Family First?

When lightweight contenders Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Melvin “the Young Assassin” Guillard met in the Octagon at UFC 150, it was under odd and not entirely welcome circumstances. The two fighters had come up together at Greg Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts gym, meaning they were part of the Jackson team, meaning they were part of the Jackson “family.” Even after Guillard joined the Imperial Athletics gym in Boca Raton this past January, he admitted he’d left at least a part of his heart in Albuquerque.

For Cerrone and Guillard, trying to knock each other’s heads off in private, in the quiet seclusion of a sparring session, was one thing; over their years together they’d probably fought each other countless times. But going at each other in a real fight? With real consequences? That had to be different. I have plenty of friends I’ve imagined fighting. Never once have I imagined doing so on television.

“My gym is my family” is one of the classic tropes in the mixed martial arts world. It’s one of those lines that affords the hardscrabble indignity of the fighting life a certain nobility; it also gives a fundamentally solitary sporting endeavor a sense of community and provides yet another line of defense against critics who say MMA fighters are brutes. In lives constantly threatened by financial pressures, self-doubt, and the criticism of decent society—not to mention other people’s fists, shins, and knees—the gym-as-family thing provides MMA fighters a harbor in the storm. And to make sure that harbor is always there, most gym-mates demur when it comes to fighting each other. At Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts, it’s all but policy: Thou shalt not fight your family. 

Ask UFC President Dana White, though, and he’ll give you a different take on the gym-as-family myth: Simply put, he thinks it’s bullshit. He believes it’s a fighter’s job to fight the opponent they’re told to fight.

Back in 2011, when the Jackson gym’s new golden boy, now-UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones, called out its longtime leader, Rashad Evans, causing a rift that resulted in Evans leaving the “family” he’d helped build, White blasted Greg Jackson for first saying he would corner neither man during their fight then months later saying he’d corner Jones. White argued this year that Jackson should have just admitted what everybody already knew: that Jones was the smarter fighter for Jackson to throw his lot in with, both from a fighting perspective and a business one, a fact borne out by the global endorsement deal Jones recently signed with Nike.

"No matter how often Greg Jackson pumps that family [expletive], Greg Jackson is a [businessman],” White said. “Greg Jackson [expletive] told Rashad this wouldn’t happen, that they’re family and all that other [expletive], but look … and see who is at Jackson’s and who is not.”

This issue has driven White crazy for years because it means fighters who should be fighting each other don’t, thereby clogging up divisions and mucking up the UFC’s plans. Also, let’s be honest: it doesn’t generally take a whole lot for “family members”—each out for titles, big-money fights, and endorsement deals—to turn on one another. Money, pride, success, failure, sex, drugs, disappointment—they can all lead to permanent annulments of familial commitment, so why let temporary loyalties get in the way of a potentially lucrative career? “Family” is a negotiable term in the world of mixed martial arts.

The fascinating thing about the Cerrone-Guillard fight wasn’t the promotional hype the “former family” angle afforded the UFC’s marketing department (“Two friends go to war!”) or even how quick and full of action it was (lots of MMA fights offer surprising comebacks ending in first-round knockouts) but rather how the fight was finished: with a single act of involuntary—and arguably foolhardy—humanity that I’d never seen before and that probably never would have happened if the two fighters hadn’t been so close outside the octagon.

As advertised, the fight took no time to get going. Barely ten seconds in, Cerrone lunged at Guillard with a winging left hook, a punch Guillard dodged while countering with a left hook of his own. Cerrone wasn’t as fortunate as his opponent and took Guillard’s punch right on the chin. Cerrone went down flat but managed, on sheer instinct, to scramble back to his feet; he backed up fast, buying time to get his wits while Guillard threw wild haymakers, hoping for a quick knockout.

But suddenly, at 3:48, everything changed. Cerrone threw a lightning-fast switch-kick that clipped Guillard on the side of the head. Guillard began stumbling like a drunk on unsure ground. Sensing a chance, Cerrone rushed in and landed a cracking right hand to Guillard’s jaw. Guillard crumbled to the mat face-first. Then things got interesting. Acting on instinct, Cerrone rushed after him, but instead of pounding Guillard out with punches like he normally would, he paused over his fallen opponent and made a few unconvincing movements in the direction of a rear-naked choke. Cerrone’s hesitation gave the referee enough time to call the fight before Guillard sustained any more damage.

In an interview after the fight Cerrone admitted that the thought of pounding out his helpless friend—his family member—had given him pause. “[Before the fight] a lot of people were asking me, ‘Will it be hard to finish a teammate?’ And I would say, ‘No,’” Cerrone said at the post-fight press conference. “[But when I was] actually there with that finishing blow, it was very hard.” 

The Cerrone-Guillard fight was the first time I saw the value in pushing teammates to face one another beyond the simple economics and mathematics of fight promotion. Here, in the middle of an MMA fight, where doubt can spell doom, was a moment of true emotional confusion, without pretense or forethought, one of those spontaneous flashes of humanity and drama that true, longtime, been-there-seen-that fight fans eat up.