October 28, 2010

MMA Should Not Be Sugarcoated

By Yael Grauer

"If you are squeamish, do not prod the beach rubble." -Sappho

MMA is not for the faint of heart. To the untrained eye, the technique and skill so evident to MMA enthusiasts often gets overlooked, and--like it or not--many viewers see what to them looks like a street brawl. Educating newer viewers is certainly commendable, but lately my attention has been drawn to a very different approach many are using to try to gain acceptance for the sport. Call it sugarcoating, whitewashing, censorship or deception; it is what it is. Some MMA journalists (and others in the biz) think the best way to make MMA accepted as a sport is to provide a softer, prettier version that might be more palatable to broader audiences.

It's ironic, really. MMA is marketed to 18-34 year old males, and the usage of adjectives such as "extreme," "ultimate" and "brutal" are no coincidence. People are not tuning in to the Home Shopping Network. And yet there are people out there who expect MMA writers, analysts and fans to pretend that MMA is a baking competition. Just last week, I read criticism of writers stating that certain fighters don't look the part. God forbid we reinforce the stereotype that many fighters look a certain way--even if the notion happens to be true. I've heard of female fighters not invited to afterparties because they had noticeable bruising on their face--as if the people at attendance hadn't already seen the fight in which the bruises transpired. And just this week I even had a well-placed swear word censored out of an article on a prominent MMA website--as if fans are so sheltered that they couldn't possibly have been exposed to something that's not G-rated.

Am I the only person who thinks that a disingenuous PR machine is glaringly obvious to outsiders? Repeatedly using terms such as respect and honor, sticking to very polite language fit for preschoolers and pretending that MMA is a child's game is supposed to help our cause? Somehow I think there's another approach that might be more effective: honesty.

Although we certainly have our heroes, it'd be inaccurate to pretend that all MMA fighters resemble Eagle Scouts. Many fighters are class acts. And--again, let's be honest--many of them look and act like thugs outside of the cage. Some of them get arrested for things like assault and drunk driving. Many have served time in jail. (Oh, and some of them swear, too.) As much as some enthusiasts (myself included) prefer to root for classy fighters such as GSP, Jon Fitch and Cain Velasquez there are also fans that love the heels. Not all viewers like super clean cut fighters either.

Yes, there are bad guys in the world and MMA is no exception. Of course, there are bad guys in all other professional sports, too, both past and present. Baseball player Ty Cobb once assaulted a heckler, possibly killed a man and was known for being a racist. Bringing this up does not invalidate the legitimacy of baseball as a sport. Pretending that everyone in MMA is a fine upstanding citizen--though many of them are--just looks desperate.

Some MMA fighters are not exactly pro-feminist. This is also true in other sports. Brett Favre allegedly (probably) sent nasty photos to Jenn Sterger, Tiger Woods certainly kept himself busy off of the golf course, and don't get me started on Ben "Alleged" Roethlisberger. Does this threaten the legitimacy of golf and football? Of course, this doesn't seem to be nearly as rampant in MMA as of yet--but if it was, I'd be the first to report on it. Do we really have to downplay incidents or comments because they might hurt the image of the sport? Is MMA a religion?

A notable percentage of the population abuses alcohol and uses drugs, and I'm sure MMA fighters are no exception. Michael Phelps was caught on camera with a bong, and also got a DUI when he was 19 (much worse). Anybody think that this negates the legitimacy of swimming? No? Then why admonish the media to downplay or not report on Chris Leben's DUI or Court McGee's struggles in overcoming heroin addiction? Because then people might think that although some fighters are squeaky clean, other fighters drink or use drugs, or have in the past? Wouldn't they then be onto something, though?

I've always assumed many (if not most) MMA fighters are on steroids. Barry Bonds probably did steroids, too. He was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for (allegedly) lying to a grand jury. Mark Mcgwire recently admitted to using steroids. So let's not act all super surprised when our favorite fighters don't test clean--or assume that people who do test clean aren't using.

Dishonesty runs rampant in the world, and this is also true in MMA. It's also true in baseball. Baseball player and manager Pete Rose was banned from the Hall of Fame for gambling on baseball games while playing for and managing the Reds, and gambled against his very own team. The White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. (It's okay, you can still watch baseball.)

And finally, MMA can get you hurt. No shit, Sherlock. Other sports can also get you hurt. Herb Score was hit in the face during a baseball game and broke numerous bones in his face. Dennis Byrd collided with fellow teammate Scott Mersereau in an NFL game, resulting in a broken C-5 vertebra. Byrd was unable to walk until he received extensive physical therapy. Michael Utley was paralyzed during an NFL game. Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered a cervical spine injury that threatened his chances of ever walking again. Most recently, Rutgers defensive tackle Eric Legrand suffered a spinal injury, and is paralyzed from the neck down. Certainly, these injuries may be the catalyst for change in their respective sports, and all athletes should know what they're potentially getting themselves into. Arguments can certainly be made that MMA is safer than other sports, but trying to sugarcoat glaringly obvious facts such as the possibility of injury is simply dishonest.

I'd like to live in a fantasy world where all fighters are fine upstanding citizens who do charity work and call their moms, never cheat on their wives or girlfriends, do not use performance enhancing drugs (or other drugs) and never swear at parties. It'd be lovely if there were never any sports-related injuries. I personally could care less what fighters look like, and if they all admit they cut down the cherry tree and never met a man they didn't like I'd be fine with that (though this might be hard to juxtapose while also selling the image of fighters as 7 feet tall and consuming their opponents with fireballs from their eyes and bolts of lightning from their asses). Like it or not, we live in the real world where things are complicated and not picturesque, and would not cleanly fit into a soundbite. Still, admonishing writers, fans and enthusiasts to sugarcoat their language and try to pretend MMA is something it's not is never the solution, and I, for one, refuse to play along. These attempts to protect the face of MMA will not legitimize the sport in the eyes of non-believers. They just expose the people behind the spin machine for what they are: liars.


Yael Grauer is a regular contributor at MMA HQ. Todd Butkowski contributed to this article. Be sure to check out Elite MMA's Christmas in October sale--25% off all MMA gear (including gloves, MMA shorts, rashguards, Thai pads, gis, punching bags and more) this week only.

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