How Can You Watch That Stuff?

Mixed-martial-arts fighters take a terrible beating not only from each other but also from the UFC’s labor practices

During its transition from dystopian freak-show to mainstream sporting event over the past decade, the Ultimate Fighting Championship opened its pay-per-view fight cards with a 20-second montage of a Roman gladiator suiting up in a murky coliseum green room. Strains of opera swelled as the anonymous warrior raised his armored knee from the sand, drew his gilded sword, and walked out toward the light. The screen then cut to a highlight reel of epic knock outs over a Nu-Metal track whose lyrics (“Face the pain no escape can you step to this / Face the pain / Face the pain / Ripping me into pieces”) are burned into the skull of every MMA fan. The intro, meant to indicate the intensity of the sport and the combatants’ macho dedication, unintentionally revealed how UFC  management—and fans—thinks of its fighters. There have been many “noble” images of combat in our long, violent history. The UFC went for the one of an ancient imperial spectacle in which slaves fought to the death.

On April 10, 2010, the UFC held its first (and to date, only) event in Abu Dhabi after Flash Entertainment, a company owned by the emirate, purchased a 10 percent stake in UFC parent company Zuffa. More memorable for fans than the awkward and listless title fight between middleweight champion Anderson Silva and Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Demian Maia was the image of the first five or so rows of the audience. On all sides of the fighters, visible through the cage, were dozens of oil-rich sheiks standing and cheering in traditional formal white dress. It was like watching a live-action Street Fighter.

“Real-life fighting game” is an undeniable aspect of mixed martial arts’ appeal, although it was more so in MMA’s heyday of weight-class-free, no-holds-barred, two-men-enter-one-man-leaves barbarism. The original promise of MMA was that by pitting different martial-arts fighters against one another—jiu-jitsu fighters versus karatekas, wrestlers versus boxers, sumo versus tae kwon do, etc.—you could see which style was truly the greatest. MMA has evolved significantly in its two and a half decades of existence, however, and the one-style fighter no longer stands a chance. There is, instead, a pretty standard toolkit: Most fighters combine a wrestling style of their preference, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, some form of kickboxing (usually Muay Thai), and traditional boxing. The different fighters’ strategic application of their particular style combinations and strengths against the other’s weaknesses builds a potentially massive and entrancing complexity going into the match that is then resolved incredibly simply: with a fight, a winner and a loser.

Despite its evolution into a sport with standardized rules, practices, and safety regulations, MMA has never quite lost its image as death-match-in-a-cage—of “human cockfighting,” as John McCain once famously called it. As a result, many fans and much of the MMA-specific media still take a defensive, reactionary position on the sport’s brutality: It’s not as bad as you think, they’d like to argue. But there is little evidence the sport is less brutal and vicious than boxing or football. One of the sport’s first superstars, former UFC light-heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell, seems pretty clearly to suffer from dementia pugilistica. George St.-Pierre, the greatest welterweight of all time, alluded to sleeplessness, blurred vision, and feelings of going crazy in a postfight press conference in November. If GSP, a fighter (in)famous for avoiding damage in the cage, is experiencing brain damage, then there are likely untold numbers at the sport’s lower levels experiencing similar problems—especially since fighters accumulate most physical wear and tear in the tens of hours of sparring before every fight. Though no one has yet died in an MMA cage, most fans recognize the inevitability of it. Fighter Andre Santos died in September while cutting weight for a match in the Shooto Brazil organization.

How can one be a fan of such a brutal sport? Whether it manifests in the bad-faith apologism described above, or the more sober-minded defense that good writers on the sport feel occasioned to make from time to time, there is something about watching two adults duke it out in a cage for 15 minutes that demands apology, guilt, and explanation.

In admitting my fandom to friends, I’ve often referenced how erotic the sport can be—a point usually deployed in homophobic attacks on MMA, most famously by boxing promoter Bob Arum. Fans shake this description off glibly, but in a sport where one competitor can win by forcing his opponent into submission from “back mount” by applying a “rear-naked choke,” such considerations are inescapable. There is a definite intimacy and sexual frisson to watching two incredibly fit men (or women), lying sweaty and mostly naked on top of each other, in positions that most of us only ever encounter in bed.

MMA hardly has a shining history when it comes to gender and sexual politics: There have been so many homophobic, transphobic, and mysogynist slurs made by fighters and promoters that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. But MMA also has a sizable gay fan base, and in December 2012, six months before basketball player Jason Collins became the first out gay athlete in a major U.S. team sport, the UFC signed Liz Carmouche, a lesbian ex-marine, to fight for its newly established women’s title. For a major sport, MMA has relative gender parity: Women fight on the same cards as men, though there are far fewer women fighters on the UFC roster. Ronda Rousey, the current UFC women’s bantamweight champion, has quickly become a star in her own right on the merit of her relentlessly badass arm bar, a jiu-jitsu technique with which she has finished every one of her fights.

