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The fastest growing bloodsport in the world

The first time I saw UFC on the television, the experience was akin to watching a car crash. One fighter had knocked the other out. Before the referee could intervene, the fighter had launched himself onto his prone opponent and began to pummel the man’s unconscious face with ‘hammer fists’. I looked on with horrified fascination, at times wanting to avert my eyes, but somehow engrossed. One look at one of YouTube’s MMA greatest knockout videos is enough to have you clenching your teeth.

But MMA is not only for macho men. As judoku welterweight Ronda Rousey has shown, women can be just as violently efficient in the octagon. Her defeat of Meisha Tate is not for the fainthearted; as the YouTube video states, viewer discretion is advised.

From its humble beginnings in brutal no-rules street-fighting tournaments, MMA in the last ten years has gone nova. Now Mixed Martial Arts is said to be the fastest growing sport in the world. In the US, it may well have dealt boxing a knockout blow. According to a friend of mine, in the US advertisements and merchandise outlets for the largest MMA company in the world (the UFC) are ubiquitous. Ads for UFC DVDs can be seen on the side of trams in Melbourne, while Sydney has hosted two UFC nights, featuring Australian fighters (fighting in the ‘octagon’ is banned in Victoria, thus excluding the UFC from holding fights there).

For some, like philosopher Damon Young, MMA is a virtuous sport. From a piece he wrote a few years ago for the Age:

To step into the cage again and again is not the deed of a coward – it requires the virtue of courage. One must fear the danger and threat of pain, and rationally confront them with the help of one’s knowledge and will. Aristotle recognised this as a genuine virtue, and so do I.

There are others from the Greek and Christian traditions: temperance, to keep one’s body and mind fit; generosity, to give one’s opponent his dues; mercy, to show restraint in the face of victory; and magnanimity, or ‘greatness of soul’, which keeps one from pettiness of spirit.

I’m not sure we need take this too seriously. It’s true that stepping into the cage isn’t the act of a coward (in Young’s sense of the word), but then again, neither is base-jumping or undergoing surgery without anesthetic. Showing mercy or restraint towards someone you have voluntarily agreed to fight with is hardly on par with showing it towards someone to whom you might rightfully seek revenge.

Supporters of MMA do better when they describe the fighters as elite athletes. One of the reasons MMA surpasses boxing as a spectator sport is the sheer variety of skills that fighters must master. Fighters must be proficient in striking (punching and kicking), wrestling and throwing, and ground fighting. Over the two decades of the sport’s existence, a dominant form has developed mostly composed of Muay Thai, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As in all elite sports, there is something wondrous about the feats these athletes can pull off. Fighters like Anderson ‘Spider’ Silva are extraordinary to watch.

For all this, MMA is still composed of skills aimed at hurting someone else. If part of its appeal lies in the fighter’s talents, another most likely lies in the appeal to a conservative notion of (mostly masculine) authenticity, not unlike that which I described in a recent piece on torture porn horror films. Indeed, the reality TV show ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, in which fighters compete for a UFC contract, are all the more gripping because they lay claim to a ‘seriousness’ that many other reality shows lack. In a jumped-up karaoke competition like Australian Idol, the worst that can happen to a contestant is that they will be voted off. In The Ultimate Fighter, a contestant might be seriously injured. It takes a ‘real man’, a ‘tough dude’, to step into the octagon. (It’s interesting to note that most of the contestants are from poor backgrounds and success would mean that most clichéd of working-class escapes – through sport. A more incongruous fact is that many of the fighters are religious; they fight for ‘God’, apparently.)

It’s this ‘seriousness’, this sense that the fights have meaning in a world seemingly emptied of it, that John Birmingham noted in an opinion piece he wrote for the Age. With a good dose of irony, Birmingham said of Sydney’s UFC 127 (held just over a year ago): ‘But I’m thinking if I can just pack my wife off to a ladies’ night somewhere, and sneak a few mates around, slurry up a few brewskis … well, maybe my life could have meaning again. Just for a little while.’ Such a position is, of course, deeply conservative. But perhaps it goes a way to explaining why MMA is apparently the fastest growing sport in the world.

Rjurik Davidson is an Associate Editor of Overland magazine. He is the author of The Library of Forgotten Books. His novel Unwrapped Sky will be published by Tor books in 2014 and his screenplay The Uncertainty Principle is currently in development with Lailaps films. He can also be found rjurik.com and @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. UFC kicks ass!

    It can be great entertainment and I think Birmingham really is stretching it when he says he thinks it might bring meaning back to his life.

    Or is he just saying that this is what the poor deluded proles think? If he is, he might need to re-examine his progressive credentials.

  2. I think Rjurik’s point is that it’s symptomatic of something wrong with a society where violence becomes more meaningful than non-violence. As he suggests, you might equally discuss war. Lots of working class people celebrated the outbreak of the Great War. That doesn’t mean it was a good thing.

