Escaping the UFC's "Surprise Van"

As a sport, MMA is great and could be even greater. But not until a rotten culture gets fixed.
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Illustration by Brandy Jefferys.

"If a rape van was called a surprise van more women wouldn’t mind going for rides in them. Everyone likes surprises." – Former WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres

"I'm going to put my hands on you worse than that dude did them other kids at Penn State." – Former UFC light heavyweight champion "Sugar" Rashad Evans

"learn how spell dummy!! Assassination!!! The one you spelled is what must have happened to you in prison." - UFC President Dana White

These three comments were made to the public over the course of a few regrettable days. It made for a fresh round of embarrassment for MMA fans and other humans, in large part because of the bleak reminder it offered about MMA's greatest current problem. Namely, that no brutality that happens inside the cage—not the splintered bones or splattered blood or the other moments of ‘tis-but-a-flesh-wound maimery; not the real, live human beings kidnapped by force from lucidity or consciousness—is more repulsive to the sport's potential audience, or repulsive in general, than the UFC’s rape-bro culture. And yet these heartbreaking works of staggering bro-ness still wind up main-lined to a not-negligible chunk of the UFC’s existing consumer base; there isn't a counterpoint.

This has nothing to do with what MMA is on a conceptual level, and sky camera knows it doesn't have anything to do with the thrilling, visceral pull of the sport. But at the same time, it is part of it. These three of the sport's bro-iest avatars distinguished themselves in the above instances, but this sort of thing happens with such regularity that it’s now simply implied that MMA fans not only endorse such behavior, but have it hard-wired into their beings. This is wrong, of course, but if you don't need to think like this to be a MMA fan—most fans don't—you do need to deal with people assuming that you do. And there's no reason why it should be that way.

Every major sport understands the consequences of wholesale association with the image and actions of inherently ugly people. MMA’s kissing cousin, boxing, once dwarfed the sports leagues that have now left it in the dust, for reasons that had a lot to do with how nakedly it appealed to now-outdated norms of masculinity, and the fantasy of consequence-free violence. Lionizing the imagined nobility of taking or delivering a life-altering beating is all well and good until it comes time to pay up. The price was far too many graves filled with the bodies of boxers who died living up to the impossible standard of what being a boxer was thought to mean, the overloaded consciences of the men who doled out those fatal blows and the fragmented minds of those who survived them only in the most basic sense. Go a degree of separation further and boxing’s long history of hush-hush domestic violence and sexual assault lay bare the aftershocks of so plainly celebrating the violence of men with no attention paid to what that means on a day-to-day basis. The NFL, currently the biggest and richest sport in the country, may well wind up reaping all of the above, for all the reasons enumerated above, soon enough.

In short, it’s hard to love anything when you live long enough to see the toll it exacts on those who made you love it in the first place. That boxing continued to deny that a problem even existed for decades didn't help. The sport is now a husk of what it was, both in terms of its following and the product in the ring. The UFC, while inarguably healthier than boxing has been in some time, may well be headed down the exact same path to the margins, for the same reason: a stubborn insistence on denying the existence of a growing and potentially ruinous cultural problem. That would be a shame. Honestly, it already is.

***

The UFC denying a problem—any problem, all problems—isn’t a surprise so much as it's the sport's guiding M.O. What is surprising is that a UFC employee was eventually punished for the sort of florid public ignorance that had previously been treated as little more than an inconvenience by his employer. That employer being Dana White, whose rape-jokesmithery you saw above, and who is already well-known as MMA's most visible pile of all-up-in-the-video smirking flesh.

The pink slip grand prix winner in question was Miguel Torres who, up until now at least, was best known for his backwoods by-way-of-Williamsburg Wolf-mullet and frat house-by-way-of-Twitter pseudo-humor. Now he’s known as the unlucky rape-bro who was released from the UFC for making a rape joke. This turned out to be a temporary arrangement for what amounted to PR purposes, but we’ll get there in a little bit.

What Torres said was shitty, but not in any special way beyond it being a convenient encapsulation of the larger issue. Briefly excising Torres from the UFC roster like some cancerous tumor only serves to obscure the fact that Torres is less illness than symptom. An MMA fan before he was ever an MMA fighter, Torres is an unusually good example of the metastatic Ouroboros in question. He's bro-ish in all the ways you’d expect someone so intertwined with MMA culture to be—loves a good Chuck Norris joke, but is quick to break out pictures of the kid’s martial arts class he teaches when confronted with his own sub-decency. And, of course, he will absolutely refuse to apologize for anything, at least until someone reminds him that he doesn’t run the show.

