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It’s an odd thing for a professional fighter, much less one competing for the largest and most recognizable MMA organization in the world, to be described as a domestic violence survivor. As spectators to gladiatorial combat on a near-weekly basis, we are conditioned to seeing these athletes, male and female, perform physical acts that are far beyond the capabilities of the average human being. The notion that they might be rendered powerless -- brutalized -- outside the cage, in their homes or gyms, jars with these perceptions. Yet it’s becoming something of a common occurrence.
Rachael Ostovich, a 27-year old flyweight with a 1-1 record in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is the latest fighter on the roster to be connected to this unnerving storyline.
Earlier this week, that Ostovich had been hospitalized with a broken orbital bone after a domestic violence incident that occurred in Honolulu, Hawaii. Since then, Ostovich’s husband Arnold Berdon, an MMA fighter who most recently fought for Titan FC, has been arrested for allegedly perpetrating a violent assault on Ostovich, and charged with attempted murder -- a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. On Tuesday, Ostovich was granted a restraining order barring him from coming within 100 feet of her or her five-year old daughter. In a statement she made to the court, which was subsequently obtained by TMZ, Ostovich described how she had been punched multiple times, causing her to cough up blood; how she escaped with her life through a balcony.
A similar narrative engulfed fellow UFC flyweight Andrea Lee just a few months ago in August, with reports emerging of her alleged horrific abuse at the hands of her husband, former fighter Donny Aaron, who was later charged with domestic battery abuse and false imprisonment. Before that, flyweight Jessica-Rose Clark admitted to being a victim of domestic violence in the years before she moved to Las Vegas and was signed to the UFC, with her ex-fiance, also a fighter, later receiving a 15-month suspended sentence. Bec Rawlings, a flyweight for the UFC until she was released in April, suffered domestic violence at the hands of her then-husband Daniel Hyatt -- you guessed it, a former fighter -- for years whilst competing on the regional MMA circuit in Australia. He was found guilty of multiple counts of domestic violence earlier this year.
The UFC’s silence on this issue has been deafening, which is a precarious approach given its attempts to attract a more diverse set of eyes to it its product. It’s a sad fact that fans of professional sports aren’t necessarily shocked to learn their sporting idols are perpetrators of violence -- an issue we’ll get to below -- but as the roster of female fighters expands, the problem of gendered violence is becoming more multifaceted. As more women competing under the UFC banner emerge as victims, the organization’s muteness risks projecting discordant narratives regarding its stance on violence outside the cage.
On the one hand, the UFC was all up on that female empowerment train when Ronda Rousey was doing her thing a few years ago. Back then, women’s MMA was a new and lucrative business, with “Rowdy” putting together a string of devastating stoppage victories inside the Octagon that did much to challenge traditional gender stereotypes and elevate the promotion’s cultural influence. In 2014, smack dab in the middle of the Rousey heyday, UFC President Dana White felt confident enough to say that “you can never bounce back” from putting your hands on a woman, and claimed that that had been the company’s stance since he’d joined the company as president in 2001.
A catalogue of fighters who have competed for the UFC after being accused, charged or convicted of domestic or sexual violence demonstrated the spuriousness of that claim -- Anthony Johnson, Thiago Silva, Abel Trujillo, Anthony Lapsley and Cody East are some of the more serious cases you can Google. However back then you at least got the sense that the promotion had taken some kind of a stand on the issue. Fighters accused or charged of wrongdoing would at least get suspended and often subject to rigorous internal investigations. Some fighters were given their walking papers; Miguel Torres was cut for making a rape “joke.”
In 2018 though, the UFC seems noticeably less attentive; its conspicuous embrace of former football star Greg Hardy -- whose highly publicized history of domestic violence saw him driven out of the NFL -- being the most visible demonstration of this freewheeling attitude. Its no secret that UFC intends to groom the insanely athletic Hardy into a contender in the historically shallow heavyweight division, and White has nakedly misrepresented his past in interviews in furtherance of that objective. The UFC’s response to sexual assault charges brought against streaking welterweight fighter Abdul Razak Alhassan in September -- which has been to ignore requests for comment from the media regarding whether the promotion knew about the charges when it allowed Alhassan to compete on the UFC 228 card in Texas -- is similarly disquieting.
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine this approach being a sustainable one moving forward. For better or for worse, the UFC’s tolerance for iniquity -- whether in relation to or to fighter safety, or throwing dollies through buses -- operates as a litmus test for much of the MMA world regarding what’s acceptable conduct in the industry. Its muteness on the scourge of domestic violence risks holding back MMA’s potential as a force for good, whilst giving potential audiences plenty of reasons to turn away based on a perception of the sport as backwards and chauvinistic.
The UFC has taken a zero-tolerance approach to performance-enhancing drugs, fighter unionization and flyweights. It shouldn’t be much to ask that it take a similar vigilance on domestic violence. The organization should make it a policy that fighters with a history of domestic violence will not be permitted to step foot in the Octagon. It should visibly support victims like Ostovich and Lee. It should cut ties with Greg Hardy.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.