"You can say 'Oh I'm going to play football, I'm going to play hockey, I'm going to play baseball.' But you can't say I'm going to play fighting. It's not a game," the UFC welterweight champion told fans last month during a question-and-answer session prior to UFC 105 in Manchester, England. "It's a sport, yes, but it's a full-contact sport. And the way I fight, my so-called friend, if I fight him, it can affect his well-being.
"So let's say I'm mounted, on top of my friend, and it's time to land this last big elbow that will probably make a scar in the middle of his forehead and knock him out cold and cause him brain damage," he added, drawing laughs from crowd. "No I'm telling it like it is, if he's my friend, I'm going to think twice before I do it. I won't be able to do that to a friend. So that's the reason why I will never fight a friend. I know a lot of fighters who will disagree with me, but me that's my personal belief."
On the other hand, the tenor of Dana White's argument isn't quite so accommodating:
"It's going to happen," he said. "Listen, it's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in the world. It's like Shaq not wanting to play against one of his friends. It's a sport and you're out there to compete with each to see who the best is, not you're my friend and I don't like you if we fight. You're competing to see who's better. Imagine if certain baseball teams didn't want to play other baseball teams because they're friends. 'He's my friend, I don't want to see him lose.' Give me a break. It's ridiculous.
"Every baseball team wants to win the World Series. Every football team wants to win the Super Bowl and every guy that fights wants to be considered the best in the world. And if you and a guy that you're friends with are two of the best in the world and you're in the same weight division, you're going to have to fight."
Forced to pick a side in this argument, I'd go with Dana White. For purposes of order and achieving hierarchy, even those fighters with conflicting interests cannot recuse themselves from their responsibility out of pure friendship.
The only problem is that White's particular argument is callous and not nearly as persuasive as it could be. White is ultimately right that for purposes of sport it's a necessary evil. But calling fighter reluctance "the dumbest thing I've ever heard in the world" is unfair and unthinking.
What GSP and other fighters who don't want to battle friends allude to is not just the particular carnage that can occur in a formal fighting setting, but that the particular intimacy of the carnage from the individual actors complicates relationships. And those relationships are not to be scoffed at. Think of fight teams as informal support groups. Here are a group of young men (generally) who begin their professional MMA career dirt poor, often without health insurance and without any guarantee this occupational endeavor will ever amount to anything. On top of that, they are engaged in an activity that necessarily requires their teammates and training partners to provide them as much counsel and positive reinforcement as they can stomach to simply make it through the training.
The relationships fighters have with one another in MMA are much closer, much tighter and more meaningful than those between relief pitchers in the dugout. They necessarily have to be for the unit to work and for the fighter's individual success. Ultimately, for purposes of their sport fighters have to make peace with the reality that they could eventually fight a teammate, but we shouldn't dismiss their trepidation as hugely unreasonable.