December 2, 2013

Bloodsport and societal instability: Mixed martial arts in the Millennial era

[Future posts will look at gladiator sports in Ancient Rome and no-holds-barred wrestling during the Gilded Age. But let's start with more familiar events.]

The rise over the past 20 years of mixed martial arts as a spectator sport would look odd to an observer from the 1950s. It's an unarmed gladiator spectacle, something that would have felt out of place when people were supposed to rein in their individualistic competitive instincts. Even boxing went through a lull during the mid-century, didn't pick up again until the '70s, and reached the status of a bloodsport spectacle only during the '80s (most memorably with Mike Tyson).

At first that looks like it tracks the violent crime rate, yet gladiator-style entertainment has only increased since the '90s -- not only with mixed martial arts, but also popular video game franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

If the '40s through the '60s group together against the '80s through the 2000s, then it doesn't reflect the cocooning-and-crime cycle but rather the status-striving-and-inequality cycle as described in Peter Turchin's work.

What is it about a climate of rising status competition that brings out a taste for such entertainment in the public? It looks like a reflection of the prevailing moral code, which is to do whatever it takes to get ahead and to never be satisfied with what you've got. You can always climb one rung higher on the status ladder, if you don't mind stepping on one more skull to get there.

Status-striving has neither a moral basis nor a larger goal which motivates the action. Higher and higher status is glorified and pursued as an end in itself. (Rationalizations abound, as usual, but we're interested in what people think and feel in reality, not hypothetically.) That's what distinguishes gladiator entertainment from other forms that look like combat.

Football at least has team vs. team behavior (although even there it's getting more self-promoting and show-boating), and professional wrastlin' has both a (flimsy) narrative or dramatic arc along with age-old moral motives such as avenging a betrayal. A normal person watching along can easily understand why these two guys are trading blows, which is blunted by being staged.

Viewers tune into the UFC to watch two guys try to beat the shit out of each other, hopefully with blood spilled onto the mat and no stoppages by the party-pooping ref. The combatants are more skilled and tactical than the ghetto thugs on World Star Hip Hop, but it still looks like a physical version of debate club, where the purpose is to skewer the other side in a debate for its own sake -- not to achieve greater understanding of the topic, to defend their honor after having been slandered by the other side, etc. Just pointless individualistic competition and self-promotion.

Bullying can serve a larger pro-social function -- yet we're supposed to discourage bullying. Is it because there's a point? Like some tranny trying to scandalize his high school, and some guy kicking his ass so he'll stop polluting the social atmosphere -- evil. But one guy elbowing another guy's face for no reason other than to win status points and money -- good (or at least permissible).

Community defense -- Us vs. Them -- is pro-social. Why don't we see the UFC fans beating back the black punks responsible for the knockout game? Shit, they're only 13 years old -- wouldn't be hard for a posse of fit 20-something white dudes to go out on patrol, whether to just stare them down as a warning, or go with the "best defense is a good offense" strategy and give blacks a taste of their own knockout game medicine. Italians in the New York area used to do that off-and-on back in the '80s, but now they're more obsessed with Jersey Shore-style show-boating.

Perhaps a casual interest in practicing mixed martial arts serves to train you for the dog-eat-dog world that we live in these days. But we're not talking about what hobbies a handful of people practice, but the entertainment spectacles that so many are fascinated by, and that owners and promoters go to such lengths to hype up.

There's a conspicuous consumption angle to bloodsports as well, since they're typically held in larger-than-life venues like Caesars Palace in the '80s or Mandalay Bay today, commanding high ticket prices, and often with celebrities in attendance. Elites compete against each other to see whose casino or arena can stage the most spectacular fight night. That's also true for team spectator sports (the most ostentatious being the Super Bowl), and was not seen during mid-century or even 1960s football culture, when the national anthem was sung by military bands rather than pop music celebrities.

And there's a subtle aspect of widening inequality here too. The fighters are generally from lower or working-class backgrounds. In times of narrowing inequality, they'd get good long-term union jobs and be all set. When no one's looking out for their well-being, though, it's OK if they get bruised up locking horns with one another, whether in officially sanctioned fights or run-of-the-mill violence around their neighborhood. Again, if there were some point to it, then taking a bruising isn't something to automatically fret over. But when it's pointless, undirected anger and aggression, it corrupts that person's spirit and corrodes what little is left of the social fabric where they live.