  3. Why is UFC a celebration of violence? Its a sport. Plenty of sport involves violence, sometimes fatal.

    • Well, actually, I think the point of MMA is to “put the other guy to sleep”, or “submit him” as the fighters constantly talk about it. The point of most other sports is to do things like kick goals – and indeed many sports like AFL try to eliminate violence as much as possible. So, yes, it is a celebration of violence. I tried, in my piece, to keep a sense of what is engrossing about the sport also – I must admit, the jiu jitsu fighters and the tae-kwondo fighters (to name a couple) are really skilled and there’s a certain pleasure which comes from watching a master of any craft, these included.

  4. I’m sure you’ll find similar combative phraseology in any number of sports. Regarding the violence in AFL, its officially condemned but always bubbling along underneath the surface.

    I’m not sure I see the point of your article.Are you saying that combat sports should be banned? Because otherwise why wouldn’t you just enjoy watching, which you have admitted you do.

    • No one is arguing that it should be banned. Just that it’s something worth critiquing. There are plenty of other cultural forms worth critiquing also: I’m pretty ambivalent about the culture of football, for example, and I find most romantic comedies pretty conservative. I think most superhero films are also pretty reactionary. Does that mean that they should be banned? No. Does it mean that they have no redeeming qualities? No. Lime most things in late capitalism, they’re contradictory and we should approach them with ambivalence, in the Freudian sense of feel both positive and negative about them.

  5. I don’t think it should be banned. Nor do I think it’s a particularly healthy social development that some people are making lots of money from working class kids battering each other as a form of entertainment.

    • Regarding the comment that UFC is just “working class kids battering each other”, it’s not that bleak a picture. Few (if any) people are forced into it, for one thing. In my experience (being from a working class area, training in MMA, and having friends trying to go full-time), people train in MMA because they want to, reasons being:
      a) The suburbs can be dangerous at night, so having some form of self defence is essential in feeling secure. While MMA is a sport, rather than an actual course in street fighting, it’s versatile, raises confidence, and is infinitely better than knowing nothing at all.
      b) It’s an excellent workout, and is safe, for the most part (accidents do occur), so is enjoyed as a form of exercise. Training is usually supervised, but when it isn’t, no-one’s going out of their way to seriously maim the sparring partner who they’ll have to see on a daily/weekly basis. Of course, this is different from the UFC you see on TV, where the entire aim is to win, and so injury can’t be avoided, but that leads onto my next point.
      c) It’s exhilarating. People train because they love it, and they compete because they love it, and want to take it even further. It’s a combat sport, and they know this, so they know all the perks and pitfalls of competing. They know that they can get seriously injured, and they do it anyway, not because they’re ignorant and have no other way of being productive in society, but because the thrill and rush of competing in the octagon is unparalleled.
      UFC is not merely exploitation of the ignorant working class. Sure, a select few people are making an insane amount of money from capitalising on its huge growth, but, really, if the fighters didn’t enjoy what they were doing, they wouldn’t be taking it as far as they do. Everyone wins — it’s just a sport.

      • One of the things I meant to mention was that many of the competitors on the Ultimate Fighter TV shows emphasise the fact that MMA saved them. A comment comment is, “If it wasn’t for MMA, I’d be dead or in jail. It’s made me a better man.” This is particularly common on TUF Brazil, where many of the fighters are from the “ghettos”. In one sense, it is a very real way out for them. Often they touchingly mention that they want to “buy their mother a house”. Having said that, the fact that THIS is the way they might be able to escape their poor background is something worth critiquing.

        • Which is precisely what a lot of kids say about the army — ‘if it wasn’t for this, I’d be in jail’.
          That’s the point, isn’t it! Actually, during a war, people experience lots of states that should be familiar to the Left: comradeship, a sense of achievement, triumph of danger, a feeling of purpose, etc.
          In some ways, war provides a weird reflection of the values of the Left. The same thing might be said about extreme fighting.
          Yes, you can understand why old soldiers feel nostalgic about their war experiences. But that doesn’t mean war’s a good thing. It means that the Left needs to show that its virtues arise more truly from activities that don’t involve working class kids hurting each other.

          • ” It means that the Left needs to show that its virtues arise more truly from activities that don’t involve working class kids hurting each other.”

            This is simply a bizarre argument! I would have thought the values of the Left arise in distinction to the individual competitiveness of UFC.

          • If you’re now saying that the individual competitiveness of the UFC is counterposed to the values of the Left, then I no longer understand your argument at all. Your initial comment was ‘UFC kicks ass’. It kicks ass because it’s in distinction to the values of the Left?

          • No, it kicks ass because it can be great entertainment. Like many other forms of entertainment, its production can involve wage labour, exploitation and competition.

