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MMA and the Hardcore Fringe of American Culture

(My inner child, consumed with rage.)

One of the things I like to do in my spare time is read the internet and get mad. I honestly love it, to the point where it’s a shockingly poor use of my time. But I can’t deny that there’s a pleasure in indulging in the viewpoints of others that drive me absolutely insane, sometimes more so than reading opinions that I already agree with. I stumbled on to a gem yesterday by Jamie Samuelsen of the Detroit Free Press, who managed to say almost nothing that I agreed with in a relatively short article about why MMA “won’t catch on to the mainstream.”

Here’s one of my favorite lines of reasoning from Samuelsen, who explains that while people tell him MMA is increasing in popularity, he doesn’t see it happening:

I don’t see the roots of the MMA. I don’t see it inherently in our culture. It’s a fascination, but it’s certainly not a participation sport. “Yeah, I do a little cage-fighting in my spare time. Let’s go see how the big boys do it.” I went to a UFC event at the Joe in 1996 when the sport was really picking up steam and was supposed to be the next big thing. Twelve years later, the sport has certainly grown. But has it grown to the extent that it was supposed to have. Yes it’s bigger, but I don’t think it’s that much bigger.

I bring this up not to bash Samuelsen’s viewpoint, but because it’s a fairly new criticism of MMA. We’re used to the human cockfighting angle, but this — this claim that it’s not rooted in our culture and not “a participation sport” — is something different, and something worth responding to.

The first thing I’d like to ask Samuelsen is, of the successful sports in America, how many of them are true participation sports? Take the NFL, for example. How many members of the NFL’s loyal fanbase are strapping it up and playing tackle football on the weekends? Some may be playing in a recreational flag league, others might play some touch football in the front yard two weekends a year, and a great many probably get winded just playing Madden. Yet somehow, it doesn’t hurt the NFL’s popularity.

There may not be all that many people going out and actually “cage fighting”, but plenty of people do some recreational grappling or kickboxing, and plenty more just love to watch it even if they know about as much about applying an armbar as the average NFL fan knows about how a 3-4 defense works. Participation in a given sport is not and never has been a prerequisite for being a fan of that sport.

Even if it were, at what level do you have to participate? Does high school wrestling count? How about brawling with your brother in the front yard? Fighting is a unique kind of sport in that you’ve probably witnessed it or participated in it without a whole lot of premeditation, unlike signing up for intramural softball. Which brings us to the next point: the cultural roots of MMA.

To say that MMA has no cultural roots in America is to say that unarmed combat for the purpose of sporting competition has no roots in America, and that’s clearly not true. Americans have loved boxing for well over a century. They continue to love wrestling, both the real kind and the WWE kind. Jiu-Jitsu academies have been cropping up everywhere in the last fifteen years, which is a testament to the fact that when it comes to fighting, we’re perfectly willing to embrace something new and awesome.

It isn’t like soccer or cricket, which requires learning a whole new set of rules and aesthetics in order to appreciate it. Fighting is something that everyone understands. Americans love violence almost as much as they love sports. Why wouldn’t the two go to together?

But a love for violence and competition in its purest form isn’t just a part of American culture; it’s a part of human culture. We are inherently prone to violent struggle. This is a large part of what’s wrong with us, but when channeled into a sport — where qualities like mutual respect, sportsmanship, and fair play are prized — it can become emblematic of what’s best about us. That’s the cultural intersection of MMA that Samuelsen is missing.

It’s not that we need all of America to become MMA fans. We absolutely don’t. Combat sports will never appeal to everyone. But to deny that MMA has tapped into something latent in our culture is to stick your head in the sand. That’s your right, in a peculiar way, and I’m almost glad to see people exercising it. It gives me something to get riled up about, and the opportunity to explain why you’re wrong.

