When Jose Aldo closed in on Chris Mickle early in the first round of their featherweight match at WEC 39 last weekend, he uncorked a dizzying array of kicks and punches that Mickle feebly defended as he backed into the cage. Mickle ducked for cover upon the detonation and Aldo was soon declared a TKO winner.
It was a lopsided, undramatic outcome. But once again, I was overcome by a thrilling thought.
That could be me in there!
Well, not really.
The fact of the matter is, I am a meek sports writer who last spent time on a competitive mat when forced to participate in middle-school wrestling intramurals at age 13. Now, as a skinny journalist with a schedule that restricts opportunities to test my eroding kinesiology, shaving is the manliest thing I do every day.
However, watching fighters who are roughly my size, like Aldo and Mickle, participate in amazing bouts of violence and athleticism helps me maintain a perception, however fragile, of my own masculinity. To me, that’s the most alluring facet of MMA.
When you’re forever a little guy, you spend life tangling with two internal powers. First, you have the inferiority monster. He tags along for eternity because size matters in this world, son, and you just don’t have it. Then, there’s the Napoleonic beast that emerges periodically to let you know that, dammit, being diminutive doesn’t mean you can’t pull out a can of whoop-ass, if necessary.
It’s an unsettling duel.
I speak from experience.
Considered a small fry at every stage of school, I was nevertheless athletically adept. I often boyhandled the reluctant twerps in my weight category during the aforementioned gym class trials of adolescence. Frail is a good word to describe them.
Still, even if I was naturally strong, fast and agile (that’s my inner Napoleon talking), I was considered a lesser athlete in comparison to the guys my age that filled out their uniforms better.
As a result, I focused on using my skills to become the biggest pest in whatever sport I played.
In baseball, for instance, I was a base-path-blazing, bunt-for-a-hit leadoff man and gap-to-gap center fielder. In track, I was the rare white sprinter who reveled in relay races. On the pickup football field (come on, I would have been destroyed on an organized team), I was the ultimate deep threat and defensive gambler.
They were fun roles and I turned heads at times, but analysis of my ability was usually punctuated with a negative about size.
The reality is if you’re athletic yet small, you’ll never reach the elite level in any of the major sports. The odds are against all of us, but 135- or 145-pound men are never found in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball — leagues filled with blessed mesomorphs.
The trend has roots at the lower levels, too. Even in recreation leagues and prep sports, scrawny isn’t successful. Whenever I reached the upper tier of competition in my chosen sports, for example, I got dusted. On the baseball diamond, my bat didn’t develop enough pop by my teenage years. On the track, as the rare white sprinter, I was no match for the genetically gifted powerhouses I encountered at the state meet.
There was no room for the little guys. This was thoroughbred territory.
(That’s a funny analogy, considering there is a new television series based on diminutive athletes in a certain sport that airs on The Animal Planet. It’s called “Jockeys.”)
In mainstream sports that we watch on television, “small” athletes are around 170 pounds. In mixed martial arts, though, I’ve heard it argued that 170 pounds is considered the ultimate weight class, because men that size seem best-equipped to meld the sport’s various disciplines and carry them out with appropriate speed and strength, a la Georges St. Pierre.
As we go up in weight, versatility remains prevalent but tails off a bit. As we go down, though, that speed, power and versatility is simply compacted into smaller packages, with an emphasis on the speed. And these human spark plugs, like Aldo, are showcased in the WEC — the stomping grounds for the world’s biggest little studs.
They rarely fail to put on a show. And each time one of them scores an impressive victory, it stuffs an oversized feather in the small caps of guys everywhere who were told they were too small.