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.