MMA can be a sublime display of athletic power and grace—watch Anderson Silva drop his hands and slip punches by millimeters like a Kung Fu movie hero. It can be a master class of wit and strategy—watch Fabricio Werdum coax opponents into submission traps from his back—or a pure display of will (“heart” in combat-sports idiom) and ferocity—such as Frankie Edgar battling back from a devastating beating to fight Gray Maynard to a draw in their second meeting. Martial artist is not a misnomer.

Also, some individual styles of martial arts have appealingly subversive histories. The most famous instance of martial arts’ revolutionary potential remains the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901, in which Wushu fighters from the Righteous Harmony Society almost succeeded in driving the combined imperial powers of the U.S., Europe, and Japan out of China. Capoeira, the Brazilian fighting style which looks more like dancing than combat, was designed by slaves explicitly as such, allowing them to train for violent overthrow under the overseers’ gaze. The weapon style of Filipino martial arts evolved from the basic movements of the peasant’s machete and focused on training with common farming implements, from bolos to bamboo sticks, so that every peasant would be able to defend his land—a practice of resistance that helped make large sections of the Philippines unconquerable by both the Spaniards and the Americans.

But none of this can elide the fact that an undeniable appeal of mixed martial arts rests in domination, brutality, and total victory. Prizefighting in general, and MMA in particular, offers an almost pure crystallization of the competition that lies at the heart of sport: competitors hone their skills, study their opponent, shape their bodies, and then travel, sometimes halfway around the world, to be locked in a cage with each another to prove which of them is the better fighter. Years of skill building and months of specific training boil down to 15 minutes of violent confrontation.

Brutal violence, naked domination, and total competition are central tenets of our society, but they are usually unspoken and made invisible. Prizefighting narrativizes and even romanticizes the core aggression of capitalist society while also revealing the sublime heights that an individual can achieve in service to those aggressions. The key with prize fighting, as with all sports, is to remember that the protagonists of this drama, the people actually committing the violence, are not the ones getting the cash. The sublime competition of MMA is also a false metaphor that hides the safe, collusive strategies of the cage owners, even from the owners themselves. Fighting, and the pure competition it represents, is one of the stories the bourgeoisie tells itself about itself while sitting comfortably at the TV drinking microbrew.

Perhaps the most reactionary aspect of the MMA fan base is the knee-jerk connection made between the business prospects of the UFC—the sport’s biggest, but by no means only promoter—and the health of the sport itself. Because MMA was so embattled for so long, with events banished from pay-per-view and outlawed by most state legislatures, there was a period when it seemed the fate of the UFC and the sport itself were joined. Those days are long past. Zuffa has a $700 million deal with Fox, which has built an entire cable network, Fox Sports One, with the UFC as its flagship product. The UFC has massive international reach, including reality TV shows in Brazil and the U.K., and numerous live events every year that make millions of dollars at the gate. It sells millions of pay-per-view buys annually. Yet despite Zuffa being massively profitable, the typical UFC fan, perhaps in an echo of those bad old days, identifies the sport’s fate directly with Zuffa’s profit. As Tomas Rios, one of the best writers on the sport, put it in a piece about the UFC’s 20th anniversary celebrations in November:

These are the fans for whom the UFC’s inhumanity serves as an extension of the sport itself. Fighters are not so much professional athletes as individuals who have entered into an ironclad moral contract to sacrifice themselves for whatever the UFC deems maximum entertainment. This perception … has produced an unprecedented sympathy for the businessman over the fighter. Fans are conditioned to believe that this is normal, healthy even, that rooting for the UFC’s bottom line is somehow the truest measure of allegiance to the sport.

The UFC has anti-unionism written into all its fighters’ contracts. It has one of the most abusive and controlling contracts not just in sport but in all forms of employment. (By all accounts, the current second-place promoter, Bellator, has equally exploitative contracts, though the UFC, as undisputed industry leader, sets the precedent.) Bottom-of-the-card fighters regularly receive payment of six-and-six, meaning $6,000 for showing up, another $6,000 for winning (the “win bonus”), with middle-card fighters, even ones with names that fans recognize, frequently making 10-and-10. A fighter is hard-pressed to have more than three fights in a year, and one loss can mean being cut from the organization. Taking into account that injuries requiring months of recovery time are common to fight preparation and that most fighters have to pay out of pocket for managers, gym membership, and training, then much of the UFC’s roster isn’t even making a middle-class salary, despite smashing their brains for the world’s biggest and most profitable fight organization.

This treatment would come as no surprise to the employees of Las Vegas’s Station Casinos. Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, the principal owners of Zuffa, made their nut in the casino business. Part of an 80-year family legacy of casino operation, the Fertittas, like many a gambling-business dynasty, have connections to organized crime. Their grand-father, Frank I, was the accountant for the Maceo-Fertitta crime family, which ran Galveston, Texas, from the 1920s to the 1950s—years when it was a gambling destination. Although Lorenzo and Frank III might “know a guy” when they need to, there’s no indication that they’re anything except your standard law-abiding crooks: big business owners.

