Opinion: Dana White is right about grudge matches for the wrong reasons

Let’s stretch the definition of a grudge match beyond its literal and figurative meaning. Do you remember the first, real, UFC grudge match? I…

By: David Castillo | 4 years ago
Opinion: Dana White is right about grudge matches for the wrong reasons
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Let’s stretch the definition of a grudge match beyond its literal and figurative meaning.

Do you remember the first, real, UFC grudge match? I don’t. If we go far back enough, we can scroll through a treasure chest of milquetoast hostilities. The rematch between Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock II might be better remembered as a grudge match if it didn’t have all the assembled aggression of checking your watch before taking a sip of dark roast.

What about UFC 9? It’s fun to talk about, mainly for its bizarro history. In an ironic twist on the ‘stick to sports’ mantra, the late Senator John McCain decided that the UFC’s brand of Mountain Dew pugilism was a worthwhile digression away from public infrastructure; a threat to democracy. The modified rules, which did away with headbutts and closed fist strikes, were mostly ignored (except by the two most important participants in Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock), culminating in a superfight that felt more like a filibuster on rearranging sock drawers.

As the UFC transitioned into the Zuffa era, there weren’t many grudge matches to write home about. Now let’s stop stretching, and start searching for a grudge match that meets the actual definition of one.

Tank Abbott vs. Scott Ferrozzo might qualify as a nice ad-hoc grudge since, decades after their forgettable UFC 11 bout, they tried to murder each other over a plate of BBQ? But what about about Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock?

The problem with the matches listed so far is that they lack one basic element of a grudge match: history. Ortiz and Shamrock, on the other hand, had plenty. The fight was three years in the making. Ortiz had run through the Lion’s Den, beating their young upstart, Jerry Bohlander, and then followed it up with a revenge win over Guy Mezger. In the kind of fashion you’d expect out of a sport built on grade school guitar riffs and hammer-smashed speedos — this happened. Sure, Shamrock may not have been provoked by the awkward homophobia of Tito’s classless shirt, but Shamrock is old school; it wasn’t the principle of the matter, it was the principle of this matter.

People often say that the UFC was truly born the day that Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar got into a facepunching contest to punctuate the end of Zuffa’s reality show. But the truth is that it came from the self-marketing of Ortiz and Shamrock; two guys who just happened to genuinely hate each other. It was the perfect storm, with Shamrock bringing in the pro wrestling residue of spectacle, for better and for worse. Their respective vendetta is what propelled Zuffa into eventually landing its big Spike TV deal.

And it pretty much meets the definition of a genuine grudge match. It also defined the current incarnation of Dana White’s octagon. UFC 40 was to Dana as Blade was to Marvel. So why does Dana hate grudge matches?

Let’s work our way backwards. Usman vs. Covington was awesome. There was real hatred; right on down to the racist birtherism of Colby’s exhibitionism. And like most grudge matches, there was even a sore loser.

Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier delivered excellent fights. TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt settled their beef with ultra violence. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor was pretty good, had tons of ill-will, and even covered as many bases as global politics. The grudge between the two was and is so bad that it’s probably best, as my wonderful colleague Karim Zidan argued, that they part ways. It included fights before, and after the fight. Come on Dana, do you want to see an ultimate fighter?

So what exactly is Dana talking about?

Does he have a different definition of a grudge match? If he does, that actually makes a lot of philosophical sense. Dana is a builder of grudge matches. He’s so meticulous with manufacturing bloodfeuds that he actually created a show called Bad Blood, in which Dana White himself was set to box one of his own mixed martial artists (Tito Ortiz). I mean, meticulous is a bit of a stretch. Nobody knew if the fight was or wasn’t supposed to benefit charity, Tito didn’t show up for the weigh-in, and the NSAC called it a ‘circus.’ Nonetheless, I think we’re getting warmer when it comes to unpacking what Dana means.

The problem with these so called grudge matches is the grudge part. You can’t force history. Dana’s primary vehicle for this, The Ultimate Fighter, has been a draw of diminishing returns. The show worked initially because the fledgling sport required exposition and insight, which the show delivered, even if it was only as a peripheral effect. But trying to squeeze the glamour drama of reality TV into a thresher like prizefighting was always gonna be a disproportionate exercise.

It’s why nobody remembers the “grudge” between Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos. Or Griffin and Jackson. Or Nogueira and Mir. Or GSP and Koscheck.

Ronda Rousey and Meisha Tate might have genuinely hated each other, but a rock climbing competition didn’t make people want to watch their fight. All it did was make me want to watch Alex Honnold breakdown the movie, Cliffhanger.

Quinton Jackson vs. Rashad Evans might be the best example of a grudge match that sucked under the TUF umbrella of gamesmanship. Sure, their face-offs were ridiculous, but there were occasions that almost qualified as a WorldStarHipHop clip. Nonetheless, I’d argue that there was more genuine humanity in one prank call between them than six weeks of stuck-in-a-room-without-a-view drama.

In reality, genuine grudge matches are practically generational. Ali and Frazier’s war of fists was as ugly as its war of words, and it doesn’t even have a close cousin. Riddick Bowe vs. Andrew Golota was a nightmare, but the fighters themselves were mostly passengers. Golota works here as a good symbol for what I’m talking about; that element that’s also critical to any genuine grudge match — a genuine lack of control. Jack Johnson and James Jeffries weren’t in control of the 25 different states that erupted in race riots following Johnson’s win. And that’s the thing about grudge matches. You’re not in control when the temperature rises.

Dana thinks he is. By controlling these grudge matches with reality TV, and interim belts, all the UFC has done is flatten what it means to hold a grudge.

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David Castillo
David Castillo

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