Chris Uggen's Blog: ufc and <i>the old ultraviolence</i>

Monday, October 16, 2006

ufc and the old ultraviolence

given my pop culture avocations, people can't understand why i've never plugged into the cable. just when i think i really need cnn or comedy central, however, i flip channels in a hotel room and see something too horrible for words. such is the case with [warning: the following link is brutal] ultimate fighting.

i raise the issue because i spoke this weekend with an intelligent young woman who attended a pay-per-view UFC event with her boyfriend. when i asked what she liked about it, she pointed to "passion" and the faces of the participants. dang. they'd get as much passion and intensity watching a good guitar face at the local bar.

but she's not alone, and that's got me worried. ultimate fighting is outdrawing the baseball playoffs among males age 18-34. is this the state of american masculinity in 2006? i'll summarize a spike tv bout i saw while traveling this summer: palooka A knocks palooka B into chain-link fence, straddles B's chest, and pounds face until some savagery threshold is crossed (unconsciousness? a two-quart blood rule?), whereupon A is declared the victor. i've seen more civilized fights in prison yards.

after one has physically dominated an opponent, doesn't man law dictate mercy? or is mercy the crucial distinction between ultimate fighting and plain vanilla penultimate fighting? somewhere along the line i picked up the idea that a man doesn't continue hitting or kicking a fallen opponent into unconsciousness, or immobilize him and then cave in his face with elbow shots.

i admit that i'm the wrong guy to cluck about this, given my own conflicted history with violence. among my edumacated friends, i'm a lonely defender of disciplined and attenuated violent forms such as football, rugby, and wrestling -- and i continue to applaud my significantly larger lad's participation in such activities. if anything, he's learned discipline and control in these sports. to my knowledge, at least, he has yet to throw a punch in anger.

i lost my stomach for boxing after boom-boom mancini v. duk-koo kim, but i'll admit that i've probably participated in more violence than most sociologists or criminologists. on the other hand, with the possible exception of murray straus, i also watch far less of it than any sociologist or criminologist i know. i've simply got no time for the phony played-out bloodfests by scorcese and tarantino. i'll grant you that straw dogs, mean streets, and clockwork may have had something important to say. but thirty years later i'm amazed that critics, most of whom have neither thrown nor taken a punch, still lap up the same old tired movie tropes as authentic.

i work hard as a criminologist because i want a little more justice and a whole lot less violence in the world. for me, real violence is only interesting in the way that hiv/aids and earthquakes are interesting. but that's a rant for another day. ultimate fighting strikes me as straight-up pornography, perhaps a step or two below cockfighting on the debasement scale. as long as i've got kids in the house and comcast is pushing UFC (and, frankly, i could throw goodfellas and reservoir dogs in there as well), they'll just have to make do without me. i see an ugly human transaction whenever two human beings come to blows, made all the uglier by money and spectators.


At 1:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I counted all the things I don't like on cable I wouldn't get it either, but I get it for the things I do like. Just like I wouldn't avoid a restaurant for hating things on their menu - I'd still go if I liked some things.

A bit off-topic, yes, but your opening drew me in.

At 3:25 AM, Anonymous valerio said...

the winner of the most recent ultimate fighting tournament (PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute) that is seen by most as the no. 1 ultimate fighting event in the world is a croatian guy mirko filipovic. but the interesting thing is that he is in one of the two main croatian political parties, and he has a seat in the parliament! as he is very popular in the country, i guess every party wanted him to join its ranks. that's populism, and it's wrong.

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Mike W. said...

I respect both your decision to not purchase cable and your dislike for mized martial arts.

I don't disagree with them, as I used to despise MMA for the exploitation inherent in it (like boxing, if you aren't in the main event, you probably have a side job so you can pay your bills); moreover, I preferred pro wrestling because it's predetermined nature meant wrestlers don't perform with the intent of rendering their opponent unconscious long enough to be declared the victor.

I have started watching UFC recently, more because pro wrestling these days is stripped of anything resembling athletic 'competition,' and more closely resembles a moving issue of Maxim magazine, replete with toilet humor and abundant sexuality. I suppose I just need my masculine fix.

I won't try to justify MMA by discussing how "controlled" or "safe" it is; that's a load at any rate, and doesn't change the nature of the competition: to harm another person into submission or unconsciousness. As a matter of fact, the brutality hit me a few weeks ago, as I saw my wife's cousin lose a fight on television (he's in a small upstart on Fox Sports). He was no longer "Palooka A" the way so many others were, and each blow he took was no longer a sport, in my mind: it was someone harming, quite successfully, someone I knew.

