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A push alert on my phone on Sunday notified me that Kobe Bryant died. It was morbidly appropriate: an impersonal message meant for countless people, sent directly to me on a personal device telling me that someone I had never met but felt like I knew was gone. I was in a glum funk for the rest of the day.
Basketball was my first athletic love, and it has been my longest. It shaped how I think about life and provided me with a perpetual sense of belonging. My earliest memories were of Michael Jordan, but by then, he was already established and nearing the end of his prime years. Kobe was the player of my generation. He wasn’t necessarily my favorite player, but he was one of them, and he defined the era that allowed me to feel like the game was also mine, not a loan or a hand-me-down.
I know that this is an MMA column and that Bryant was a basketball player. Though he was involved in some unique moments of the sport, his connection is larger and more essential. Feeling grief or loss over the death of an athlete is not endemic to any specific sport. Whether it’s basketball or MMA or cricket, fans dedicate so much of our diminishing time to the lives of these athletes—celebrating their triumphs, agonizing over their failures—that we feel like we know them, and we’re affected by things that happen to them. We may not actually know them the way we know people in our waking lives, but we still know them in personal ways. We see them at their most supernatural and their most vulnerable. We extract meaning from their existence and inject it into ours like a blood transfusion, absorbing it as our own. The same way songs which otherwise have nothing to do with us become the soundtracks of our memories, athletes’ careers enrich the context of our lives.
This phenomenon is even more poignant in MMA. Mere participation in the sport shaves years off of fighters’ lives in ways that other sports do not, annihilating cognitive function later in life the way basketball erodes knee cartilage until bones scrape against each other like tectonic plates. Both are debilitating, but there is no reconstructive surgery for Alzheimer’s, no wheelchair for dementia.
The very act of fighting is a safety-bubbled facsimile of killing. The goal of a fight is to simulate death—to remove a fighter from consciousness or to disable him in such a way that, on a battlefield, would seal his doom. Knockouts and submissions aren’t just an aspect of fighting; they’re the most desired outcomes, for fighters and fans alike. When people say “they’re putting it all on the line” or “they left everything in the cage,” it’s viscerally and existentially real. No other sport is as joyously fatalistic or as fundamentally associated with mortality.
Untimely deaths notwithstanding, most fighters we idolize will almost certainly die before we do, and the process will more often than not be unforgiving and ugly. The indestructible titans of the cage will wither and weaken until they fade away for good. Their deaths are reminders that lowly, regular people like ourselves are on the chopping block along with them. Shocking and sudden deaths like Kobe Bryant’s take it a step further: Nobody knows if we’re up next or have a full lifetime ahead of us. If even the wealthy, accomplished and influential can’t escape fate, what hope is there for us?
Of course, we all know that we and everyone else will one day be gone and forgotten, our lives proven as meaningless as we already secretly know they are, but when someone else dies, it removes the solipsism of it all. It’s one thing to accept your own death and to hide in the thickets of delusions and defense mechanisms we have to help navigate that reality, but it’s much harder and more helpless to try to hide from the death of someone else. Sports are, among many other things, distractions from life’s bitter truths. When the distraction is gone, we’re pushed into raw exposure to those truths, at least momentarily.
Bryant’s legacy is not as simple as the sanitized, heroic version that will flood the Internet in the ensuing days. His rape allegation from 2003 still lingers and will probably continue to do so. When someone famous dies, we’re forced to reconcile whatever complications there are. Some choose to bury transgressions with the person, some compartmentalize the good and the bad and others simply deny. I anticipate a similar dilemma arising when several of my favorite fighters die. Personally, I do my best to try and understand how the inspirational and unforgivable intersect, and I try not to let the latter prevent me from appreciating the former. If their lives at least somewhat become mine, as I believe they do, then why not flex some authority on what I choose to keep?
It would be disingenuous for me to arrive at a solid conclusion. I don’t know how to respond to the death of someone I never met, and I’m not sure if I ever will. It’s a process and a discursive, backtracking and contradictory one. The only thing I can say for sure is that there’s nothing wrong with being affected by these things. The beauty of fandom, as well as all its attendant pain, is in allowing ourselves to be affected.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.