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The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. For an introduction and more information on the series please check out Part 1 of this series. So, to begin…

20. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

buckminister-fuller-dome

Genius. Visionary. Autodidact. Nonconformist. This is one well-loved figure in American culture. He was also an architect, engineer, inventor, and author of over 30 books. He was an environmental activist well ahead of his time. He designed the geodesic dome, fuel efficient automobiles, prefab homes, as well as something called the Prefabricated Compact Bathroom Cell. He also figured out how make a 2-dimensional map which accurately represents all landmasses on Earth.

Welcome to Part 2 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. For an introduction and more information on the series please check out Part 1 of this series. So, discount to begin…

20. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

buckminister-fuller-dome

Genius. Visionary. Autodidact. Nonconformist. This is one well-loved figure in American culture. He was also an architect, find engineer, sale inventor, and author of over 30 books. He was an environmental activist well ahead of his time. He designed the geodesic dome, fuel efficient automobiles, prefab homes, as well as something called the Prefabricated Compact Bathroom Cell. He also figured out how make a 2-dimensional map which accurately represents all landmasses on Earth.

dymaxion_map
Clearly longitude and latitude are for sissies.

Buckminster Fuller had more creativity than he knew what to do with. He was also a futurist and a great proponent of sustainable resources. His ideas were in high demand by the US armed forces during World War II. His case for greatness cannot be denied, and he did it all with no college degree, having twice been expelled from Harvard. They claimed he suffered from “lack of ambition.” This apparently was Ivy League geek-speak for “partying too much,” the real reason why Fuller got thrown to the curb.

So why is he on this list? Because he was so abnormally close to his ideas that he became his own Petri dish. While seriously contemplating suicide as a young man, he claimed to have an out-of-body experience in which a voice intoned: “You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe.” After this, he decided to embark on a “50 year experiment” to uncover the operating principles of everything. He wanted to see what one man could do to benefit his “fellow passengers on spaceship Earth”. This was undoubtedly a noble calling, but it did lead to some weird behavior. The first thing he did after this epiphany was to live in near silence for two years. And this was while living in poverty with a wife and small child.

And it only got weirder once he started talking again. Since he was a frequent flier, Fuller liked to wear 3 watches so he could keep better tabs on time zones. He would also wear sheets of newspaper for heat insulation. In 1943, he revealed that he slept only two hours a day as part of his experimentation with polyphasic sleep. He also obsessed over documenting his life literally fifteen minutes at a time. No detail was too insignificant for posterity, it seemed. And he never stopped. From 1920 to 1983, he wrote down or collected almost 270 feet of life diary in a giant scrapbook he called the Dymaxion Chronofile.

Dymaxion Chronofile
Dymaxion Chronofile

It was as if the English language weren't good enough for Buckminster Fuller. He always had to come up with new words.

Yes, it is true that Buckminster Fuller was greater than he was weird. Hence his low placement on this list. However, look at some of the weirdness he inspired. Drop Cities were the first hippie communes in the 1960s where many artists and counter-culture types would convene for their “happenings”.

Drop City
Drop City

Places like these were inspired by the architectural ideas of Buckminster Fuller.

19. Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944)

FlorenceFosterJenkins2

We're all told as children to never let anyone or anything stand in the way of our dreams. Yeah, well, aspiring opera diva Florence Foster Jenkins apparently took this a little too much to heart. Jenkins, to put it bluntly, lacked any and all singing talent. Pitch, tone, rhythm, forget it. Her performances could only be heard to be believed. When hitting those excruciating high notes she sounded like a chicken being choked to death. Or perhaps “the mating and/or death squeals of alley cats.” No one outside of a shower stall had ever mangled Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Verdi, and other classical greats like this before. Technical limitations? What technical limitations? No keeping this bird in a cage. She refused to even let language barriers hold her back. Italian, German, Esperanto, didn't matter. She'd botch it all with the same oblivious vigor. And why not? When you're tone deaf, it all comes out like sweet, sweet music anyway.

