Less than a week removed from the landmark first women’s bout in the UFC, which doubled up with the first UFC performance by an openly homosexual fighter – and in a headlining, championship slot none the less – it seems an appropriate time to have a look at the concept of prejudice and how it applies mixed martial arts.
It bears mentioning that I am a straight, white, educated and employed male, living in a developed western country, so most forms of serious prejudice have passed me by and I know it, and am thankful for it. That doesn’t mean I can’t empathise with the difficulties faced by others, but lets start close to home…
I come from a part of the world that suffers from bitter divisions which manifest through sport. I have no wish to recount the long and storied history of violence and bigotry which characterises football culture in the west of Scotland (google ‘Old Firm rivalry’ or something similar if you need to know) because it depresses me.
Aside from that local issue that looms large in my thoughts, established team sports around the world are indelibly linked with entrenched, tribal divisions whether they are sectarian, racial, social or merely regional in nature.
Likewise, team sports suffer from the pack mentality of (predominantly) heterosexual men to be entrenched against things like homosexuality, folks of different race, culture etc.
I’ve played my share of team sports at a strictly amateur and just-for-fun level and even at that low pressure, the atmosphere when a member of a team is noticeably ‘different’ especially in a way that threatens the sensibilities of one or more other team members is not nice.
However, my experience in martial arts has been far more… Zen.
When I trained karate as a teenager, I learned alongside, sparred with and got beaten up by girls. When I’ve trained jiu-jitsu, we always make a point to shake hands with everyone in the class, no matter how many times they tapped you or accidentally kneed you in the place where no man should ever be kneed.
So, when MMA finally grabbed my attention, I foolishly assumed that it might be devoid of the same level of prejudice as I’d known elsewhere.
Of course, MMA is a combat sport, dominated in terms of fans and participants by males, invariably the kind of guys who like to hit things or watch others do so and as such a degree of testosterone and aggression is to be expected around the sport.
I’m not going to discuss the tendency of some fans to demand blood with their night of fights, to spend whole evenings chanting ‘kick his fucking cunt in’ during every fight or the passionate loyalty that comes, especially at smaller shows with a bus load of family and gym mates in tow. That might not always be a positive thing, and I’m never a fan of booing the opposition rather than cheering your own preferred fighter, but it’s not really prejudice.
So, as MMA is an individual sport, marketed on the appeal of individual fighters you could expect it to be less invested with the generalised, geographically or culturally based antipathy which is so characteristic of team sports.
However, the flip side of being about individuals is that any prejudice or discrimination is aimed at an individual, standing alone in the lights and as such any slurs are all the more… personal.
Lets look at the kind of discrimination potentially suffered by fighters, and how MMA seems to be coping with it.
We’ve just had our first women’s bout in the UFC and Ronda Rousey is amongst the most bankable stars in the sport. Does that mean there is no sexism in MMA? Of course not. I’ve seen innumerable posts from folks on various forums calling the bout a freakshow, saying that girls can’t fight – all the usual nonsense. Of course, these folks tend to be the same kind of people who say they aren’t interested in watching a technical featherweight match as they don’t want to watch ‘midgets’ fight. Sigh.
The justification offered for this is that women’s sport is inherently less skilled or impressive than men’s sport, which is to a degree true – but only because women are biologically smaller than men and they were actively discouraged from sport for so long because of societal prejudice, leading their team sports to never gain the traction that men’s have.
However, in individual sports where it’s player one versus player two, women’s sport is every bit as compelling as the men’s, less reliant on a hundred years of rivalry and all about a personal contest in pursuit of a trophy. That might as well be the UFC title as the Wimbledon one.
Indeed, Invicta FC has shown us that any perceived shortcoming in WMMA is in exposure, rather than the skills and entertainment value of the fights, and that happily seems to be changing.
Of course, there will always be those who are threatened by the concept of women fighting, and I suppose that such insecure misogyny is to be pitied more than anything else.
I’m shocked and ecstatically happy to report that sexual preference seems to be a non issue in MMA. The Internet buzz around Dakota Cochrane being outed during his time on the Ultimate Fighter barely registered and Liz Carmouche seems to have received vastly more support than condemnation for being ‘out & proud.’
With Dana White making it clear that he and the UFC couldn’t care less about such things and it would make no difference to their hiring or promotional policy, it seems that on the whole, MMA is well ahead of the curve on being gay friendly.
I’m even astonished that I didn’t come across any allegations that ‘of course a dyke would be into fighting and getting to rub up against other lasses’ in the build up to UFC 157.
I guess it’s hard to show your prejudice when you know the target could probably batter the hell out of you…
Although, that’s not quite true because there is a persistent forum tendency to imply that some male fighters, such as Georges St-Pierre and Dominck Cruz are ‘batting for the other side’ because they are well maintained and generally softly spoken. Of course, all real men are unwashed, wear large beards and talk in gruff monosyllables…
Come to think of it, I’ve been on the end of jokes from workmates and family members, linking my interest in watching buff, half naked men ‘dry hump each other’ and training in a discipline which amounts to the same (jiujitsu) to an apparent latent homosexuality in myself. My wife thinks this is hilarious.