(-Ben Fowlkes)

Cagepotato Comments

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Tertio- July 30, 2008 at 11:02 am
Ben should be lobying for MMA.
SiDeBuRnZ- July 30, 2008 at 4:44 am
underground = less money coming in = less draw for potentially awesome fighters to compete and develop....

popularity's the way to go...
My 2 cents- July 29, 2008 at 11:02 pm
Do we really want MMA to go mainstream? Every thing I have ever liked has been ruined once it got popular--hip hop, MTV, NBA, NFL, Lindsay Lohan, Crocs, the list goes on. I think keeping MMA underground is the best possible scenario for the sport and the fans.
Fedor Emelianenko DVD- July 29, 2008 at 10:49 pm
There always will be those who won't stop whining and will try to convince everyone else of their faulty worldview. Who cares what this guy thinks? MMA has grown leaps and bounds since its inception and keeps gaining momentum as we speak. All sports besides classical Olympian ones have shared similar path to mainstream acceptance. Hopefully it won't be long until MMA makes it to the top of the list of world's most recognizable and respected sports.
Who Cares- July 29, 2008 at 10:30 pm
I grew up watching boxing and i will admit the first time i watched a UFC ppv (UFC 6) i was kind of thrown off. i was only 12 years old at the time and from Tank Abbot knocking out someone in 18 secs and 5 out of the 10 fights ending in chokes (yes i had to look that up my memory isn't that good) i just didn't get it. I thought "all they do is roll around on the ground and choke eachother", Or they were like Tank and just threw punches till someone fell down. But hey i got to see Ken Shamrock choke out Dan Severn.

But my point is, it took a few more PPVs and after watching more fights with grappling. I started to pick up on more of the terminology and the actual art of ground fighting. Then i became a real MMA fan when i realized it wasn't just two guys hugging each other going for chokes. Journalists and TV analysts who only understand boxing are probably going to never get MMA until you sit them down and explain to them what they are watching. Unfortunately there is still alot of closed minded people who won't give it a chance.
Rumbler- July 29, 2008 at 9:45 pm

But really, well done.
Dex- July 29, 2008 at 9:40 pm
This guy is talking about how this sport hasn't grown that much since 1996, he's basically shorting the sprot like 9 years. Until Bonner/Griffin 1 the sport didn't have legs at all. ALL the growth in MMA has came in the last 3 years. From an obscure reality show to the #1 PPV event in the world. In just 3 years.

So instead of trying to span MMA's growth over 10 years, it's really a 3 year time frame, a big difference.
Golfreisen- July 29, 2008 at 8:27 pm
I have great faith in fools; My friends call it self-confidence.EdgerAllenPoeEdger Allen Poe
mando5150- July 29, 2008 at 8:19 pm
Right on Ben. I would also add that the most popular video games are fighting and war games both of which the general populace never participates in. Keep up the good site.
Becks75- July 29, 2008 at 7:11 pm
Really good read. And honestly, Ben, your site is easily becoming not only my favorite MMA-site but one of my favorite blogs in general.
Keep up the good work, mate. Greets from Germany.
Xamot- July 29, 2008 at 6:38 pm
It's ironic that even with the term "Martial Arts" in the godamn acronym (MMA) that people keep insisting that the sport is seperate from martial arts and boxing.
Bdizzle- July 29, 2008 at 6:36 pm
The Article was great until the humanity speech came in. Ben you have very great views, just know that the 'Mainstream" is the problem and promotes violence. It is already mainsteam it is on TV anyways. LOL.

Mainstream = The main flow of the world.

If Violence wasn't on TV then would we know about it?

If there was not an internet to give fast flow information, would we know about everything that happens in the world a few minutes after it happens?

These tools are used against us so the sheep in the mainstream have something to believe and read. It is used to keep people distracted from what is really going on in the words and is used as subliminal brainwashing and influence's views to fit the need of the Powers in Control so they can eventually make the police state that we live in a complete prison planet.