All told, Torres is just some guy on Twitter making rape jokes because he thinks it makes him cool. Same goes for Rashad Evans, who will fight for a light heavyweight title this weekend, is just some guy making child rape jokes because he thinks it makes him cool. Dana White, for all his power, is just some guy making prison rape jokes because he thinks it makes him cool. White is also the dude firing people for making rape jokes because he thinks it makes him cool, and then rehiring them for the same reason. This is the disease, right here: all the aforementioned nightmare bros serve the same cancerous culture, and reinforce it in the process. Pulsating mound of haywire cell divisions though that crude, cruel rape-bro culture may be, it's not an accident. It’s as intentional as Whole Foods consciously and conscientiously appealing to urban liberals with both money and socioeconomic guilt to spare. No large-scale business thrives the way the UFC has without targeting a consumer base and validating the shit out of them.

This is where things get complicated.

***

Even after the UFC released Torres for his priceless-in-the-worst-way-possible "surprise van" tweet, it was difficult to celebrate the promotion showing a micro-measure of sanity. If anything, what followed made clear that the only thing worse than the UFC doing nothing is the UFC trying to do something.

This is mostly because the main player, as always, is Dana White. The same bro who wields prison-rape like some avenging sword of social media justice and the very same bro laughing at Evans' foray into topical "massive institutional cover-up of child rape" comedy as a means to generate press conference fight-hype. White expressed public disappointment after Evans' Penn State quip, but did nothing more. It was a lot easier, in the end, to engineer the symbolic release of a low-cost, low-profile fighter like Torres than to censure someone like Evans, who has headlined multiple UFC pay-per-views and is next up for reigning UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Context, yo.

The facile symbolism is easier still if the first punishment turns out to be a farce. After a few beta-male mad-libs from UFC fans on free speech and The PC Police, the UFC re-signed Torres. When asked why he had doubled back on the now clearly artificial moral outrage that propelled Torres’ expulsion, White thumbed his nose at any notion of accountability and moved all-in on his small-minded dream world. "Nobody's going to make me second-guess myself," White said, marrying the aggro, empty-headed certainty of George W. Bush to the locutions of a sub-average bouncer. "I know what I did was the right thing, and I know what I'm doing now is the right thing." I’m legitimately starting to wonder if this man is a Cylon.

Now, I’m not saying Torres should still be out of a job. Schadenfreude is fleeting when the subject is part of a much bigger problem and all. But what does need to happen is painfully basic and taken for granted at any business with a high degree of public exposure. In a practical sense, the UFC needs to realize that they can control their image by making their employees understand what is and is not cool to say in public. Legislating thought is an obviously pointless endeavor, but exerting control over what your employees do when they’re representing you is commonsense shit. Especially these employees.

This black hole of common sense collapsed into being when the UFC inexplicably began encouraging its fighters to engage with fans via social media. That decision came with no formal disciplinary protocols, because it’s not like adults who fight for a living have ever come up short in terms of social tact. This model was a born clusterfuck, but the added financial incentives the UFC offers for social media engagement—awards are given for such vague superlatives as "most entertaining"—makes those tone-deaf punchlines and well-earned dry heaves an inevitability. The UFC's social media policy is comprised entirely of grey area, a forbidden zone massive enough to contain everything from xenophobic trolling (see: Sonnen, Chael) to old-timey misogyny (see: LOTS, but, as always, start with Dana White), and most awfulness in between.

Fans are quite understandably turned off by the corporate smile-y face/non-person archetype that has become the default setting for modern athletes, but there is a reason why the major sports are increasingly wary of the PR nightmare machine that is social media. In the span of a few hours an athlete of practically any fame can accumulate an outsized following; probability mandated that it was only a matter of time before a prominent NFL running back with that prominent platform started a 9-11 Truther shitstorm (for instance) in fewer than 140 ill-conceived characters.

All the UFC needs to do to see the folly of its present policy is look around. Or, maybe more directly, take a look at itself. The culture of the UFC at present embodies the worst of our contemporary culture, period—entitled, proudly regressive and mean about both, this is a group so accustomed to having its way that it refuses to acknowledge that any other way even exists. The people selling the UFC to them tell them that's a fine way to be, but it transparently isn't. Calling for decency in the face of indecency seems obvious enough, but in the absence of the former there isn’t much else to be done. And in the absence of even the most basic acknowledgment of the way this makes the sport look and seem—some awareness that something is in fact wrong with some of this stuff—it's tough to expect anything to change. "Nobody's going to make me second-guess myself," remember.

Former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson recently gave us a lovely sneak peek into just how far this shit can go when left unchecked. Y’see, Rampage thought it would be funny if he took part in a video that answers the question, "How much misogyny, transphobia, homophobia and rape-bro-ness can be crammed into 148 seconds?" It wasn't, but presumably Jackington Douchebro of The Consent-Free Times awarded the video an unprecedented FIVE ROOFIES rating. So, that’s something.

