Emphatic Failure: A Brief Overview of Domestic Violence in MMA
By Sydnie Jones
Mixed martial arts, commonly referred to as MMA, is a combat sport desperately grappling for legitimacy as a professional sport. Combining elements from multiple martial arts, including Brazilian jiu jitsu, wrestling, boxing, muay thai, karate, and judo, MMA involves striking and grappling. Most televised combat sports promotions/events have both competitors fighting in a single style, usually a striking martial art. The inclusion of grappling separates MMA from most other combat sports and has only recently grown in popularity, even though it has existed under some name or another for millennia. From Pankration in Ancient Greece, to German ringen during the Late Middle Ages, to Vale Tudo in Brazil in the 20th century, the idea of an all-inclusive fighting style is not new. The term ‘mixed martial arts,’ however, is more recent, coinciding with the UFC’s first event in 1993, as far as anyone can tell.
Domestic violence is an issue that plagues the entire US. It’s prevalent in full contact sports, including combat sports. Boxer Floyd Mayweather has been accused and convicted of domestic violence numerous times. Professional wrestler Chris Benoit was accused of domestic violence by his wife, four years before he murdered her and their son and then committed suicide. There’s Ray Rice. Ray McDonald. Greg Hardy. Jonathan Dwyer. Jovan Belcher. Slava Voynov. Semyon Varlamov.
And it happens in MMA. So it’s unfortunate that MMA promotions haven’t taken a more proactive approach to handling domestic violence, because to people new to the sport, it often appears to be unchecked violence. A strict stance unilaterally enforced would be progressive for professional sports, and it would indicate that promotions understood the importance of making the distinction. The failure of promotions to distinguish between the sport of MMA and uncontrollable rage-induced violence does not dispel the perception that fighters are blood-thirsty blunt instruments reveling in the destruction of a human being.
That perceptions exists, and that’s a reality. Most promotions have, until recently, not had reason to thoroughly vet their fighters; audiences by and large haven’t cared, and the sport isn’t subject to the same degree of scrutiny as other professional sports. In fact, regular reporting on MMA is a fairly recent development. Severe, consequential backlash from outside the sport is virtually unknown, and MMA news doesn’t receive the same attention as other professional sports news. When MMA does get attention, it’s usually not good, as we discussed here, and that’s problematic for the sport.
The MMA fanbase, comprised of a towering 73% male audience, is largely unconcerned with the reality of domestic violence, both in general and as it manifests within the sport. Amid an audience that prizes physical dominance above all else, the vocal minority vocalize to deaf ears. Attention, disapproval, and the threat of economic consequence from those outside MMA will ultimately necessitate an overhaul of the status quo, as ethics and reality thus far appear to be inadequate incentives.
How promotions respond is expectedly inadequate.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the largest and most prestigious MMA promotion in the world. In broad terms, as the NFL is to the sport of football, the UFC is to the sport of MMA. However, this is in relative terms; in reality, MMA is not nearly as relevant as football in the fabric of American culture.
This is why men convicted of domestic violence, such as Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Abel “Killa” Trujillo, can remain as professional fighters in the most elite MMA organization in the world. It’s not that these are secrets. They aren’t. They’ve long been reported, and the UFC is well-aware that these fighters have been convicted of domestic violence or abuse. And their presence on the UFC’s rosters is in violation of how the UFC claims they handle domestic violence:
“We’ve been like that since day one…There’s one thing that you never bounce back from and that’s putting your hands on a woman. Been that way in the UFC since we started here. You don’t bounce back from putting your hands on a woman.” -Dana White, via MMAFighting
“We do have a zero-tolerance policy…” – Lorenzo Fertitta, via ESPN
Johnson pleaded no contest, was convicted of, and received a sentence for domestic violence for a 2009 incident. UFC president Dana White and Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta confirmed to ESPN that they were familiar with this. And then nine months later, following accusations by two more women that Johnson had attacked them, White brazenly lied when he proclaimed ignorance of the conviction on Canadian show Off the Record.
And, Fertitta actually contradicts himself in that exact same quote. Here’s all of it:
“We do have a zero-tolerance policy, but I think we looked at (the 2009 conviction) and (Anthony Johnson) had gone through the court system and he was placed on suspension. He has served whatever he had served and we were comfortable bringing him in at that time. Obviously, now in addition to these recent allegations being made, the fact there is a prior makes us a lot more concerned about it.”
