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More Than The Game: MMA And The Perfect Storm Of Our Troubled Times

Chauvinism lies at the heart of combat sports. The revulsion that fans of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) feel towards the irritable, underhanded ‘heel’ characters is palpable – and wrestling entertainment isn’t even real. There’s something electrifying about jeering in concert with thousands of enthused spectators at a cartoonishly evil sporting villain; it’s why we all love to hate Man City. 

The WWE’s billionaire owner Vince McMahon drew both the ire and admiration of a millennial, chiefly male generation of wrestling fans with his exaggerated machismo image, bellowing catchphrase “YOU’RE FIRED”, and reliance on ‘Big, Strong, Macho Men’ to carry the banner of his company. Now that the WWE has turned towards family-friendly sports entertainment and boxing’s popularity has been on the decline for over a decade, the high-octane world of mixed martial arts has taken its place atop the totem pole as the ultimate outlet of masculine aggression.

You would have to have taken an ascetic vow to be unaware of the spectacular rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. UFC 251, the latest event hosted by the MMA behemoth, was one of its most successful instalments ever, raking in over 1.3 million PPV (pay-per-view) buys. This made it the most viewed event in combat sports since Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (2.4 million PPV buys), which was perhaps the most highly anticipated bout since Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier.

The hype that follows McGregor, the boisterous Dublin native, is incommensurable. His flashy, confrontational approach to every press conference, combined with his ‘talk the talk, walk the walk’ attitude in the octagon makes for pure gold at the box office. Even after being brutalised into submission by a dominant Khabib, he maintains his position as UFC royalty – on top of the sporting world. Outside of the ring, McGregor styles himself with the flair of a 1920’s gangster – donning extravagant three-piece suits, reminiscent of the Peaky Blinders / Ronnie & Reggie Kray aesthetic craze that has swept UK and Ireland’s youths the past few years. This is quite ironic given the somewhat toxic portrayal of masculinity he implicitly propagates.

 While certainly not the first athlete to don an extravagant, loudmouth personality to attract a larger crowd, McGregor is up there with the best trash-talkers in sporting history; and he has a long line of descendants.

Former UFC Welterweight Champion Colby Covington adopts the personality of a foul-mouthed, offensive, genuinely black-hearted Trump supporter in order to exasperate his opponent and arouse the acrimony of their fans. For example, after defeating legendary Brazilian Ju-Jitsu artist Demian Maia in his hometown, he labelled Maia’s heated fans “filthy animals” and the city of São Paolo a ‘dump’. If that wasn’t crass enough, Covington mocked opponent, current UFC Welterweight Champion, Kamaru Usman’s recently deceased long-time coach during a press conference days before their fight – stating that he would be “watching from hell”. This would be fairly inconsequential if he was just another flash in the pan, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite a tough loss to Usman at their last meeting, Covington truly is an extremely well-rounded and powerful athlete. Now at the peak of his career at age 32, he remains on the upper echelons of the UFC roster and has the innate ability to draw, energize, and enrage a crowd; something absolutely crucial in the world of sports entertainment.

There are clear comparisons to be drawn here between UFC superstars (along with their more obnoxious fans) and the toxic ‘alpha-male’ stereotype that pervades modern discourse around masculinity. While the arrogant, domineering act that athletes like Covington adopt is most likely just an act, the same can’t be confidently said about their audience. Of course, I do not mean to imply that there is a direct causal relationship between the cultivation of modern ‘toxic masculinity’ and the rise of the UFC. However, according to a study by Statistica, as of May 2020, men in the US are almost three times more likely to be fans of the UFC compared to women, whereas they are only 1.33x more likely to be fans of the NFL, a considerable difference. The overwhelming popularity of fighters with potentially fragile, lost, and impressionable males, combined with their oft-unruly actions could be a recipe for disaster.

 In particular, McGregor is never far from conflict and controversy. In late 2019, the Irishman was fined €1,000 (£850) for assaulting a man 20 years his elder in a Dublin pub. Earlier the same year he was charged with three counts of assault and one count of criminal mischief after allegedly attacking a coach carrying fellow UFC stars, apparently over a long-running feud he holds with opponent Khabib and members of the ‘Dagestani Eagle’s’ gym. When a fighter’s criminal/violent escapades are broadcasted to untold millions on social media, they become central to their whole personality as fighters; possibly contributing to the circularly violent and obnoxious image of masculinity that many young men grow up worshiping. 

