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Ultimate Fighting’s Grim Role

By Marcel E. Moran

For just $55 these days, you can bring yourself to within feet of fighters viciously attacking each other, and pay-per-view is always available if you cannot make the trip. While this may not be all that popular in your social circle, Ultimate Fighting has been known to gather audiences of over 21000 spectators, crowds whose sizes would exceed capacity of Madison Square Garden. In terms of its scope through television viewership, Ultimate Fighting, run professionally by Ultimate Fighting Championships programming, had the highest ratings for males aged 18-34 on its cable network affiliate. Although the current owners of this mixed martial arts league bought the company for $2 million, Forbes Magazine now rates the company at just over $1 billion. It is not the rise in the popularity of this brutal “sport” that is so shocking; rather, it is the shift in the nature of spectator sports in general that UFC signals that makes this new phenomenon so notable.

If professional boxing was ever in any way elegant, UFC has stripped away any of that grace. Based off a form of Brazilian jiu jitsu, which literally translates as “anything goes,” UFC fights, which take place in an octagonal cage, involve flurries of punches, kicks, takedowns, wrestling, and, every so often, a knee to the face. Ultimate Fighting does have a set of rules to which all play must adhere, but even when the prohibitions against eye gouging and against kicking the head of a grounded opponent are accounted for, the result is still a fierce and brutal bout. An onlooker of sports could, over time, feasibly point out that the recent surge of interest in this sport is not altogether different from the popularity of professional wrestling, but there is, in fact, a key difference between the two. Whereas a great part of the fun of professional wrestling stems from the universally acknowledged truth of its theatricality and phoniness, the comforting truth that none of its wrestlers are ever hurt  (except emotionally, when they maligned in the skits and costumes that come after each fight), UFC’s compelling quality is its inescapable authenticity.

The fake blood and traded insults of World Wrestling Entertainment are intended to excite fans with their dramatic likeness, but it is UFC’s actual fighting, real pain, and serious bodily harm that makes it so exciting. Although both venues allow for violence to serve as a form of mass entertainment, that UFC has progressed so far by riding a wave of enthusiasm for actual violence is far more disconcerting. There are many sports that incorporate physical contact, but unlike UFC, personal injury is always a secondary consequence of the game, never its purpose. Professional football and hockey are two truly physically violent games, but they each contain a constructive goal that supersedes the bodily contact in importance. Ultimate Fighting, on the other hand, puts the focus solely on its violence, which renders it a uniquely and distinctly destructive experience. In place of teamwork, sportsmanship, and health benefits, UFC places egoism, detachment, and physical harm.

As much as UFC perpetuates aggressive behavior and brutality, it not only increases the violence of our collective experience, but it also changes the way in which we view spectator sports and athletes in general. For many of us, the appeal of watching professional athletes stems from our amateur days of childhood athletics; we watch our favorite baseball players because we once wanted to be one of them (It is hard to find a youngster who does not want to be a professional athlete when they grow up). Ultimate Fighting changes this relationship by providing a sporting spectacle that few people were taught about as children or experience for themselves as adults. Onlookers of Ultimate Fighting thus know exceedingly little about the seriousness of the action and inevitably become distanced from the athletic experience. With less appreciation of the fitness, strength, and agility that is required of the athletes in these bouts, a fan will objectify these men rather than empathize with them as they might a baseball player or a basketball player.

While the popularity of the UFC may someday wane like any other secondary spectator sport in our culture, during its current moment of glory, it will send an unsettling message and provide an unsavory example of violence as substance. Even if our immunity from impressionability is as strong as we believe it to be, any dip in our ability to separate UFC from our own lives could have ultimately deleterious consequences.

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.

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