Saturday, February 20, 2016

"More than just a chaotic brawl" (MMA)

This is on my

Dec. 22, 2015 "More than just a chaotic brawl": I cut out this article by Joe O 'Connor in the Edmonton Journal on Apr. 18, 2015.  It's about MMA.  I like MMA so I had to cut it out.  I wrote the script The Vertex Fighter about being an MMA fighter:

It is a story he tells in The Professor in the Cage, a new book about one man’s journey from struggling academic to mixed martial arts badass, but also about some fundamental questions: why do men fight, and why do we like to watch them?

Little boys fight. Canada’s Public Health Agency reports about 20% of Canadian boys in Grade 6 get in a fight each year. But fighting behaviour decreases with age, as does our tolerance for it. Anti-bullying campaigns now abound in schools and in the workplace. Personal scores and business disputes end with lawsuits, instead of pistols at dawn or fists in an alleyway.

Much of the violence we commit is now done at arm’s length — by way of technology. Canadian soldiers charged up Vimy Ridge in 1917. Today, a drone might do the trick. The most dangerous behaviour most North American men engage in is driving a car. And there is a good chance it is a minivan, a boxy emblem of masculine decline.

But if culture has changed, human evolution is slow. Men once fought over food, territory, status, stuff and mates — and they watched each other fight to figure out who the best fighters were. Thousands of years later, men can’t just bonk their neighbours over the head with a rock and take what is theirs. But that doesn’t mean some part of the male brain isn’t thinking about it.

“Fighting is hardwired into us, it is a part of who we are,” says David Carrier, a biology professor at the University of Utah. (Our evolutionary cousins, chimpanzees, are not that different, he adds: they have lifelong relationships with others, but are also maniacal killers.)

Maybe the real question isn’t why we like watching men fight, but why wouldn’t we like watching men fight?

“We all say we hate violence,” says Gottschall. “But we are still shovelling it in our faces, consuming a huge diet of violent entertainment through movies and video games and sports, and so I think we should just admit it: something in us likes violence.”

He’s right: the most watched television event in the United States each year is a stylized version of hand-to-hand combat known as the Super Bowl. The Olympics feature the javelin, hammer throw, shot put and other assorted feats of strength, speed and endurance. All skills that can win a modern competitor a gold medal, but were applied equally well in ancient Greece when it came time to strap on the swords and defend the frontier.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is perhaps the least disguised modern metaphor we have for hand-to-hand combat. It may not be a fight to the death, but a University of Toronto study published last year in the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded a mixed martial artist suffers a traumatic brain injury in almost a third of professional bouts. That is a higher rate of head trauma than in hockey, football — and even boxing.

MMA fighters strike with their fists, which are padded, and their feet and knees, which are not. The goal isn’t scoring goals, but beating your opponent into submission (or unconsciousness). The Canadian Medical Association urged the provinces to ban the sport five years ago, fearing the long-term health implications for competitors.

But that didn’t happen. Ultimate Fighting Championship, the A-list fight league for those who like the rough stuff, has held 17 events in Canada since 2008, including several sellouts in Montreal, grossing about $60 million in gate receipts. (The privately owned company does not disclose its pay-per view television numbers). TSN attracts about 200,000 viewers to its UFC broadcasts, similar to the audience for Toronto Raptors games.

And the violence is clearly the draw: Nancy Cheever, a communications professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, had seen MMA events on TV and wondered why anyone would watch such a brutal spectacle. So she interviewed 3,000 MMA fans for a study published in the Journal of Sport.

“Men get a visceral experience from watching MMA. It is like watching the gladiators, and maybe it is because they are not fighters themselves,” she says.

Gottschall admits even during all his years as a tennis-playing wimp he was a closet MMA fan. He would rent fight videos and watch them in his basement, feeling ashamed, but unable to look away.

But there may be more to it than simple blood lust.

Mark Hominick, a nine-time Canadian MMA champion who ranks among the most popular Canadians ever to compete in the UFC, says that a cage fight is not a chaotic brawl but an art form.

He was introduced to the sport at age 13 during a high school field trip and loved it because of the grab bag of skills required to compete — boxing, kick-boxing, wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu — and for the competition itself. Particularly those soul-searching, incredibly lonely moments, in otherwise evenly matched fights, where both men were being pushed to their breaking points.

“Being at that edge, and passing through that barrier, was my favourite part of fighting,” he says.

It wasn’t beating the other guy, so much as beating down his internal doubts. Hominick won fights by kicks, punches, arm-bars and chokes. And he lost by the same. But he never viewed an opponent as the enemy.

“I never wanted to hurt anybody,” he says.

Cheever found that many of the MMA fans she interviewed were also less interested in who got hurt than in the beauty, for example, of seeing a well-executed chokehold.

I can relate. The last time I got in a fight was in Grade 4. I’m deathly afraid of horror movies and currently going soft in all the wrong places sitting at a desk writing. But I also love watching boxing. Not for the knockouts, but for the narratives. For the uncertainty of the outcome and the human virtues displayed.

Fighting takes courage. Toughness. Tenacity. It is an ancient, violent story. And in the end we get a triumph, and a human tragedy; only one fighter wins a fight.

Afterwards, the combatants invariably embrace, a tender gesture common to dozens of primate species after one male tries to bash in another’s head during ritual combat.

“You hug because you understand how hard your opponent has trained,” Hominick says. “And any fighter can say that they are not scared, but there is always fear, no matter how much experience you have.

“It takes a brave person to step in the cage and to go there.”

So what about the professor, did he go there?

Gottschall went to Shrader’s gym expecting to discover a bunch of sociopaths and found a collection of average guys instead. Accountants and miners and students and blue-collar types, mostly in their 20s, and mostly searching for a primeval test in a world without woolly mammoths. (But there are lots of MMA gyms, including about a dozen in the greater Pittsburgh area alone.)

“I came to see MMA, especially at the amateur level, as a fairly healthy way for men to explore their capacities,” he says. “To have a chance to struggle and to demonstrate, at least to themselves, that they have the right stuff.”

Gottschall’s test came at an amateur MMA event at a hockey arena in Johnstown, Pa. He had spent 15 months getting hit and twisted and bent and battered in Shrader’s gym, preparing for the violence. He was in the best shape of his life. He had muscles you could actually see. His opponent was Justin McCloskey, a 24-year-old he knew nothing about.
The bell rang. The fight was on.

Gottschall drove his shoulder into the younger man’s belly, wrapping up his knees, a takedown he describes in the book as “maybe the coolest thing I have ever accomplished in my life.”

He had the kid pinned, and was readying for the kill, when McCloskey slithered free and flipped him like a pancake, grabbing his arm and yanking it to its snapping point.
Gottschall tapped his opponent’s leg, a gesture of surrender. The fight had lasted 47 seconds. The English professor had lost to an aspiring nurse.

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