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Hurt Game: For all its complexity, at heart MMA is about damage

Regardless of what they want out of it, every MMA fighter – and fan – has to reckon with a sport that’s constructed on pain.

Photo via Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports | Graphic design via Chad Stanhope

There are many dubious subcategories of sports dialogue, but post-fight interviews are one of the strangest. Lobbing some perfunctory questions and a live mic at someone in the aftermath of physical combat is probably not a defensible practice, and talking around “Tell us how it felt to give your co-worker a severe concussion?” can generate mixed results. More often than not, the outcome is an out-of-breath – and maybe also concussed – athlete repeating a couple of sports cliches while awkwardly recovering from their fight-or-flight reflex. Occasionally, though, they unearth something uncharacteristically real.

It is not important whether you saw Bellator champion, and former UFC title challenger, Rory MacDonald’s last fight—a draw against the underrated, but rarely exhilarating Jon Fitch. I did not watch it myself, but the descriptions are unremarkable. What stood out about the encounter was the champion’s post-fight interview.

“It’s hard to sometimes pull the trigger now, I guess,” MacDonald said. “I don’t have that killer inside. I don’t know. It’s really hard to explain. I hesitate a little bit now. I don’t know what to say,” he continued, while ring girls smiled contractually behind him and interviewer ‘Big’ John McCarthy did his best to adjust to his subject processing an existential crisis.

MMA: UFC 189-Lawler vs MacDonald Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When asked if he was changing as a fighter, MacDonald responded, “Yeah, as a man. I feel like God has really called me the last little while. And, I don’t know, it’s changed my spirit, changed my heart.” At one time MacDonald was known for dispensing such a disturbing level of violence with such a detached demeanor that fans turned his thousand-yard stares into running jokes about his fantasized sociopathy. Now here he was in the cage saying, “It takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain and stuff. I just don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore.”

The draw meant that MacDonald would maintain his belt, and move on in Bellator’s welterweight tournament. McCarthy asked him about being scheduled to face Neiman Gracie next on relatively short notice. “I have to get out of here and reevaluate,” MacDonald deferred. “We’ll see what happens.”

Later, MacDonald would issue a statement clarifying that he was not retiring and that continuing in a violent sport does not contradict with his religious beliefs. Bellator sent a release confirming that MacDonald will still face Gracie on June 14th. Apparently, any medical suspensions or other concerns that could stand in the way of such a quick turnaround will be resolved conveniently in time for the fight to go on as scheduled. Pulling back the curtain and laying the gears bare doesn’t mean the machine grinds to a halt.

The last time that someone dropped this level of uncut honesty in a post-fight interview was November 4th, 2017 in a UFC cage. Rose Namajunas shockingly upset Joanna Jędrzejczyk, knocking out the strawweight champion in the first round. When Joe Rogan asked the standard “What was going through your mind?” question about the lead-up to the fight, Namajunas’s response was jarringly pure.

“There’s so much crap going on in the media – news and stuff – and I just want to try and use my gift of martial arts to make this world a better place and change the world,” she said. “This belt don’t mean nothing, man. Just be a good person. That’s it.” “You know this, this is extra,” she gestured to the new belt on her shoulder. “This is awesome, but let’s just give each other hugs and be nice, man. I mean, I know we fight, but this is entertainment. You know, afterwards, it’s nothing.”

This not being the type of thing that Rogan is accustomed to dealing with, he plowed forward, defaulting to “Tell us how you feel.” She answered, “I feel like a normal person, man. That’s it. I’m just regular. Ain’t nothing special here.” It was a wonderful moment.

UFC 223: Namajunas v Jedrzejczyk Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

On May 11th, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Namajunas lost her title during her second defense. She was looking fast, dangerous in every phase, and far more technical than Jessica Andrade – who was absorbing a beating – until Andrade picked her up and dropped her on her head. Andrade’s best tool is her preternatural strength, and she got in close and lifted Namajunas for a slamming takedown. Namajunas is a skilled submission artist, and she countered by putting a kimura grip on Andrade’s arm; attempting to hang onto it until they hit the ground. This left her body at an uncomfortable angle and her head unprotected, and the photos of her hitting the canvas show her neck torquing disturbingly.