At any rate, I appreciate and hold your viewpoint (even as I engage in some cognitive consonance work so that I can enjoy the next fight). I remain nauseated, however, by video productions like "Bumfights," however. Like your apprehension for MMA, I'm not certain whom I am more bothered by: the producers or consumers of this kind of culture.

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Lars (aka C. Murray, aka the guy without a jacket in the cold) said...

I've been facinated by boxing and MMA for a while. I think there are a couple issues to consider when consuming these types of sports. And I think boxing is a way easier case to deal with than MMA.

I think there are two issues, one trying to account for the appeal of these events for participants and the other for spectators.

AS for the first, I think we spectators dismiss the the skill involved, especially boxing. Not only do these guys train hard and have a high pain threshold, boxing (and to some extent, MMA, I bet) is a lot of skill. This isn't just swinging fists and outrage, good boxers can think well in advance of what they are doing now. I think fans of boxing are attracted to this (which passive spectators miss). For the athletes, then, this isn't bloodlust or stupidity, but real competition. Of course, I think this might be an easier case to make for boxing than MMA, but I am willing to bet that this holds across the two.

Second, why do we like wathcing these violent events? Again, I think boxing fans like the chess like quality over the gladiator like quality. But what explains our fascination with blood and gore? This I have a much harder time understanding and hope to do so. My own guess (and its just a guess, I am unconvinced of this myself) is that the appeal hinges on the contrast of this violence between being reasonable without being rational. Such violence, inflicting it or suffering it isn't rational; but it is reasonable. There is a reason why that guy is getting is face mashed up. It might not be a good reason, but it is a reason. But it isn't rational.

I wonder if we like this because such things are hard to process. I wonder if we assume that being reasonable and being rational are one in the same, and things like this are hard to understand.

At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sociological reasons for violence may differ from why people actually enjoy violent behaviors. Sociology seems to believe the niave assumption that humans are blank slates whose actions are determined by social norms.

Given the tons of studies on mice and humans linking aggression with the fight/flight response in biology, I think you almost have to take into account biology as a force behind things we deem socially violent. I would argue Chris' thoughts are dillusional in having a zero tolerance for violence. The Romans probably had a closer approximation to how humans actually behave. Maybe if we had a higher tolerance for violence, there wouldn't be so much crime in society.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Mike W. said...

I urge anonymous #2 to clarify that last sentence. Now, logically, if we tolerated more violence, we would have less crime by virtue of what would be categorized as crime. Sure.

If we had a higher threshold for tolerating violence, then perhaps domestic abuse would just be something that happened on Super Bowl Sunday, instead of being a criminal offense. I suppose, if that's what you're arguing, you have a point.

I don't think that's the case, however. Please clarify what you're trying to say.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Radio Free Newport said...

Excellent post. I find UFC and the like to be appalling. I don't know a lot of folks who like UFC, but debates with the ones who do usually end up with them telling me to stop being a [pick one or more: liberal, politically correct, overly sensitive, lame, girly] wuss.

The worst are the people who try to rationalize it on some intellectal grounds. Just admit you like seeing men beat the tar out of each other, because there is no explanation. (It reminds me of folks who, upon learning I'm a vegetarian, go into extended rationalizations for why they eat meat. Which is odd, because I never criticize others and rarely talk about it. My favorite is my friend who just says, "You're an idiot, I like steak.")

Interesting timing on this because I stumbled across the post below earlier today at CinWeekly, Cincinnati's mainstream, Gannett-owned weekly. One of their writers was following a UFC guy for a story. She was filming the match this weekend when said palooka was knocked unconscious and then beaten some more for good measure. Neat.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Radio Free Newport said...

One more mpte about why this stuff bothers me. My wife and I were camping in Oregon last month. A 13-year-old kid from the next campsite saw us reading and came over to talk about books with us. It's a long story, but the short version is that he's a very bright working class kid, and his mother is struggling to find a job. When he grows up he wants to be either a fiction writer or...a UFC fighter. Broke my heart.

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Lars said...

I will concede that I like watching grown men beat the hell out of each other, but, given that, it doesn't explain much. As a sociologist, that answer doesn't work. We don't admit that, to use another previous example, that some poeple "just like" slapping their wives around. We admit that there is some reason why and we try to explain it.

So, if boxing and MMA are barbaric, which they may be, what leverage do we get from avoiding "intellectual" explanations for it? If some people are "just that way" with their preferences, we can't hope to change them. We might coerce them, but we can't change them.

Maybe Prof. Uggen can speak to this, because the argument sounds similar to how we treat some kinds of criminals, offenders, what have you. The imbezzler is someone we can reform and change, but the sex offender is a sex offender is a sex offender and there is no understanding needed because there is no understanding to be had.

But, I don't know. I don't know.

