For this installment of the CagePotato Roundtable, we invited a few of our photographer buddies over to discuss our all-time favorite MMA photos. Judging by our selections, shots of agony and defeat have a special attraction to them. I think it’s because they allow us to get close to an incredibly intense, transcendent moment, without having to experience the pain of it. And isn’t that why we love MMA in the first place? Our special guests for today are…
- Jason Wright, who shot UFC 119 for us back in September 2010; if you follow us on Facebook, you recently saw one of his highlights from that night. You can see more of J-Dog’s work at jasonwrightphotography.com.
Disclaimer: There’s a short list of MMA photographers who have asked us to stop posting their work on this site due to copyright issues, and a couple of contributors to this week’s column happened to select photos taken by those photographers. We’ve used stand-ins in those cases, with links to the actual photos. Also, we don’t know why BJ Penn is so heavily represented in this column. The guy always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
I have many favorite photos from all the years shooting MMA but this one has to rank amongst the very top purely because of all the flack and accusations of photoshop manipulation with the blood spurt; professionals can spot a ringer, and this ain’t one. The disappointing thing is that all negative comments detract from our main strength as MMA photographers — to understand the sport, spot smaller nuances, read the timing, and capture a key defining moment in a fight. To me, this brief slice of time from UFC 80 serves as the perfect reminder of how dominant BJ Penn was in his prime.
Megumi Fujii entered her Bellator 34 fight against Zoila Gurgel with an undefeated record of 22 consecutive wins. This bout was a war; both fighter threw bombs at each other all night. In the end, Gurgel had her hand raised in a very controversial victory. I was lucky to have a position next to the gate, and After Fujii exited the cage, I was able to get this shot. It was one of the few shots I question myself about taking. Was I being voyeuristic in a moment of deep despair? Should I have allowed this person a private moment to feel their pain? I was very empathic to her feelings. By my account she had won that fight.
Although I wouldn’t really dub this my “favorite” MMA photo of all time, being that Chuck Liddell was and always will be one of the guys I would willingly storm the gates of Hell with, it’s easily the most iconic, and the first that came to my mind when this Roundtable topic was dropped in my lap. Let’s face it, before some guy called Anderson Silva arrived and decimated every UFC record known to man, Chuck Liddell was the scariest dude on the planet — the Governor to our Woodbury, if you will. Not only was “The Iceman” a champion, he abided by the Kenny Florian maxim of fight-finishing while Ken-Flo was still popping zits on his face and jacking off to the lingerie section of the Sears catalog.
The point is, Liddell was untouchable. And when the only man to actually defeat him (a fact that most fans weren’t even aware of at the time) without receiving a proper revenge beatdown in return (*cough* Randy Couture, Jeremy Horn *cough*) entered the UFC and managed to do so a second time at UFC 71, it was like watching a public execution of a beloved children’s cartoon. The Iceman era was over, never to return, and this photo captured that sickening realization all too well. As Big John huddles over a semi-conscious Liddell, it almost appears as if the fallen champ is still trying to grasp at, or is perhaps reflecting on, the fleeting remnants of his empire as they disintegrate around him. It’s a heartbreaking, yet beautifully composed and symmetrical shot, and portrays the conflicting mix of emotions present when the metaphorical torch is passed better than any other MMA photo I’ve ever come across.
*pours out a drink for the Iceman and cries into Kimiko-tan*
For years, we’ve watched what many consider modern-day Gladiators battle it out for honor, glory, and cold hard cash. And in the countless fights we’ve been witness to, only a select few, by comparison, have been etched in our minds and the history books forevermore. From the joy of winning to the agony of defeat. From snapped limbs and KO faces to fighters nearly falling out of the ring. At the end of the night when the blood has dried and the swelling has subsided, these warriors remain mortal men like the rest of us, men with families whom they love and cherish. No more emotionally charged (and controversial) photo in the MMA community exists than the one of Mark Coleman with his young daughters after losing to Fedor Emelianenko at Pride 32.
The above photo is my favorite in MMA because of what I remember when I look upon it. First you have Mark Coleman, a dad, enjoying his most precious “prize” — his daughters. Despite him losing and his deformed face at the time, Coleman got on the mic, called out for his daughters, and got down on their level to explain that he was okay. To hear “The Hammer” tell it, as soon as he saw his daughters he immediately had to turn into a father. Then you have his girls, whose love and concern for their father is far greater than any world championship or over-sized check. The father-daughter relationship is more important than trophies or medals, and he knew it. Knowing his kids just watched him get beat up, he made a bold (and great) decision to make sure he could console them as soon as he could. Good job, dad. How can you not be moved when looking at this picture? Sure, he collected a paycheck for the brutality he suffered in the ring, but he did it for us.
