America’s political and cultural divisions have infected just about every aspect of life, and sports have certainly not been spared.
When it comes to mixed martial arts, the sport’s culture lies decisively on the right end of the spectrum, and it’s not hard to see why. In a cultural left that tends to prioritize values of equality, empathy and solidarity, and a cultural right that centers individualism, rugged self-reliance, and a good dose of toxic masculinity, it seems to follow that a sport that employs individual violence to pummel an opponent into submission would appeal more to the cultural right.
It is therefore not a surprise that Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), had endorsed Donald Trump and spoken at the Republican National Convention, and that a slew of prominent MMA stars have either expressed support or campaigned for Trump during the most recent presidential election (and amplified false election “fraud” claims after it). And when more and more prominent MMA fighters started promoting the deranged far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, it led an exasperated Luke Thomas (a politically progressive MMA analyst for CBS sports) to remark: “Aside from the love of fights, I have nothing else in common with people into MMA or those inside the MMA industry.”
Meatheadedness, meaningless violence and toxic masculinity is pretty much the stereotype many on the left have of the sport of MMA. So when I tell my fellow progressive friends that MMA is my sport of choice, the reaction typically ranges from puzzled curiosity to revulsion. Most recently, a colleague’s reaction was: “UFC fighting? Whyyyyy?” (yes, all five y’s). It was then that I decided, for the first time, to really think through an analyze why I love this sport so much, and I came up with these five reasons:
1. It is actual meditation: If you play soccer or go running or swimming (or do any of the overwhelming majority of sports), you can still think about your personal problems and life stresses while engaging in them because there is room for your mind to wander. But when you’re at a serious sparring session, standing in anticipation across from someone who is about to attack you, you are forced to be completely, 100% in the moment, and the rest of your life simply evaporates in its totality. It takes endless meditation practice to get to the point where you can truly be in the moment without having your brain wander into other concerns of the past or future, and combat sports (even when you’re still new to them) can give you a shortcut to that state.
2. It is chess on steroids: It’s hard to notice for the untrained eye, but MMA is an extremely sophisticated competition — it is no exaggeration to say that a physical chess match is unfolding any time two high-level fighters are engaged in combat. If you know enough to notice the subtleties, you will get a lot more out of watching fighters brilliantly out-smart one another than the average person who might just be seeing meaningless violence. Indeed, practicing high level combat sports is every bit as intellectually stimulating as it is physically, and it gives you practical insights into both human psychology and body mechanics, meaning you understand the human creature much better.
3. It is a psychologically rewarding experience: As the old philosophical adage recommends: “know thyself”. Our modern, social media-centered world is artificial, and so is the way we relate to each other in it. That’s why our inflated egos are constantly tempted to chase dopamine rewards through likes and follows...etc., so it’s no surprise that performative grandstanding is so prevalent these days. MMA, by contrast, is a very real and grounding, even humbling, world where your social status doesn’t matter, and where you are repeatedly reminded of your vulnerability as you’re physically forced into submission by other human beings. It’s actually rewarding to have your ego cut down to size in this fashion, and it teaches you something about who you truly are underneath, when you’ve stripped away the public persona you’ve spent your life cultivating.
4. It creates exceptional relationships: When you consider how often a sparring session (in either MMA or Jiu Jitsu) ends in a submission, it is not an exaggeration to say that you are putting your life in your teammates’ hands every day. After all, as Joe Rogan noted, tapping to a submission is acknowledging that the other person was in a position to kill you had this been a real fight for survival. The bond you form with a group of people who regularly trust their lives to one another is really unique.
I’ve trained with people with whom I have nothing in common (not political views or interests or anything), and practicing martial arts together was enough to genuinely feel close to them. And I happen to be particularly lucky in training at District Martial Arts, one of the absolute best MMA gyms in the greater Washington, DC area. Besides the multiple BJJ Black Belts who teach and train there, the MMA program is coached by former UFC fighter Kamal Shalorus (who gave the MMA GOAT Khabib Nurmagomedov a competitive first round), and by Charles DiGisco, who is an amateur fighter, a commentator for Cowboy Cerrone’s Cowboy Fight Series, and one of the best MMA analysts around. Getting to build a bond with practitioners of this caliber is a privilege.
5. It makes one substantially better at handling real life conflicts — and I don’t just mean handling violence. Yes, of course it’s useful, in a rare case of emergency, to know how to defend yourself in a physical altercation were one to arise. But practicing martial arts actually comes in handy far more frequently in conflicts well before they’ve escalated to violence. Indeed, so many altercations escalate precisely because of insecurities and ego: The feeling of being intimidated causes people to compensate by becoming more aggressive, and in a panic that aggression can lead to violence. But when you’ve built a level of calm comfort with physical conflict (which is on the deeper end of the “conflict spectrum”) through training, you’re less likely to freak out in any situation of conflict, and therefore are better able to manage and de-escalate.
Even in dealing with tensions that don’t include the prospect of violence at all, we all know what it’s like to be confronted by a rude or condescending comment in a particular social setting where we get so frazzled that we don’t think of the perfect comeback until we’ve calmed down and the moment has already passed (“Man, I should’ve said x!”). Well, if you’ve pushed yourself to remain calm on a daily basis, thinking of the “perfect comeback” in the moment as someone thrust their knee into your solar plexus in order to trigger a panicked reaction that allows them to snatch your arm and force you into submission, the rude, condescending comment at that networking event is a piece of cake by comparison, and it’s then far easier to remain calm and centered to handle it the best way possible.
Perhaps John Danaher said it most eloquently when he said Jiu Jitsu “is all about solving problems that are rapidly changing under stress, and that gives you an ability to identify the crux of the problem in front of you, even in a stressful situation and adapt your body and tactics to overcome that problem and to continue overcoming it as the problem itself changes...So it gives you this sort of problem solving mindset, which I think applies throughout life itself.”
If I had to think of a single interest that has bestowed rewards in so many different areas of my life (physical, mental, and social), martial arts comes to mind the fastest. Yes, some visible aspects of MMA culture can indeed be foolish and “meatheady” (a natural turnoff to those who fancy themselves worldly and sophisticated), but if you bother to look a little deeper beneath the surface, there is a treasure trove that can unlock a “secret power” of sorts that grounds you in reality a little better, and enhances the way through which you can interact with the world around you.