Opinion: ‘The Black Beast’ -- A Meditation on Ethics in MMA

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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A philosophical dilemma arose shortly after “The Black Beast” announced he needed to take a dump.

By the time Brian Stann was interviewing Derrick Lewis in the cage after UFC Fight Night 105 on Sunday in Halifax, Nova Scotia, there was subdued outcry at the fact that referee Mario Yamasaki was late to stop the fight, allowing Lewis to land a few additional strikes on an already unconscious Travis Browne. Lewis did nothing wrong; the strikes weren’t malicious, just unnecessary, which is an expected occurrence in this line of work. It’s just that Lewis hits harder than a 10-foot wave breaking onshore, which makes those extra shots a bit more serious than if it were, say, Jared Rosholt delivering them. Alas, Yamasaki was a little late to intervene, and “The Black Beast” crashed on the eroded shoreline of Browne’s consciousness.

In other circumstances, that may have manufactured some outrage, at least for a few hours until people got bored. Not this time. Browne has become one of the more reviled fighters on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster in certain circles. His association with perpetual punchline Edmond Tarverdyan and his relationship with Ronda Rousey are both part of it, but Lewis made sure to remind people why they shouldn’t feel too bad for Browne: “He calls himself a man, but he likes to put his hands on women, so forget that guy.”

If there was any lingering resentment about the late stoppage, it evaporated quickly at that line. Lewis, of course, was referring to a 2015 domestic abuse allegation from Browne’s then-wife. It’s important to note that Browne has denied the allegations and no criminal charges were pressed. Some felt the comment crossed the line, while others celebrated it. Either way, it begged some contemplation. What is the role of sportsmanship in MMA? What are the ethical responsibilities of fighters and consumers? Is it OK to feel pleasure from watching bad things happen to bad people or, more accurately, people we deem bad?

Sportsmanship is a strange subject with which to grapple. The word usually evokes images of pity-trophies for the worst teams in youth leagues across the country, which, by virtue of being the least talented, were recognized as the most sportsmanlike. It’s important to get over that kneejerk dismissal, though. Sportsmanship is the umbrella term for the virtues of competition. As anyone who has competed knows, sports are not simply a measurement of who is better at a given game on a given day. Games are microcosms of real life, brief encapsulations of the ongoing highs and lows of living in the world.

To view sports as a rote form of entertainment is empty. They are that, but that’s not all they are. Our games exist to satisfy our reptilian thirst for entertainment as much as they are here to reflect our values. We live in a society of ethical prescriptivism, where things don’t always fall under strict binaries of winners and losers. There are also ways we should win and ways we should lose. The “shoulds” are up for debate, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a sports fan that does not have any opinions on them at all.

This is why people tend to get up in arms about trash talking after a fight. Before a fight, it is usually accepted -- even encouraged -- because it adds intrigue. It’s good business. However, trash talking an opponent after a fight, the argument goes, is ugly. Browne had already been knocked out and then some. Did Lewis really need to add insult to injury?

Think of it in a different context. What if an employer fired a coworker of yours and proceeded to send a mass email to everyone in the company airing out their dirty laundry? Or if the same thing happened with someone you know who got dumped? That sort of thing is juicy and inherently attention-grabbing, but it also leaves a sticky residue of voyeurism, even if it is easy to justify our antipathy.

That opens up into a larger discussion. Is there a moral duty of sports? If your answer is no, then sportsmanship is of no concern to you and likely you couldn’t care less about how the winners and losers act after a fight. That there is a winner and loser is probably enough. If the athletes themselves have any sort of moral responsibility, however, and if we as consumers share in it, then what exactly are those responsibilities? Should we expect people who inflict violence in a cage for a living to be pillars of righteousness? Are we part of the problem by actively supporting people who destroy their brains and their bodies for low pay for our weekend amusement? I’m not sure these questions can be separated from the sport -- the product -- itself.

This is especially tangled territory because unsportsmanlike behavior is naturally captivating. Think how boring it is for fighters to reel off the “my opponent is tough and I really respect him” line after each fight and compare that to how you felt after hearing Lewis’ post-fight speech. One type of response blends into an amorphous mass of white noise; the other makes you want to see more. It goes without saying, but the desire to see more is better for business, for both the company and the fighter.

The most pointed ethical question in the aftermath of UFC Fight Night 105 was whether or not it is OK to feel good about seeing something bad happen to someone we perceive as bad. It’s MMA’s version of the “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” debate. On one hand, punching someone repeatedly after they’re knocked out is a bad thing on its face. On the other hand, we feel a natural vindication when we see people “get what they deserve.” Then, is an action itself less bad if it is inflicted upon a bad person? Whether or not Browne is actually a bad guy and regardless how you felt about seeing him get punched in and out of unconsciousness, these are things we have to reconcile as fans; we are complicit in each and every ethical dilemma that intersects with the fight game.

We tend to view MMA through varying Venn goggles, that it exists to some extent as competition and some extent as entertainment. What the Lewis fight showed us, though, was that we really watch through more granular, essential lenses. It’s part of the poetry of fighting; we can devour it with animalistic mindlessness at the same time we dissect it with human thoughtfulness. I’m not going to tell anyone how they should or should not enjoy themselves on fight night, but I’m not going to ignore the food for thought this sport provides, either.

Lewis may not be the philosophical provocateur I’m making him out to be, but for a man whose post-fight interview included the word “booboo” and called feces “Number 2” -- the most kid-friendly, potty-talk way to say “shit” of all euphemisms -- he gave us a lot to think about. Until we see him again, may he enjoy the fruits of bodily rest and steer clear of excess sex.

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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