Posted September 19, 2014 by Sydnie Jones in Editorials

Our Editor-in-Chief Talks to Businessweek

Bloomberg Businessweek published a piece by David Armstrong entitled Mixed Martial Arts Courts More Female Fans, and he asked me some questions for it. A quote from me is at the end, but since I’m prone to long explanations, here’s the entirety of my answers. I recycled parts of some in other pieces, if you get a sense of deja vu.

On domestic violence in MMA in the midst of adding and featuring female fighters:

The hypocrisy of featuring female fighters within an industry that condemns domestic violence mostly in name only is something I imagine the UFC in particular will have to answer for at some point or another, should Dana White’s efforts to grow the sport succeed. White likes to rule with an iron fist, but he doesn’t understand that people outside of MMA don’t care he’s a powerful person in his industry. They don’t have to worry he’ll ban them from events or mock them at press conferences. So for them to maintain such an abysmal track record while purporting to value women and present them as equally important is fairly transparent, and there’s enough being written about domestic violence in MMA now that the association is only going to become stronger unless they do something about it.

On whether women’s MMA will attract new fans, including women:

I don’t believe women’s MMA will attract many new fans on merit alone. Ronda Rousey is an aberration in the sport, and while WMMA has been around for a while, there simply hasn’t been the same pool of talent for women to train with and fight against. It’s still younger than MMA and isn’t taken as seriously, which means the same training opportunities aren’t there, the same sponsorship opportunities aren’t there,  and the same professional opportunities aren’t there. So the pool is shallower, and not as refined as men’s MMA, which has had a few decades to evolve alongside the sport, focusing almost entirely on optimizing male fighters.

WMMA is advancing rapidly; the Invicta fights on September 6th had some brutal striking and really slick, technical submissions, and there are a lot of talented women fighting. But with the largely male fan base, I think the appeal is more novelty-based, long-term viability perhaps contingent on the skill of the fighters. Of course, everyone loves to see Rousey fight because she’s a machine, and the current season of TUF features legitimate  talent – strawweight is probably the most talent-rich pool alongside bantamweight. So one solid female division in the UFC and one with a break-out star is promising, but perhaps not capable of maintaining interest if it doesn’t evolve similarly, and on a much shorter timeline.

Thus far, I haven’t seen much that markets MMA specifically to women. There was a “TUF Strength & Beauty Contest” where people submit photographs via Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag TUFStrength or TUFBeauty, which appears to target women. ‘Beauty’ is typically not a word men associate with themselves, and it’s not marketed to men in the same way, depth, and ubiquity that it is to women. While I’m skeptical this will reach many women besides those who are already fans of MMA, it could feasibly make the hashtags trend in social media and elevate the profile of the show. Otherwise, the TUF promos focus heavily on sex appeal and presenting the fighters as fascinating “contradictions” of conventional beauty and dangerous warrior, which is not a particularly compelling trope for female viewers.  Both tactics emphasize the fighters’ physical appearance, something on which The Ultimate Fighter hasn’t traditionally focused as an overall theme for an entire season.

I don’t think the addition of women in the UFC will attract many female fans besides those who have some familiarity with MMA already, perhaps turning a casual interest more serious, without a concerted effort on the UFC’s part to market to women.

On how the UFC should deal with domestic violence situations: 

The UFC needs to unequivocally sever ties with any fighter ever convicted of or who plead guilty or no contest to domestic violence. This includes fighters grandfathered in like Abel Trujillo and Anthony Johnson. Regardless of whether a fighter with convictions of domestic violence has been rehabilitated, the UFC can’t afford the association if they want to cultivate as respectable an image of MMA as possible.

When there are accusations of domestic abuse and no convictions, the UFC needs to take a very close look at the allegations. Thiago Silva’s reintroduction is an example of the UFC failing to do this. In fact, their failure was so absolute that Dana White mistakenly says Silva was acquitted of all charges and went through ‘the legal process;’ neither of those things are accurate. And as Deadspin also points out, there are multiple instances of Silva being reported for domestic violence, and his wife had taken out a temporary injunction for protection. It’s not like they were having a loud argument and a neighbor called the cops. The fact that she fled the country isn’t an indication Thiago Silva was actually the victim of an insane woman looking to destroy him. It’s more likely she fled the country in fear for her own safety.

So to re-sign him because “How do you not let the guy fight again?” is disingenuous. The UFC has never been interested in what’s fair and just; otherwise, Ben Askren would be signed and Trujillo would’ve been cut long ago. I’m not sure what their motivation is, actually – Thiago Silva is a mediocre fighter who is probably most known for having a stand-off with a SWAT team on the heels of accusations of domestic violence. Maybe they want to set him up as a can so everyone can watch him get destroyed in the Octagon while capitalizing on his infamy. In instances like these, cutting the fighter is really the only option. White had it right the first time, when Silva was arrested and cut immediately. It’s White’s prerogative and responsibility to shape his company’s relationship with domestic violence, and re-signing Silva is a serious misstep that appears to be born of ignorance and hubris.

Keeping any fighter who’s been accused of domestic violence or sexual assault is a risky move, regardless of the outcome, and the UFC needs to examine each instance extensively. The ideal resolution is “creates no further association between domestic violence and MMA,” not “successfully swept under the rug with the broom of a flawed justice system.” The UFC is always trying to control the narrative, and that may have worked when MMA was smaller and the fandom was homogeneous and insular, but it doesn’t work anymore and White doesn’t seem to realize this.

On how MMA can change from the top down:

While the issue of domestic violence isn’t specific to MMA, it affects the appearance of legitimacy in different ways than it does for other professional sports. I attribute this mainly to these factors:

1) The four major pro-sports – basketball, baseball, football, and hockey – have a far more secure place in the heart of American culture due to their history and the traditions that have sprung up around them. Domestic violence has always been a problem, but it’s really only in the last several decades that the issue has become publicly discussed; by that time, any domestic violence incident that cropped up in one of the big four was viewed as distinct from the sport itself.

2) MMA is a sport violent and bloody enough that many people will never be able to look past those aspects – it’s difficult to watch people getting hurt. Because it produces such visceral reactions, the skill, athleticism, timing, and intelligence required to excel in it are often eclipsed. It’s also a highly technical sport that almost demands a degree of familiarity with martial arts to appreciate. So, to non-fans, MMA can look like a barbaric spectacle with the sole purpose of satisfying bloodlust.

The blase attitude toward sexism, misogyny, and domestic assault does nothing to dispel the perception that MMA is dangerous and promotes violence against women.  While I don’t believe MMA promotes violence against women, it certainly doesn’t take measures to distance itself very much from the association.

Were MMA management to take a sincerely hardline stance, doing so would be more forward-thinking and progressive than any other major pro sport, and it would start by consulting on policy-making with domestic violence experts. A thorough education about the nature of abuse and the reality of domestic violence would be necessary, and a strict Code of Conduct with predetermined consequences made clear would eliminate a lot of headaches for them when a situation involving sexism, misogyny, or domestic violence crops up.

They actually have the opportunity to be a leader on this front and distinguish themselves from the embarrassing bumbling of the NFL, which is only beginning to begrudgingly address the problem. The fact is that the movement toward intolerance of domestic violence in professional spheres will continue to gain momentum, particularly for those in the public eye, and MMA could do a lot for its image to embrace this reality sooner rather than later.

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Sydnie Jones