Velasquez' win is impressive, but not historic
On one level it's never a shock when an MMA fighter loses, no matter how dominant he has been. Each trip to the octagon is fraught with variables, any one of which can lead to defeat for a seemingly indestructible fighter. That's why undefeated records and extended winning streaks are so rare in the sport, and why you'll never see an MMA version of Rocky Marciano.
Still, Lesnar was a heavy betting favourite heading into the fight and had scrambled up from the canvas to dispatch heavyweight powerhouse Shane Carwin in July, so to see him crumble so quickly against Velasquez was a mild surprise.
And Velsquez' win was significant. He didn't escape with a win via desperation submission the way Frank Mir did in Lesnar's MMA debut in 2008. He withstood Lesnar's bullrushes, survived a pair of takedowns and thrashed the biggest heavyweight in the UFC and the biggest name in the sport.
That's a huge deal.
But it's not historic.
Yes, I know Velasquez' victory makes him the first fighter of Mexican descent to claim the UFC's heavyweight crown, but that accolade alone doesn't make him a pioneer.
It's not like Mexican-American fighters are new to the sport or to the UFC, but as Velasquez prepared for last week's title shot the UFC for the first time appealed to a Mexican-American audience as part of its pre-fight hype.
The campaign also crossed the United States' norther border, and if you listened much to the FAN last week you probably heard the UFC radio spot emphasizing that Velasquez had a chance to become the first Mexican in the history of "fighting" to win a heavyweight title.
I won't argue with that.
The ad's use of the word "fighting" is meant to broaden the discussion beyond MMA, and indeed boxing has never had a heavyweight champ of Mexican descent. Former WBA heavyweight ruler John Ruiz has Puerto Rican roots, while Chris Arreola has Mexican blood and a big right hand, but a steadily expanding waistline and a knockout loss in his lone title shot.
So that leaves Velasquez.
His win on Saturday was entertaining as it was unpredictable, but I'm not the only one who can't quite co-sign on the attempt to package Velasquez as a barrier-breaker.
That he is the first person of Mexican descent to claim win a heavyweight title is a point of fact, but there's difference between the first to achieve a feat and a true pioneer,
It's called context.
The context here is that MMA as we know it has never had an explicit or implied colour or culture line.
Boxing geeks like me know George "Little Chocolate" Dixon as the Halifax native who became the first black fighter (and first Canadian) to win a world boxing title when he snatched the featherweight crown from Johnny Murphy in 1890.
A broader range of sports fans knows Jack Johnson as the first black heavyweight champion in history.
He's also a litmus test for the significance of Velasquez' win Saturday night.
The man Johnson defeated, Tommy Burns, was the first Canadian ever to win the world heavyweight title. That feat makes Burns a legendary figure in Canadian sport but lacks the broader importance of Johnson's win because Burns only ever had to face the man across the ring. Johnson, meanwhile, had to overcome rigid racial barriers and circumvent social norms just for the chance to challenge for the belt.
Crossing the heavyweight division's colour line made Johnson a pioneer while Burns was merely the first to achieve.
See the difference?
Now fast-forward a century and ask yourself (WITHOUT googling or otherwise researching) who was the first black fighter to win a UFC crown?
Who was the first latino?
Who was the first non-white or non-anglo period?
The correct answer is:
Few people that I know, mainly because it's tough to celebrate breaking a barrier that never really existed. It's not like the UFC ever had rules against non-white fighters, or even a Major League Baseball-style "Gentleman's Agreement."
Competition in the octagon has always been wide open.
This doesn't mean the UFC has never had to wrestle with racial issues.
Early in the buildup to the May 29 clash between Rashad Evans and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, commercials hyping the bout featured Jackson's promise to commit an act of "black-on-black violence" against Evans in the Octagon.
As if race-baiting is a selling point.
As if race-baiting is any less despicable when it's intra-racial.
And as if America's ongoing urban genocide is worth joking about, let alone marketing a fight around.
Justifiably, the UFC took some heat over the marketing tack they had taken and in turn narrowed the focus of the pre-fight trash talk they chose to highlight.
So yes, race pops up periodically in the UFC just as it does everywhere in (North) American life, but ethnicity has never defined or divided the sport the way it did boxing a century ago or baseball until 1947.
The UFC has only ever existed in an integrated age, with fighters of every ethnic background welcome to compete. And until UFC 12, when organizers wisely imposed weight classes, the UFC didn't even discriminate on the basis of a fighter's size. As long as officials thought you were qualified, anyone could fight anyone. Period.
This isn't to diminish Velasquez' achievement. Hats off to any man to flattens Brock Lesnar, and becoming the first heavyweight champ of Mexican descent is certainly noteworthy.
But a century after Jack Johnson it's just not historic.
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