Well, Lorenzo, obviously there are no ‘buts’ when it comes to zero tolerance. What does this even mean? Do the recent allegations make Johnson’s prior conviction somehow more serious? Was him agreeing the court could find him guilty – which is what a no contest plea is – and being convicted of domestic violence not concerning enough?
Additionally, there’s no record of any type of suspension. The incident occurred in late June of 2009. Johnson had last fought in February of 2009, and was scheduled to fight in June, but had to pull out due to an injury. He then fought in October, again in November, and was scheduled to fight in March of 2010, but suffered another injury and had surgery. His sentencing was in August of that year. He next fought in March of 2011. So, a year between that fight and his last scheduled fight, marred by injury, surgery, and weight-cutting issues.
There is no mention of a suspension anywhere – not on the UFC’s website, not in any news sources – but this is another claim the UFC expects us to believe without question. For a company insistent they’re at the forefront of domestic violence policy, they’re vague and misleading about how they enforce it.
Abel Trujillo pleaded guilty twice to domestic abuse. Despite this being reported by several different news sites, there has been no response from the UFC, ever, on the convictions.
The UFC has cinched up its domestic violence policy for new fighters, cutting them when journalists’ reporting reveals what their own vetting process failed to, as was the case for Will Chope. But it appears Johnson and Trujillo were grandfathered in, allowing the UFC to cash in on the rest of the world’s sweeping indifference toward MMA.
Another example of the UFC’s clumsy handling of domestic violence is Thiago Silva, a fighter accused multiple times by his then-wife, from the same gym as Anthony Johnson and Abel Trujillo. Silva showed up with a gun at his estranged wife’s boyfriend’s gym, demanding to talk to the boyfriend and threatening to kill people if he didn’t come out. The boyfriend called the police, and ultimately there was a SWAT-team standoff at Silva’s house. And yet, when his wife fled the country and the charges against him were dropped, the UFC re-signed him. It was only when his wife released a video of Silva acting erratically, searching her house with a gun, convinced a man was there, that the UFC cut him for good. So despite multiple accusations of domestic violence against him from his wife, a third party calling the police on their fighter after Silva threatened him, and a SWAT-team stand off, it was a video of Silva acting strangely that ultimately got him cut.
Incidentally, Johnson, Trujillo, and Silva are all members of the Blackzilians – a team who was not only just featured on the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, but who has myriad accusations and convictions of domestic violence throughout their camp. Not all Blackzilians fighters have records of beating women, but even if they do, it doesn’t matter – the UFC doesn’t mind promoting them.
The further down the list of promotions you go, the less they have to care. World Series of Fighting shamelessly signed Thiago Silva soon after the UFC cut him, in a blatant attempt to capitalize on his infamy. In MMA, name recognition counts for a lot. Domestic violence doesn’t.
World Series of Fighting also signed Dustin Holyko, who, it turned out, had a lengthy rap sheet of violent criminal activity – from domestic battery to animal cruelty to strangulation – and had decorated himself in Neo-Nazi tattoos. Somehow, all of this escaped WSoF’s notice. When it was brought to their attention – after he’d already fought on the promotion’s first card aired on network television – they cut him. It’s clear their own vetting process was non-existent, because they thought they didn’t have to worry about negative attention.
War Machine, a former UFC and Bellator fighter, is now most famous for allegedly attacking ex-girlfriend Christy Mack in August of 2014. At the time, despite multiple convictions of assault and having been in jail for the same, and despite Mack accusing him via social media of domestic violence in December of 2013, and despite War Machine ‘joking’ about raping Mack, he was still signed to Bellator. Until June of 2014, Bellator was run by Bjorn Rebney. Allowing new CEO Scott Coker some leniency, the fact is that Bellator, the second-largest MMA promotion, retained War Machine from 2011 until Coker cut him following the 2014 alleged attack. This is again due to name recognition and no real disincentive to have him as a fighter.
At a small promotion in Canada, a convicted rapist who dumped his teenage victim in a dumpster fought, to much enjoyment – and the promotion’s president, Neil Forester, couldn’t understand why people might object.
With Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel covering the issue tonight, maybe promotions will start treating the issue of domestic violence with the gravity it deserves. If the reality of domestic violence isn’t motivation enough, perhaps the ever-expanding black mark on the sport due to their inattention will be.
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