But what made Jenkins so weird was that she really believed she was great. She put herself on par with the prominent sopranos of her day and carried herself like a real diva. Sure, she was aware of her army of critics. Audiences would laugh at her, often egged on by her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (yes, that was his name). But she didn't care. It was all professional jealousy, you see. One does not stoop to defend oneself against one's inferiors, now does one?

“You? Criticize MY wings?”

As befitting a personage as majestic as Florence Foster Jenkins, her concerts were of course grandiose spectacles. Her self-designed, nigh-Wagnerian costumes included angel wings, fans, tiaras, tinsel, scarves, you name it. One must look one's best for one's fans, don't you know. The woman actually lived the life of a successful operatic soprano and never once realized that she was quite emphatically not a successful operatic soprano.

Only she was. Jenkins' greatness was achieved through her unshakable self-confidence as well as her ability to sell tickets. She started singing when she was 44, and her career spanned 30 years. Sure, early on she financed her own performances (having inherited a fortune). She also took her share of baths at the box office. But after a while, audiences caught on and realized that her off-key shriekings and warblings were a thing to behold. Like rubberneckers at a train wreck, people lined up and forked over hard earned cash to have the once in a lifetime privilege of seeing and laughing at the worst operatic singer of all time. She was kitsch before kitsch was cool. Jenkins' popularity, such as it was, was so great that she even made a handful of 78-rpm records. In 2003 the classical label Naxos collected all her recordings on a CD fittingly entitled Murder on the High C's.

murderonthehighcs
Only $22.83 on Amazon

Jenkins' improbable run culminated in the place where many achieve greatness: Carnegie Hall. October 1944, one month before her death, she performed to a packed house. It is said they had to turn 2,000 people away at the door. She received thunderous applause and went home a success. Was she good? Was she not good? Does it really matter? In the end she achieved the same result as many great singers. So why shouldn't we consider Florence Foster Jenkins great too? What most accomplish with hard work and talent, she accomplished with sheer weirdness. That's something, isn't it?

18. Ruth Norman (1900-1993)

CIMG2766

Oh, what a strange bird she was. Otherwise known as Uriel, the Queen of the Archangels from the Fourth Dimension, Ruth Norman headed the millennial New Age organization known as Unarius. Norman founded Unarius in 1954 with her husband Ernest and then ran things alone after his death in 1971. Norman gained international fame for making outlandish predictions of flying saucer landings that would, of course, never come true. In the mid-1970s, she purchased 67 acres in California where she expected the flying saucers to land. She even predicted how they would land and made a very public $4,000 bet with a British gambling firm that this would happen. You see, these flying saucers represented an intergalactic confederation known as a the “Space Brothers” who intended to restore the lost wisdom of Atlantis to human beings and usher in an era of peace and enlightenment.

space-cad
Hey, Aliens! We're over here!

Did you know that Norman received mental transmissions from Plato, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Louis Pasteur, and over hundred other great spirits of the past? Did you know she wrote the U.S. government offering to use her otherworldly connections to help them win the Cold War? Did you know she was the Egyptian goddess Isis in a past life? She preached past life therapy as a way for people spiritually evolve. She could heal her students in their dreams. She also claimed she was an ambassador for what's called the “Interplanetary Confederation”.

Norman certainly dressed the part, her elaborate outfits owing as much to Star Trek as to Elizabethan England. She was big on ostentatious wigs and sparkling tiaras. She liked to wield a scepter. At Unarius headquarters, she sat on a gold-colored throne covered in peacock feathers.

Uriel_in_white
Yes, she had a halo too.

Weirdest of all, she and her followers made full use of their own video studio for proselytizing purposes. These low-budget promotional videos and documentaries are jaw-droppingly awful. They present the Unarians in all their kitschy glory and made the rounds on public access cable everywhere. In one episode, we travel back in time to 160,000 B.C. to witness a true story. It was the seminal moment in the history of Man in which beatific aliens in poorly fitting bald wigs first abducted our knuckle dragging ancestors and sent them spiraling into the splendiferous heavens.