Widening inequality is not just a result of the top soaring, but of the bottom sinking. And it's not only about money, but health and quality of life, as well as feeling part of a strong community. Once you look beyond money, it turns out that there is no "floor" on the status pyramid -- that it's hovering over a bottomless pit. If you thought it was bad seeing the poor get poorer, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Degradation and corrosion know no depths.

Related: A post on hazing as a form of elite in-fighting rather than solidarity building.


  1. >boxing went through a lull in the midcentury-

    Really? Old guys I know just automatically know how to box. Not just throwing that straight left with your shoulders level even when you are half-whipped, but footwork and all the trimmings. It was taken for granted- you're not a broad, so you stand up and take a punch to give a punch if you have to. Fit right even with being more social than nowadays- you were some invincible master, neither was anyone else you knew, so stand your ground when you are in the right and don't start things when you are wrong. Fit in.

  2. I mean boxing as an entertainment spectacle, which had peaked during the 1910s and '20s.

  3. "Really? Old guys I know just automatically know how to box. Not just throwing that straight left with your shoulders level even when you are half-whipped, but footwork and all the trimmings. It was taken for granted- you're not a broad, so you stand up and take a punch to give a punch if you have to. Fit right even with being more social than nowadays- you were some invincible master, neither was anyone else you knew, so stand your ground when you are in the right and don't start things when you are wrong. Fit in."

    You're thinking of the Greatest Generation, who were young during the 20s and early 30s. The mid-century(1935-1960) would have had less fighting - since the occurence of all crimes went down in that period.


  4. Agnostic, do you think there was less fighting in the mid-century?


  5. I've seen disputation over the existence of the knockout game:

    Have you not seen it yet or are you not persuaded?

  6. Sort of on top - - Silent Generation and older Boomers (they look older than I think of Baby Boomers as being) react to the new "Hunger Games" film.

  7. I'm amazed by the popularity of mixed martial arts now. I remember going to Blockbuster in the late 90s/early 00s and seeing the warning labels on the few boxes they had. I was like "Wow, this looks like some crazy stuff". Now it's ubiquitous. And don't get me started on the gauche looking "Tap Out" apparel! Personally, I prefer boxing, but I'm not a huge fan of that either. It seems a lot more noble, for lack of a better word. At least the concept/action in the ring, as I know there's a lot of corruption in that sport.

  8. So boxing wasn't popular when Cassius Clay faced off against Sonny Liston?

    Anyway, the Google ngram for boxing as it increasing the word increasing in use from around 1910, through the 20's, 30's, and 40's, and up until the 50's. Then dropping off - but at a much higher plateau than before, which continues through the 70's, and increasing since 1980.

    Professional boxing shows a similar pattern, peaking in the 30's and 40's, dropping off a bit, then skyrocketing in use.

    The larger pattern is that modern boxing became popular only in the 20th century.

  9. Boxing wasn't trending upward then, no.

    And Ngram won't tell you how many tuned in to the fights, or sat in the audience.

    Before the '80s, the most recent boxing phenomenon during a boxing-crazy culture was Jack Dempsey in the early-mid 1920s.

  10. "In September 1926, Dempsey fought Irish-American former U.S. Marine Gene Tunney in Philadelphia. Tunney was an excellent boxer who had lost only once in his career. Nevertheless, Tunney was still considered the underdog.

    In a big upset, Dempsey lost his title on points in ten rounds. No longer displaying his legendary punching power or hand speed, Dempsey was easily outboxed by the slick Tunney, who would dodge, use excellent pad level and then let loose with a salvo of punches of his own. The attendance for this fight was a record 120,557, the largest attendance ever for a sporting event outside motor racing and soccer. When the battered Dempsey returned to his dressing room, he explained the defeat to his film actress wife Estelle Taylor by saying, "Honey, I forgot to duck." This phrase was later used by President Ronald Reagan to his wife after Reagan was shot during a failed attempt on his life in 1981."

    Adjust attendance to a per capita rate (whatever part of the country you want to count), and it would probably be even closer to the most attended sports event in recent history.

  11. "I once watched "Gentleman" Jim Corbett fight an Eskimo fellow bare-knuckled for a hundred and thirteen rounds! Of course, back then, if a fight lasted less than fifty rounds, we demanded our nickel back!"

