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MMA’s Last Taboo: Sexual Abuse and the Sport’s Silent Victims

(“The reason I put it into the book is there are a lot of people that have a secret like this…and if that’s weighing you down, then get rid of it.” / Frank Shamrock on his own experience with sexual abuse)

By Brian J. D’Souza

The storylines emerging from the latest all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter are the usual potpourri of banal tripe: Angela Hill passes gas; Felice Herrig is disliked by her cast mates; Carla Esparaza has a crush on Urijah Faber, and so forth.

As much as the search for the UFC’s first flyweight champion should make headlines, there’s a darker undertone to the proceedings that Oprah Winfrey would be much more suited to handle than FOX media personality Karyn Bryant—the issue of sexual abuse and how it relates to MMA.

Outside of mentions like former UFC champion Frank Shamrock revealing he’d been sexually abused in his groundbreaking autobiography Uncaged, overall, there has been little or no press on MMA athletes who have been sexually abused. The moratorium on coverage might be because MMA is a relatively new sport; it might be because journalists feel uncomfortable asking these kinds of personal questions or it may be an attempt to protect the victims. Either way, the decision to open up lies solely with the athletes.

Athletes in other combat sports, like boxing, have talked openly about their experiences with sexual abuse. Prior to the 2012 Olympics, USA Boxing president Hal Adonis caused a massive ripple effect when he was quoted in the New Yorker as saying “Half of our girls have been molested; half of our girls are gay,” of the US women’s boxing team.

While Adonis faced widespread condemnation and was suspended for two years in the wake of his insensitive and politically incorrect comments, several Team USA female boxers have told their stories of personal tragedy: lightweight Queen Underwood spoke about being molested by her father to the New York Times in February 2012; flyweight Tyrieshia Douglas told the New Yorker that she’d been beaten and raped in foster care; middleweight Claressa Shields—the only US boxer to win a gold medal at the 2012 games—revealed to Essence magazine that she’d been raped by a family acquaintance as a child.

Male boxers who have opened up about their stories are also not short in number. Retired Australian professional boxer Paul Briggs, who challenged for the WBC light heavyweight title twice, revealed that he’d been raped as a child in his 2005 autobiography Heart, Soul, Fire. “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Micky Ward and Mike Tyson also recount incidents of sexual abuse or transgressions of their personal boundaries in their respective autobiographies. This is by no means a definitive list of victims—just the handful brave enough to come forward with their stories, most having done so long after they retired from the fight game.

MMA does have advocates willing to address the issue of sexual abuse. For example, In 2008, then-US judo Olympic hopeful Ronda Rousey was vocal about criticizing the lack of action by USA Judo over the molestation allegations surrounding USA Judo official Fletcher Thornton, which were were detailed in sworn affidavits. Feeling the heat, Thornton resigned two weeks before the 2008 Olympic games.

For her part, Rousey knew that there could have been blowback to her judo career had she chosen an earlier time to speak out. “I felt it was the right thing to do, and I had already made the Olympic team, so there was nothing anyone could do to me,” Rousey told Maggie Hendricks from Yahoo!.

Depression is a common symptom associated wtih sexual abuse, with some victims attempting or committing suicide. It does need to be said that symptoms of depression can also be the result of mental illness with no link or connection to any abuse; this is evident in Ernest Hemingway’s family tree, with at least seven members of his family including the literary great himself having committed suicide.

Other consequences for victims of sexual abuse can include feelings of shame and stigma. This is a potent sanction against speaking out that is often counterproductive. Silence over crime inhibits personal healing, the justice system and aiding the next generation of victims.

The glaring reality of MMA is that the sport continues to get a bad rap for purportedly being a barbaric spectacle, designed merely for audience pleasure and profits with little regard for the health and safety of the combatants involved. Promotions have a mandate to spearhead campaigns to garner positive press and avoid controversial topics that could lead to further negative coverage—like the sexual assault scandals surrounding BJJ black belt Lloyd Irvin or MMA fighters Hermes Franca and Mike Whitehead.

The last time the UFC was involved in a hard-hitting segment on a mainstream American talk show was when UFC president Dana White and fighters Kenny Florian and Forrest Griffin appeared on Oprah spin-off Dr. Phil to talk about youths involved in street fighting.

“In the 20 year history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship…there has never been a death or serious injury,” White proudly pontificates.

Fatalities in MMA are extremely rare, but what’s hidden beneath the surface is the scar tissue within each fighter’s psyche. Training and competing in combat sports may have therapeutic value, but it is not a long-term solution. Often, we see fighters self-destruct in the public eye as the limelight is fading away—but more often than not, athletes suffer in silence without ever getting any kind of treatment.

The issue needs to surface in the near future. Not as a marketing tool to sell pay-per-views or to generate viewer interest in MMA’s athletes—but as a personal truth revealed in order to erase social stigma associated with abuse, help others deal with their predicament and avert future tragedies from occurring.

After all, there will always be opportunities for sports glory. There will not always be a chance to change lives.


Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the critically acclaimed book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.

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