(See the actual photo at LasVegasSun.com)
You sign a contract to fight a certain opponent on a certain night. Either you think you’re better than the other guy, or you think you can figure out a way to win. You train as hard as you can. You craft a game-plan. When the time comes, you do your absolute best. And in an instant, you realize that it wasn’t enough. Your confidence was a lie. None of it mattered.
Anybody can get caught with a punch they didn’t see coming, or snatched up in a submission hold because they left their arm out for a split-second too long. You can excuse those losses in your mind. “He was the better man that night,” etc. But to be dominated from bell to bell for 15 minutes, or 20 minutes, or 25 minutes — that’s tough. At a certain point you realize that the miraculous comeback isn’t going to happen. Plan A didn’t work, and Plan B didn’t work, and you never really came up with a Plan C. Your opponent is hurting you in ways that you simply don’t know how to defend, and he’s getting stronger as you get weaker. You’re losing. You’ve lost.
They say the eyes are the windows the the soul, right? I look at Sam Morris’s photo of BJ Penn being dominated by Georges St. Pierre, and I can’t find it. The spirit has left the body, and the body is just waiting for it to be over. Penn is one of those fighters — like Tito Ortiz, like Quinton Jackson — who used to be the best in the world, and has managed to convince himself that on some level, he’ll always be the best in the world, or at least capable of greatness on any given night. And I wonder what Penn was telling himself the moment this photo was taken at UFC 94, when reality was smashing him in the face.
One of the most memorable MMA photos for me is this photo of Rashad Evans after he was KO’ed by Lyoto Machida at UFC 98 (I can’t find a version with the proper photo credits). There’s so much to like here. The swollen, bloody lips, the unevenly rolled down eyes — you can tell that no one is home. He looks more alien than human. Let’s face it, unless your name is Rashad Evans, your first reaction to the photo is probably one of laughter. And if you are not a fan of Evans, you may keep on laughing for a few. I still grin every time I look at his photo, and for me that is a key factor to a great photograph — it stirs emotion.
Fedor Emelianenko might have the best photo resume of any MMA fighter to date. The ice cream cones. The Glorious Sweater of Absolute Victory. Wearing a wig with Wanderlei. The iconic photos from any of his matches. But that said, there is one image that stands above all the rest, not just because it encapsulates the aura and the ability Fedor possessed in his prime, but because it does so to a degree that is virtually unrivaled in MMA photojournalism. It’s the one of Fedor walking away from the corporeal vessel that previously housed Andrei Arlovski’s soul, after it was exorcised through a combination of flawless technique and very, very flawed technique.
It’s a glimpse at what was once the inexorable consequence of attempting to dethrone the MMA world’s unstoppable force — Arlovksi’s chin was clearly not the immovable object. The Pitbull lies prone, eyes open but unseeing, not so much a vanquished victim as an obstacle that happened to be in the way of something that refused to divert course. Fedor casually walks away, seemingly indifferent to the fact that he has just knocked out yet another challenger and retained his place among the sport’s elite in front of a sold-out arena of screaming fans.
Along with his almost decade-long reign atop the heavyweight division, the perception of Fedor as a cool, emotionless enigma, contributed to his mythic status among MMA fans. he was the MMA equivalent of Anton Chigurh. Until, of course, he wasn’t anymore. This Sherdog photograph manages to capture not only that sense of invincibility and mystique Fedor possessed, but the inevitable outcome that accompanied his fights at the time. It didn’t merely capture the qualities of the fighter himself but also an era of the heavyweight division — and MMA in general — which that fighter managed to define.
Francis Specker‘s photo of the H-Bomb being deployed on Michael Bisping is my favorite MMA photograph of all time. This bout went down at UFC 100 — arguably the biggest card in terms of hype and talent the promotion had ever put on — and it was the culmination of the “Ultimate Fighter: US vs. UK” season where Bisping came across to most viewers as a complete and total douchebag. When Hendo knocked him out standing up and then lined up the totally unnecessary, yet somehow totally awesome follow up shot that this photo captures, many fans went wild.
This photo also marks the moment when Dan Henderson, who has a title shot coming up next month, got his mojo back. When Henderson came over from Pride in 2007 and lost two title shots at both middleweight and light-heavyweight, his career momentum was seriously derailed. His next two fights were rather unexciting decision wins, and going into the Bisping fight, people were losing interest in this seemingly aging veteran. With his destruction of Bisping, Henderson put himself back on the map, and while he left the UFC over a contract dispute then lost a disappointing fight to Jake Shields, Henderson’s next three fights were violent finishes and his return to the UFC was one of the greatest wars ever seen.
If you have a topic idea for a future Roundtable column, please send it to