The rise in (commercial) popularity of mixed martial arts style (blood) sports has been a s sporadic and peripheral interest for around a decade. In particular as I interchanged living in North America and Australia. I watched debates in Canada in the context of attempts to hold events there, and more-recently Australia. My reflections on masculinity, in particular crises of masculinity, is where this interest is mostly situated. This post is not necessarily a coalescing of thoughts, rather prompted by a recent Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event in Melbourne recently. It received significant coverage, as being one of the first events in Australia (the first in Melbourne), and the headline fight was between two women — including a person some have labelled as the most talked about (female) athlete in the world.
The UFC event in Melbourne generated significant media attention — even in the wake of wholesale media coverage of the murder of more than 100 people in Paris, and an almost complete lack of coverage of a similar massacre in Beirut the previous day. Mainstream coverage included some debate and criticism. Whether the UFC is a ‘sport’ — and the level of violence is entails, requires, promotes — was a foundation of much of the debate (i.e. how appropriate is it). Women being the fighters was of course a substantive element, itself reflective of deeply engrained patriarchal assumptions.
On the question of violence, it is a violent blood sport. I doubt anyone can make a convincing argument otherwise. A key aim is to hurt your opponent, the injure them just enough/so badly they cannot continue. To be critical as such is not to discount the level of skill required. To be able to injure someone as such does require some skill. Many mixed martial artists are very skilled at doing so. I have heard this as a basis for peoples interest, why they watch. They like to see — and in some ways celebrate — the skill that the martial artist’s showcase.
By way of analogy, whilst living in North America, I heard similar assertions from numerous people about ice hockey. In particular, the body checking. Body checking is basically when you line up a player from the opposing team and should charge them with significant force to unbalance them. Theoretically, at least, aim is to get to puck away from them. Some players are celebrated for their ability to ‘check’a player so skilfully and violently that they are significant injured (i.e. concussion). I use violent and skilful intentionally here. To successfully check somebody requires significant skill. It is almost always quite violent as well.
As with debates about body checking in hockey (i.e. should it be allowed, or banned), there are similar about the UFC and mixed martial arts more broadly. For me, I did not see a social value for such events. There are arguments that it is the ultimate masculine sport, as the ‘u’ in UFC makes clear. Even that is a misnomer. The events are significantly managed and regulated (to reduce the potential for serious injuries — fighters have died in the early days of events). Each ‘fight’ has a referee, and a number of types of strikes are prohibited.
To get to the crux of my reflections, there are two intersecting themes: media coverage in the wake of the Melbourne event, and a crisis of masculinity in and around the UFC more broadly. Media coverage was significant in the lead up — seeking to generate interest for this ‘tourism’ initiative*, and as a result of the brutality of the climax of the event: Holly Holm (the challenger) knocked out — I could say brutally knocked out, though all knockouts are brutal, are they not — the champion Ronda Rousey with a kick the neck/side of the head. Rousey was hospitalised as a result.
It was Holm’s response to her (brutal) knockout of Rousey, which did not seem to generate much media commentary — not that I looked for it — that piqued my interest. In short, Holm displayed what appeared to be genuine concern for the wellbeing of Rousey. I have also noted this in the actions of some of the men as well — which in itself reflects the instability and paradoxical nature of masculinity (and socially constructed humanity).
After expressing her (significant) concern for Rousey — most visibly in her body language, facial expressions, and repeated attempts to approach the downed and visibly injured opponent — Holm went on the emotionally talk about path to becoming the world champion. She made repeated references to love as the defining feature and foundational element of getting her to where she was. Love as a foundation for brutality, for violence against others to get ahead.
It is interesting how deference to love sits with the type of masculinity the UFC seeks to highlight as integral to its image. This is not necessarily new, as (male) boxers have often evoked love as a driver.** A number of men in the UFC have also displayed concern when injuring others in a fight.
The other expression of the paradox, and crisis, of masculinity in the UFC — directly tied to relations of capital and neoliberalism — is how men have responded to losses. The UFC’s flagship reality TV series The Ultimate Fighter is packed with examples (perhaps someone has or will produce a showreel?) of men struggling to come to terms with an apparent failure to succeed: choking on words and brought to tears in post-fight interviews.
In short, we have a women brutally injuring another and expressing significant concern, almost looking to the audience to see if such expressions of concern — in many ways a disavowal of the masculinity promoted/enshrined/required in the UFC — were allowed. Yet not so damaged that she can still express love in the paradox. This is contrasted with men who struggle with expressions of concern, and perhaps more-so with the burden of apparent ‘failure’, and the neoliberal crisis this ensues. Sat alongside a crisis of masculinity expressed in choking on words and being brought to tears in trying to comprehend and come to terms with such failure…
** The Australian boxer Jeff Fenech’s‘I love you’se all’ became the title of a 1993 book and 2008(?) reality TV series.
A small — directly linked — segue, and one I continue to reflect on in its broader sense…
The US Marines have sponsored The Ultimate Fighter on numerous occasions, which is indicative of the hypermasculine image the UFC and Marine core seeks to evoke. Paradoxaically(?) and in many ways tragically, there is a crisis in masculinity in the armed forces. The book and documentary Restrepo (clearer in the documentary, as I do not think the author realises or understand it) and the follow-up documentary Korengal provide clear examples: the (all male) soldiers struggling to come to terms with the loss of friends in war — again, choking on words and brought to tears — and reflecting on the devastating impacts of PTSD. All the while situated in a narrative of bravery and sacrifice, intermingled with naive and child like activities embraced as escapism and avoidance.