Beckoning from the stars
Beckoning from the stars

Ruth Norman was weird, no doubt. But was she great? Well, for one, she led the same organization for nearly 40 years and managed it well. She knew how to attract followers. She knew how to play to the media. She was also prolific, writing 80 books. She gained global fame and at one point achieved fringe celebrity status. In 1979, she claimed to have 100,000 followers. We know for sure she had 450 paying students by the late 1980s. Further, Unarius, for all its otherworldly kookiness, was a benign, positive organization under Norman's watch. There was nothing seedy about it like you might find in other New Age organizations.

ruth_and_ernest
Ruth Norman in a not-so-weird moment with her husband Ernest

People flocked to Ruth Norman and stayed with her despite her unbroken string of failed prophesies. That's what sheer charisma can do, and Ruth Norman knew how to use it as well as anyone. Remember, kooks are people too, and for nearly 40 years Ruth Norman gave them a home. And a pretty good one it was, considering that by the time of her death, Unarius was worth over a half million dollars. Not bad for a weirdo.

17. Jack Kavorkian (1928-2011)

kevorkian3

Good ol' Dr. Death. Jack the Dripper. One day in the late 1990s, Jack Kavorkian, the self-described “one man death counselor”, decided he wanted to go to prison. Kavorkian was already well known for promoting euthanasia rights, having euthanized close to 130 people over the course of a decade. But that wasn't good enough for Jack. He wanted to take the euthanasia issue all the way to the Supreme Court and figured that wearing an orange jumpsuit in a concrete cell would be the best way to do that. So he actually injected one of his patients with poison, had it broadcast on national television, and then waited for the prosecutors to call. At age 70 that bought him 8 years in the joint.

Which way to the SCOTUS?
Which way to the Supreme Court?

Make no mistake, Jack Kavorkian was a very smart and creative man. He was also fiercely independent—for better or for worse. He taught himself German and Japanese while still in high school. He invented round playing cards and bicycles that don't need chains and envelopes that don't need openers. He wrote 7 books, one on the topic of philosophy. In the late 1970's he quit a career in pathology and sunk his life savings into a feature-length movie based on Handel's Messiah. He produced and directed but didn't have a distributor. So unfortunately the movie flopped. While serving in the army as a medic, he taught himself how to read and play music. He mastered the jazz flute, believe it or not. His one record, called (ahem) A Very Still Life, was released in 1997.

His most important invention however is what made him famous, the so-called “suicide machine”.

The Suicide Machine
Behold! My 18 karat burgundy plaid sweater vest!

Kavorkian first gained national attention in the early 1990s by assisting the suffering or terminally ill to commit suicide (sometimes in the back of his Volkswagen van). But his weird obsession with death was nothing new. In the 1950s, he photographed patients' eyes in their final moments, determining that cornea blood vessels disappear at death. He also proposed organ harvesting and medical experimentation on consenting death row inmates. During the Vietnam War, he experimented with blood transfusions from recently deceased corpses to the living. In one such experiment, he used his assistant as a guinea pig and turned the poor man's eyeballs orange.

Did you know Jack Kavorkian was also an artist? Not surprisingly, he focused on death, sometimes painting with his own blood. Headless corpses, corpseless heads, flowers growing out of the eye sockets of skulls. One painting has a child eating the flesh of a corpse.

kavorkian_art
So what was it with this guy and death?

Jack Kavorkian is great because he was righteous, he had no fear, and he threw himself into his causes full-tilt. He did what he could to undress the taboo surrounding death and dying, and he tirelessly championed a patient's right to die. It was just his ghoulish fascination with it all that made him so weird. He is not higher on this list because he was a lucid and rational thinker who could back up what he did with reasoned arguments. He also turned down more patients than he assisted and made efforts at counseling each one. But whether he was showing up to court dressed as Thomas Jefferson, or running for Congress on kooky platforms (“We gotta destroy the Supreme Court”), or giving interviews while locked in the stocks, Jack Kavorkian was always his own man. And a very, very weird one he was.