It's just not something good. The comments referenced at the top were all made a little over four months ago; Rampage’s video debuted about two weeks ago. The problem clearly isn’t getting better and the timeline suggests it’s getting worse. And the worse it gets, the closer MMA gets to a manufactured inevitability. This isn't to say that this is a sport in crisis, but a sport without any accountability to itself can slip into crisis so easily and so quickly. There's nothing to stop it, after all.

The actions outlined above don’t just spring forth from some causation-free void. The environments we occupy invariably steer us in one direction or another and the privilege heavy world of the professional athlete is not one that encourages social awareness or responsibility. The UFC is taking that one step further, and there are already plenty of examples that point to there being something deeply wrong with the entrenched culture of MMA.

Mike Whitehead is now a registered sex offender after sexually assaulting two women. Tito Ortiz was arrested for domestic violence, but avoided a court case after his wife recanted the charges—this despite a police report that states she had "visible injuries." Brett Rogers was arrested for third degree assault on his wife and the accompanying police report is nothing short of horrifying. Neo-Nazi and registered sex offender Brandon Saling managed to make it onto a Zuffa-run card. Frank Trigg stands accused of spousal abuse. Justin Levens killed himself and his wife in an apparent murder-suicide.

None of those crimes, alleged and otherwise, are Dana White's fault, of course. But they don't exist in a vacuum, either. Keeping all this in mind, how long before a big name collecting a Zuffa paycheck commits the kind of headline-grabbing crime that no amount of public relations or half-assed apologies can bleach away? If the present state of affairs remains as is, it’s just a matter of time before MMA gets its own Mike Tyson or, even worse, its own Carlos Monzon.

It is so easy to see how this outcome could be prevented, but the problems and scenarios above are things Dana White refuses to acknowledge, let alone address. Something as simple as instituting a clear and consistently applied social media policy does not compute because it reeks of admitting fault. That disconnect with self-analysis—not lie-down-on-the-couch insight, but basic business adaptation to actual circumstances—has long been a trademark of the White regime, and seems likely to remain so if only because nothing and no one will hold him to account for it. No renegade promoter is going to build a product that can compete with the UFC, if only because White could run them into the ground and/or buy it out for pennies on the dollar before any serious competition could ever play out. If past is any prologue, petro-dictator dollars (and petro-dictator survival skills) are a must for anyone looking to survive a one-on-one with the UFC.

And so we get what we get. A thrilling sport effectively owned by a too-big-to-be-challenged corporation, which is in turn run by a narcissist desperate to prove that he isn't the sweaty amateur he was presumed to be in the UFC's early days.

And all this for…what, exactly? For the defense of the big-swinging-dick rebel cred that White prizes above all else? For the hollow confidence of never admitting a mistake, in the childish delusion that a mistake ignored is a mistake not made? No one who cares about the sport wants this status quo to stretch forward indefinitely. Doing things the same way, over and over, is nothing more than a great way to set a surprise timer on your own failure. What that failure will look like is the UFC remaining exactly what it is now—a reasonably successful sports franchise that can maintain a kinda-sorta mainstream presence, but one that is constantly stabbing itself in the leg to prove a nonexistent point—instead of becoming what it should and quite easily could be.

Look, people hitting each other for sport has always been a thing and anything we’ve been doing since day one exists for a reason, some good and others not-so-much. In the case of professional fighting, the root of its existence lies in the unspoken understanding that a fight is how we learn about ourselves and whether we truly live up to our imagined selves. We’d all like to imagine that we’d fight out of that choke even as the lights go out. We’d all like to imagine that we would get up after that left hook to the jaw. We all like to imagine those things for ourselves. However, as anyone who has experienced either can tell you, the dude on the other end doesn’t give a crap about your idealized self-image. Given that, what better way is there to stretch the limits of your physical and mental strength than to fight someone who harbors no regard for either? And what greater drama is there than to see that play out? To see wills compete, in the only competition that all humans know, has always been and always will be.

To some, the loud, entropic heat death of all that grandeur will seem a fitting destiny for a sport deemed a barbaric exercise in human failure. Okay, fine: not everyone is going to enjoy the paradox between the profane and beautiful when the two clash on such straightforward terms. But if you can accept that often-uncomfortable paradox as your measure of sport then you’ll find no more philosophically pure or viscerally exciting expression of that ethereal concept than MMA. A sport this thrilling can succeed in the real world that exists far beyond the one it presently inhabits. At the very least, it deserves a chance.

The faster the UFC escapes White's rape-bro frat house, the faster it gets there. It will be a fight.


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