The way I see it, being part of the MMA community is pretty much like being part of anything: It can be a lot of fun, but it can also hurt your brain and ruin your day and make you wish you had one of those universal remotes from 2006’s “Click” just so you can go back to Tito Ortiz’s first UFC fight and fill his locker room with bees hopefully turning him off to MMA forever and consequently denying him any claim to fame.
See, I’m not convinced that MMA is necessarily worse, take-wise, than basically any other space in the world. Call me an idealist, but I still have my questions whether we really do have an overwhelming majority of terrible people, or whether the terrible people we have are just very loud and have too much free time on account of not having lives or anyone who wants to be around them because they suck so much. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s denial, maybe it’s my quickness to mute anyone who emits the faintest Reply Guy™ scent, but I still mostly enjoy Twitter. I still witness good interactions and read good takes and have good talks.
As you may have guessed (or read in the literal title), however, we’re not here to discuss good stuff. We’ll leave that to the losers who enjoy lame stuff like the outdoors and cultivating healthy friendships. Given how much we already have in our plates as a people, though, we’re not discussing the most objectively horrifying stuff either. We’re here, instead, to discuss the stuff in the middle. Meaning: The MMA opinions, takes and insights that are not probably not awful enough to make you want to gouge your eyes out with a plastic spork but will still leave you annoyed enough to want to go on a petty subtweeting rampage about it or, say, mull them over for an unhealthy period of time until you’re able to convince an editor to let you write a whole-ass column about it.
“That’s what you get for getting your opinions from someone who gets hit in the head for a living”
Let’s try a little exercise in empathy.
Imagine that you’re a person. Like, a full-on person, with thoughts, agency, a personality, and all the other things that add up to the totality of who you are. Now imagine that you also have a job, and that job happens to be consensually fighting other people. Now, imagine that, one day, during one of the several windows of time in which when you’re not busy doing fighter things, you see a tweet. This tweet, written perhaps by an MMA fan or a journalist, is condemning something that an entirely different person, who happens to be a fellow fighter, shared on the internet. Maybe it’s some demonstrably antiscientific anti-vaccine meme. Maybe it’s one of those fake quotes that some #freethinker has taken to mean that masks are oppression. Either way, other fighter is getting called out for it. You scroll through the replies, running into everything from facepalm emojis to “The liberal media can’t stand anyone who thinks differently.”
And then you see it. The big-brain reply, in the big-brain tone, from the big-brain individual who doesn’t even see the point of the tweet; after all, “What did you expect from someone who gets hit in the head for a living?”
Now imagine that you don’t necessarily agree with it what the other fighter said. Perhaps you strongly disagree with it. You and other fighter are, after all, two different people apart from that one big way in which your lives converge. But you’re also a fighter and, therefore, according to this person in the replies, it doesn’t matter. Your opinion on this and other matters is not to be taken seriously, since “you get hit in the head for a living.”
As a student, scholar, and at times reluctant admirer of the kind of Reply Guy™ who manages to never agree with anyone while simultaneously alienating everyone, I’ve gotta say: This is some next-level stuff.
While I’m used to seeing the “stick to sports” Reply Guy™, or the “people are allowed their opinions” Reply Guy™, or the “cancel culture is out of control” Reply Guy™, this one is different because they don’t necessarily disagree with the basis of the complaint-tweet. In fact, they might actually agree with it. But that is really not the point of this particular Reply Guy™’s presence. This Reply Guy™ is not there to agree or to disagree with anyone.
This Reply Guy™ is there to rise above it all. See, actually adding something to the conversation is easy. But casually dismissing the validity of a complaint effort while condescendingly diminishing the intellect of an entire profession in an effort to make oneself sound superior to all the parties involved and achieving absolutely nothing in the process?
Now that takes some commitment.
“What is this fighter complaining about? No one forced them to pick this job”
Armchair CTE diagnoses
Now, for another exercise: Find any news about some terrible thing that a fighter has done. Now find a tweet from a major MMA news outlet about it. Now try to count the number of people under those news throwing the “CTE” acronym as if it was no big deal.
First of all, I’ll say this: It is great that, after all these years, we seem to be collectively waking up to the harsh realities of being a professional MMA fighter. With better science and more knowledge comes awareness, and that fortunately seems to be reflected not only in the way we theorize about health and safety but the way fighters are currently applying them in their day-to-day training. Yes, brain health is an issue in contact sports, and the fact that this is a painful fact doesn’t make it any less real.
There’s a difference, however, between acknowledging that brain trauma is a possibility for fighters and assuming every fighter — or at least all of those who display condemnable behavior — must have it.
First off, by just pinning whatever bad action committed by a fighter on CTE — which, by the way, is a specific neurodegenerative disease that can only be definitively diagnosed posthumously — you are all but removing personal agency (and, in cases like abuse or domestic violence, deeper socio-cultural aspects) from the equation. Then there’s the fact that many people who actually deal with the consequences of trauma of any nature might never act out violently, and the quick jump to slap a “CTE” label on harmful actions really doesn’t help anyone to deal with the stigma and misconceptions around a deeply complex problem.
The implication that a professional fighter (as in someone who takes literal damage for a living) took the easy way out
I know you can’t really see it, but just picture me starting this particular topic with the deepest of sighs and the strongest of temple rubs.
Look, I know how much it sucks to see a fight end in the silliest possible way. I understand the frustration, and the denial, and the uncontrollable urge to subscribe additional narratives to otherwise uninspiring events. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned after all these years in MMA is that, unfortunately, some dumb shit happens sometimes.
