The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Should Socialists Accept Mixed Martial Arts?

What do American Trotskyist James P. Cannon, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Republican John McCain all have in common? They despise Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). To be fair, the first two spoke primarily about boxing, as MMA is a much more recent sports phenomenon. The connection, however, is apparent.

As commentator Donald Walter explains: “Since the sport of mixed martial arts was first introduced to the United States in 1993, it has been the subject of much heated political debate. The opponents of mixed martial arts have leveled numerous arguments against the sport, and under the leadership of Arizona Senator John McCain, they even succeeded in forcing the sport from national pay-per-view carriers, and convinced several states to ban the sport.”

For four years, from 1997 to 2001, MMA was on a dangerous precipice, until the UFC, with new regulations and under new ownership, came onto the scene. Still, representatives of various political tendencies, in the past and today, maintain a vehement stance against competitive fighting.

Perhaps most unfortunate was the stance of radical socialist James Cannon, who, commenting on the accidental death of a boxer, proclaimed:

“It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from the dunghill… Cock-fighting is illegal… But our civilization…has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are part of our highly touted way of life”.

In his Green Book, Qaddafi rides the same horse: “Boxing and wrestling are evidence that mankind has not rid itself of all savage behavior. Inevitably it will come to an end when humanity ascends the ladder of civilization.”

And, finally, “maverick” Republican, ex-presidential candidate John McCain, who ironically even claimed to box previously in the Naval Academy, followed Cannon’s comparison and in the 1990’s declared that MMA was “human cock-fighting” and “appeals to the lowest common denominator in our society.”

Aside from the sheer elitism on display, this is the same POW who advocates torture for prisoners and horrifically violent wars that have killed thousands and displaced millions.

Since then, however, attempts in various states to pass bills outlawing MMA have been made. Although mostly unsuccessful, this assault on the world’s fastest growing sport should ring an alarm for anyone who respects the right for people to control their own lives and bodies.

Competitive MMA should be recognized as a legitimate sport, regardless of the rhetoric surrounding opportunistic attacks on it. Aside from the fact that it is, in comparison with other sports, relatively safe (one would be hard pressed to find deaths in relation to sanctioned and regulated MMA competition), the training required to participate in MMA has gotten millions across the country who emulate the professionals to not only better their own physical shape, but learn valuable self-defense skills while they are at it.

This does not mean that the business of MMA is not to be criticized. UFC is synonymous with MMA, like the NFL to football. Shady contracts, low pay, lack of control over fight decisions, complete ownership of the fighter’s image, and rigid hierarchical control over the competitive lives of fighters by the owners of UFC, and the figurehead Dana White, are unfortunate aspects of the game, to say the least. Various fighters have already found themselves at odds with the near monopoly UFC has become in the past few years.

Another important aspect of MMA is the cross-section of fans that partake in it; Black and White, young and old, male and female. It is a worldwide phenomenon, one which millions of people in countries ranging from the U.S. to Russia, Brazil to Japan, eagerly and enthusiastically partake in.

Heroes arise from places where utter poverty and deprivation is common. While individualistic solutions to collective problems provide no serious answer or model for society to follow, MMA can provide outlets for kids who may otherwise be involved in self-destructive activity. And, to a select few, it provides the opportunity to rise out of poverty completely.

Such is the case of the well known Anderson Silva, from Curatiba, Brazil. Silva, who is now recognized as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, holds the Middleweight title belt and has made a huge incursion into the Light Heavyweight division, and holds the record for most consecutive UFC victories (ten) was once an office manager working at McDonald’s. Obviously, it would be credulous to think this model can be followed by everyone, or even a significant portion of the hopeful MMA fighters.

Still, one should not forget that Muhammad Ali, shaped by the political and economic realities of the 1960’s, captivated American cultural life and was an icon of resistance against American imperialism and racial inequalities. A “violent” sport such as boxing produced one of America’s greatest critics and influential figures in the Black Liberation movement.