Assuming the law of averages is accurate, many of the millions of male UFC fans are fulfilling their subconscious fantasies through the machismo, bravado, and violent dominance of their favourite mixed martial artist. The propagation of these fantasies through an ever more chauvinistic sporting environment will result, accordingly, in the perpetuation of the devastating societal results of hegemonic masculinity – namely, misogyny, homophobia, and destructive male emotional repression. 

However, if trash-talking and chauvinism was the main draw for men across the world, then there would be rap battles on Saturday night PPV and not the UFC. From its early days as an underground, yet burgeoning industry struggling for survival against public, media, and political backlash, mixed martial arts has been the heart and soul of the UFC. Maintaining a small but fiercely dedicated core foundation of fans and expert practitioners throughout the early ‘90s, MMA legends like ‘Big’ John McCarthy and Jeff Blatnick sought to launder the public image of the alleged grotesque violence of the combat sport. Famously, after being shown a tape of the early UFC events, which were marketed as effectively ‘no holds barred’ exhibition fights, the late US Senator John McCain condemned the sport as ‘human cock-fighting’ and lobbied to have it made illegal nation-wide. Following this, a set of rules were devised and the less palatable aspects of the sport, like ‘fish-hooking’ and groin strikes, were radically toned down until the foundations of the modern sport were built. Nevertheless, the elements which appealed so massively to the early, die-hard UFC spectators – the extreme athleticism, knockout power, blood, and ferocious intensity with which the fighters approach their craft – have only intensified with the sport’s legitimisation.

The meteoric rise of the UFC has come during a period of immense social confusion for men across the west. After generations of acculturation to the ‘grin and bear it’ conception of manhood, shaped by an exclusively patriarchal social and economic system, men now struggle to bear the weight of their problems; they cling on to a societally enforced sedulous, taciturn attitude to life, as the world they have been conditioned to know fractures around them. While the visibly performative nature of masculinity has remained resolute, there are fresh cracks in the male psyche with perceptible roots.

The formerly ossified, patriarchal social structures which historically constructed our shared image of masculinity have withered, leaving behind an empty and potentially harmful shell. Changing family structures and gender relations, de-industrialisation, economic and personal stagnation, as well as political turmoil have arguably sent manhood into disaster. Often, this crisis rears its ugly head in the form of the ‘toxic masculinity’, a critically overused but important term. The central, most essential idea surrounding ‘toxic masculinity’ is that of the ‘alpha-male’, who seeks to dominate, belittle, and ‘beat’ those weaker than him. While it’s unlikely that the executives of the UFC are purposefully propagating the characteristics of potentially destructive forms of manhood, the harm done by damaged men to themselves and their communities is one of the great problems of our time.

The most saddening blow from the UFC’s commitment to its noxious depiction of masculinity is the fact that combat sports and martial arts genuinely do so much good for so many. There are countless stories of people from all walks of life finding an art-form, like boxing or jiu jitsu, and, through training, bettering themselves both physically and mentally. The most prominent example in my mind is that of Tyson Fury, who battled through personal struggles with addiction and mental health problems to fight his way back to the very top of heavyweight boxing. While Fury has acted almost identically to even the most ignorantly chauvinistic fighters in the past, his journey indicates to me that combat sports themselves are hardly the root of the bullish image of men we are conditioned to idolise. In my opinion, the damage lies in their utilisation in the name of endless profit. 

Dana White, shrewd yet ruthless president of the UFC is never going to come out strongly against the toxic behaviour of many of his athletes and their fans; it makes him, and his company, too much money. This is perhaps a corollary of the rapacious nature of post-industrial capitalism and the entertainment industry’s indefatigable need for a spectacle to draw interest and patronage; it’s hardly a coincidence that companies like the UFC, who proficiently play-up the exaggerated cutthroat, chest-beating nature of their sport are often the most profitable. Nevertheless, the popularity of the UFC and its detrimental portrayal of masculinity is but a symptom of our troubled times. The only prospect for change is for our society to look inward at the damage done both to and by men and, hopefully, begin to heal.

Chris ONeil

Chris O'Neil is a columnist for the Blue. He's going into his second year at Brasenose College, studying History and Politics. With special interests in sports and pertinent socio-political issues, he'll be writing his column throughout the late summer and into Michaelmas Term 2020.