January 13, 2012

Ultimate Fighting Championship, meet the real world.

The leading organization of combat sports has taken a couple of cold slaps to the face this week in response to its verbal forays into politics, sexuality and other arenas that can make what takes place inside the octagon seem genteel by comparison.

The first shot was dealt to the UFC by the National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence, which on Monday sent a letter to members of the New York State Assembly urging them to reject legislation that would sanction mixed martial arts.

"We believe that the UFC contributes to a culture of violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people," executive director Deborah B. Tucker wrote. "Children, in particular, should not be exposed to the homophobic, misogynistic and violent language that has been permitted by the UFC."

This letter came just two days after UFC president Dana White had guaranteed that his company's tireless lobbying effort in the Empire State finally would pay off in 2012. Yes, guaranteed. "It's going to happen," he said in an interview Saturday with Fox Sports Radio, "and I guarantee you it's going to happen this year." White had a reason for his optimism that the tide was turning in New York, one of only three states with athletic commissions that do not regulate MMA. Last spring the State Senate passed a sanctioning bill, and while the proposed legislation never came up for a vote in the Assembly, the battleground seemed to be tilting in favor of the fight game like never before.

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How much the anti-violence organization's dissenting voice will change the conversation is difficult to know. Politics is a fickle game, and those elected to play it tend to be wary around issues of discrimination and violence. A flurry of ardent constituent calls to the right legislators could scuttle or at least delay MMA legislation. That would be a shame.

Nothing against the National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence, which is working to stamp out one of our culture's most vile epidemics, but I take issue with the organization's argument against MMA sanctioning. Tucker's letter charges that the UFC "has failed to demonstrate that it is willing to ensure its fighters behave in a socially responsible way, even as the company expressly markets its fights and fighters to children." The first part of that is sadly true, the second part not so much. (You don't see many kids at UFC events, and pay-per-views that start at 9 p.m. ET aren't exactly stealing adolescent viewers from Saturday morning cartoons.) But that's beside the point, or should be. It seems to me that the sanctioning decision should be based on safety -- not on the bad behavior of individual athletes or, as the sport's advocates counter, on the boon to the local economy that big-time MMA events could trigger.

I do think the National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence will be fighting the good fight, though, if it takes its case to the UFC's sponsors, television outlets and other business partners. More light needs to be shed on the deplorable rape jokes of Forrest Griffin and Miguel Torres, on the shameful Rashad Evans trash talk that made light of the ongoing child molestation case at Penn State, and on the rampant use of anti-gay slurs by UFC fighters -- not all of the fighters, not even a majority, but enough to illustrate that this is an institutional problem. It's a problem that extends to off-color TV color man Joe Rogan, the guy in post-fight cage interviews who can't claim the excuse of having spoken while under the judiciousness-numbing influence of adrenaline. And, of course, the problem extends to the company president.

Dana White and his foul mouth are as lamentable as anyone in the UFC, even more so because he could lead by example and has the clout to enact a clear code of conduct that could rein in the offensive behavior. He refuses to do the latter, choosing to deal with transgressions on a case-by-case basis. To his credit, he's come down hard at times. But when he fires Torres for Twitter offensiveness (he's since been brought back) while letting Griffin off without even a slap on the wrist, fighters are left without consistent guidelines or specific consequences spelled out. "Use your common sense," White told MMAFighting.com, recounting his message to fighters while the Torres situation was unfolding. "You know what to say and what not to say." That's not good enough.

Now, some in the core MMA audience probably aren't bothered a bit by, say, "Rampage" Jackson's misogynistic antics and homophobic rants. Some rather enjoy them, if the odious rhetoric found on Internet message boards is to be believed. But I'd like to think it's just a vocal minority. And even if that's not the case, the UFC is a growing enterprise casting an ever-widening net in hopes of expanding its audience. Many in that broad target audience of sports fans would be offended by what's said and done in the UFC. So shine that spotlight. Shine it brightly.

Of course, some bask in the limelight that's the byproduct of their insolence. Such seems to be the case with the week's other recipient of a cold slap from the real world: a UFC prelim fighter who's becoming higher-profile every time he fights ... and every time he opens his mouth afterward. Twice the guy has made trouble for himself with disparaging comments about Barack Obama. Most recently, at UFC 141 last month, he urged the President to schedule a "glassectomy," a procedure that theoretically would allow one to see where one is going while one's head is stuck where the sun don't shine. Funny, eh? Not to the Minnesota school district where this fighter is an assistant wrestling coach, as he was placed on administrative leave. Whereupon he cried misquote, telling MMAWeekly.com, "I never said that Obama needed a glassectomy. I said call me so he could schedule a glassectomy. I never said it was for him."

Um, right. That explanation clears everything up. Well, I just couldn't resist going on Twitter and opining that this fighter isn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier -- and tweaking his anti-Obama politics a little by adding, "Not Rick Perry dim, though." Within minutes a tweet came shooting back from the fighter. It started with his name, with "Dr." in front of it -- he's a chiropractor -- and a mention of all the press he's getting for his jabs at the President. "Not bad for a prelim," he went on. "Who's not too bright now?" Still you, Doc, still you.

Now, you'll notice I haven't mentioned the fighter's name. That's because either (a) I'm not bright enough to remember it or (b) while the man craves publicity, he doesn't deserve it. If you absolutely have to know, just Google "glassectomy." And "not too bright."

