I never cringe at UFC fights. One fight on last weekend’s UFC 189 card made me cringe hard.

(Warning: some of the photos in this post are a little nasty.)

Robbie Lawler vs Rory MacDonald II is one of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen. The welterweight championship battle was that rare occasion where I actually agreed with commentator Joe Rogan’s frenzied post-fight praise, his tendency to declare every other fight THE GREATEST OF ALL TIIIIIIME. Lawler-MacDonald II was an instant classic. After a tepid first round, both guys—MacDonald, heir apparent to the welterweight throne (he trains with former division king Georges St Pierre) and Lawler, an old dog who’s miraculously picked up new tricks in his latest UFC run—tore off the breaks and hurled them out the window. From then on, it was a beautiful ballet of violence and technique. And more violence.

Back and forth and back and forth they went. An uncharacteristically patient Lawler (back in the day before a stunning career resurgence, he was a one-dimensional berserker without a tactical bone in his body) bobbed, feinted, and countered MacDonald, busting his nose and turning his face into a grotesque mask of blood and swollen flesh. MacDonald was never out of the match, though, and—despite Lawler’s off-the-charts absurd punching power—scored a third round head kick that nearly ended the fight.

By the midpoint of the fourth round, both guys looked like hell. The fight was less unstoppable force versus immovable object and more woodchipper versus guy-with-blenders-for-fists. I mean, look at this:

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Nobody walks away from a fight unscathed (unless you’re Ronda Rousey, in which case you walk away from every fight unscathed), but these two were falling the fuck apart. By the end of the fourth round, Lawler and MacDonald were standing by sheer, stubborn force of will. But they refused to stop for a heartbeat, even when the ref motioned them back to their corners.

They stood in the center of the octagon, and they stared, perhaps wishing that their eyeballs would leap out of their heads and pick up where their battered, exhausted bodies left off. It gave me goosebumps, watching that. They were in another word, the closest thing you’ll find these days to a primal one. All that mattered was the moment, bodies, minds, and weeping wounds be damned. It was hideously, beautifully pure.

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Minutes later, it all came crashing down. MacDonald’s will shattered. Lawler popped him right in his already broken nose, and he backed away, fell to the ground, and curled up into the fetal position like a frightened child. This was not a typical TKO, where someone eats it because they’re on the verge of losing consciousness. For MacDonald—tough as goddamn nails, a guy MMA fans like to describe as an emotionless madman who’d probably be a serial killer if he didn’t fight—the pain was unbearable. He wanted out. He wanted to be anywhere else.

That’s when I cringed. When they showed that punch—a strike that made MacDonald’s thoroughly busted nose look like it was gonna recede into his face—on replay, I had to look away. I refused to watch it again. It made me feel a little nauseous. It was too much.

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I’ve done some thinking about exactly why that was—for me, someone who’s been a diehard MMA fan for more than a decade—and I realized it’s because of the way I watch fights. There’s a cognitive dissonance to it. These men and women step into the octagon and regularly shrug off punches and submissions that would make you or me cry and book it to the hospital. Part of it is adrenaline, the other part is sheer toughness. So when they’re in there beating each others’ brains out, I view them almost as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. I don’t think about the pain. I don’t think about how they’re feeling, how they’re breaking.

Which is kinda weird, because I’ve trained before. Not quite at that level of intensity, but I’ve had my body battered and my nose broken enough times to know that that shit sucks. I know it can be fucking scary. I guess, though, some part of my brain wants to believe that UFC fighters are Different. That’s what lets me cheer when somebody scores a fantastic knockdown or knockout instead of cringing. “It’s cool,” my brain says. “They barely felt it, and they’ll be fine in a couple weeks.”

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Perhaps I’m assuming or over-generalizing, but I think a lot of us do that. Despite how safe modern MMA is relative to the sport’s early days or a street fight or what have you, it takes mental gymnastics to enjoy watching people beat the shit out of each other. We have to separate ourselves from it, at least a little bit. It’s kinda like watching a Hollywood movie full of gore and explosions. “None of it is real,” we tell ourselves. Because it isn’t, obviously. It’s entertainment. Fun entertainment, entertainment that appeals to some ancient part of the human psyche. Combat sports are similar in that they exist for our entertainment, and nobody is gonna die, hopefully.

After the fight ended, MacDonald apparently didn’t even know what year it was. A day later, he posted a picture of himself after a trip to the hospital and... yikes. He might not be cleared to fight again until next year.

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Lawler and MacDonald’s knock-down, drag-out slugfest was, for me, a wake-up call. I still love watching fights (Lawler-MacDonald II is my top ten of all time, easily), I still pine for sublime strikes and knockouts, but I want to be a little more mindful of what’s actually going on in the cage. I want to appreciate what these people are sacrificing for our entertainment—their long and short-term health, their brain cells, their peace of mind—and feel authentic concern when it seems like someone might be pushing themselves too far. I don’t want to cringe or look away when a fighter seems to be expressing authentic fear or pain because I’m afraid to deal with it. MMA fighters are human, and they deserve an audience that keeps that in mind—lest we continue to cry for blood when a fighter is in actual danger.

Image credit: Getty Images.

To contact the author of this post, write to nathan.grayson@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @vahn16.