West Coast classic has become the signature theme song of “The California Kid,” a part of the well-crafted Faber image that has earned him endorsements with AMP Energy and K-Swiss.
MMA and hip-hop have always been a natural pairing. Though featured most prominently on their 1993 debut album 36 Chambers, martial arts has always been the favorite metaphor of the world famous Wu-Tang Clan. Their fascination spawned from the kung fu double-features they’d catch at New York City mega-plexes. Their different rap styles were the different animal styles of kung fu (tiger, praying mantis, etc.), and their rhymes cut like swords.
Hip-hop is combative by nature. From its inception in the south Bronx in the 70s, one-upmanship has been a major driving force in all of hip-hop’s different forms: DJing, breaking, graffiti, and emceeing. Emcee “battles”, where the objective is to build up one’s self and demean the opponent, are often cited as positive alternatives to actual violence. In an interview for the 2000 documentary Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, Abiodun Oyewole, a founding member of the pre-hip-hop group The Last Poets, put it like this:
“The kids, they have this thing called the cypher, where they get into a circle, and it almost looks like a fight, like you would see on Friday afternoons in junior high school… the same energy is there.”
While Faber has carefully cultivated a marketable image, Chael Sonnen has taken a less subtle approach to gaining publicity. After a quick TKO defeat in his rematch with long-reigning middleweight champ Anderson Silva, Sonnen was given a light heavyweight title shot against Jon Jones—a titles shot, coming of a loss, without a win in the division. He did earn it in a way. He earned through the sheer volume of his trash talk. He’s truly gifted at hyping fights. His rematch with Silva was one of the most lucrative PPVs in UFC history. His skills on the mic rival those of any WWE great, and many of his sayings seem like they come straight out of a 80s Hulk Hogan promo, for example, “When you’re the best fighter in the world, they’ve got a name for you, and it’s Chael Sonnen!”
Regardless if you love or hate Sonnen, there is something undeniably intriguing about such boastfulness. There is a terrible egoist inside all of us, a desire to shout “Look at me! Look at me!” Most of us repress this socially undesirable urge, but rap expresses it with rhythm and a bass-line and makes poetry of it. Of course, not all hip-hop is egomaniacal, but a lot of it is, particularly the kind played on the radio. Through this kind of hip-hop we can vent our own egoism and indulge in a fantasy where we are hyper-potent forces in the world, and there are no consequences for our actions. Artists from other music genres could never get away with this unabashed bravado.
Disparaging comments about future opponents are seen as classless in most sports, but we accept it from fighters. They express the primal violence inside all of us and let us experience it from a safe distance. Whatever they have to say to help them get in that cage is fine. Guaranteeing victory has become cliché, but part of the appeal of MMA is the fact that one of two supremely confident fighters will be proven wrong.
Sonnen’s rants are so effective because of how natural they come off. He can go “off-the-dome” about any given fighter like a comedian making fun of the people in the front row, or an emcee snapping on the outfit of the guy standing opposite him in the cypher. In arguably the most dynamic and unpredictable sport, spontaneity and creativity are key. There are so many ways to lose and so many positions fighters might find themselves in. They must always be cognizant of not leaving their limbs vulnerable to submissions, or their necks open to chokes. It’s almost impossible to juggle all these concerns while at the same time trying to mount an attack. How could a fighter go for a takedown if he’s thinking about the knee he might be diving into? They simply have to fight. They have to freestyle.
New York-based Radio DJ Robert “Bobbito” Garcia describes the beauty of improvisation in Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme:
“The ultimate in hip-hop is that fleeting moment of escape… if you talk to a lot of B-Boys or a lot of dancers, period, [they’ll tell you] ‘My best moves, I’ve never thought of beforehand, and I’ll never be able to repeat them again. I was in that moment, I was in that spiritual context of exposing myself, taking chances.’ The same thing goes for rhyming, this yearning to create this one time experience.”
MMA fighters sacrifice everything for “that one moment,” that one moment of pure victory and joy. Relative to professional athletes in other major sports, they do not make much money. They must adhere to extreme diets, train constantly, and have to fight off the constant nagging fear in the back of their minds that they might get knocked out and all their hard will have been for nothing. They go through it all for that feeling that they’ve expressed something inside them fully.
In 2011 Anderson Silva, one of the best and most creative mixed martial artists in the world, introduced to MMA the front-kick to the face at the expense of Vitor Belfort. There had never before been a knockout like it. Two months later, Silva’s teammate Lyoto Machida one-upped the champ by knocking out Randy Couture with a karate-switch variation of the front-kick. Now fighters everywhere have a new weapon to use and tweak but also a new weapon to worry about. In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Silva stated it was a kick he’d worked on in training camp, but why did he throw it when he did? One fleeting moment, a chance taken. That’s the essence of freestyle, and spiritually, where MMA and hip-hop meet.
Drew Jennings is a fiction writer from San Antonio who currently lives in Austin. His fiction has appeared in Revolver, San Antonio Current, Kudzu Review and Midway Journal. Along with regularly contributing to MMAFrenzy, he also writes about hip-hop for MVRemix.com. To see more of his writing visit drewjennings.org.
Photo credit: Gary A. Vasquez – USA Today Sports