I've written at length about the frightening nexus of mixed martial arts and street violence, but it's not a simple issue. The reality is that cage fighting is violence. It's just contained, legal, hopefully honorable violence in the context of a sporting contest intended to allow competitors to demonstrate their art, their heart, their will and their prowess.
A strange confluence of things I came across online this past weekend has got me thinking about the issues all over again.
First up, our own Steph Daniels has been running Street Fighting Diaries, a fun little series in which she gets pro MMA fighters to open up about their real life street fighting experiences. It's not endorsing street violence, just letting fighters share their real life experiences, sometimes amusing, sometimes not, with their fans. Truth is beauty and what not.
A few weeks ago, Bellator signed convicted killer Dan McGuane, our own Brent Brookhouse led the charge, editorializing for McGuane's removal from the card:
But Dan McGuane? He and his twin brother beat a kid to death in the street He doesn't deserve to fight for a living anywhere, and Bellator certainly shouldn't be helping him along and allowing him to use their platform to promote himself.
Doing so cheapens their promotion and drives potential hardcore consumers like me away. I won't be tuning in next weekend and giving a card with this booking my attention.
Never fear, Bellator higher ups saw it the same way Brent did. McGuane was cut from the card almost as soon as we hit "post."
I didn't pay much attention at the time other than to applaud Brent for being on top of the story and forceful with his opinion even though my own thinking is more along the lines of, "if a convicted felon can't get a job cage fighting after completing his sentence just what the heck are we supposed to do with them for the rest of their lives?"
Reading Ben Fowlkes' excellent piece on McGuane brought the starkness of McGuane's self-inflicted predicament very much to life:
As long as he'd never gone pro, he might have retained some small degree of anonymity even in the information age.
So why blow that by trying to fight for a living? Why couldn't he see that, with his past, it was perhaps the one sport where his participation alone might spur outrage?
"Originally, to be honest with you, I started fighting because I couldn't find a job," McGuane said.
It wasn't that he wasn't looking for other work, or even that he couldn't get noticed by potential employers. He applied all over New England, and he kept coming so close. He'd get a call back, the interview would go well, and then they'd tell him there was only the small matter of the background check. You can imagine how it went from there. McGuane would tell them about his felony conviction, mention the words "involuntary manslaughter," and the job would vanish.
And so in August of 2010, a little less than eight months after being released from prison for a fight that left one man dead and two families in shambles, McGuane made his professional debut in Brockton, Mass., winning by first-round guillotine choke. He won two more fights the following year, but he also found a full-time job as a warehouse manager for a mechanical contractor.
He also shows that McGuane shows some signs of conscience and remorse for his crime:
Despite all the flaws he finds with the criminal proceedings and the depiction of the McGuane boys as the "evil twins" of Ayer, he thinks he and his brother both deserved to do prison time for Proctor's death.
"The fact of the matter is, someone died," McGuane said. "As tragic and as unfortunate and as accidental as that was, someone had to take responsibility. We believe it was from us, from our actions, that led to it. It was unintentional, but it happened. ... Now that I did my time, it's about what I can do to better myself. It's a constant battle every day to better yourself and not let the past affect you. And it affects you all the time."
The reality is McGuane is a young man who did something stupid when he was even younger. Should he really be banned for life from professionally fighting?
Combat sports has a long history of helping convicted felons turn their lives around and make something positive of their energy and aggression. Boxing champs Sonny Liston, Archie Moore and Mike Tyson immediately leap to mind.
Almost immediately after reading Fowlkes' piece on McGuane, I watched Joe Rogan's podcast where he ad libs commentary on a number of famous YouTube street fights. It was very entertaining but the videos were harder to watch than they sometimes are. After reading McGuane's story and thinking about his victim Kelly Proctor it's hard to "enjoy" videos of brutal assaults and street fights that leave people visibly hurt.
That's not to say Joe's making light of the fights. Rogan's commentary is actually pretty note perfect. He is alarmed at the really scary stuff, but mostly sticks to factual commentary.
At the same time, I must have watched 1,000 YouTube fight videos over the past decade and I'm not going to pretend I was always in a thoughtful frame of mind. Human beings are programmed by evolution to pay close attention to intra-human violence. If a person sees a fellow human battling for their life, that's the kind of thing we're hard-wired to keep a close eye on.
That's the reality Dana White always points out in his marketing spiel for MMA -- "if you have a football game on one corner, a basketball game on another corner, a soccer game on the third corner and a fight on the forth, everyone in the area will be watching the fight. It's human nature" is the gist of his riff.
The issue is keeping the demons of our darker natures contained and controlled. I'm told the original players of Chess, the first war game, would put totems on all four corners of the board to contain the evil spirits of war to the game board. That's why MMA has rules, referees, cageside physicians, commissions, drug testing, etc. etc. etc.
But the reality is those demons are never completely contained. The very same attributes we so admire seeing inside the cage -- unbridled aggression, complete abandon with no thought to consequences, killer instinct -- can be the very traits that will get a young man sent to prison should he engage in violent conduct on the streets.
I'm not saying Rogan shouldn't do commentary on YouTube street fights, I'm just saying watching him do it this weekend wasn't an entirely comfortable experience.
I'm not saying I'm eager to see Dan McGuane resume his fighting career, I'm just saying worse things have happened.
Let's always remember, those faces we see getting punched on our screens are connected to real human beings. The violence is only mediated, not eliminated. Those of us who just watch the violence are partaking in it too.