June 9, 2018

MMA Continues To Battle Against The Ugliness Hidden Below

By Raphael Garcia

There’s a lot to be excited about in mixed martial arts right now. The UFC just landed a massive five-year deal with ESPN and there are a number of intriguing fights on the horizon. However, that excitement can’t keep MMA’s ugly realities from creeping in every now and again. Last weekend, Andrea “KGB” Lee was at the center of conversation, even though she wasn’t fighting. And while her situation may seem like a minor one, it’s a consistent reminder that there’s a cultural shift that needs to happen across all of mixed martial arts.

UFC Fight Night 131 was the featured event last Friday night, but that wasn’t where the most captivating fight occurred. That battle was on Twitter, where Lee was forced to come to the defense of her husband and coach, Donny Aaron, due to tattoos on his arm of a swastika and the SS logo, known symbols of the Nazi ideology. Both of these markings represent white supremacy and white nationalism, which in recent years has been growing in influence in the US and across the world. Lee attributed these tattoos to her husband's past, when he was locked up in prison, but that explanation fails to address the larger talking point. The fact is, it’s time to recognize that mixed martial arts has an attraction to the hateful that isn’t found in other major sports.

Each of the major professional sports leagues has issues. Look at the NFL's domestic violence problems, MLB's years of steroid problems, and the NHL's issues with racism. But there’s one major difference between the way those leagues handle their issues and the way MMA organizations do. Whereas these leagues respond with words and sometimes actions that denounce those involved, MMA companies barely bat an eye, ignoring the problem, or even worse, defending the wrongdoer. That is a continued problem that delivers a powerful message to fans within minority demographics that MMA often struggles to reach.

This issue isn't unique to the UFC. Take Anastasia Yankova and her rise in Bellator MMA. The 27-year-old flyweight was positioned to be one of the faces of the organization’s women divisions. However, before her most recent bout, a defeat at Bellator 200, the Russian fighter was embroiled in controversy after her name was linked with white nationalist organizations. For example, her first professional fight occurred at an event titled "White Rex: The Birth of a Nation" organized by a group known to have white nationalist ties, whose name was inspired by the infamous Klu Klux Klan propaganda film. After the story came to light, Bellator and Yankova's responses downplayed this association as a part of her past, but not part of her current lifestyle. Like the situation with Lee and Aaron, this response shouldn’t have been widely accepted, but in MMA it was enough to lower the proverbial raised eyebrows.

It’s clear who the targeted audience is within the MMA space. White men, ages 18-34, have traditionally made up the largest segment of viewers who tune in to see athletes beat each other up. With that knowledge, MMA outlets often take steps to cater toward that market. One such example of this is the way female fighters are often marketed, with a heavy focus upon their looks. In doing so, organizations such as the UFC and Bellator miss out on opportunities to promote female fighters that don't fit this narrow mold, such as Angela Hill or Amanda Nunes. Another example is the way these major promotions market white fighters who behave in a way that belittles fans and fighters who are outside of the white, male, target demographics.

Take Colby Covington. Much of his recent increased profile is attributed to his willingness to embrace the cringeworthy. Like Chael Sonnen before him, it seems like he’s willing to say anything -- even bordering on hateful speech with racist overtones -- to get a rise out of the viewers. Whether he believes these things or not, he’s carried himself in a way that’s positioned him for a shot at an interim welterweight title that’s not even needed right now. The UFC is leveraging his ability to grab headlines for antics outside the cage, in hopes that it translates into viewers. That strategy worked for Conor McGregor, and in a sport where copycat behavior is the norm, it’s a wonder that more fighters don’t take to hateful words to "get over" with fans.

These are just a few recent cases in a laundry list of examples that show MMA to not be a truly welcoming sport for marginalized groups. Take last week’s Pride March that occurred in New York City. The NHL, MLB, NFL, NBA, and WNBA all had floats to show their support for LBGTQ communities. The UFC, which has a dominant champion in Nunes and many other competitors in those communities, did not have a presence there. That was a major missed opportunity to deliver an inclusive message of support for a group of people that have supported the sport in the past as fighters and fans, and could do so in the future.

Mixed martial arts, like the majority of major sports in the United States, is driven by the preferences of white male demographics; it's hard to expect full understanding of the ills that befall marginalized groups across the world. However, what these organizations shouldn't do is look the other way and sometimes celebrate athletes and teams that behave in disgusting and insensitive fashion, or who seem far too willing to wear their white nationalist associations literally on their sleeves. In the past, the UFC has released fighter whose tattoos incorporated similar symbology, showing that the organization is prepared to draw a line in the sand. But more actions are needed as the sport and its fighters become more prominent in the sporting world.

This deal with ESPN is going to position the UFC to capture more eyeballs, which should help the sport of MMA as a whole. But MMA needs to take a look at its collective culture, and promoters need to take a proactive approach to addressing the ideologies of hate in their midst, as well as the fighters who choose to embrace or associate with it.

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