I am a MMA practitioner, I have my first amatuer fight in 3 months, I am a business man, I am a leader no matter where I go. I look at people that can have their own opinions and do things for themselves very highly.

All people in this world deserve a chance in life, unplug yourselves from that matrix and when you have a emotion or feeling that is completely uncalled for and you over react to it, ask yourself, did I see these on TV somewhere? 99% of your answer will be yes, you know the power of constantly watching TV then.
Shagen- July 29, 2008 at 5:40 pm
Good article Ben. I think the big difference between MMA and other sports, is that no one hates baseball or football. You'll never hear from people that are not into a sport, but if they hate it you'll get an ear full.
Bootylam!- July 29, 2008 at 5:39 pm
Every time I hear about MMA going "mainstream" the first thing I think is "Do we want that?". There is already a good strong fan base and what we need to do is turn boxing only fans into MMA fans and go on from there. Mainstream just means more corporate bull. Also try to introduce the ladies to it because my wife, sisters, mom, and even mom in law all like MMA. Hell, show almost any woman a St. Pierre fight and watch how quick they become fans. And if participation mattered at all then there would be no X-Games, soccer, hockey, or baseball. [At least not in America...FUCK YEAH!!!]
darren- July 29, 2008 at 5:17 pm
Samelsen got a verbal whooping!!! Now who wants to kick the shit outta him for real ha ha ha. Ben 1 Jamie big fat 0. Go Ben !!!!!!!
Ronnie Dobbs- July 29, 2008 at 5:13 pm
You mean human cockfighting?
tusker- July 29, 2008 at 5:05 pm
i'm a salesman and a part-time know what i do for fun, Mr. Samelsen? that's right, i fight in a cage. right now i have a ruptured eardrum thanks to a Cro Cop-style head kick delivered by one of my instructors, and a mashed nosed from a little ground-and-pound session.

i have no aspirations of making it BIG. no plans on heading into the's something i do for fun, same as 90% of the guys and girls in my gym.
mmmiles- July 29, 2008 at 5:01 pm
Well, I agree with him that I think UFC/MMA has only grown as much as I would have expected it to, the fact that it HAS actually grown that much (as opposed to just fading away as a fad) should tell this guy that it is definitely around to stay.
AbsolutMSU- July 29, 2008 at 4:59 pm
First of all, as a Detroiter and loyal Free Press reader I can attest to the fact that Jaime Samuelsen is an idiot and constantly writes poorly researched columns.

My biggest problem is the statement "Yes it’s bigger, but I don’t think it’s that much bigger." Where's your research? Do you have pay per view numbers? Ratings numbers? Attendence numbers? Oh that's right, you just made an entirely off-the-cuff comment with no factual evidence to back it up. Worst of all the statement is contrary to ALL empirical evidence so it further shows his ignorance. This is bad, bad, bad journalism.
norremo- July 29, 2008 at 4:52 pm
CagePotato FTW
ClownBaby- July 29, 2008 at 4:43 pm
great read, the 2nd to last paragraph is easily the best counter argument i've heard in defense of our sport. BF keep spreading the truth to the people!
IA- July 29, 2008 at 4:42 pm
I completely agree with Ben's take on that article. It's completely obvious that Mr. Samuelson didn't think his arguement all the way through. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your view), fighting is a part of human nature and therefore will always be inherently interesting on some level. To quote Dana White: If your walking through a park with a basketball game on one corner, a football game on another corner, and a pick up baseball game on the third corner, and a fight breaks out on the fourth corner, what does everyone stop to watch?
Plain old Kevin- July 29, 2008 at 4:35 pm
Spot on old chap! Heard that in a movie or something and I think it means that you nailed it like Tito nails Jenna! WOOT! HOORAH!
Yep- July 29, 2008 at 4:25 pm
Don't forget about boxing either. Everyone loves a good slugfest of a boxing match and I would venture to say 95% of the people have never strapped on the gloves.