Opinion: Violent Meditations

By Eric Stinton Oct 16, 2017
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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One of the more fascinating aspects of mixed martial arts is understanding why people watch it. Most other sports have obvious and mostly singular appeals: They showcase elite athletic feats and elicit some emotional cocktail of pride in seeing your side win and/or schadenfreude in seeing the other side lose. Much can be said about the combination of catharsis and entertainment, but that umbrella tends to cover everything.

MMA is a little more fractal than that. Fans flock to the fight game for a number of different reasons. For some, the enjoyment comes from purely sporting purpose, as they want to see high-level athletes doing high-level combative chess; others come to MMA for the martial arts component, to see the skill, honor and discipline of ancient practices applied to real-life situations; and of course, there are those who simply want to see some bloody, violent chaos. All three of these are perfectly legitimate reasons to enjoy the sport.

A clip from the MMA Beat last week made the rounds, with host Ariel Helwani making the case for why the Ultimate Fighting Championship should not promote itself as violent: “Outside of the MMA world, in what realm do you ever hear the word ‘violence’ used positively? It always has a negative connotation, yet we promote it and celebrate this word and want to stick it on our sport like it’s some cool thing to do. It disgusts me.”

This is not the first time this argument has been made -- you may recall early last year when SBG Ireland trainer John Kavanagh voiced a similar gripe -- nor will it be the last. That’s a good thing, though. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have, and fans should be grappling with the violent nature of the sport they support.

Helwani’s contention seemed to be twofold: It’s a bad look for the UFC to promote itself as violence, and violence is not the defining aspect of MMA. One of these has more substance to it than the other. It’s common knowledge that the sport has had to overcome a lot of adversity in the eyes of the public. The stigmas the sport has had to address have almost entirely been due to its unadulterated violence. MMA has been called “human cockfighting” and has been compared to Roman coliseums -- associations that have followed the sport like a dark cloud. Keep in mind that until last spring MMA wasn’t even legal everywhere in America. It’s easy to lose sight of the controversy of this sport when you’re involved with it.

Thus, when Helwani took umbrage at the UFC advertising itself as violent, there was some truth to it. The American Medical Association in 1984 passed a resolution calling for the abolition of boxing because of its violence. The political opposition never actually halted the sport, but it helped that boxing wasn’t promoted for its violence. Being known as “the sweet science” to most casual fans probably served as a psychic bulwark in the minds of the general public.

If the goal of the UFC is to broaden its appeal, promoting itself as violence personified probably is not the best way to do it. If anything, that type of promotion breathes new life into the old criticisms that MMA as a whole is too violent for a civilized society, which takes away from the technical skill and extreme discipline required to achieve the level of a UFC fighter. On that note, there’s a discussion to be had for those on the UFC’s PR team.

As for Helwani’s other point, however, he couldn’t be further from the truth. Without question, MMA is a sport defined by its violence. Even when that violence is wrapped in something aesthetically beautiful, like Demetrious Johnson’s now infamous “Mouse Trap” armbar or Anderson Silva’s clinical dismantling of Forrest Griffin, it is still, at its essence, violence. Unlike other violent sports like football, hockey or rugby, the singular intent of MMA is to inflict violence; big hits in football may be what some fans show up for, but they usually don’t affect the scoreboard. Hitting someone really hard, contorting limbs in unnatural ways -- these are the designed purposes of MMA contests. Of course these feats can be visually balletic, but the grace of them is nothing more than stylistic garnish on an otherwise brutal action.

I don’t worry too much about how the UFC brands itself. Most fans know what they’re watching. Even if there is some risk of playing up the aspect of violence too much, it’s worthwhile to do so. I’m fine with promoting it for the violent spectacle that it is. In fact, the raw exposure to violence is one of MMA’s more redeeming qualities.

For good reason, we have rinsed violence out of modern life as much as possible. The blowback to that, though, is that most people have very little understanding of violence because it exists at such a sanitized distance. Look at how common it is for people to cheer on wars that are unlikely to have any immediate effect on them, all for some amorphous sense of home team pride. I currently live a few miles from one of the most geopolitically tense borders on the planet, a place where the shadow of conflict has real consequences, where the residue of the Korean War is still slick on the pavement. Yet it’s oddly common to see how hysterically supportive people back home are for military action against North Korea when they’re completely detached from its consequences. To a lot of people, this is an academic subject to argue about online and nothing more. Sometimes, having a more realistic understanding of violence is a good thing, and perhaps organized combat is a way to nurture such understanding.

Life is much more violent than we allow ourselves to witness. In a lot of ways, modern society exists to put a mask on violence. It’s one of the primary purposes of politics. For most of us, meat only comes from an animal in theory. Yet try to spend a day at a slaughterhouse and say that the hamburgers you eat aren’t a product of violence. These are realities that people should ponder, and regardless of where you fall on these issues, we should attempt to thoughtfully reconcile the violence we partake in with our personal code of ethics.

It’s worthwhile to see violence upfront and transparent for what it is. Watching MMA probably isn’t going to singlehandedly make people appreciate the nuances of life’s intersections with violence, but maybe it’s an opening and one that’s readily accessible. Let’s not hide from that.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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