Travel Journal (#1): The Political Economy of Ultimate Fighting

I was 13 years old when I first heard of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. A friend of mine sent me a link to a highlight video featuring a series of rotund men trading haymakers in the centre of an octagonal cage. Thousands of predominantly Caucasian spectators cheered on the brutality in the background, whilst a solemn-faced referee in black pants and a polo shirt paced anxiously a few metres away from the action. Emblazoned on the canvass floor were three huge letters: U F C.

I remember feeling slightly nauseous at what I saw. Although by this time I had begun training in boxing at a local gym, what was unfolding in front of me bore no resemblance to the sweet science I was becoming accustomed to. Many of the men didn’t wear gloves, and their punches and kicks were wild and imprecise. When a fighter was staggered by a well placed strike, they weren’t given ten seconds to catch their breath – their opponent followed them to the floor, beating them until they were unconscious or their corner threw in the towel. My friend Jack stated aptly in the attached message: “this isn’t like boxing. These fights end when you’re cold”. Raised in a conservative Christian household where the television viewing guidelines were interpreted literally, I simply wasn’t prepared for the violence that was unfolding in front of me. I turned it off.

11 years later, I am about to fly the United States, where I will spend ten weeks immersing myself in the world of Mixed Martial Arts – the same world that had repelled me just over a decade ago. I’ll be meeting with active and former fighters, managers, journalists, fighter associations and promoters in an effort to better understand and articulate the economic and labour dimensions of the world’s fastest growing sport, and the viability of reforms like the Ali Expansion Act and unionisation.

The working title is “The Political Economy of Ultimate fighting”, and it’s something I’ve been working towards for the last two years.

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The book will be about about the political economy of ultimate fighting. It will analyse the economic and labour dimensions of the world’s “fastest growing sport” and how it is the UFC could be sold for over four billion dollars in July 2016 whilst paying its fighters a median sum of $30K per fight. It will provide a critical history of the promotion and its most problematic and controversial aspects: a predatory bonus system, an apparel agreement that robs most fighters of accruing vital sponsorship income, a history of bullying fighters and journalists who voice criticism and a president who spends as much time denigrating his champions as he does promoting them. It will assess the viability of reform efforts that have gained traction since the UFC’s sale – including expanding the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to cover MMA fighters, and fighters forming a certified trade union – and will imagine what the sport would look if either of these initiatives come to fruition.

The inspiration for this project came from many places, but first and foremost is a genuine passion for combat sports and MMA in particular. Despite my initial repulsion at the UFC of the 1990s – marketed as an unregulated, no holds-barred spectacle where contests could only end by KO, submission or “death” – like many young men I fell totally in love with the sport of the 2000s. I idolised the legends of this era, watching endless compilation videos of Tito Ortiz, Chuck Lidell, Randy Couture and BJ Penn. I was captivated by their tenacity and athleticism and bought into the various narratives the UFC built around its biggest fights. By the time I was 16, I was building my weekends around the biggest pay-per-view events, and when I was 18 I competed in boxing as an amateur. Today I watch and listen to tens of hours of combat-related content per week, and am a regular contributor to MMA websites MMASucka and Fight News Australia. In short, I love fighting; why not write a book about it?

The second, related, motivation for this book is a deep concern for the health and longevity of MMA, and for the legions of men and women who put their bodies on the line to entertain us. Like many fans and commentators, I am dismayed by how the UFC – the torchbearer for MMA and increasingly for combat sports more generally – mistreats and exploits its athletes. I believe that change is necessary as a matter of both economic justice and for the survival of the sport.

The third reason is that these are narratives that have yet to be explored in a comprehensive and critical way. Whilst there is no shortage of fighter autobiographies, and at least three books tracking the growth and development of MMA as a sport,[1] to my knowledge there are none that attempt to analyse the commercial and regulatory features of the MMA industry, or even address the efforts of fighter groups to improve their pay and conditions. Perhaps this is because these topics do not endear themselves to the average MMA fan. Or that those best placed to examine them – members of the MMA media – know that it would likely come at the expense of their press credentials to cover UFC events and possibly their careers. Maybe there just hasn’t been enough to write about until now.

Either way, I’ve deferred a job as a trainee lawyer for 12 months to tell this story.

Wish me luck.

travel

 

[1] Clyde Gentry III, No Holds Barred: The Complete History of Mixed Martial Arts in America (Triumph Books, 2011); Jonathan Snowden, Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting (ECW Press, 2008); Jonathan Snowden, Kendall Shields and Peter Lockley, The MMA Encyclopedia (ECW Press, 2010).

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