The Fertitta brothers, who have managed Station Casinos—the Vegas empire their father founded—since 1993, run their casinos the way modern executives are taught: expand rapidly (which they did capably during the decade-long Vegas boom) with less attention to business–sustainability questions than to getting the owners and executives paid as much as possible. Their financing schemes culminated with a huge pie-grab in 2007, when they raked in $1.5 billion for themselves, other family members, and Station executives through a leveraged buyout that saddled the company with $2.3 billion in unsecured debt—debt that would prove disastrous in the following year’s crash.

In 2010 they began a bankruptcy and restructuring plan that involved huge layoffs, predominantly of their low-level Latino employees, who paid the price for the executives’ overaggressive expansion. This process, repeated across the economy in recent decades, but particularly after the crisis, did not go unnoticed. In 2011, Station Casinos was simultaneously the target of the largest protest and civil–disobedience campaign Las Vegas had seen in 20 years and subject of the largest unfair-labor-practice case against a gaming company in the history of the National Labor Relations Board. But the Fertittas survived the case and came out of bankruptcy proceedings owning a much bigger piece of Station, using UFC and buyout money to rebuild their holdings in their own company, going from a 25 percent to a 45 percent stake.

That these billionaires, with an egregious but by no means uncommon history of terrible labor practices, would treat their fighters like chattel is unsurprising. What is special about the UFC is the way that its employee bashing has become part of the product’s image of macho, no-bullshit masculinity. UFC president and figurehead Dana White regularly attacks fighters publicly, including the UFC’s major stars, when they show even the tiniest bit of independence.

When GSP asserted in that November press conference that he wanted to retire because of his mental condition, White attacked his masculinity and then belittled his concerns, insisting that “his problems aren’t as bad as he thinks they are.” As Rios put it, “This open workforce coercion is White’s specialty.” When Jon Jones, the 26-year-old light-heavyweight champ and rising superstar, withdrew from a 2012 fight after his opponent was changed three days before the bout—not nearly enough time for him to prepare a specific game plan—the UFC had to cancel the card. White publicly lambasted Jones in a series of expletive-laden rants and called his widely respected trainer Greg Jackson, who had advised Jones not to take the fight, a “sport killer.” The fans and MMA media typically lap all this up, siding consistently with management against the “spoiled” fighters whenever they stand up for health, safety, or personal decency.

How could anyone defend that? Why does that question seem reasonable to ask of fans? The desire to make arguments for the political redeemability of MMA, or of any of our entertainments, is ultimately little more than liberal guilt. Politically justifying “guilty pleasures” only reinscribes the legitimacy of that guilt, while forcing us to provide cover for the problems that produced our unease in the first place. But to disavow our enjoyment is an equally identitarian move, pretending ourselves perfect political subjects and imagining away how deeply this world shapes our desires.

The liberal rejection of exhibiting violence must be seen for what it is: a plea that violence be made invisible, a denial of the consumer’s culpability in the violence that structures this world by rejecting obvious violence at the level of consumption. Liberalism’s position is that political righteousness lies in the morality of the objects of consumption.

Martial arts practice and exhibition are not in and of themselves unethical. But prizefighting as a mass spectacle and form of employment, by whose logic fighters must commit their entire lives to it—and in doing so, dramatically increase the likelihood of their physical and economic collapse—is wildly exploitative.

The structure of fandom has grown to be equally implicated in this exploitation as the practices of the owners. Fandom is experienced as passion, and fans want to see that passion reflected in the athletes who perform for them. They want athletes to play for the same reasons they watch: for the love of the game, the purity of competition, physical grace, and teamwork. Sports fans make the same demands of athletes that aesthetes make of artists: that they not “sell out,” that they not reveal any vulgar material motivations to their actions.

This aspect of fandom explains some of the outrage over steroids (which has been a recurrent issue in MMA): If they’re using drugs to get ahead, then clearly the athletes are doing it “just” to win, “just” to get paid. Patrick Arnold, the organic chemist and amateur bodybuilder who did prison time for designing anabolic steroids for the BALCO doping ring and who has since become an antisteroid campaigner, has frequently argued that the only way athletes will stop taking steroids is if sports are totally deprofessionalized—if no one makes any money off them at all.

Of course, Arnold is cynically indicating that steroids will never leave sport, but there is a revolutionary demand within his claim. The most damaging practices of sports—the body-ravaging chemicals and all-consuming lifestyles required of the professional athlete—would disappear, were sports made amateur across the board.

As long as we produce our identities through what we consume, we will settle only for watching the highest level of competition, an achievement that only professionalization and spectacle can provide. The revolution will abolish prizefighting, but the true measure of its success will be if it abolishes our desire for it.