            Please let me know which of the media entertainment forms you enjoy are produced outside the sphere of capitalism.

        • I’m surprised that the showbiz mantra of “If it wasn’t for MMA, I’d be dead or in jail. It’s made me a better man.” is taken so uncritically here. It’s said so often on these shows (they’re entertainment, remember) that the similarity with the obligatory “I’d like to thank God, and my Mom and…etc…” at the Emmy’s is quite glaring and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

          • a little beside the point, but I’m not sure the Left’s virtues ‘arise more truly from activities that don’t involve working class kids hurting each other’ – I thought one of its modus operandi (modi operandi?) was proletarian revolution, which usually involves bloodshed and hurt. Or did in Russia and China, etc.

          • Jane the Russian revolution was relatively bloodless, until the ruling class resisted and launched a vicious civil war, in the process inviting several foreign armies to invade in an attempt to restore the old order.

            The Chinese revolution was more of a bourgeois nationalist revolution. Mao’s Red Army was largely composed of peasants and the working class was largely uninvolved in his taking power.

  6. Both American football and boxing have more fatalities than UFC. One of these is not even a ‘bloodsport’ and the other is far from a ‘development’, tracing its lineage back to ancient Greece and being both an Olympic and Commonwealth sport.

  7. So what’s your point then? American football seems to be in something of a crisis because of the incidence of brain injuries. Should we just ‘enjoy watching’ kids giving each other cerebral trauma?

  8. That is a strangely moralistic argument. I’m not going to tell you what you should or should not enjoy.

    I think I can safely say that American football is neither played nor watched for the sake of enjoyment of seeing player’s suffer brain trauma.

    My point regarding UFC is that to oppose it is to oppose a whole other raft of sporting activities that may unfortunately result in injury.

  9. You might be interested to know that Jeff Monson, one of the biggest names in the UFC is a self-declared anarchist who opposed the Iraq war and who has been arrested for direct action.

    “I am an anarchist, someone who would like to do away with all class hierarchy in society and the institutions that promote this inequality.”

  10. It’s been interesting watching the rise of UFC in the wake of the extremely hammy and deliberately farcical (although no less physical) World Wrestling etc.

    As a former wrestling fan (pick your jaws up off the ground, please) it’s interesting to see so many of the same people take up an interest in UFC – the difference being that there seems to be a simultaneous rise in the desire to train in MMA that I’m not sure existed for the wrestling.

    I reckon a lot of its appeal (both for viewers and for athletes) has to do with that fetishising of authenticity – UFC is “real” in a way that WWF or WCW or NWA wasn’t, and the lack of pantomime and soap-opera (however contrived the reality show storylines are) means it comes with apparently less of that contradictory, almost homoerotic hyper-masculinity of the wrestling.

  11. I thought the word ‘bloodsport’ referred specifically to activities involving cruelty to animals. I dreaded opening this post, in case it dealt with dog-fighting, which has been undergoing a renaissance, and was relieved to find it was fully consensual biff. I can’t really see the problem with MMA., beyond the question of who pays the medical expenses. The perception of widespread corruption in boxing has probably contributed to its rapid growth.

    I don’t think I’ll be rushing off to see MMA instead of cricket or football, but that’s an aesthetic preference.

  12. MMA is not my sport even though I marvel at the toughness of the contestants, it is based on the ancient pancration, a Greek form of no-holds-bar fighting that would end only when one gave up. Also, those who participate have agency, they decide to do so, and not all are ‘working class’ (whoever they are now days). Boxing, pancration, wrestling, even significant contact sports like rugby are also moored in the martial training of elite and upper class youth form ancient times.

  13. Interesting Dave your take on bloodless revolutions and the working class. Are peasants not part of the proletariat?

    So the proletarian revolution only gets bloody when it meets resistance, in the form of the ruling class? That would seem to be self-evident. And suggests to me that such revolutions necessarily involve bloodshed. Or does the Left advocate a bloodless proletarian revolution and assume no resistance from the ruling class?

  14. Historical facts are often interesting and no the peasantry are not a part of the proletariat, a term that refers to the urbanised working class.

    Your argument is curiously circular but I gather you are arguing against revolution and blaming the actions of the ruling class on those who rise up against them.

  15. No Dave I’m not arguing against revolution nor blaming the actions of the ruling class on those who rise up against them.
    I was just wondering about Jeff’s comment: ‘It means that the Left needs to show that its virtues arise more truly from activities that don’t involve working class kids hurting each other.’ in the context of the Left’s revolutionary politics and the hurt that accompanies revolution.
    I now see Jeff was talking about ‘working class kids hurting EACH OTHER’, not working class kids getting hurt per se. So I’ve answered my question, thanks to your interrogation.

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