Other recent correspondence coming my way has been all Brock, all the time:

Your article on the Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem fight articulated one of the most fascinating aspects of MMA: the legitimacy of the persona required to excel in such a violent and unforgiving sport. The most poignant line -- "Then again, maybe this was the real Brock" -- suggests a tantalizing question. Did Brock's illness trigger an epiphany? Did his attitude toward life change? Or is this simply the story of a man who no longer has the internal fire required to be competitive in MMA?--Nathan, Chicago

Calling Brock a "Lesnar lookalike" is a cheap shot at a guy whose career was ended by a serious illness. Instead of bashing him for being a shadow of his former self, you should have expressed admiration for his multiple attempts to come back from a devastating medical condition.--Rico, Oakland, Calif.

You say the Lesnar who fought in UFC 141 wasn't the real Lesnar? So tell me, was the Lesnar who came charging out at Cain Velasquez the real Lesnar? That was Lesnar in all his fury, all right, but do you remember what happened to him in that fight? For the Overeem fight, Lesnar learned to incorporate a more moderate and focused strategy.--Geoff, Atlanta

Lesnar was a physically imposing puzzle, but not an insurmountable one. We witnessed the puzzle being solved. Each time Brock fought in his short career, future opponents had one more tape to study. What if Lesnar had not been given a title shot after his second career win, and instead had to work his way up like most fighters? I'm guessing the puzzle would've been solved in roughly the same number of fights, and possibly we wouldn't have seen Lesnar as champion.--Eric, Minneapolis

Brock Lesnar "reigned with a vengeance"? He was a "star attraction"? Two defenses of a title do not equal reigning "with a vengeance," nor does a whopping total of eight fights (three of them losses) make anyone a "star attraction."--Ray, West Lebanon, N.H.

No doubt Lesnar left the UFC more recognizable than he found it. But did he advance the image of MMA and its athletes? Or did he reinforce persistent negative stereotypes that it is a testosterone-fueled bloodsport for rednecks who relish vulgar trash talking and brutal beatdowns?--Ben, Iowa City

When I saw Brock start singing along to his walk-in music before entering the octagon, I got the feeling we were seeing a man who knew he was heading to his own destruction. Perhaps he should have had the UFC production crew cue up "Que Sera, Sera."--Patrick, Rahway, N.J.

The man was in genuine pain, both emotional and physical. He has spent the last 14 months fighting to get his health back. He should never have fought, and I think he knew it. He has now made the smart decision to put his health and family first.--Jennifer, Chicago

His heart/fire, which fuels his inner warrior spirit, was stronger than his body. The man is still a warrior, someone I have much respect for. The UFC has lost an icon it will struggle to replace.--Mike, Rockford, Ill.

Brock Lesnar an MMA legend? That statement couldn't be farther from the truth. Brock was made a "champion" by White, who handed him a title shot against a fighter in his mid-40s. Lesnar has been given everything, from the WWE to the UFC. He has worked for none of it, and got by purely because of his size, which is due to steroid use.--Jared, Frankenmuth, Mich.

You honestly sound like you may be out of your mind. How can you compare Lesnar to two UFC legends?--Lukas, Chicago

Strung together, these letters create a point-counterpoint of sorts, with little need for added commentary from me. But I'll toss in a little anyway.

Rico: The "Lesnar lookalike" characterization was meant not to bash Brock but rather to contrast the slower, weaker fighter we saw at UFC 141 to the raging bull he used to be.

Geoff: Maybe Lesnar was employing a "moderate and focused strategy," as you say, but a wrestler trying to kickbox against a world-class kickboxer is stirring up a recipe for disaster.

Ray: Lesnar's record in the octagon is only a minor factor in what made him a star attraction. Pay-per-view numbers don't lie.

Patrick: What will be, will be.

Jared: If size were all that mattered, Akebono would be UFC champ. And, by the way, it's unfair of you to throw out steroid charges against a guy who never once failed a drug test.

Lukas: Lesnar didn't have the Hall of Fame career that Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell did, but in the big picture of the sports world, he's a bigger name than either of them.

And lastly, there also was the flood of e-mails protesting one word I used in my account of Lesnar's final fight:

There was absolutely no reason to use the word "fake" when talking about Lesnar's career as a professional wrestler. Go stand in front of the Undertaker or Triple H and tell them what they do is fake. Wrestling may be predetermined, but it is not fake.--Josh, Hamilton, Ontario

Lesnar a FAKE Wrestler? Pro wrestling requires great physical ability. The risks those athletes take are REAL. The injuries are REAL. So get your damn facts straight. There is nothing FAKE about pro wrestling.--Stephen, Los Angeles

I have read two articles in under 10 minutes that refer to WWE wrestling as "fake." Is this policy coming from upper management? I'm sure everyone at SI knows how hard WWE stars work, how brutal their lifestyle can be, and how serious their injuries are.--Casey, Rhinelander, Wisc.

If you ever trash pro wrestling again, I will put you in an airplane spin and toss you out of the ring.--Bruno Sammartino, Pittsburgh

OK, I made up that last letter -- but only the last one, believe it or not. Rather than respond to the rest, allow me to instead out myself as a onetime True Believer. There was a time when my three favorite athletes were Bart Starr, Dave DeBusschere and Bruno, not in that order. Ah, childhood.

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