Take the recent UFC 259 title fight between then-champion Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling, for instance. Yan, who’d been getting increasingly dominant throughout three rounds, was in a position in which he could a) not throw a very illegal knee to the face of a downed opponent and therefore stay in the fight and b) throw said very illegal knee and therefore lose the fight. After a baffling few seconds of consideration, he chose to do the latter. Whatever Yan’s reasons for the strike, fact is that it happened, the rules were applied accordingly, and Sterling became the champion. It might not have been the exact ending we wanted, but it was the ending we got.
Except it couldn’t possibly be the end, could it? Over the next few days, what happened was pretty much what a lot of us expected. Sterling spent his first days as champion online, defending himself from accusations — including by an *extremely bold* Yan himself — that he was faking the seriousness of his situation in order to get the belt. People who had no access to Sterling or to any of his medical evaluations — or, I’m going to take a wild guess here, any medical education at all — decided there was no way he had actually suffered a concussion. Despite not having done a single thing wrong, after having his face on the other end of one of the most flagrantly and undeniably illegal strikes I’ve seen in a high-level MMA fight, a fighter who dedicated a large portion of his life to preparing for that exact moment was being accused of taking the easy way out.
Sterling was ultimately put in a terrible position. He could continue the fight after taking a massive knee to the head, with the additional risk of being concussed or at least extremely disoriented, or he could say he wasn’t able to continue, and risk exactly what happened: Achieving his dream of getting a UFC belt in the suckiest of ways, having to carry a giant asterisk along with it. His decision had to made quickly, under the bright lights, in front of the cameras, amid the haze of the moment. If there is one person in that cage who absolutely shouldn’t be having to justify anything that happened that night, that person is Sterling, and yet…
Of course, this wasn’t exactly uncharted territory for us. We’re all familiar with the “ducking” discourse, and all the talks of overblown injuries. Or, if you want a more specific example, take what happened after Jeremy Stephen’s first meeting with Yair Rodriguez in Sept. 2019, when a ridiculously anti-climatic eye-poke put an end to their main event within 15 seconds of its start. Despite Stephens’ ludicrously long record and tough reputation, there were still the same familiar questions as to the eye was *really* that bad and whether he *really* couldn’t continue.
As if this was anyone else’s decision to make but Stephens himself and the officials in the cage that night. As if, after years of fighting through all sorts of injuries, after going through a camp and a weight cut, after flying all the way to Mexico City, it would be a logical choice for Stephens to feign an injury in the first few seconds of main event to get out of it.
Now, my point isn’t that at no point in MMA history has a fighter maybe exaggerated — consciously or not — whatever damage they sustained. I’m not saying it’s impossible that a fighter would ever find themselves in a compromising position and perhaps maybe consider finding a loophole. I’m not saying fighters are perfect and that their toughness is so infinite and unwavering that they never have moments of weakness and humanity. What I am saying is that I — a spectator — am really in no position to judge when that really is the case. What I’m saying is that these are people whose very job is to put themselves in dangerous positions. People who are trained, mentally and physically, to deal with damage.
These are people who trained for weeks and months for that exact moment, who test their bodies every day, and I don’t think it’s my place to sit on my couch and determine after looking at a screen that, you know what, it doesn’t even look *that* bad.
Whatever nonsense happens in a comment section whenever a woman fighter has any complaints or requests or remarks or dares to exist in a way that might slightly inconvenience anyone, but today for the purposes of this column we are focusing on this nonsense
I’ll say this: Things are certainly not as bad as they used to be.
If the recent situation between Casey Kenney and Megan Anderson (meaning: the situation in which Kenney made very disrespectful comments toward his fellow UFC fighter in a public forum and Anderson politely responded) has shown me anything remotely positive, it’s that there are plenty of MMA fans who can not only understand why certain behaviors are just not OK, but also educate those who still can’t.
After years of subjecting myself to reply threads and comment sections, amid the various brands of misogyny (casual, aggressive, lite, vintage, there really is something for everyone) that I’ve come to expect, I did find a lot of reasonable, thoughtful, dare I say encouraging takes in some of the Anderson-related tweets and stories.
I did, however, also find stuff like this (from MMAFighting.com’s comment section).
At first glance, this might not even look like a particularly terrible comment. It’s not outwardly aggressive or offensive. There are no swear words or slurs. As far as blatant, flat-out disgusting displays of sexism go, there were more obvious choices. And, again to the credit of the comment section, it did get called out.
Still, I found this particular comment to be important because it shows a common and insidious line of thinking, one I’ve come across in several stories about female fighters, athletes, and, honestly, any women who do anything. It’s the notion that stands behind all the seemingly reasonable and even-tempered “I’m not condoning the bad thing that was done to her, BUT” that we’re so used to. The kind that implies that the way a woman chooses to address and display her own body is in any way relevant when we discuss other people’s unrequested, non-consensual treatment of bodies that are not their own.
Being a woman anywhere — but particularly in the public eye — means having your body constantly scrutinized and commodified. Thankfully, that part too has seen some progress, in the sense that we’re no longer that quick to accept women athletes being blatantly sold on looks, or commentary that focuses on anything other than their actual athletic appeal. Thankfully, some shit just doesn’t fly anymore. Still, though, we know what terms like “marketability” and “mainstream potential” mean for women, versus what they mean for men. We know why certain types of athletes get more attention and promotional love. We see the comments under videos on YouTube, or the replies to interview clips on Twitter.
And, yet, god forbid a woman takes charge of her own body — or *gasp* uses it in any way for her own benefit and profit. Their appearance is meant to be appreciated and assessed by strangers only, with no participation of their own. Otherwise, they are simply signing up for whatever “certain comments” they get and forfeiting their right to expect some respect from their peers or anyone else.
So, yes, “not so bad” comments like the one highlighted do irk me, if only because I’ve seen them so many times, with so many small differences in phrasing and context, but always pretty much the same implication that our bodies, in one way or another, aren’t really our own.