July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
At times I wonder how I ever got involved in MMA. I was never a violent kid. I did not pick fights, and I never bullied anyone. In fact, I found myself trying to protect or help others more often than not. I’d say I’ve always had a strong sense of justice and an appreciation for fair competition. Maybe that is something I learned from my father, who was an amateur boxer. Perhaps that is what drew me toward individual, one-on-one sports like amateur wrestling. Be that as it may, somehow I eventually wound up in a sport as violent as mixed-martial-arts. One would think that this type of activity would attract those who have been prone to get into fights their whole lives. Judging by my own experience and having known many of the best fighters in the world, I think that perception, for the most part, is wrong.When I started, the rules were not quite standardized yet, and the sport had not completely been sanitized for mainstream consumption. It was a bizarre subculture on the fringes of society, with fewer safeguards and regulations that were interpreted more loosely. Fights were either in smaller venues, or overseas. My competitive career started in those days, and it spanned the exploding popularity of MMA as the sport gained public acceptance, largely due to the efforts of the Ultimate Fighting Championships and the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter exposing the sport to a much wider audience. This, of course, had its benefits, and I was fortunate to witness the process. A larger audience translates to larger venues, and in turn larger paychecks for fighters. And, of course, there is the added glitz and glamor that comes with more exposure.
In the early days, MMA seemed to be something reserved for a few fanatical enthusiasts who were driven to pursue it by some strange compulsion, without regard for fame or financial rewards. Sometimes I think longingly of the days when being involved in MMA was still quite shocking, and often misunderstood by the general public. Now that MMA fights are routinely televised and every street-corner seems to have an MMA gym, being involved in the fight game doesn’t quite pack the same punch. MMA is becoming passe, perhaps the victim of over-exposure.
We seem to pay less attention to the fact that the main product of MMA continues to be violence. Better regulation may have improved safety, nonetheless, MMA continues to be a brutal contest of hand-to-hand combat. No, it is no longer the ‘spectacle’ of old with ‘no rules.’ It is a legitimate sport with appropriate safety measures, and that is how I (and most of the general public) prefer it. It is a test of talent and expertise, and competition at elite levels can be beautiful to the appreciative eyes of an aficionado. But it is a sport in which the winner is determined by imposing his will on his opponent through physical violence. The bottom line is inflicting as much damage and dominance as it takes to earn victory.
I am not the first fighter to ask what drove me to be involved in a sport where I was locked into a cage with another man, almost always bigger than I, and always intent on beating me to a pulp or until the referee put a stop to it. I’m not the best known, nor the first to question my own motivation. Others, such as author and retired fighter Mark Tullius, have been asking themselves that same question. My fighting career was but a footnote in the encyclopedia of mixed-martial-arts. I do not claim to speak for others, or to reveal the secret thread that unites and distinguishes those who are cut out to be fighters from the rest. I can only try to answer the question for myself.
Sometimes when I find myself asking that question, I’m also wondering whether I could take another fight. It’s not that I have anything to prove in the sport. I never set out to be a world champion; I simply wanted to see how far I could go, with what little talent I had and without using any performance enhancing drugs. A championship would have been icing on the cake, but I am just fine without it. I am proud of what I achieved on little more than willpower and hard work. Although I am comfortable with my decision to hang up the gloves, every now and then I get the itch to step back into the cage. To be honest, I probably could, but not at the level where I was when I retired. That is one reason why I will not do it. On the other hand, the reasons why part of me would like to fight again are probably the same reasons why I got involved in the sport in the first place.
For one, there is something seductive about the primal simplicity of the sport; not in terms of technique, which can be intricate, to be sure, but in the manner of contest. In every other sport, victory is a metaphor for dominance determined by an arbitrary system of awarding points. In MMA victory equals physical dominance. We say “I beat you” when we win in sports, but this only rings true in the combatives, most especially in MMA.
But, there is more to it than this. Although I hesitate to admit it, I find myself coming to the inevitable conclusion that another reason for my involvement in MMA was pain, pure and simple. Rather, it is the fear of pain, and the need to confront it. I never took joy in inflicting pain, but I took pride in my ability to withstand it. Fighters have to learn to deal with pain and fear. Channeling these twin serpents to positive use can be difficult, but a task toward which I feel I was drawn.
Finally, I think those who have fought in the cage have experienced something few of us ever have, and many of us do not care to. Of course, this is true on a physical level, but I mean something more. Rather, I think MMA provides a sort of existential liberation, where the cage represents the comfortable boundary of the norms and restrictions of society, and the fight is a glimpse of something as close as one can get to true freedom; as thrilling and dangerous as the state of nature from which compacts of social organization begot ordered systems of civilization. In some ways, the audience is locked into the cage and the fighters are outside its confines.
Without a doubt, the predictability of order is the preferred path for the long haul. But it is not without tension, and maybe MMA offers a fleeting moment of controlled release. I should point out that there is generally no anger toward an opponent in an MMA fight. The emotions are kept in check and squeezed out by a total concentration on the task of combat. I imagine this can be likened to a meditative state, and perhaps I only exaggerate slightly when I liken it to a fighter’s version of Nirvana. A return to this blissful freedom of primitive violence can be the most tempting siren’s song, especially when I am frustrated by some situation that is as arbitrary and illogical as it is unalterable, because that is just the way it is. Such situations tend to arise more frequently in the complicated world of social order than the simple brutality of combat. Nowadays, I opt for other diversions such as a good book, working out, or perhaps karaoke. But in the back of my mind, I still hear the faint call, accompanied by the vague feeling that I still have some things left to beat out of me.
Maybe I’ll figure it out one day, or maybe it will pass. Meanwhile, I’m learning to code, and trying to put my law degree to use, when I’m not teaching philosophy…