Fighting the Good Fight

By DAN DEMETRIOU  |  August 25, 2010

So we can think of the UFC as an emblem of honor in its most basic and least lethal formulation. Fighting, after all, is the most basic form of conflict, and the most primitive form of status is one's fighting prowess. So the purest exemplars of the honor code will always be the warriors: real, imagined, or in the case of the cage-fighter, somewhere in between. Why is it important for us to see these exemplars? Well, for one, because honor is a good thing: the alchemy of honor is that it transforms aggression from a mere explosion of frustration or a drive to dominate others into a quest for something far more innocuous: status. Sure, status can be its own route to power — but while the UFC belt may bring fame and fortune, it doesn't bring Brock Lesnar control of the United States armed forces. This is something for which to be thankful.

Another reason we should be glad for the UFC and MMA (which have taken the spotlight from boxing, perhaps because they more closely resemble real fights), is that these forums provide the young and violent with an example of violence "done right." Though it isn't part of the rule book, the unspoken code of UFC is such that many fighters touch hands at the start of each match and sometimes each round — a battlefield courtesy that developed organically in the MMA movement. Fighters not uncommonly hug, congratulate, and even kiss each other on the cheek moments after even the most brutal bouts. The image presented is of men who have made peace with violence. These very tough motherfuckers have opponents, not enemies. They have fully detached anger and malice from their violence. They don't let their violence bleed out beyond its proper bounds.

After all, honor codes are neither locked in the past nor uniform in the present. As the Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson helped show in his groundbreaking 1994 work Code of the Street, violent inner-city kids operate according to the laws of their own raw and untutored form of honor. (We already recognize it as our duty to shape these codes: the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, for instance, is running a pilot program for at-risk youth called, significantly, "Becoming a Man," or "BAM.") It thus seems commonsensical that young men growing up in situations of lawlessness and personal danger would respond more easily to an ethic that doesn't condemn conflict, but redirects it toward strong, equal opponents — as opposed to innocent bystanders caught unawares. The logic governing, say, Couture vs. Toney might just be uniquely positioned to elevate the ethic by which these troubled kids already live.

Faced with the carnage of violence run amok, we have rejected the notion that hand-to-hand combat can serve a social good — even as we've embraced the idea, in sublimated but increasingly less civilized realms such as sports and politics and business, that ruthless conflict is morally enriching. Young men (and women, but mostly men) seem drawn to actual fighting as a context for self-discovery and self-improvement. And yet the increasing social emphasis on safety and peacefulness frustrates this deeply felt urge. For spirited young men in peaceful circumstances and unburdened by adult challenges, the agon has become elusive. The rocket-boom popularity of the UFC shouldn't shock us. Legalizing and especially televising cage-fighting socially legitimizes a psychological need that has been, at least from the present perspective, wrongly vilified.

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