Fighting Words

By Luke Thomas Mar 3, 2010
Is it wrong to wish death on your opponent? That depends. The better question is this: Are you actually going to try?

Last week, former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir was the subject of controversy as his interview with WXDX in Pittsburgh revealed the Las Vegas native to boldly and unabashedly plea for UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar to die at the hands of injuries Mir hopes to inflict.

When UFC President Dana White caught wind of the remark, he forced Mir to apologize and backtrack from the “wishing death” threshold in a hastily written news release. White even went as far as dubbing Mir’s remark the “most unprofessional thing” he had heard in his life. UFC executives have a right to protect their brand and the sport in whatever manner they see fit, and they exercised that right. While some can quibble with their calculations, if they believe forcing an apology from Mir is in their best interests both as a matter to protect the UFC brand or shape public image about MMA, they can do so. This concern is particularly relevant given Mir’s invocation of the trademarked “Octagon” term, thereby positioning his employers directly in the crossfire.

But the UFC’s issue is not necessarily ours. The debate over what language is permissible is not an idle one, but the MMA community must come to grips with the reality that there will always be a natural tension between professionalism and combat sports as it relates to the language and behavior of participating athletes. This isn’t to suggest any behavior or language is acceptable. However, in the greater context of other statements by other fighters and any potential blowback they could generate, Mir’s words don’t merit outrage. And more to the point, Mir’s statement is hardly groundbreaking and will not be the last instance of direct death wishes by notable fighters.

First, Mir is not a moral criminal. There is nothing in Mir’s statement relative to other statements by other fighters or boxers that uniquely tramples ethical concerns. To the extent our own personal subjectivity was offended, I suppose there’s room for revulsion. However, suggesting that the specificity of Mir’s remarks confers upon it a unique terribleness is nothing more than trying to force a distinction without any substantive difference. That Mir’s statements may lend themselves more to use by MMA’s detractors is partly true, but that’s an issue of pragmatism, not moral line-stepping. The often repeated argument that there was some absolutist demarcation Mir callously crossed is neither the central issue nor coherent. The truth is that comments directed toward in-cage actions have no hard and fast parameters of ethical conduct. The projection of personal standards as absolute moral maxims is neither helpful to the debate nor usable on a broader scale.

Second, this entire exercise in outrage fails to appreciate the eccentricities of Frank Mir. Mir is a fan and practitioner of nuance. And due to natural ability, he’s also a first-rate fight promoter. His specificity in language is expressed no matter the subject or situation, and in this particular case, it serves as his conduit to deliver pre-fight theatre. Unless he tries to make good on his stated intentions, Mir’s expressed wish for Lesnar’s death is little more than a thickening of the plot to Mir vs. Lesnar 3.

The true threat of Mir’s comment, to the extent one actually exists, is merely a function of the existing regulatory climate. With the UFC investing time and money into legalization efforts in key states where the struggle to achieve state sanctioning has neither been quick nor painless, Mir’s statements come at an inopportune time.

In the wake of his comments, some have suggested Mir is becoming MMA’s Mike Tyson. But the Tyson example falls woefully short. With Iron Mike, there was an unequivocal connection between his words and behavior. Tyson bit off the top of Evander Holyfield’s ear. He brazenly started a brawl at a news conference to promote a fight with Lennox Lewis and verbally assaulted a reporter. He had a criminal past. With Tyson there was a fluid connection between his proclamations and actions.

Mir, on the other hand, has not even a shred of professional misconduct to his name. In fact, he’s been on the receiving end of illegal acts (Wes Sims’ foot stomp at UFC 43) without ever retaliating or lowering professional standards of conduct. Tyson’s words were part of a larger, unmistakable and cancerous pathology. Mir’s death wishes might edge more toward sinister than some are comfortable with, but they come from the mind of a calm, calculated and -- if his record is any indication -- in-control competitor.

This isn’t to suggest no statement could ever be made that wasn’t worthy of repudiation or above reproach; it’s that fight sport is naturally going to have wide parameters to accommodate the histrionics and theatre of pre-fight sparring. Suggesting drama is only usable or ethical when it’s metaphorical is too limited and boring. It’s also deeply unrealistic. There is room for limits, but they’ve got to be wide. And the debate about where lines should be established has never really been fleshed out, although hugely damaging statements irrespective of regulatory climate, e.g. outwardly racist remarks, seem like a decent starting point to set as off limits.

A far more important consideration of professionalism and ethics in fight sport falls under adherence to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts during actual contests. Statements from athletes preparing for fights are frankly not always rational and ultimately difficult to control. Add in a healthy and at times undetectable dose of theatre and the task of policing language becomes an onerous and potentially self-defeating exercise.

The rules of unarmed combat, by contrast, are clear and enforceable. Rather than express consternation over statements of dubious taste or value, stronger premiums should be placed on rules adherence and legal in-cage conduct. Straying from the boundaries of the very necessary guidelines of MMA precipitously leads to dangers MMA can ill afford to accept. Mike Kyle’s assault on Brian Olsen at WEC 20 was mercifully contained by struggling referees, but such a flagrant repudiation of ethical conduct had the ability to do permanent damage to more than Olsen. The argument that Mir’s words could be used by an enterprising politician who is trying to sink MMA legalization efforts is partly true. But the same lawmaker could just as easily use footage of Kyle’s rampage and suggest in committee hearings his barbarism is part and parcel of the madness of cage fighting. MMA would be in an equally precarious position as it would with Mir’s comments but with the added bonus of having an irreparably injured fighter. That’s a concern worth being angry about.

And there are other ways to mitigate the effect statements like Mir’s have on the public consciousness. Drawing a clear distinction between the behavior of fighters and the non-participants -- managers, agents, public relations officials, trainers, promoters among others -- is one of the most effective weapons. If the MMA community wishes to marginalize the controversial statements made by fighters, then the MMA uninitiated must be sure the practice of unprofessional raving is solely the province of combatants. When the line is blurred by non-participants, the entire enterprise is misunderstood and made to look repugnant.

With rare exception, hectoring fighters to close their mouths at pivotal, tense and often anxious moments in their careers is a fool’s errand. And devoting inordinate amounts of attention to the matter often exacerbates any negative impact. Resources should be spent where they are necessary: keeping the sport properly regulated and fighters safe in actual combative contests.

While a full-on laissez-faire attitude on monitoring fighter statements might be a bit much, in general a freer market is more efficient. So while fight contests themselves need tight control, is it really that objectionable when drama takes an ugly turn?

Luke Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of BloodyElbow.com. He is also the host of MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan FM in Washington, D.C.
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