Matt Williams column: Fights like Rosa's reignite my UFC fandom

Charles Rosa of Peabody (right) and Bryce Mitchell staged an entertaining fight that grabbed our attention at UFC 249.(AP Photo/John Raoux) 

Now 69 days since the concept of a playoff beard was replaced by a quarantine mullet ...

Whatever you may think of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, you've got to admit its never been a sports organization that lacks buzz.

It took almost 25 years, but the UFC, as the top promoter of mixed martial arts, has cracked the mainstream of America's sports consciousness.

Now, thanks to an ongoing pandemic, the UFC more or less has the entire landscape of the sports world to itself.

I'm an old school combat sports fan. I hopped on the MMA train back in the early 2000s, and though my interest has ebbed and flowed, I've always considered myself a supporter. So it was with particular interest that I tuned in to see what the UFCs empty arena shows would look like when they aired from Florida the past two weeks.

Let's face it: running events during a pandemic is a risk. There are a lot of people who believe it's too dangerous health-wise, and those people are going to make noise heard by sponsors.

UFC boss Dana White attacked the public relations battle with as much vigor as one of his fighters charging out of the corner while down on the scorecards — to varying degrees of success. Some see White as a hero, showing the sports world how to be safe rather than scared. Others see him as a fool, too loud and brash for his own good.

Seeing an aggressive testing protocol and safety measures in place, I leaned towards being fine with UFC holding fights. I was a little worried when one fighter tested positive for COVID-19 before the first event, but he was pulled and by all accounts hasn't spread the disease so far.

We've got to come off our stools at some point, so it was with a lot of curiosity that I tuned in. What would this first sporting event in a pandemic world look like?

Once the action started, it was striking how quickly I lapsed into watching the action the way I always had. It was easy focus on the fighters and forget about the unusual setting; fact is, as MMA fans we're used to unusual settings. If you used to watch Pride Fighting Championships from Japan, you know that its like to have no crowd noise.

You might be wondering: what do you like about mixed martial arts, anyway? Isn't it a little barbaric, too loud, too violent?

When I got hooked on the sport ,it was because of the ground game: the idea that you could win a fight by doing something like an arm bar, knee lock or other choke. You didn't have to be the biggest or strongest if you were smart or you had good technique.

You can have a guy on top of you, raining down blows like it's the dawn of Festivus. But if you catch his arm and wrap your leg just so, you can hit what's known as a triangle choke and win. As an undersized 16-year-old dabbling in karate, that sounded like the coolest thing ever.

So I was drawn to grade-A grapplers like Damien Maia, the Nogueira brothers and Anderson Silva. As the UFC grew, dominant wrestling became a huge part of the game. For me, it was often boring; the ability to cut and regain weight and maintain positioning and control took over for the ability to score a submission or knockout.

I don't fault great wrestlers; they work brutally hard and are trying to win. I respect it. I just don't find it particularly entertaining, so with that style of fighter on top, I tuned out a little bit.

When I tuned back in last weekend, one fight grabbed my attention more than any other — and not just because there was a North Shore guy in the octagon. The battle between Peabody native Charles Rosa and undefeated Bryce Mitchell was my favorite thing on the show.

Fighting at 145 pounds, these guys got after it. They rolled. They tried not just to control positioning, but to win. Mitchell got the better of Rosa, for sure, and took away one of the most one-sided scorecard decisions I've ever seen. He tried a rare maneuver called a twister, a couple of different arm chokes, pretty much anything you can imagine.

Every attempt to finish the fight grabbed my attention; you lean in towards the TV and squint, wondering, "Is that going to work?" You lean back and exhale when the guy on the bottom — in this case Rosa — pops free. For me, watching submission defense with reversals and escapes is just as entertaining as watching offense. It was like this fight was tailor-made to pique my interest all over again.

You really have to hand it to Rosa. It would've been easy to pack it in, maybe look a little better on the cards. Instead he stayed aggressive, took risks and showed off an insane level of defense. And yes, Mitchell showed off an absurd level of offense. I'm now counting him among those big-time grapplers whose fights I need to pay attention to.

Looking at the score without watching, you'd think Rosa got mauled. He did, in a sense. But as a fan, I'd much rather watch someone be active with no fear of a dominant score than someone who turtles and tries to protect a close loss. 

This fight was deep on the early undercard, but everything about it reminded me why I started following MMA in the first place. It put me in a sports happy place where I enjoyed the rest of the card and carried over to enjoying this past weekend's show.

Call me a homer, but I wish everybody fought like Charles Rosa. Pandemic or not, if every fight played out like his and Mitchell's, I'd turn off the TV feeling like I got my money's worth.

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You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com and let him know your favorite mixed martial artist and/or fight on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.

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