Get me outta this thing!
Get me outta this thing!

Weirdos Part 3 coming soon…

The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 1

In 2012, an online retailer called Woot had a great idea: They published a list of the 50 Greatest American Weirdos ten at a time. As soon as I found out about it, I was hooked. How could you not be? First, I just love lists. Really, Woot was serving up smoking hot slices of Americana Obscura in every installment. Some weirdos I knew. Most I didn’t or had forgotten since departing from the period of my life when I took notice of such things. It’s hard to describe why the strange habits of famous people captivate me. Perhaps it’s because I was always a little off-kilter myself when I was young. I probably had an undiagnosed case of ADHD and just had to live with it. I always knew there was something wrong with me but I never knew exactly what. Overcoming such things is slow and difficult and never fully accomplished. I’ve always admired people who were quite a bit different than everyone else (and not necessarily in a good way) but still went on to do great things.

Well, having seen Woot’s list I have decided to make my own. I offer 20 names, not 50. Given my time and resource limitations, I will limit my selections to weirdos active and in their prime during the 20th Century. They also must be born on American soil (so no Charles Bukowski, who was born in Germany). Of course, I often disagree with Woot. They seem more interested in chronicling the weirdest or quirkiest American weirdos, not necessarily the greatest ones. Of their 39 weirdos from the 20th Century, I include only 5.

So what should my criteria be?

In 2012, an online retailer called Woot had a great idea: They published a list of the 50 Greatest American Weirdos ten at a time. As soon as I found out about it, I was hooked. How could you not be? First, I just love lists. Really, Woot was serving up smoking hot slices of Americana Obscura in every installment. Some weirdos I knew. Most I didn’t or had forgotten since departing from the period of my life when I took notice of such things. It’s hard to describe why the strange habits of famous people captivate me. Perhaps it’s because I was always a little off-kilter myself when I was young. I probably had an undiagnosed case of ADHD and just had to live with it. I always knew there was something wrong with me but I never knew exactly what. Overcoming such things is slow and difficult and never fully accomplished. I’ve always admired people who were quite a bit different than everyone else (and not necessarily in a good way) but still went on to do great things.

Well, having seen Woot’s list I have decided to make my own. I offer 20 names, not 50. Given my time and resource limitations, I will limit my selections to weirdos active and in their prime during the 20th Century. They also must be born on American soil (so no Charles Bukowski, who was born in Germany). Of course, I often disagree with Woot. They seem more interested in chronicling the weirdest or quirkiest American weirdos, not necessarily the greatest ones. Of their 39 weirdos from the 20th Century, I include only 5.

So what should my criteria be?

Two good examples of top-twenty caliber non-Americans would be classical pianist Glenn Gould and mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing. Both were brilliant and successful. Both made lasting contributions to their fields. Both were great men. Yet they were both very, very weird. Eccentric would be the nice way of putting it.

Glenn_Gould_sarabande_blog
Glenn Gould and his gloves
Gould with his obsessive self-medicating and the scarves and gloves he always wore even in summer and that horrid chair he insisted on carrying around with him.
AlanTuring
Alan Turing at Bletchley Park
And Turing, with that staccato “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” he’d start his sentences with, and the gas mask he’d wear on bicycle rides, and that tea mug he’d chain to a radiator to prevent it from being stolen. Yes, Glenn Gould and Alan Turing were a couple of weirdos. And I mean that with the deepest, most sincere respect. Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is on my desert island list, and Turing’s work as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park was instrumental in determining the outcome of World War II. I know what geniuses both men were. I also regret the early demise of both of them. So I posit that Gould and Turing set the gold standard for any list of great weirdos. The weirdos have to be great. And the great ones have to be weird.

