Man versus Man, Woman versus Woman: Mixed Martial Arts and Gender Identity

Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts

BEAST: BLOOD, STRUGGLE, AND DREAMS AT THE HEART OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS
DOUG MERLINO
BLOOMSBURY, 2015
$26
272 PAGES

THE PROFESSOR IN THE CAGE: WHY MEN FIGHT AND WHY WE LIKE TO WATCH
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL
PENGUIN BOOKS, 2015
$26.95
304 PAGES

During my graduate-school years, two massive forces collided in my life. First, the Ultimate Fighting Championship took a gamble on a television show called “The Ultimate Fighter” (TUF) that aired on Spike TV in a year that I was living engaged and nine hours from my bride-to-be. I held the remote and it was good. The second force was

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch

a book by the sports historian Elliot Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Never before in my life had my academic interest and my personal interest meshed so well. As I made my way through those early seasons of TUF and each captivating chapter of Gorn’s book, I found myself both a fan and a scholar of combat sports.

After completing a dissertation on an unrelated topic, I finally found myself bumbling around sports scholarship again, although with a different interest in gender and modern sports. Doug Merlino’s book Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts as well as Jonathan Gottschall’s The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch both offered the kind of thoughtful commentary that I craved on the sport of mixed martial arts and the people who participate in it.

Women in mixed martial arts are right on the front lines of redefining gender stereotypes and are blazing a new brand of strong, aggressive, popular female athletes.

In a sports world that includes the perennial Yankees vs. Red Sox in baseball or even Hendrick vs. Gibbs in motorsports, it seems that larger forces are at play in determining the outcome of the competition. But with mixed martial arts, the contest comes down to two men or women, locked in a cage with only a referee and an agreed-upon set of rules. What some see as barbaric, fans of the sport see as liberating. And while women’s MMA is rising in popularity right now, it tends to be the one-on-one, or “man versus man,” element of the sport that makes it have such appeal. There are no teammates to blame for poor performance. Fighters thump their chests or hang their heads on their own merits.

ETHOS

For those who might not be familiar with the sport of MMA, it is a one-on-one competition between two combatants who fight until one is knocked unconscious, submits to the opponent because of a hold or the fight reaches the time limit and judges determine a winner. In the early days of MMA, there were some brutal displays lacking rules or restraint, but now fighting happens under proper accrediting bodies in countries all over the world. The purpose of fighting is often to win money, but many fighters have a variety of motives, including the ability to submit another person and break his or her will. The fights are about power, cunning and control. But make no mistake; these are real fights. People really punch, kick, throw and choke hold each other. Sometimes limbs are broken in the cage. There are hours of highlight videos showing men knocking one another unconscious. Men do not have a monopoly on wanting to knock each other unconscious, but culturally this is perceived as an activity more typical for men than women to pursue.

Although the fighters are ostensibly fighting to make a living, their – and fans’ – attraction to the Ultimate Fighting Championship says something. The books from Merlino and Gottschall give a fascinating angle into the UFC’s popularity and the crafting of a narrative about gender and sexuality. Both Merlino and Gottschall provide first-person accounts of how MMA provides a context for men to test one another, even if they do not compete at the highest level. Walking, sometimes prowling, into the cage for a fight, MMA fighters are in immaculate physical shape for fighting a fight. Using science and extensive training for several weeks before a bout, these professionals work on specific muscle groups to create the most efficient human fighting tools. Part of crafting that physical weapon means adjusting intake to “make weight,” the category differences that places similar-sized fighters in competition with one another.

Additionally, the fighters prepare themselves psychologically to dominate their opponents. This psychological preparation is where many of the most blatant signs of masculinity language come through. Whether it’s talking of physically dominating an opponent or “breaking his will to fight,” the man-versus-man posturing of MMA is unique in the sporting world. It’s true that sometimes pitchers talk of winning an at-bat in baseball with intimidation.  And one of the greatest NASCAR champions of all time, Dale Earnhardt, carried the moniker “The Intimidator” for his aggressive racing style. Yet by and large, the sports world does not feature many of these kinds of one-on-one challenges. The phrase “may the best man win” pervades MMA, although at the end of many conflicts, humbled fighters will say things such as “he was the better man tonight.” But what does this all mean? Why is gender so codified and so evident in these interactions?

Doug Merlino’s book Beast really does a great job of looking at the culture with a journalist’s precision. Embedding himself with the outstanding camp of American Top Team, Merlino got to know the personalities of the fighters. Rather than viewing them as mere brutes, Merlino met fighters and their families and understood their dreams. The book bounces between Merlino’s own observations about his identity as a writer training to fight along with the professional fighters. He spends a considerable amount of the book commenting on the peculiar life of the enigmatic Jeff Monson. Diehard fans of the sport know Monson from his time in the early years of the UFC, fighting in a bulldozing wrestling style. But as interesting as Monson’s life, fighting style and politics are, the breadth of Merlino’s discussion of other fighters in the camp helps make the story relatable for the average fight fan. Yes fighters are exceptional people for their decision to fight at all, but Merlino’s work humanizes them in important ways. For example, Merlino’s discussion of Bosnian-American Mirso Bektic hearing chants of “USA!” for his opponent made him reflect on cultural heritage and his own value as a fighter. This type of behind-the-scenes look is important to allow fans to connect with the fighters rather than functioning on blood lust alone.