People, including experienced fans, immediately began questioning the legality of the slam. For reference, it did not meet the criteria for a ‘spike’ and it wasn’t really close. It was a perfectly legitimate thing to do to an opponent, who in some part made the move far worse for herself by not bailing on the kimura attempt. Some of the same people who were raucously cheering a short time ago when fan-favorite Robbie Lawler dropped one of the most effortless heels the sport has ever seen, Ben Askren, on his head in a similar scenario, were far more concerned now. The main difference seemed to be that instead of a 170-pound, 34-year-old, male super-villain, the target was a 115-pound, 26-year-old woman who has faced down trauma and mental health issues and just wants us all to be good to each other.

There are plenty of techniques – strikes to the back of the head, headbutts, eye gouges –including some kinds of slams, that MMA has deemed to be too dangerous for a sport fight. It’s reasonable to consider whether or not dropping someone on their skull is something that should be legislated against. It’s also worth asking how much more dangerous your average slam is than clinching someone’s neck and driving a knee into their face, or head-kicking someone unconscious and letting them free-fall and bounce their medulla off the floor, or punching the head of someone already dehydrated from a weight cut 100+ times over 25 minutes. And it’s worth interrogating why, when Quinton Jackson powerbombed Ricardo Arona, or Kevin Randleman launched Fedor Emelianenko into orbit, people cheered for more and played those highlights on loop for years. But now, at this moment, there’s an air of distress around the technique.

If society is going to sanction people fighting for money and entertainment, I’m absolutely in favor of doing it as safely as possible. The reality, though, is that in doing so, MMA faces the same issues as a league like the NFL. There are no rules that can administratively remove the violence from sports that are inherently constructed on it. At least as far as our current technology and medical knowledge stretch, the danger – including the serious threat of head and neck injuries – is a part of what those sports are. MacDonald is right, in that mixed martial arts is fundamentally about hurting people, and anyone who can’t embrace that enthusiastically might not be built for the sport.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Lincoln-Gaethje vs Vick Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Interestingly, the UFC currently houses the platonic ideal of this concept – that MMA is inherently violent – and the particular wild, action-oriented product that they’ve made a point of selling. Both are wrapped up in one man, in their lightweight division. Justin Gaethje is a D1 All-American wrestler who employs his grappling skills strictly to continue standing and throwing strikes. He eschews conventional defense, in favor of pressing his opponents into a frantic carnival of violence. If you can stomach the carnage, it’s immensely entertaining to watch; even Gaethje, though, is beyond pragmatic about the consequences of his style.

In the same interview before his UFC debut where Gaethje told The MMA Hour, “I’m not here to take damage. I don’t want to not be able to talk. Every single time I fight, I know that ... this could be the last time that you’re able to do this, the last time you’re able to talk,” he also admitted, “I’ll promise you that I will get knocked out here in the next, like, 10 fights, because it’s a game of freakin’ centimeters and fractions of seconds.” It only took two fights. After winning a hellacious scrap against Michael Johnson, he was felled by a knee in a similarly chaotic meeting with Eddie Alvarez.

After his knockout loss to Alvarez, again on The MMA Hour, Gaethje called it, “a dream come true,” and “the time of my life.” Gaethje is built for fighting in ways that most people are not, but those predilections don’t always make it easier to witness him eating punishment.

One of the reasons I didn’t see that MacDonald vs. Fitch fight is that, between the exploitation of fighters, the style of promotion in the UFC and other organizations, and the growing awareness of the dangers of blows to the head, I’m not sure how built I am to even watch it anymore. Still, as long as I’m tuning in – even occasionally – I’d prefer to be honest about what’s going on: Fighting is just entertainment, but the heart of the sport is people getting hurt.

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