Tuesday, December 21, 2010

MMA vs Football is like the circus vs. grad school

I was reading this article by a fella named Luke Thomas about MMA's status as spectacle more than a sport. I developed some comments.

The UFC, fairly publicly, looks to pro wrestling as its business model. People read a lot more into that than the UFC intends. Both have publicly viewed TV shows to capture public attention and then you have big pay-per-view events to capture dollars, both aggressively market their fighters. That's where the similarity ends, but when anyone learns that the UFC is modeled off of "pro wrestling" they start to think the kind of sports entertainment of the WWE.

In Japan, the connection is even closer. One of the early MMA promotions, Pancrase, was started by Japanese pro wrestlers who wondered who would actually win if they were to fight with wrestling-style rules. Several legendary MMA fighters -- Masakatsu Funaki, Ken Shamrock, Minoru Suzuki -- came from the Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Group before they were MMA fighters. Pro wrestling and MMA have a lot of overlap. That's just a fact.

There's a lot of history there, too. In very short, even legitimate sports fights trace themselves back to circus hucksters in fighting sideshows and those circus hucksters became the first fight promoters. With wrestling, since wrestling is sort of dull to watch, they had to spice it up and eventually it got to where it is today. With boxing, well, it is exciting and they never got rid of the legitimate competition . . . but they kept the circus sideshow promotion style.

Other professional sports developed from academic traditions arising in the 19th century. The one line history here is that in the 19th century, rich people were getting fat and weak so they introduced athletics into school curriculum. All the big non-combat professional sports in the US -- baseball, football, basketball, tennis and even ice hockey -- arise out of school curriculum. While schools do have one combat sport, wrestling, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are not viable sports for a professional business model (a trait shared by many other academic athletics contests, of course).

So, what I see is that you have professional sports arising from two different places. One of those places is colleges and private schools in the late 19th century and the other is, quite literally, circuses. This leads me to believe that there is an elephant in the room and that elephant's name is "class". Most professional sports are conceptually "high class". Combat sports are the entertainment of low class peons.

Which is where this animosity about fighting sports comes from. People will say it's because of the brutality . . . which I think is a very interesting term. The sport is disliked because the intent of the sport is violent, whereas the injuries in football -- which is an injury prone sport, you hardly finish a pro or even college game without someone being taken off in a stretcher -- or, for heaven's sake, skiing are considered not as significant because they lack that idea of brutality.

I find myself thinking that the concept of brutality, itself, is invested with tremendous class significance. I could talk, historically, about brutality, but I won't. I'll just bring up that no one thinks it brutal for people to hire other people to do jobs that are physically hazardous, from mining to meat packing. The most dangerous job in America is lumberjack. Most jobs could be made much, much safer than they are, but that would cost money . . . I think that cold assessment of money that condemns a large number of people, every year, to agonizing injuries or death is incredibly brutal. Far more brutal than two guys who, basically, love their jobs going out and hitting each other. Sure, they might get injured, but that's true in many, many jobs. It's true in many, many past times and many, many sports.

So I find that condemning a sport as brutal not based on the injuries that people get performing the sport but, instead, on the idea that the sport is a fighting sport is a kind of witty argument used to cover up classism. The problem isn't that it's brutal, but that it's close class . . . it's vulgar. Which puts it in a piece of the way the rich and powerful have always viewed the poor and weak -- we speak wrong, our music is noise, our art is ugly, nothing we can do is right. Even though, to our ears, our speech is poetry, our music reveals our hearts and our art glorious. No, no, it's wrong because it doesn't conform to the standards set by rich people and learned in academic environments. Rock, country and rap will never be classical music, in the same way fighting sports aren't "pure sports" but a vulgar spectacle.

It's simply not about whether MMA is or is not a sport. It's that MMA isn't the kind of sport the "right people" do, it isn't a sport by rich people for rich people, it doesn't hail from a safe academic tradition, it doesn't abide by their rules of what is "proper". It abides by a different logic, the logic of people who see evidence all around that life is a struggle and sometimes fighting is necessary. Fighting sports come from people who don't have presumptions of safety and security.

(I might also so they're also pretty terrifying sports because they constantly remind the rich and powerful what will happen if "they" fight "us". That the working class finds it really easy to find an endless stream of tough guys, that the violence upon which their society depends is not done by themselves, but by proxies in the working class who are much, much better at it than they'll ever be.)

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