Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mixed Martial Arts and Masculinity: The Strikeforce Edition

Any time something particularly controversial happens in the heavily scrutinized sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), you can safely bet, rhetoric will materialize muddled with notions of traditionaly violent masculinity. Okay, that's not terribly surprising since the sport is already filled disproportionately with males at all levels (fighters, media, owners, commentators, etc.). Still, the examples provided, below, make for interesting indicators of how sport is constantly utilized as a medium to connect masculinity with various levels and types of violence.

A few weeks ago in mid-April, the MMA organization, Strikeforce, held an event that was broadcast on CBS -- free television. In the main event, middleweight champ, Jake Shields beat challenger, Dan Henderson in a 5-round decision. During the post-fight interview, Shields was challenged by previous foe, Jason "Mayhem" Miller. This didn't please Shields's training buddies, who subsequently began to express their displeasure by physically beating Miller in group form. See ensuing video:



Note in the midst of the brawl (beginning at 0:48) when interviewer and commentator, Gus Johonson, says into the mic:


  • "Sometimes these things happen in MMA; a lot of testosterone in the cage." Ostensibly suggesting that (1) non-sporting group violence is an unfortunate, but expected part of the sport's theatrical aura, at least on occassion, and (2) excessive masculinity ("a lot of testosterone") should be naturally connected with unbridled violence.
  • "Gentlemen, we're on national television. Gentlemen, we're on national television." Ostensibly suggesting that preventing and/or stopping the non-sporting violence is not the critical issue. Rather what's critical is making sure the non-sporting violence is not seen by the general public. The sport's explicit image is more important than the violent realities manifesting in real time.
In the heat of the moment, Johnson fell back on traditional assumptions of masculinity, identifying testosterone as the explanatory variable that propelled the violent behavior beyond MMA's structured sporting confines. In short, if we get a bunch of men in a competitive group setting, we can expect violence to emanate. Hence, masculinity's association with violence is defined as normal, or at least not abnormal.

In turn, the brawl and Johnson's widely heard remarks were heavily scrutinized by many of those in the MMA blogosphere, as documented by the folks over at BloodyElbow.com, who posted an entry by writer, Eugene Robinson titled, "WAAA-HHHHH: The Decline of Balls in MMA." Robinson's entry chastised those who crticized the violent post-fight mele. Notably, the BloodyElbow administrator who posted the entry commented that he did not agree with the essay's premise, but that it offered a significant enough perspective on the incident. Some excerpts from Robinson's essay:

Flash forward to NOW, where a few days after one of the greatest MMA cards ever – JAKE SHIELDS v. DAN HENDERSON – a nation full of MMA fans, pundits and prognosticators are drinking the kool aid and wringing their hands like a coffee klatch all concerned about how MMA "looks" to the rest of America. Websites, this one included, like grandmothers, are talking about "the black eye" the sports been given and about how execrable [look it up] the post-fight fight wherein Team Cesar Gracie taught Jason MAYHEM Miller a lesson in deportment was.

Well, I am here to call bullshit on that.

[...]

I submit that MMA nowadays is so tender that the sensitive susans who are worried about CBS admittedly the most conservative of networks out there…and coincidentally smarting over it] and the sport suffering because, imagine this, fighters got into a fight at a fight…a fight brought about by a man named MAYHEM…well, the ladies protesteth too much.

[Emphasis added].


Robinson overtly associates those who criticize the brawl with "grandmothers" "sensitive susans," and "ladies." He suggests that MMA as a sport and the nation as a whole are decaying specifically because of their feminized objections to non-sporting violence. Not surprisingly, Robinson ends his piece by suggesting dissenters with his stance "...start following tennis. I hear they're looking to expand their fan base," a clear reference to tennis's historical connection with socially acceptable femininity.

Gus Johnson, however, was additionally attacked on a heavily personal level by a different MMA website, "CagePotato.com," but again in a way that utilized traditional understandings of gender to ridicule him. As documented in BloodyElbow.com's story, "Cage Potato Deserves No Pass in Gus Johnson Fiasco," an electronic and verbal spat between the website and Johnson provoked Cage Potato to doctor the following picture of Johnson for their website, shown in the comments section of this BloodyElbow story, "Gus Johonson Calls Cage Potato" (picture not posted by a BloodyElbow administrator).

Portraying Johnson in this manner clearly attempts to disparage him by applying so-called feminine indicators on his portrait. These tactics further demonstrate how those with power in the MMA blogosphere choose to operate within a rigid, juvenile, and sexist framework. I suppose one could argue MMA is still under two decades old. Its institutional components and individual actors are still growing up and therefore, should not be heavily critiqued. I agree, it's still growing up.

(Photos via BloodyElbow.com)

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Excellent and insightful post, though I would ask what other motivators (I would imagine cultural, psychological and social,) describe the behavior exhibited in the Strikeforce post-fight "brawl" if not those of a physiological or structural nature?

    I do not disagree with you that the hip-fired comments of the announcer during this incident were most likely unexamined perpetuations of untested assumptions. That being said, the structure of competitive events and the physiology that has come down to us through evolution could very easily be just as much to blame as the values that our society places upon masculinity, face and decorum or the effect of training and conditioning predisposing a person within a very discrete setting, (i.e. the cage, octagon, etc.) to react instinctively with physical violence as a conflict resolution strategy.

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  3. Just saw your comment here. Good stuff. Yes, physiologically, it's possible we've changed over as a "race," and that may even happen at the individual level for those who partake in MMA. That's kind of out of my realm, but I'd say "quick-fire" physiological reactions in sport are still socially constructed. For instance, replace the parties involved (all male) with women; the outcome would likely be much different. It's always tough to merge the biological and social sciences!

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  4. Mixed Martial Arts and Masculinity is the perfect combination because I feel so strong and a great man when I hit others I feel so good out and inside of me.

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