When Will the Mainstream Media Approach Combat Sports from the Head, Rather Than the Ass?


I am currently traveling in Europe, and news reached me that Australia has had a sudden change of prime ministers. Eager to share in the good news, I googled The Age Newspaper Online.

In addition to reports on the change of leadership, I discovered there was an article about the press conference for UFC 193, due to be held in Melbourne on November 15.

I was as interested to read the article as I was in who had written it. A good friend of mine – who is an outstanding writer and former AFL player – works as a sports columnist for The Age. He has written about MMA in the past and I was curious to see if it was his work.

Instead, the article was written by Greg Baum, credited as the paper’s ‘senior sports columnist’. I thought it might have been something of a turn-around; The Age has long been unsympathetic to MMA.

It seems, along with the rest of the uneducated populace, to confuse mixed martial arts with what is essentially a brand-name, UFC.

Baum didn’t like it, which is nothing surprising.

As a former fighter who began in traditional martial arts and moved into kickboxing, I’m not entirely comfortable with the kinds of permissible strikes and accordingly, the injuries inflicted in MMA. Even more troubling is the lack of sportsmanship and the kind of aggression that is present outside of the cage between combatants, especially in the UFC.

Colleagues were encouraging me to watch MMA many years before the rise of the modern UFC. I felt that Senator John McCain, who described it as ‘human cockfighting’ had hit the nail on the head, and I was not interested.

I then became involved with MMA fighters through the course of my training, most notably when I trained in Holland with the now UFC-contracted heavyweight, Alistair Overeem. Interacting with him – and other mixed martial artists – on a technical level forced me to re-evaluate my opinion.

Baum also took umbrage with the fact that headliner, Ronda Rousey, was declared the world’s most dominant sportswoman in a US poll, ahead of Serena Williams.

Serena Williams is far more experienced than Ronda Rousey in terms of presenting herself to the public through the kaleidoscope of the media; accordingly, Rousey is quite coarse in many of the things she says.

Good sportsmanship is an essential feature of both tennis and Williams’ professional comportment, but Rousey is on a mighty trajectory and no doubt learning as she goes. Public scrutiny is the largest hurdle that causes professional athletes to stumble and fall.

Rousey is articulate and smiles often; she’s going to get there. She is headlining what is traditionally an entirely male-dominated sport. Not even Laila Ali could draw the kind of attention Rousey has. She may well be redefining sport for a new era.

The most striking feature of Baum’s article, however, is his cursory sentence to explain UFC (and presumably MMA) to his readers:

“The aesthetic of a UFC bout is a cross between the bottom of an AFL pack, mating centipedes and the business end of a porno.”

My mother used to say that it was best not to dignify the comments of an ass by supplying a response, but the basic invalidity both Baum’s comments and point-of-view is nestled here.

An AFL pack is more than two people. Centipedes don’t have arms – or elbows for that matter – and lastly, comes the reference to porn. Which raises the question: what sort of porn is Baum watching? I can only assume that it involves a lot of blood and violence. Freudian slip, indeed.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with MMA, even after watching a considerable amount of it and training with some of its most outstanding proponents, even recently traveling to Poland with Australia’s best heavyweight, Peter Graham, to assist with his prep, watch him fight and finally write about the experience for Fight! Magazine.

However, I understand that the public fascination with the sport is growing, along with the size of its audience. It is very clearly a sport according to the same properties that define tennis and AFL.

All of them require immense strength, fitness, technique and fortitude. If anything, MMA transcends the others because, as Ernest Hemingway said,

“Boxing and bullfighting are more than sports. They are elevated to the status of ritual because of the blood that is in them.”

We’re still not certain what MMA says about us as a culture, or what its effect will be. However, the discussion requires an educated perspective and a willingness to engage.

Culturally, you might find mixed martial arts offensive, grotesque and distasteful. However, like boxing and bullfighting, you cannot deny it.

Grow up, Greg Baum. And write like an adult.

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