Excluded from such lists, of course, would be those with high marks in one and not the other. I had a neighbor once who seemed to suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome or some sort of personality disorder. He never held a job and would scream into his walls at night. Once he told me that in order to prevent identity theft he’d first shred all his discarded bills and then burn them. No one ever stole this weirdo’s identity. No sir. But like most of us he wasn’t great. So no appearance on the list.

A weirdo must make a lasting impact in order to belong. Roky Erickson is a good example of a near-miss.

rokyerickson
Roky Erickson: “A near whaaa?”

Erickson is a well-known weirdo who, in my perfect world, would rank as number 43 or thereabouts on such a list (Woot, alas, neglected to include him). He was a member the 1960’s psychedelic rock group 13th Floor Elevators. He made strange music, was a vocal proponent of illegal drug use, and suffered from schizophrenia. That lead to some weirdness for sure, such as signing a legal affidavit claiming a Martian was living in his body. But despite being a cult hero in rock music for the past 30 years, he isn’t quite great enough, in my opinion, to crack the top twenty.

Also excluded are criminals, rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. I’m sure Jeffrey Dahmer engaged in some very strange behavior as well. But once you start killing people, or robbing banks, or blowing up buildings, you are not great. You are bad. You have a net negative impact on the world. Therefore, no appearance on the list. There will be no infamy here.

Further, you can’t just be merely odd or have a few strange habits. Comedian Jerry Lewis, according to IMDB, is known for never wearing the same pair of socks twice.

Jerry Lewis: "Hey, laa-dy! Take my socks, please."
Jerry Lewis: “Hey, laa-dy! Take my socks, please.”
Lewis, no doubt, is one of the funniest guys who ever lived and as the former chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association he is certainly a prominent humanitarian. He is great enough to make the list. But 14 socks per week does not a great weirdo make. Being a consummate showman of any stripe will not automatically land you on the list either. You can’t just affect weirdness, you have to be the weirdness. So no Liberace, no Madonna, no Alice Cooper, no Lady Ga Ga. Nor will being flamboyantly gay, sexually ambiguous, sexually deviant, incessantly annoying, or simply an asshole. So fortunately, people like Divine, Marilyn Manson, Pee Wee Herman, Richard Simmons, and Roseanne Barr will be ignored as well. Mental illness alone is also not enough. Ignatius J. Reilly might have made the list, had he, you know, been a real person.
Aww, come on!
Aww, come on!
But his creator John Kennedy Toole was just not weird enough. Sure, Toole fell into depression and eventually killed himself. It’s sad and tragic, but while he lived, Toole was a fairly normal guy. Or at least tried to be. This last point is important. If someone says “I’m weird, but I’m trying like heck to be normal,” then that pretty much disqualifies them off the bat. A weirdo must either be unwilling or unable to get over their weirdness. I’m sure with all her cow-hugging contraptions and bizarre dietary rules and cowboy uniforms, Temple Grandin comes across as plenty weird. But she has spent much of her adult life developing ways for autistic people like herself to function productively in the real world. That is not weird. That is awesome.
Temple Grandin: One of the Awesomest Americans of the 20th Century
Temple Grandin: Not weird
What about those who make weird art or hang out with weird people? Well, what about them? Frank Zappa sure made weird music. His work is basically a cosmic amalgam of rock, blues, doo-wop, modern classical, avant-garde jazz, satire, and God knows what else. He also had the baddest soul patch ever seen on a white man.
Frank Zappa and his soul patch
Frank Zappa and his soul patch
But from what I’ve read the man himself was fairly normal. Regardless of whether one enjoys his music or agrees with his politics, Frank Zappa’s decisions at least made sense and he acted more or less rationally for his own good and the good of others. A guy like that really isn’t weird at all.