In a similar vein, Jonathan Gottschall wrote his book Professor in the Cage about this same complex imagery of brutality in the midst of living a seemingly normal life as an English professor deciding to train with MMA fighters. Although Gottschall explains growing up with brothers, often wrestling and fighting in their own way, the more formal fight inside a cage ended up being a much different challenge. It wasn’t just about athleticism, clearly, but about the culture that produced such a sport. What does it mean to “prove yourself,” and what does it mean to be successful? How does respect play into the sport? As Gottschall answers such questions, he keeps coming back to the codes of masculinity. He shows how conceptions of size, strength and sheer physicality order the world for many men who do not actually enter the cage. He explains, “I set out to write a book about the darkness in men, but I ended up with a book about how men keep the darkness in check.” Gottschall’s blend of thoughtful intellectual commentary on fight culture with outright gory descriptions makes for an intriguing read.

The two books end up being more similar than different: Both develop themes of masculine provision and pursuit of meaning. The authors show how many men figuratively fight for their livelihood by going to work but professional MMA fighters do so literally. Therefore the pursuit of meaning that these fighters often have is not necessarily fame and fortune, as might be judged from the outside, but rather an intrinsic motivator to win and conquer over other, equal competition. Both authors observed remarkable scenes in their gyms, training with some of the most dedicated people in the world today. Enduring training and eating regimens that are sacrificial, painful and exceptional, these athletes have a truly unique way of going about their lives. There are other extreme sports such as “Tough Mudder,” “Tough Man” or Iron Man triathlons. However, the variety of tools and weapons in MMA, such as various striking and grappling techniques, means that fighters must master multiple disciplines. They have to master their own bodies, creating peak physical conditioning to fight, but also learn to throw, strike and submit opponents proficiently while also stopping their opponents from doing the same to them. The training is more rigorous physically and mentally than virtually any other sport. What these books both do is help us, through the authors’ choice of first person narrative, enter into the lives of MMA fighters in a way that makes them feel like our friends rather than zoo animals to be observed through the bars. Yes, they are caged, but we cannot forget that they are human.

WHAT MMA TELLS US

There are primarily three conclusions that these studies point us toward as scholars of gender identity. First, both authors show how gender is constructed by others but is largely a personal and individual endeavor. Both authors doing immersion research were successful in their own rights (one an author, the other a PhD-holding professor) before ever stepping into the cage. It is doubtful that Merlino fought to prove himself to other journalists or Gottschall to prove himself to other academics. Rather, the reader gets the sense that each man decided on this course to prove to himself that he could do it. Interestingly, because neither of the authors fought in a professional setting, they had no fans to react to their fights or to give them a sense of popularity as fighters.

The second key conclusion here is that actual success in the cage is not a determining factor in the masculine triumph of the man. Merely fighting seems to be enough to garner respect from peers. It’s a fascinating element to both studies that even fighters with losing records or devastating defeats find acceptance within the sport. Success, therefore, comes from proficiency in fighting, showing respect to and receiving it from opponents and ultimately being a good citizen within the sport.

The final conclusion is that MMA is an exclusive community, providing a sort of elite acceptance among the fighters themselves. Merely training, learning the discipline to train and fight is enough to accept a man for who he is, regardless of other differences. Men who are outside of this exclusive community are perceived as less than, no matter what other typically masculine pursuits those outsiders might have.

The MMA community has been accused of producing “toxic masculinity” or a “culture of violence,” but from these two inside looks, we see that there is a lot of bonding and support. Fighters teach and help each other. Fighters “go to war” to support “brothers in combat arms.” All of these types of language parallel the armed forces as much or more than anything, which likens the combat support of MMA more to the brotherhood of combat arms than the camaraderie of a typical team sport. The recent rise of women’s MMA with fighters such as Gina Carano, Ronda Rousey and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, shows that women are headlining their own major fights and drawing significant interest. If this sport is so much about masculinity, how does it account for women? The mixed reception of women in MMA (ranging anywhere from embrace to outright rejection) further complicates the narrative of gender as a social construction. It is not immediately clear how, exactly, audiences receive women’s MMA fighters. While the narrative might encourage folks to compare masculine and feminine traits in the fighters, the women who fight in MMA get to decide their own branding angle. Some, such as Carano and Rousey, readily accept their status as sex symbols and use it to gain lucrative marketing contracts. Others, such as Amanda Nunes and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, allow their prowess in fighting to define their brand. Rather than viewing it as acting “masculine” or “feminine,” these women are right on the front lines of redefining gender stereotypes and are blazing a new brand of strong, aggressive, popular female athletes.

Can defeating another man in a steel cage match prove masculinity? The answer is sometimes. But how the fight is won, the proficiency of the techniques used and even the number or substance of victories also come into play. After a fighter builds a legacy, there are questions about whether he or she is the “greatest of all time,” making for another level of competition not just in the cage itself but in the historical legacy of a fighter. According to the cage, what does it mean to be a man? The qualities of success in MMA such as strength, perseverance and self-sacrifice are not exclusive to men, but they do provide the backdrop for the man-versus-man fighting that characterizes the sport. Women fighters also must have those qualities to be successful, but it seems to be taking the international community around the sport a bit longer to accept women in those roles. In that way, MMA provides a lens into the way that men perceive masculinity but over time will open up more substantive conversation about women in regards to aggression, strength and violence. The cage requires strength, perseverance and self sacrifice to stand for something more than personal achievement, but unlike team sports playing for the rest of the team, MMA seems to leave that ultimate purpose less solidly defined for each fighter to determine on his or her own.

Gregory Jones is a cultural historian and online instructor. He writes about the Civil War, sports history and music history. He is the author of How to Read a Civil War Letter (2015).

Photo: Matthew WalshEast718 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.0], from Wikimedia Commons