    When I think Victorian, I think pugilism and bare-knuckle boxing - were the Marquess of Queensbury rules popular in their age?

    I wonder if Turchin's inequality-o-gram holds true outside the US, or how inequality was behaving in Gothic-Romantic England? There doesn't seem like a clear scholarly consensus on this.

  12. I had assumed the popularity of UFC was due to these factors:

    - other pro sports turning into thug ghettos with neck tattoos, drug & gun crimes, rapes & murders, etc
    - the decline of boxing as an outlet for controlled, competitive violence (due partly to top fighters refusing to mix things up in the ring because they want to keep their brains functioning long enough to enjoy their riches). MMA is arguably a better spectator sport anyway, with more strategic variety and a lower percentage of matches being decided by judges.
    - a reaction to the overall feminization of society.

    MMA cultivates an extreme image but is actually safer than boxing; the lighter gloves provide less cushioning to the finger bones, which makes punches to the head a dicier proposition (there are kicks to the head, but that's a pretty high-risk maneuver). Many matches end in tapouts and there are more injuries to the joints, but that's hugely preferable to the brain damage that commonly results from a boxing career.

    Feminists have taken note of MMA's appeal, though, and are doing what they can to ruin it for everyone. There was a recent dustup where a prominent fighter was disciplined for publicly criticizing the decision to let a tranny fight in the women's league. The UFC president came out in support of said tranny, making it clear that UFC is a safe space for the LGBTQWTF community. Guess it's back to bare-knuckle fight clubs in basements...

  13. Interesting NZT - under that model UFC / MMA is still an epiphenomenon of increased gladiatorial spectacle, but because boxing was going that way, rather than because MMA is more no holds barred.

  14. Late to the party, but another reason for the rise of MMA is that it showcases a lot of white athletes winning extremely violent competition.

    It's no secret that black dominance in boxing led to its decline: Rocky (1976) turned on Apollo Creed needing a legitimate white opponent to draw a bigger crowd; later, the comedy The Great White Hype (1996) made this search for the great white champion (who ultimately is a tomato can) the central joke of the film. And both these movies took from real life: Rocky was inspired by Chuck Wepner (who was one of Ali's white opponents who went alegit 15 rounds with Ali); the Great White Hype was an ode to the hilarious "Hurricane" Peter McNeely's whose hyped match with Mike Tyson ended after only 2 minutes of McNeely getting knocked down.

    The NBA's popularity, too, has fallen off since the 1980s heyday, when the Celtics could field a floor of 5 legit white players. Black dominance has dropped it down. And the NFL is constantly trying to deal with the fact that 70% of its players are violent preening black---mostly by trying to protect the (white) quarterback superstar position. MLB has dropped its percentage of American blacks--replaced by Latino blacks and non-black Latinos, who are are much more media-friendly, laid back, and non-threatening, and it hasn't been hurt by it.

    MMA also served a long time problem of what to do with those excellent wrestlers America had turned out for generations. Since pro wrestling went openly as fake, College and Olympic wrestlers had no professional league in which to hone their skills. Almost all white, MMA was a competition their skills could excel in.

    What is more, blacks do quite poorly in fair fights where grappling is involved. As a former h.s. wrestler, if anyone on the team had a black opponent, the coach (who won several league titles) would always counsel us the same way: "He's going to go crazy for the first minute, but after that he'll be gassed and done. Just hold him off for the first minute and pin him in the next 5". (our matches were three rounds, all 2-minutes each). Sure enough, it was true: I never had a black opponent give me trouble after the first minute, though the first minute they would preen and hot dog and try some crowd-pleasing moves.

    MMA's early matches--at least the ones won by Americans---were dominated by wrestlers. White wrestlers. It didn't take a genius to see that you could have a violent sport dominated by white guys here---thus removing the black problem that infected other sports. And those non-Americans who won tended to be either white or at least non-black---Brazilian Portuguese are not black, and would break your arm for saying so.

    Of course, MMA had to also appeal to the quick-hit-violence that is popular for TV, and so instituted the round system + more frequent standups by refs----thus increasing the percentage of striking in a match, and therefore increasing the percentage of black participants, who do well at standup fighting. But the percentage is still low enough now to draw big white attention and give non-black athletes lots of attention.


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