My final caveat is to stay away from the living. Their stories aren’t over. 35 years ago, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would have been a shoe-in for such a list. He exhibited all the strange behavior of a great weirdo. He was a paranoid, reclusive genius who often did unpredictable and bizarre things. So what happened? . Today he’s a man dealing with mental illness while still performing quality pop music. I wouldn’t dare call Brian Wilson a weirdo now.

Brian Wilson performing in 2012
Brian Wilson performing in 2012
Still, I want it to be an honor (to some extent) to make it onto this list. So before we move to my top twenty we will need to list Woot’s top 50 Weirdos. Please click over to Woot for some fascinating stuff.

50. Pete Parisi 49. John Humphrey Noyes 48. John “Frenchy” Fuqua 47. Aaron Burr 46. Doc Dart 45. Gene Ray 44. Carry A. Nation 43. Wild Man Fischer 42. Charles Ponzi 41. Maryjean Ballner 40. Crispin Glover 39. Rube Waddell 38. Marjoe Gortner 37. The Ultimate Warrior 36. Hasil Adkins 35. Francis E. Dec 34. Hedy Lamarr 33. Jim Henson 32. Ignatius Donnelly 31. Iceberg Slim 30. Steve Ditko 29. Petey Greene 28. Father Yod 27. Bobby Fischer 26. Marie Laveau 25. John R. Brinkley 24. H.R. 23. Charles Fort 22. Henry Yesler 21. Dock Ellis 20. Henry Darger 19. Howard Hughes 18. Sky Saxon 17. Edith Beale & Edith Beale 16. Wesley Willis 15. Emperor Norton 14. Jack & Rexella Van Impe 13. G.G. Allin 12. Emily Dickinson 11. Dennis Rodman 10. Jack T. Chick 9. Ed Wood 8. H.P. Lovecraft 7. Prince 6. William S. Burroughs 5. John Brown 4. Edgar Allen Poe 3. Andy Kaufman 2. Woody Guthrie 1. Benjamin Franklin

Not a perfect list. There are some omissions, and some folks in my opinion are either not weird or noteworthy enough to belong. Jim Henson? No way. I think G.G. Allin, revolting punk that he was, doesn’t deserve to be there. Emily Dickenson was a recluse, sure, but is that enough to put her at number 12? And Ben Franklin at number 1? Please. Just because he was sexually promiscuous and liked to try weird ideas on for size every once in a while does not make him worthy of topping such a list. Tune in later for Part 2 of my top twenty Greatest American Weirdos.

MMA vs Boxing Part 6

In my final post on MMA vs. Boxing, we wil explore two more reasons why MMA has a greater likelihood of excitement than boxing. Please Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 for more of this series.

Reason 3: Diversity

Well, sure. MMA is more multifaceted and has dozens of more ways to win and lose than boxing. You have kicks, knees, elbows, ground-and-pound, and precious few restrictions on how to apply these compared to what boxers are allowed to do. Of course, you also have the classic knockout.

But how many different kinds of chokes are there in MMA? Maybe a dozen or two or three depending on how broadly you want to classify them. Throw in a plethora of creative leg locks and arm bars and various miscellaneous submissions, and MMA fans have a lot more to be on the lookout for than do boxing fans, especially if at least one of the fighters is submission savvy. When one fighter slowly works an advantage into a winning choke or joint lock, it is like watching an anaconda slowly suffocating its struggling prey. It’s horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Check out Seth Dikun tapping out Rolando Perez in 2009. At the one-minute mark, Dikun executes a beautiful flying triangle choke by wrapping his legs around Perez’s neck and left arm. Perez hangs on for over a minute and a half before tapping.

dikun-perez

In my final post on MMA vs. Boxing, we wil explore two more reasons why MMA has a greater likelihood of excitement than boxing. Please Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 for more of this series.

Reason 3: Diversity

Well, sure. MMA is more multifaceted and has dozens of more ways to win and lose than boxing. You have kicks, knees, elbows, ground-and-pound, and precious few restrictions on how to apply these compared to what boxers are allowed to do. Of course, you also have the classic knockout.

