God, Violence, And Mixed Martial Arts

How is it that so many of the most effectively violent people alive proclaim faith in a religious tradition that teaches the opposite? It's less complicated than it seems.
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My Sunday mornings now would not recognize the Sunday mornings of my childhood. As the son of a pastor, the Sabbaths of my youth were remembered and kept holy, spent mostly in the halls of Sunday school. Now, given the time zone I live in, I spend most Sunday mornings watching professional fighters try to bash each other into unconsciousness.

These would seem to be very different things, and in almost every way they are. The one commonality is that the number of times I hear Jesus’ name on Sunday mornings has not fallen off all that much. On any UFC card on any given weekend, after any given fight, you will hear the words “all thanks and glory to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” from someone who has just beaten the stuffing out of another child of God.

All this compounds into a weekly exercise in existential reconciliation: why and how do so many Fishers of Men work as Vicious Punchers of Men?

In Sunday school, I learned about two gods: God the Father and God the Son. The Holy Spirit was always around, but he seemed more like an annoying tag-along than anything else; that he was embodied by a bird (the worst kind of pet) made perfect sense. Together, Father and Son represented opposite bookends, with punishment on one side and salvation on the other. 

The Old Testament Father, oddly or not, always struck me as more of an angry older brother, throwing violent smiting tantrums so that his smaller, weaker cousins could have all the good rides to themselves, with plenty of milk and honey to go around. As a young boy who spent a great deal of time playing with Micro Machines and watching Dragonball Z, this type of deity appealed more to me than meek, righteous, sheep-hugging Jesus. If God was laying fools out with explosive fireball rainstorms, I wanted to be on His side.

God the Son in the New Testament, aka Jesus, was more like, well, my dad. He was always patient and loving, His anger less terrifying than cause for reflection. He seemed nice and all, but Jesus was not the guy I wanted with me to ride on my enemies, which is the sort of thing one thinks about a lot as a pre-teen. Vengeful violence is just so much more badass than sacrificial forgiveness, although it’s worth noting that “badass” is not a term heard all that often in divinity school.

Oddly enough, modern pugilists don’t invoke hardcore Old Testament scripture like Deuteronomy 7:16 (“You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you”). Rather, they insist on rocking headbands, shirts, banners and tattoos of flowery New Testament verses of the John 3:16 variety. Even the UFC’s estranged champion Jon Jones has Philippians 4:13 scribed across his chest, signifying that he can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens him, up to and including blowing fat lines of coke during training. 

It would make more sense, if the men and women whose career is to assault others to the legally permissible limit, gave effusive thanks and praise to the Old Testament God of Hellfire. They don’t. Though counterintuitive on a cosmetic level, fighters are a natural fit for Jesus’ message of eternal life at a more essential level.

The rush of combat as elite fighters experience it is something most people will never truly know. My first martial arts instructor, a Kung Fu master who was usually reserved and Zen-like, once told me: “You won’t know what it means to be alive until someone really punches you in the face.” The energy surge of a fight, even one that's brief and drunk and stupid, is unlike anything else. I'm no adrenaline junkie, but I've swum with sharks, jumped out of a couple planes, and performed on stages in front of hundreds of people; in most of those cases I was basically sober. None of those delivered the kick of the handful of scraps that my shitheaded youthful ego dragged me into. There is nothing, not even the irrational-unto-suicidal act of jumping out of a plane, so uncertain as fighting with another person.

It is easier to trust a parachute than a person. In a fight, you're at the mercy of your opponent should anything happen to you. Even in a regulated, refereed fracas, fighters train to go until either the bell or the ref stops them—or just until you feel like it, if you're Rousimar Palhares. Any momentary lapse, hesitance or negligence on the official's end could have potentially dramatic consequences; one too many blows to the head when you’re already out, or a few more seconds of holding onto a choke, and the effects could be permanent. Mixed martial artists are the best at what they do, and what they do is beat the living shit out of each other. There are fewer variables here than in a street fight, but the stakes are incalculably higher.

The difference between winning and losing a fight, of knocking someone out or getting knocked out, is to walk the thin line between immortality and mortality. “Bite the fruit and you’ll be like God,” the Serpent said, “or don’t, and be the lame version of God. Your call.” If the Garden of Eden was the Octagon—I know, I know—the forbidden fruit would no doubt be a concussive overhand. In a single moment, a fighter is either dead weight or deified. It is this enshrouding uncertainty, this understanding of power as a value-neutral force, that is at the heart of both fighters and Christians. 

Spend a day in either a church or a gym, and you will meet people who are there for their own reasons, who exist at various points along various continuums—smart people and not-smart people, empathetic people and assholes, everything in between every other possible thing. But fighters and religious folk alike carry the weight of  the knee-jerk assumptions associated with them. It makes sense that those who are stubborn enough to make fighting a viable career also possess the faith and persistence required to believe in things unseen.

But who among men can see into the heart of a man? Between the cultural ties of Latin American fighters to Catholicism, the outspoken evangelism of guys like Benson Henderson, and the obvious dissonance of the aforementioned Jones’ professed beliefs and actual behavior, it’s hard to say what each fighter’s religiosity is really about. I get it; I’ve been to plenty of church events that were apparently transcendent experiences for some people, but which for me were nothing more than a nice service. A fight, though, is a spiritual experience even for non-believers. Maybe not every single time, but often enough. Religious or not, every fighter lives with his or her toes dipped at least a little bit into something bigger. Doing this dangerous thing, over and over, demands as much.

The most significant similarity between the two is the churning tide of solipsism and death that runs deep through the heart of both. They stem from the notion that, through either religion or fighting, a higher self can be realized, and more to the point that suffering and even death can be negotiated. 

Those who fight for a living put their bodies and beliefs on the line in a way that is unique in contemporary life, at least outside of active-duty military members. As part of their daily regimen, fighters encounter highly skilled people trying to hurt them. Surely most fighters see all this as somewhat monotonous, the same sort of business-as-usual tedium that defines the way most of us see our jobs. But their work shocks the system as a matter of course: a devastating defeat, a monstrous win, one epic fight and everything can change. The moment is loaded, and dangerous; the whole crushing weight of the world is there, and so it helps to have something else there, too.

I am no longer much of a religious person or a fighter at this point in my life. But the best of both religion and fighting seem to arrive at the same destinations: a greater knowledge of self and a removal, or at least mitigation, of death’s sting. Next time you watch a fight, whatever time zone you’re in, consider the Dantean rigors these fighters endure for the chance to feel the rush of eternity in a moment. And should you choose to attend the House of God the morning after a fight? It’s less contradictory than it seems. There’s nothing’s wrong with going to church twice in a week.

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