Know what’s almost as interesting as mixed martial arts itself? The ‘politics’ of the MMA world. Part of what is most interesting to me, perhaps to due to my own involvement in the journalism industry, is the media’s approach towards the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
A recent feature in The New York Times, a beautifully illustrated, graphic-novel-style September 22nd piece entitled “Tomato Can Blues,” prompted this post, due to my interest in, and knowledge of, the sport and my years-long analysis of bias found in mainstream media. Its gorgeous layout and engrossing story captivated me and I found myself sharing the article. Friends excitedly sent it to me, as well: “Hey, A.J. — did you see this piece about MMA in The Times?”
But upon revisiting the article, and considering the source of publication, I found myself wondering: Is this piece actually somewhat of a veiled criticism — or attack — on the world of MMA, albeit likely unintentional?
In essence, the story revolves around an MMA fighter (amateur, to be sure) who faked his own death to seek a fresh start, after a terribly dubious lifestyle. Reading like a Guy Ritchie film, it is fascinating, unquestionably so.
Let’s consider, however, the bottom-line essence that one takes away from this: the stereotypical image of the “cage fighter” not as a dedicated, somber, law-abiding, educated, elite athlete… but rather as, in this extreme, a brawler who’s a criminal. The profile is that of a cocaine user and drug dealer; registered sex offender; who served time for check fraud; with a Grim Reaper tattoo (of course); who fathered children with three different women but ‘drifted from all of them’; and who owed money to other drug dealers, faked his own death, then committed armed robbery.
Pause for a moment and take that all in.
For years, the world of mixed martial arts has worked hard to combat this inaccurate image — yet this is the one on which The New York Times dedicates a multiple-page, costly spread? Hmm.
Let’s also take a look at some of the phrases used in the article:
“cage fights” and “cage fighting”
[*To be fair, the description of the fights that looked more like “barroom brawls” in a “dank nightclub” was in reference to a particular amateur promotion. But, if the Times and certain writers are aware of the often seedy nature of the amateur circuit, why has the Times not done more to help legalize mixed martial arts in NY where, currently, professional MMA is outlawed but amateur MMA is perfectly legal? In fact, a few paragraphs in, the article even mentions that ‘shadow fighting circuits’ have sprung up in New York City itself.]
“Mixed martial arts was born as a seedy sport on the fringes of society” (me: entirely inaccurate; in fact, Bruce Lee is often credited as the father of mixed martial arts. Is a renowned legend such as Bruce Lee ‘fringe’?)
“chain link walls”
“These [amateur bouts] are not carefully negotiated bouts between millionaires trailing personal nutritionists and publicists.” (Me: Hang on.. So according to this, it’s one of two extremes — either the seedy amateur-bouts world… or it’s pampered millionaires with ‘publicists’?)
“Over the years, [MMA] has grown into a mainstream spectacle…” (me: spectacle???)
Near the end of the piece, the article notes that, upon finding out this troubled man faked his death, “the cage fighters felt betrayed,” furious that the sport’s name had been “sullied.” Never fear, though — The New York Times is here to make sure everyone hears this tale and thus do its part in sullying it further.
Like much of the mainstream media, some journalists have often taken a skeptical, if not critical, view of MMA. Much of this stems from their old-guard approach to sports journalism — the UFC’s way of operating has changed the rules and Dana White’s openness and direct access (be it on Twitter or elsewhere) had blurred the gatekeeper role that sports journalists at traditional outlets (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, New York Times) once held. No longer are sports media’s most coveted writers the ones who decide how or when information gets out, how it is presented, or molding fans’ opinion — they are bypassed, as relics of a bygone era. There is, moreover, the general ignorance about the sport: though this decreases daily, there persists a strange notion, prevalent among the Ivy-League educated white males of New York and D.C., that this is a barbaric ‘blood sport.’ (As is the case with politics, those at the top of the media chain are hopelessly out of touch with middle America.) They cling to this notion, even though study after study proves mixed martial arts is safer than our cherished and thorougly accepted pastimes of football or, heck, even safer than cheerleading.
Then, in my own opinion, there is a third element feeding the old-media’s tendency to scoff or ignore MMA and, hang on, this one may surprise you or be a bit controversial but hear me out. Most sports journalists tend to be men in their 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s. They look at an NBA or NFL team owner: it’s usually a perfectly nice man in his late 60’s, an old-fashioned style tycoon, who stays out of the public eye for the most part, and has a quiet, albeit wealthy, life. We shrug our shoulders and continue watching the game. Then there’s Dana White. White lives the life that any man would likely choose if he could have a ‘do-over.’ Incredible success, a family, private jet travel, and fans who beg for him to acknowledge their existence with something as small as a Tweet. Add to that his abrasive, no-b.s. approach, as well as his position in the limelight, and none of this is appealing to a male journo who is insecure or suffering a mid-life crisis. You see, in White most sports writers have their comparable counterpart (under 50, white male) — thus a subsconscious comparison is inevitable that may result in an envy-rooted disdain for White and thus a disdain for the sport (think only women are catty towards one another? think again). Plus, here he is bypassing your way of doing things and speaking his mind on certain journalists and outlets. “What?! He can’t do that! We’re the media! We can make or break anything!” Well, it used to be that way — no longer, sorry. So the reaction is to scoff at White, and thereby scoff at or dismiss the sport. It’s easier than chucking the competitive envy and embracing White’s success. (Pretty much all this applies to Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, as well, just to make things even more complicated!)
But back to The New York Times. Why publish and heavily promote this piece that perpetuates the stereotype of the brute-as-an-MMA fighter? The New York Times has long ignored mixed martial arts and, to a large degree, still does. Its Sports page looks like this:
Notice “MMA” does not have its own category heading, despite its tremendous popularity. Presumably, it’s lumped under “Global Sports.” And sure, it is a global sport. But why isn’t soccer similarly chucked under the catch-all “global sport” heading?
If one runs a search for any articles about the UFC on the NYT’s site (across any section, not just sports), in the past 12 months? A weak seven articles arise: two are about FS1, one about films, and another with “cage fighting” in the title. (Hey dorks: no one calls it ‘cage fighting’ except maybe John McCain circa 1996.)
I would like to believe The New York Times is interested in the sport of mixed martial arts and that the nation’s paper of record will earnestly attempt to cover it and provide some excellent journalism on the sport. This featured article, however, is not a good indication of its intentions.
What do you all think? Let me know your thoughts in the Comments below.