At 7:51 PM, Anonymous chris said...

i'll admit that this was more of a visceral/moral than an analytical/intellectual argument, but that seems strangely appropriate with this subject. a few reactions to the comments:

anon1, i agree, at least to a point. if i didn't have kids in the house, i might change my tune. on the other hand, if they were regularly broadcasting rapes and executions, i think a lot of us would boycott. i draw the line at ufc, but certainly wouldn't expect others to cut the cable.

valerio, does this mean that twenty-first century political life can be reduced to "my prime minister can beat up your prime minister?" if so, my department would be in *big* trouble with me as chair.

mike, i understand the attraction/repulsion. i *did* sit through a whole bout myself, despite my overarching objections.

lars, i learned the hard way about the skills of a good boxer. i was shocked at the speed and explosiveness -- and at my own molasses-slow inability to even raise my arms to defend myself. that said, lots of criminals have skills (e.g., as arsonists, con artists) but i wouldn't want to subsidize their activities.

anon2, i wouldn't advocate zero tolerance for violence. it certainly has its uses (e.g., self-defense). that's why i added the caveat about "disciplined and attenuated forms." i just see ufc as a step in the wrong direction.

newport, there's likely a big class/power angle to this. i was really affected by rod serling's requiem for a heavyweight about a punch-drunk boxer when i was about 13. maybe your budding writer will come across it and change his mind about a fight career.

lars2, the scariest part of ufc is that it is real and therefore that it lacks the cartoonish laughing-up-our-sleeves quality of pro wrestling. you're right that we *need* intellectual explanations for the practice. like newport, however, i'm put off by intellectual rationalizations of it as "high art." both combatants are volunteers, yes, but it still feels to me like paying to watch a rape or a soldier's torture. as an observer, it left me feeling weaker and less connected with other human beings. [unlike, say, the minnesota twins' playoff run, which left me feeling more connected to the players and the larger community]. i also felt real (violent?) anger toward those who enjoy and profit from it. do they have any idea what it feels like to have their heads smashed against the ground? at the risk of stating the obvious, it hurts. it really, really hurts. and, sometimes, people never recover from such beatings.

ah, well. i warned you that i wasn't making an intellectual argument. i just think the world needs fewer ugly human transactions and this activity struck me as particularly ugly.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Lars said...

Prof, Uggen and all-

I feel as if I've backed myself into defending UFC as as high art, which it most definitely is not. I hope the "spirit" of really trying to understnad what is going on here is preserved, despite my amateurish presentation. I guess I will make the distinction I tried to avoid, between boxing and MMA, and withing boxing between amateur boxing and professional fighting.


At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think you miss one of the key reasons that UFC blew up in the first place: before it was "spike-ified" (back in the day of pay-per-view only) the UFC established that all the high-falutin, kung fu, ancient-chinese-secret b.s. was just that. Amazingly, THE fighting style that dominates all others amounts to little more than "wrastle opponent to ground and squeeze with legs until he cries uncle (or passes out)." The early UFC was accordingly dominated by the Gracie clan from Brazil, who perfected a kind of ground fighting resting on leg power that COMPELTELY and CONSISTENTLY crushed all competition, in all styles, from Karate to Greco-Roman wrestling, from Western Boxing to bar brawler. Of course, the Gracie style doesn't make for very compelling viewing – the kung fu guy gets tackled and they sort of role around on the floor for a minute or two before kung fu guy cries for his mommy - which is why UFC WAS kind of interesting and important and why it couldn’t last in that form. Line up every bad-a** fighting style, have them go at it, and see what emerges…there WAS some very interesting stuff going on in the early UFC and violence had little to do with it.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger JoannaO said...

Ultimate fighting? How about Abu Ghraib techniques as spectacle? Any connection between beating a man after he's unconscious while other people cheer and having the president sign the torture act? I think there's a continuum of "acceptability" here that sickens me.

At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One issue about ultimate fighting is that violence is non-random. Someone may get their skull bashed in, but its within the accepted parameters of the social activity. Crime has a largely random component. I sometimes wonder if the public would be more tolerant of crime, if all crimes were sanctioned by orgs [cartels, mafia, etc.], but individual criminal acts were strictly controlled. Or if violence could be channeled into social events like gladatorial combat or Ultimate Fighting. If it could somehow get incorporated into the economy, the losses resulting from violence could be turned into economic growth and appropriate compensation. Moral concerns should, of course, be made consistent with rational thought, which may be above sociologists to consider.

At 12:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You guys are full of liberal left wing crap. Every great invention in the world was to take something form some one else or to protect what you have from them.
Every great culture was made by dominating all the other cultures around them. Fighting is the essence of man.
MMA is just a way for guys who’s society won’t let him fight feed his biological need for violence. Its no different than basket ball or football.

