Take away spring training in baseball and the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball, and you don't find too many tenured sports that hold contests for the hell of it. Every game "means something," usually as an avenue to a world title.
The UFC, MMA's slightly less politically correct version of MLB, organizes and arranges nearly every fight with the expectation that participants could someday vie for a divisional belt. Very rarely will they throw two athletes in a burlap sack for giggles. (The upcoming Wanderlei Silva/Rich Franklin catchweight fight is a notable, noisy exception.)
This is a good thing. As a longtime sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder, my psyche insists on several things: that white socks don't mix with black, that the TV remotes are arranged in descending order of size and that fights have a point beyond inflicting a bunch of bruises.
Saturday's sore-thumb fight between Frank Shamrock and Nick Diaz -- held at a catchweight of 179 pounds -- will do my affliction no favors. It will not satisfy any questions about The Best in any particular weight class. (Though Shamrock, jovial, professional Internet troll that he is, would probably delight in making his very own 179-pound title out of cardboard and ego.) It will not add anything of significance to either man's career. With Diaz bulking up and Shamrock slowing down, it's a Frankenstein monster of a match.
And yet I'm looking forward to it nearly as much as any fight this year.
Something is clearly wrong with me.
It could be the residual goodwill I have for Shamrock, who has remained one of the few athletes in the sport to marry a dynamic personality with a dynamic in-ring presence. (Most athletes can muster one or the other, but rarely both.) Maybe it's because Diaz is his perfect foil, an attitudinal Stockton bruiser with bravado so foaming he's willing to attack an opponent while the two are in the same hospital wing.
Make no mistake: Nick Diaz will strangle you with your own IV tube. And that's pretty endearing.
The fight itself appears destined to be three rounds of video game-style button-mashing. Diaz's volume punching is probably not going to work against Shamrock, who escaped to stand-up training when his legs gave up on him. Likewise, Shamrock may have few answers (and not enough knee cartilage) if Diaz decides to shoot in on him. There's never any complete guarantee against boredom, but these are not two guys who stand still and wait for something to happen.
Size is a nonissue. Shamrock, one of the smallest light heavyweights of his or any era, carries sparsely more muscle than Robbie Lawler, whom Diaz flattened. And while he may be built like a supplement ad, Shamrock has never relied on brute force for conflict resolution. He's a craftsman, and so is Diaz.
What really interests me is how Diaz's new face -- Frank Stile, MD -- will hold up against Shamrock, easily the most accomplished and foreboding striker Diaz has met since having scar tissue removed and collagen implanted to reduce his frequent lacerations. A couple of years ago, I would've picked Shamrock via brow slicing. If Diaz embraces strategy and takes him down, it could be a different story.
A story with no gold MacGuffin, just bragging rights. The opposite is true of the following weekend's Anderson Silva/Thales Leites bout, which is unique in that Silva has an opportunity to set a UFC record for consecutive fights won in the Octagon (nine). Leites, unfortunately, is a generic personality; Silva did himself no favors by engaging in a bizarre performance against Patrick Cote in October. It appears to have robbed him of the fanfare surrounding his previous performances.
Silva would, likely as not, knock both Shamrock and Diaz out of their kneepads and into the concession stands -- maybe even on the same night. But context is everything. Robert De Niro may be a far better actor than his peers, but damned if I'll sit through "Righteous Kill" again.
Most of the time, a fight should mean something, a contest that adds order and balance to a sport that's still struggling with cohesion. Other times, a fight should just be a fight, with nothing more on the line than the audience's attention. Shamrock gets me because he gets storytelling: the idea that you have to have an emotional stake in a fight or fighter in order to get nervous for them. For most athletes, the title is the story. Frank takes more authorship. He is the only first-generation MMA athlete still competing on a high level, and that's a tale worth following.
Fifteen years on this gig has taught him how to make us care about his exploits. And he does it better than anybody.
Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.