Tag Archives: Combat Sports


I got rid of HBO after the final season of “The Wire,” and that’s left me desperate to see the new HBO documentary, “Thrilla in Manila.” “Thrilla” tells the story of the third and final bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a war of attrition that Ali won in the narrowest sense of the term.

Although I generally try to avoid holding forth on movies I’ve never seen, “Thrilla” sounds like a much-needed revisitation of Ali the man. I couldn’t care less about Ali’s refusal to report for military duty–no one can sensibly blame a black man in the 1960s for not risking his life in a dubious American war–but I do fault Ali for his vicious, immoral treatment of Frazier. From what I’ve read, “Thrilla” exposes this ugly side of Ali.

Despite the fact that Frazier had supported Ali–even supported him financially–during Ali’s excommunication from boxing in the late 60s, Ali mercilessly attacked Frazier on racialist grounds during the run-up to the fight. People need to remember that Ali called Frazier, among other things, an “Uncle Tom,” “the other type of negro,” and a “gorilla,” among other grim pejoratives. Ali later dismissed his words as part of the theater of the sport, but that’s a dodge–they were part of the sport because Ali made them part of the sport. Ali was a great fighter and a civil-rights pioneer, and with time he became a considerate human being. There’s no need to make a saint of him.

On the other hand, Frazier doesn’t come off too well when he says God gave Ali Parkinson’s because he was rude.

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Pardoning Jack Johnson

Sen. John McCain wants to pardon deceased boxing icon Jack Johnson:

“We need to erase this act of racism which sent an American citizen to prison on a trumped-up charge,” McCain said, adding, “I have great confidence this president will be more than eager to sign this legislation and pardon Jack Johnson.”

The act of racism to which McCain refers was Johnson’s arrest for transporting a white woman across state lines–a woman who, it should be noted, later became his wife. In those unenlightened days, though, what Johnson did violated the Mann Act. In 1913 he was convicted for his “crime”:

Johnson fled the country after his conviction, but agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence. He tried to renew his boxing career after leaving prison, but failed to regain his title. He died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.

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MMA Handwringing

From a NYT Magazine piece on MMA:

The Octagon is the ring for the U.F.C. It has eight sides and is enclosed by a chain-link fence. The name “Octagon” really seems like a way to keep you from calling it what it is: a cage. In spite of this and other efforts to make Ultimate Fighting seem less thuggish — the immaculate pay-per-view display, the visibility of women in the audience and the intelligence of the spitfire commentary — you can’t miss the raw, back-alley character of the fights. Veins bulge and faces go blue as fighters seem intent on choking their opponents. Blood is shed; bones break; contusions develop before your eyes. Men are felled by “accidental” strikes to the groin (along with eye-gouging and biting, such strikes are prohibited, but I saw several). The commentators insist that everyone’s obeying regulations, but the fighters seem murderous nonetheless. Until, that is, each fight is over, and the fighters are typically praised for showing “class” in making sure an opponent is still breathing.

Earlier in the piece, the writer draws stark contrasts between MMA and the “classy, literary” sport of boxing. I would submit that every word in the paragraph above–save for the cage riff and the term “choking”–could be applied to boxing. Also, I’ve watched substantially more MMA than the author of this piece, and I’ve seen exactly one eye gouge and zero incidents of biting.

I don’t particularly like MMA. That’s not because I find it revolting or anything like that. I just find that most of the time–and this goes for boxing, as well–the matches are boring. I am, however, put off by the inconsistent standards the media applies to MMA. I’ve written about this before with regard to the NFL, and the same goes for drawing facile distinctions between MMA and boxing. Yes, it’s a violent sport. But it’s probably less dangerous to the athletes than a career in boxing or the NFL. Maybe it’s time we in the media allowed this reality to inform our coverage of MMA.

Oh, and then there’s this:

Joe Rogan, in particular — the comedian, TV actor and host of “Fear Factor” — is so intense, relentless and silver-tongued that he made me feel as if I had wasted my life among slow-moving hayseeds and listless moralists until I lucked into the white-hot center of existence here with him.

There are many things in this world that give me existential pause. Joe Rogan is not one of those things.

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MMA, the NFL, and Cultural Double Standards

You need not look long and hard to find outrage over the recent network-television debut of Mixed Martial Arts. Indeed, Kimbo Slice’s ballyhooed fight against James Thompson was a stomach-churning affair–both for those who don’t relish the sight of blood and viscera and for those who prefer their MMA matches to have some semblance of science and artistry.

The outrage that followed was of course tied to the violence on display–violence that was in prime time hours and not safely behind the cable-television firewall. Many in the sports media were aghast at what they saw. Coming from almost anyone else, that would be a defensible stance. However, coming from the enablers of the NFL, it was somewhat rich.

The NFL, of course, isn’t as visibly gladiatorial as MMA, but it is every bit as violent and imperils the athletes to a greater degree. So why is the NFL spared the outrage?

First, there’s the NFL’s popularity. For reasons that completely elude me, the NFL is king among American sports leagues (although, what gives me renewed confidence in humanity–or at least the discretionary spending of humanity–is that MLB is catching up to the NFL in gross revenues). The NFL is, by several orders of magnitude, more culturally ingrained than MMA, and it keeps many more media types employed than MMA does. In other words, it’s much easier to harrumph about and swear off something in which you’re not emotionally or professionally invested.

Second, there’s the obvious fact that football players aren’t actually fighting. Granted, crack-back blocks, receivers’ taking hits on crossing routes, and blindside sacks are a violence all their own, but because football doesn’t legally entail punching and kicking, there’s more of a social sanction about it.

Third–and I think most important–is that there’s a strong visual buffer between us, the viewers, and those suffering the violence, the players. That buffer is the uniform. In MMA, for instance, the violence is bone-naked: the bleeding, the contusions, the mangled body parts aren’t veneered by head-to-toe clothing and protective gear as they are in football. On another level, the types of injuries common to football–concussions and bone breaks, for instance–don’t unsettle us in the way that flattened noses and busted lips do.

In other words, it’s not that we as a people object to violence in athletics; it’s that we object to conspicuous violence in athletics. It’s a mindless and dangerous distinction, but those who wring hands over MMA while celebrating the NFL are apparently comfortable making it.


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