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous chris said...

i don't really see the political angle here, anonymous. why do you call these arguments about MMA "liberal left-wing crap" instead of, say, "intellectual crap" or "elitist crap" or "Christian crap?"

At 11:03 PM, Blogger jk said...

he's saying that your full of "liberal left wing crap" because he's a partisan ideologue who views the world in terms of the very limiting doctrines of American "liberalism" and "conservatism" which have been shoved down his throat, and which he has bought into. Because lets face it, thinking critically requires much more effort than simply approaching the world through an ideology (an ideology which, as it would seem, he can't REALLY comprehend, but fuck, what little he can sure sounds good. That and apparently he's bought into the whole evolutionary psychology "explanation" because, "shit, that explains everything!". Again, no need to think critically, it sounds good and it reduces every complicated problem down to human nature (albeit a mythically created one). Not to mention he can throw in some half-ass cereal box knowledge of the great cultures of history without having the slightest clue of any of these cultures. oh the appeal of simplicity! And, maybe he's really got nothing better to do than banter on the internet, were he can't really be held accountable for the shit he spews out. I know, what a tool.

That said, the rest of the comments on here aren't a whole lot better. Let me straighten one thing out to begin with: you are not somehow above the common folk because you have a distaste for mixed martial arts. That is all it is, a distaste. Everyone on here is guilty of enjoying some destructive aspect of society. Be it celebrity idolatry, the cruel, crippling and manipulative standard of beauty, or the social darwinianism of corporate america. Don't bullshit me and tell me your above these things, because deep down you fucking love it. But apparently a couple of guys pounding on each other in a cage certainly makes you uncomfortable. Never mind the countless other acts of violence, both physical as well as emotional. Two guys in a cage is just too much for you. And please don't act if you are above everyone for enjoying the things you see as more sophisticated. Again, it is just your personal taste. Because if that young boy grows up to be a fiction writer and not a fighter, he's just as capable of the same dispicable, destructive tendencies. Shakespeare glamorized the most vile, repulsive social aspects of his time, including hooker, pimps, thieves, drunks, murders, just to name a few. Conrad cultivated a dehumanizing characterization of an entire race of "savages". Fine with you though. As long as its not in your face, and creeps through society via stealth, everythings just peachy. Because lets face it, the less you have to think about these things, the better.

At 5:44 AM, Blogger MMAcademics said...

glad i ran into this post. MMA as a sport has gotten substantially safer in the past 10 years for the athletes. but as the sport has grown in popularity, it has intensified in terms of its negative reach to audiences that are obviously largely male. its blatantly sexist and homophobic messages, which generally conform to the various standards of hegemonic masculinity, are reaching more people.

i've actually competed in a few amateur MMA matches, and was a fan. i'm not too much of a fan anymore, though i still watch it occasionally. when the president of the sport's biggest organization (UFC) can call a female sports reporter a "f'n bi*ch" and an anonymous source a "fa**ot" in a youtube video that he released through his organization's official website, you have to at least question the sport.

i'll concede, the sport is safer than hockey, boxing, gridiron football, rugby, and other collision sports (i can cite stat's on this from studies done by a cohort of professors at johns hopkins). i'll also concede i have a higher threshold for controlled violence in sport (not out of sport) because of my personal athletic background. but the social messages MMA sends are horrible. and the good people in the sport (there are many), are essentially silenced, because violence sells, including verbal violence used in promotional pieces.

still, for those who passionately critique the sport without knowing the little research there is out there on it, you're walking on this ice. you cannot say all or most of the sport's competitors are barbarians. the guy who just won the UFC light heavyweight title is a shotokan karate expert who's been practicing that martial art since he was a little kid, and he preaches non-sporting violence.

the have former olympic wrestlers in there, who don't always win, which shows the elite competitors are in fact elite athletes. they just have a different athletic skill sets than guys in the NBA, NFL, and so on.

and speaking of terms like "guys," there are women involved including women like rosi sexton, who has a 9-1 pro record and a phd in theoretical computer science from manchester university. of course dr. sexton is an unusual case in any sport as far as education goes, but my research has shown that the occupational, educational, and class diversity among the sport's competitors is extensive.

i saw a few commenters question why people get into the sport (as fans or competitors). it's simple sociology, specifically social learning theory. the men i interviewed who competed in MMA grew up being socialized by fathers, uncles, older brothers, etc. to value violence, notably fighting, or combat sports (e.g., judo, wrestling). some talked about loving watching kung fu theater. masculinity's association with different forms of violence is a learned phenomenon, which can manifest in different forms, including fight sport, football, intimate partner violence, gang violence, etc. obviously, what we see here is fight sport socialization, or MMA.

but again, i'd like to close out, the dominant MMA media is horrific and perpetuates very damaging messages about celebrated masculinity.


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