But how many different kinds of chokes are there in MMA? Maybe a dozen or two or three depending on how broadly you want to classify them. Throw in a plethora of creative leg locks and arm bars and various miscellaneous submissions, and MMA fans have a lot more to be on the lookout for than do boxing fans, especially if at least one of the fighters is submission savvy. When one fighter slowly works an advantage into a winning choke or joint lock, it is like watching an anaconda slowly suffocating its struggling prey. It’s horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Check out Seth Dikun tapping out Rolando Perez in 2009. At the one-minute mark, Dikun executes a beautiful flying triangle choke by wrapping his legs around Perez’s neck and left arm. Perez hangs on for over a minute and a half before tapping.

dikun-perez

On the other hand, a slick submission, especially one that comes out of the blue and when a fighter is behind, is breathtaking to behold. The classic example here is Ryo Chonan against the great Anderson Silva from Pride Shockwave 2004. Silva had been beating Chonan from pillar to post until Chonan executed a flying leg scissors and transposed it into a heel hook. Silva tapped instantly. This move can only be seen to believed. Further, this submission becomes even more remarkable when you consider that Anderson Silva might very well be the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.

chonan-silva

Another aspect of diversity is that sometimes you have guys forced to fight in a discipline at which they are not expert. Since there are so many aspects to MMA, it’s likely most guys will be better at one thing than another. It’s also possible that two guys will cancel each other out in one skill set and instead choose to duel in another. Matt Hughes and Josh Koschek were both champion wrestlers, but their fight in 2011 might as well have been a boxing match. Same thing with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Kazushi Sakurba. Two submission specialists ended up slugging it out for significant periods of their fight in 2003. Was the ‘boxing’ in either case on a particularly high level? Not really. But it was thrilling because you knew both guys were a bit out of their element and fighting regardless. That can lead to some wild, unpredictable results.

Was Brock Lesnar’s arm triangle choke submission of Shane Carwin in 2010 particularly artful? Eh. How about Mirko Cro-Cop’s rear naked choke of Pat Barry from the same year? Not bad, I guess. These were finishing moves, to be sure, but fairly ordinary as far as submissions go. What made these submissions unforgettable however was that the guys executing them hardly ever submit anybody. Lesnar was a former NCAA wrestling champion and WWE star who’s entire MMA game consisted of pulverizing his opponents with ground and pound. Cro-Cop, on the other hand, was a world-famous striker known for his potent kicks. “Left leg, hospital; right leg, cemetery,” as he always said. The very idea of these guys wrapping their arms around an opponent’s neck and squeezing their way to a win would be absurd. Yet that is exactly what happened, and it was amazing to behold. Only in MMA, thanks to its diversity, can you witness something like that.

Reason 4: The Grotesque

Since at least the 18th century (in French and German as well as English) grotesque has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting. In boxing you get this mostly when one or both fighters suffer from cuts. Their eyes become bloated slits; their faces become crimson smears, and that’s the cue for the crowd to start to go bananas. The truth is that most people who watch fights really like this sort of thing. World Heavyweight challenger Henry Cooper once said that “the boxing public generally are a bloodthirsty lot. They like to see a good, hard fight, and if there’s plenty of gore and snot flying around, they love it.” Seeing blood, we realize that the boxing match we have paid to see has finally degenerated into a fight. We’re not thinking about jabs and faints and hooks and other finer points of the sweet science anymore. We’re thinking about how one guy is about to take the other guy’s head off with a punch. It’s the grotesque that takes us there.

bloody_boxers

But rarely does boxing get grotesque beyond the blood and the swelling. The one exception I can think of is the Evander Holyfield-Hasim Rahman fight from 2002. Whether it was a punch or a headbutt we may never know, but midway through round 8, Rahman emerged with a gruesome hematoma over his left eye. It jutted out over his face like Frankenstein’s eyebrow and stretched almost to his temple. “That is one of the most grotesque things I have ever seen on a prizefighter,” said HBO commentator Jim Lampley. The fight was correctly and mercifully stopped despite the fact that Rahman was keeping it close, lump on his head or no. No one contested the stoppage, but certainly everyone watching has vivid memories of how horrendously disfigured Rahman became that night.