One can see the seeds of resistance in some MMA fighters already. Jeff “The Snowman” Monson, an ex-UFC fighter, is a staunch advocate of anarchism and his interviews consistently denounce capitalism, rightfully, as a system of exploitation. Canadian fighter Kalib Starnes, not to pretend he has much potential left as a fighter, lists Noam Chomsky as one of his heroes. Heavy-hitting Houston Alexander, an Omaha, Nebraska native, was a hip-hop pioneer in the area and helped run progressive youth organizations. And the well-known Rashad Evans entered one of his most famous fights, against Chuck Liddell, to the tune "Point of No Return" by the revolutionary, politically charged hip-hop artist Immortal Technique.

This is not to say that there are not problems with how the sport is currently organized. Health problems, injuries, etc. are obviously a possibility in the sport. UFC, for instance, purchases insurance policies for fighters to cover medical costs occurred during the fight (notably not during training, however). As was the case with Tito Ortiz, if a fighter cannot prove without a doubt the injury happened within their fifteen minutes in the cage, they are not covered. This points not necessarily to the dangers of the sport, but instead only strengthens the argument that quality health care should be a right for everyone, including those involved in sports. Until private, profit-seeking insurance companies are replaced by a universal, single-payer system, this will remain a problem.

Other problems, such as the exclusion of women from mainstream MMA organizations (UFC in particular), and the extremely sexist and homophobic culture that penetrates certain elements of the sport exist as well. Yet, these issues are more a reflection of a sexist and homophobic society than anything specific to the sport. Therefore, socially conscious fighters and fans must take this issue up within the sport. However, this cannot be done by simply preaching about its shortcomings from outside.

As far as critiques from the right, these are easy to explain. McCain and his pals in congress use MMA as a PR tool; looking tough on what you pejoratively label “violent” or “unrespectable” behavior apparently boosts moral character within conservative circles. It is an attack on not only youth, who are increasingly attracted to the sport, but to working class people in general, “the lowest common denominator,” who enjoy watching, training, and participating in MMA.

For those on the left, like Cannon, the explanation is harder. While it is easy to understand his sentiments, that men (or women) are put into a cage or ring to inflict pain on one another for the profit of a select few seems despicable, we should not forget that everything that functions under the profit motive appears in a similiar way. Exploitation of labor is the basis upon which the system functions. It is disgusting the way immigrant workers are forced into low-wage, high-risk meat packing plants, how teachers are being forced to work on merit pay or teach to standardized tests. This does not mean there is fundamentally anything wrong with packing meat for consumption or teaching children. Instead, the blame should not be on the shadow, but the system.

Anyone who believes at all in human dignity would agree that the people who go out and get punched in the face should get the money they generate with their labor, rather than the person who simply happens to own the company they fight for. As it stands right now, MMA fighters are some of the lowest paid in the sporting community, despite enormous growth in profits over the past decade. Yes, this is exploitation. Yes, fighters deserve a much greater share of the money coming in.

Exploitation of fighters is a result of the way the sport is set up, and one should not assume this is the way it will always remain. Two people who enter into a mutual contract, knowing the risks, having properly prepared and trained for the task, in competitive sportsmanship, should have every right to engage each other in a bout. Nothing, fundamentally, is wrong with this. MMA is not cock-fighting or dog-fighting, humans consciously make the decision to compete.

Socialists and leftists who promote the idea that human-beings should be able to control our own bodies and lives should find no qualm with the sport, despite the shortcomings of how the establishment is currently structured.

EDIT: Not long after I wrote this, a piece was written on boxing by perhaps the best political sports writer around. Although it deals with boxing deaths (and almost universally it is agreed boxing is more dangerous than MMA), the fundamental principles which he explicates are the same and are easily applied to the world of Mixed Martial Arts:

We need to confront everything that's rotten in boxing. Right now there is no commissioner and no governing authority. There are no unions, and there is no collective bargaining on behalf of fighters. There is no health care, no mental health treatment and no one watching out for those who suffer from the debilitating effects of brain damage and its conjoined twin, depression.
Read more here: Boxing's Month from Hell

1 comment:

  1. My belief is that Traditional Martial Arts will beat Mixed Martial Arts. Martial art is really good exercise for human body. So don't take it only as fighting technique because it can boost your body and mind. Must see this mixed martial arts

    ReplyDelete

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