There is plenty religion on show in MMA, from tattoos, fighters crossing themselves on weigh in and during their introductions to some outright proselytising in post fight interviews (Ben Henderson, I’m looking at you) but its interesting to note that only ONE religious view seems to be readily expressed, on either side of the Atlantic.
We’re all familiar with Christianity (in some form or another) being a part of the MMA circus, but I can’t help wondering that if a fighter expressed atheist or Muslim views on such a platform, they’d be booed out the building, potentially cut from the promotion etc.
Let me be honest here, that as a humanist ANY form of religious proselytising sets my teeth on edge (and the concept of thanking God for your successes, as opposed to all that training is a bit ass backwards) but free speech is a double edged sword and in my eyes, folks should be allowed to believe and say what they like. I just don’t like the undertone that only one form of religious expression is acceptable.
MMA is an individual sport, but we all instinctively get behind folks from places we identify with. As a Scot, I’ll tend to back Scots, Irish, English or Scandinavian fighters if I know nothing else about them, but as I learn more about skills and personality I can come to favour certain fighters more or less, irrespective of where they are from.
Deep seated national prejudice seems to come and go in MMA, with the mass US hatred of Michael Bisping being more to do with his bluff Northern manner not scanning well against Dan Henderson in the States, and the same true of Chael Sonnen in Brazil. It’s less a case of Americans hating Brits or Brazilians hating Americans, but more about your representative taking a crack at ours, and sometimes some ill judged (or brilliantly judged, depending on your view) comments about our country going down poorly.
Refreshingly, in MMA what your mouth says and your fists do seems to be more important than where you happen to come from, and while folks will usually support fighters based on being local, they don’t tend to carry that into hatred for the folks from next door. As it should be.
It might seems strange to say there is an issue with snobbery in MMA, but I feel it to be so. In a number of ways.
Like all niche markets, there are fans who’ve been here longer than others and consider themselves to have an ownership of, and superiority of opinion regarding the sport. This leads to folks who pine for the days of PRIDE or ‘no holds barred’ UFC considering the opinion of folks who quite like the modern iteration of the sport to be the worthless nattering of noobs.
That’s not helpful.
There’s also snobbery between fans based on something as intangible as style. I’ve heard many, many diatribes from supposedly better heeled fans against ‘those rednecks who wear Tapout’ or characterising the bulk of ‘less educated’ MMA fans as ‘tattooed idiots who listen to that nu metal shite’ (this is a direct quote from a conversation I’ve had).
Now, as you may have picked up on this blog in the past, I myself am tattooed, a fan of alternative music and until recently I had long hair. None of that has the slightest thing to do with my love of MMA, and I find such assertions insulting and narrow minded.
It’s easy, especially at local level MMA shows to characterise the crowd by their stylistic clique, with the expensively attired, fake tan rocking friends of the local gangsters front and centre, the wannabe bodybuilders and bouncers wearing size-too-small Tapout shirts and holding their beer bellies in, the wannabe journalists doing their best to look like Ariel Helwani and the gym loads of fans supporting their local fighter decked out in t-shirts denoting their gym affiliation.
None of that means a damn thing. We’re all fans, and we should treat each other as fans. Your idea of sartorial elegance might not be mine, but at the end of the day, we’re there to watch people compete, not stage a Zoolander style walk off.
In a lot of ways, MMA remains in the dark ages as regards prejudice, but in a great many ways it’s streets ahead of more established and popular sports.
We’re all just folks, here to fight or to enjoy the fights. Lets meet on that basis and share the immense positivity of this sport, without concerning ourselves about extra curricular stuff that may needlessly divide us and diminish our enjoyment and participation in this wonderful, mostly inclusive sport.
Of course, one of the most prevailing prejudices regarding MMA is the continual push from the so called ‘moral majority’ looking to characterise the sport as a barbaric anachronism and ban it forthwith. This takes many forms, from determined attempts at misinformation, supposedly humerous and uninformed attempts to undermine the sport, to hysterical campaigns to ban the sport itself (as one politician in South Dakota has it at the moment, because ‘MMA is analogous to child porn’) or elements which are important to it, such as the cage – which remains a piece of safety equipment, no matter how much some folks like to assert otherwise.
The best thing we can all do for our sport is to pull together, to explain to the uninitiated and the anti why MMA is actually safer than boxing (no ten counts for knockouts for a start,) and actually tends to be a positive influence on people’s lives, with largely orderly events and promotes a healthy lifestyle as well as important values like self reliance, hard work and trust and in many ways is a more enlightened, less bigoted scene than other, more established, less controversial sports.