rahman_hematoma

The difference, however, between the grotesque in boxing and in MMA is twofold. It is less rare in MMA and far more varied. Sure, you still have the vivid plasma splatter like in boxing. A recent example includes Cain Velasquez’s one-sided mauling of Antonio Bigfoot Silva in 2012. What an abattoir that was.

cain-bigfoot

More classic examples are B.J. Penn-Joe Stevenson (2008) and Kazushi Sakuraba-Ricardo Arona (2005).

stevenson_sakuraba

It does not get much bloodier than this. Because MMA bouts can just as easily go to the ground where seeing punches coming from far away is less critical, MMA referees are less likely to stop fights on cuts than in boxing.

But it does not end there. In MMA, there is always the promise of seeing bones snap or go out of joint or bodies being twisted in unnatural ways. Truly, such a horrific sight can cause what Joyce Carol Oates calls “animal panic” in spectators as much as any blood-gushing boxing match.

The images below have not been doctored in any way. Not for the squeamish, they are accurate reminders of just exactly how grotesque MMA can get.

Renzo Gracie vs Kazushi Sakurabu (2000). Sakuraba dislocated Gracie’s left elbow with a kimura. Gracie never tapped.

renzo-gracie-arm-breaker

Dan Miller-Dave Phillips (2007). MMA great Bas Rutten said this was the tightest standing guillotine choke he ever saw. It’s the closest thing to a decapitation I ever saw. It’s a miracle Phillips didn’t have his neck broken.

danmillerguillotine_display_image

Rosi Sexton-Windy Tomomi (2007). Sexton took the back of her standing opponent and tried to trip her to the canvas. Tomomi’s ankle buckled and twisted at an unnatural angle. She spent four months in the hospital as a result.

sexton_480_poster

Corey Hill-Dale Hartt (2008). When hill threw a leg kick, Hartt blocked it with his leg and snapped his man’s shin bone in half. He didn’t realize what he had done until after they stopped the fight.

coreyhill_legbreak

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria-Frank Mir (2011). Big Nog is such a tough guy that he didn’t tap until after Mir snapped his humerus in half.

BigNogArmBreak

Mark Hominick-Jose Aldo (2011). Just goes to show, these hematomas don’t just happen in boxing.

hominick_hematoma

Bryan Jones Jr.-Justin Lee Fowler (2012). Fowler picked up Jones for a slam and landed him awkwardly on his left leg, shattering his knee.

Jones-DislocatedKnee

No sport offers the grotesque in a greater and more bewildering array of forms than MMA.

Loving the grotesque is a guilty pleasure, I will admit. But I think it is also a natural one. Anyone stuck in traffic behind people rubbernecking an automobile accident can attest to this. I imagine that there are some people who are perfectly fine with the gruesome injuries one finds in boxing but balk at MMA for being too grotesque. But I cannot imagine that there are very many of these people. Once you establish that you enjoy watching one kind of regulated violence, it seems almost silly then to turn up your nose at another. I’ve gotten this impression from many boxing writers who find MMA barbaric yet wax poetic whenever two boxers spray each other’s hemoglobin all over the ring. I can’t help but think they have an axe to grind.

What I have tried to establish in this series is an objective look at both boxing and MMA. How are they similar? How are they different? How do mixed martial artists perform as boxers and vice versa? There are many reasons for the staying power of both sports, and there are many ways they can each improve. I have always maintained that both sports contain their share of beauty and are socially important given that they give a creative outlet for the violent urges of men (both as spectators as well as combatants). What I have tried to outline here however are reasons why boxers have an edge over mixed martial artists when crossing over into each other’s sports and why MMA has a edge over boxing in terms of excitement. I hope I have been persuasive.