Earlier this month, I enjoyed watching Louisiana State University Women's basketballer Angel Reese and UFC fighter Israel Adesanya reach the top of their sports. I then made the horrific decision to check my phone and see what people online were saying about the newfound champions.
The discussion was dominated not by an appreciation of both athletes managing to climb the mountain to sporting glory, but by how they celebrated that incredible feat.
IFYMI: Reese followed the opposition's star player, Caitlin Clark, around the court while mimicking the 'You Can't See Me' celebration.
Adesanya pointed to his opponent's son and fell to the ground, copying what the son did to him years ago.
Angel Reese’s celebrations for winning the college basketball championship over Caitlin Clark's Iowa team meant she was a “classless piece of shit," as quoted by the founder of Barstool Sports, Dave Portnoy. For Izzy, re-claiming the UFC middleweight belt against Alex Pereira, who he had never defeated before, was cool, but him taunting his unconscious opponent’s son was “childish” and a step too far.
Following your opponent around the court after you’ve already won is a tad obsessive, and it is weird to have beef with a teenager when you’re 33 years old. However, Izzy and Angel quite literally achieved their ultimate dream. A dream they worked unimaginably hard for. That's what their celebrations actually reflect.
Athletes' whole lives revolve around winning. At the highest level, millions of dollars and unfathomable hours are spent finetuning the body and perfecting minute details so that one will be well prepared for game time. And none of that even guarantees one win, let alone enough wins to win all the wins one needs to wear the ring, medal, or belt at the end of the final match.
The mental aspect of committing all that time to one objective is probably more taxing than the physical. The nagging feelings of self-doubt, futility, and hopelessness would have shook Reese and Adesanya to their cores when they were knocked out in their last efforts (Reese lost in the quarter-finals of the 2022 tournament and Pereira defeated Izzy in their previous bout).
This combination of complete physical dedication and mental stakes is what makes sport the unique spectacle it is: A battle between humans custom-built to thrive in their respective realm where losing is a catastrophe and winning is historic.
What I’m saying is that none of the celebrations are actually personal spites against the opponents, just adrenaline and euphoria.
For Reese and Adesanya, Caitlin Clark and Pereira's son became walking symbols of their own self-doubt. So, their celebrations were not directed towards the individuals as humans. Rather they celebrated overcoming the idea, which actualised externally and/or internally, that they are not good enough.
Both athletes confirm this in their post-match/fight interviews, confessing that their victories weren’t just over their opponents, but over more abstract, more human, feelings.
Reese talked of how she hopes to inspire kids that look like her, who may not have a role model they can look up to.
“All year, I was critiqued about who I was,” she said in the post-game press conference. “I don’t fit in a box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. But when other people do it, y’all say nothing. So this was for the girls that look like me, that’s going to speak up on what they believe in. It’s unapologetically you.”
Adesanya’s post-fight message was a call for people to believe in themselves no matter what. To take a chance on themselves even if no one else sees them succeeding. That’s why he does what he does and will continue to do it - so people of all ages will be inspired.
“I just wanted to show people the power of the human mind, the human spirit,” he said in the post-fight press conference. “What you can do no matter what. No matter if they count you out… If you get knocked down seven times get back up eight.”
The longer you watch sports the more you’ll see victories that obviously mean far more than others. With those will come celebrations that are unanimously satisfying, inspiring, and soul-stirring celebrations (see LeBron James after winning the 2016 NBA championship).
In the meantime, let's just appreciate the shit-talking and kid-taunting for what it actually is: Humans overcoming adversity. It really is that simple.