Posted August 6, 2015 by Sydnie Jones in Editorials

Real Sports Forced the Domestic Violence Conversation MMA Didn’t Want to Happen

By Sydnie Jones

Full disclosure: I was interviewed by Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel for their Uncaged: Domestic Violence in MMA story, although they ultimately didn’t use the footage. 

HBO’s 26-time Sports Emmy award-winning show Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel recently aired a story examining domestic violence in MMA. The story, now available in its entirety, is above.

As we have covered extensively, domestic violence is an issue that goes mostly ignored in MMA. Not even the UFC treats it as a serious concern, given the multiple fighters with domestic violence convictions currently signed – including Anthony Johnson, who will fight at UFC 191 on September 5th.

Most of the Real Sports story is dedicated to personal narratives – Christy Mack and Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller in particular – and provides a rundown of a rash of domestic violence in the news at the hands of MMA fighters. The story covers Mack’s assault and recovery in depth, and briefly explains the allegations against Josh Grispi and Kyacey Uscola‘s sentencing.

They also conducted the first-ever study of domestic violence arrests in MMA. They focused on active American fighters in order to compare their findings to governmental data, which they say in the story. This is the graphic they provided:

Screen grab of Real Sports stats, via YouTube

They didn’t elaborate much on the methodology of their study or its findings. While they structured their study based on one done on the NFL, I don’t find the NFL numbers very relevant, and those numbers don’t take into account the distinct, likely possibility that domestic violence in the NFL is under-reported. So, while it may be accurate to say MMA fighters are arrested at more than three times the rate of NFL players for domestic violence, I’m skeptical that reflects the reality of domestic violence in the NFL.

In keeping with their overall disregard for the issue, the UFC declined to be interviewed. Instead, they responded exactly the way you would expect a company that doesn’t treat domestic violence in its ranks as a problem – with a canned statement to Real Sports. Bellator did the same. Despite refusing to appear on the show, UFC president Dana White had no issue criticizing their reporting:

In true Dana tradition, his response is a defensive, myopic martyrdom, bemoaning unfair coverage despite the fact that a) it was a story specifically about domestic violence in MMA, b) they did mention other sports, including boxing, and c) Dana had a chance to defend MMA and refute anything he wanted.

What exactly is Dana mad about? Is he mad that they singled out his sport? Or is he mad that they singled out his sport, and then accurately reported how grossly negligent the industry, including the UFC, has been and still is in addressing domestic violence?

And why would he decline? As I said to SiriusXM MMA show Fight Club, it’s likely because he knows there’s no defense he can credibly provide to explain the convicted domestic abusers among his fighters, despite the UFC’s staunch and loudly broadcast stance on domestic violence. And, on a platform like Real Sports, his hair-trigger temper is too much of a publicity risk.

But Dana wasn’t the only one displeased. Before the story aired, before even a single clip had been released, social media jumped to conclusions about what the piece was going to say and what the piece was trying to accomplish. The response afterward from the MMA community wasn’t much more nuanced, either.

One of the most common complaints about the story was that some of the fighters they named – especially War Machine, Mayhem Miller, and Josh Grispi – aren’t representative of the sport. There’s this twitter search for Mayhem and @RealSportsHBO. And this one for Machine and @RealSportsHBO. Or the comment section on any article about the story. And so on. If they aren’t representative, then who is? Real Sports wasn’t trying to liken all MMA fighters to them. But they are or were MMA fighters, some of whom were permitted to continue fighting after convictions for violent crimes. They are, in actuality, the perfect example of what MMA’s inattention to the issue has wrought.

The basis for that complaint was, seemingly, the idea that they were exceptions, or no longer relevant in the industry. What makes them exceptions? What criteria, for a fighter, makes him relevant enough for inclusion? Ability and/or activity in the sport? Is it only the creme de la creme that merit inclusion? Sporting ability is not a valid determiner of relevance, and no one has established a core of the ‘real’ MMA fighters. It’s a free-for-all with almost no barriers to entry. Real Sports established its criteria: active, American, top-ranked male fighters.  For the focus of their study, no other criteria was necessary. And the MMA industry certainly didn’t conduct a study of their own accord into this issue. If you want to criticize their methodology, okay, cool. I’m all for further examination of just about everything, and their coverage barely scratched the surface of the issue. But to get angry and righteous, when the industry has, for years, never undertaken any self-examination? That in itself is as wholly lacking in self-awareness as the industry ever has been.

War Machine, et al, aren’t representative of MMA fighters, but they’re more than just de facto representatives of the sport. Their infamy and sometimes menacing personas are byproducts of it – or its culture. Take War Machine, welcomed into Bellator despite convictions for assault and domestic violence – and, as the Real Sports story shows, Bellator did a sensationalistic promo of him in jail, anxiously awaiting his release to continue raging in the cage. Yeah, of course he’s not considered representative of the sport now, following the alleged vicious attack on Christy Mack, complete with photos of her injuries and a horrific 911 call. But up until that point, the industry celebrated him and his dangerous, criminal background. The industry allowed him to be a personality, right up until he finally (allegedly) did something so reprehensible Bellator cut him. Bellator chose to associate with War Machine, knowing he was a risk for criminal violence. No promotion excommunicated him for his violent crimes. And that, in MMA’s short history, is its culture.

Had promotions refused to sign them following repeated instances of violence outside the cage, War Machine and Mayhem Miller wouldn’t have the same infamy. The sport has allowed them to continue by dint of valuing notoriety and profit over the potential consequences of associating with people who have demonstrated they can’t control their violence.

The other complaint I saw most was that the Real Sports story suggested MMA breeds domestic violence. Real Sports conducted a study and reported the findings. It would have been just as disingenuous for them to announce they’d found that MMA has nothing to do with the higher rate of arrest as it would be for them to have explicitly said MMA breeds domestic violence.

The basis of that complaint is MMA was misrepresented. Real Sports included footage that seemed especially bloody, and referred to MMA as “America’s most violent sport of all,” a superlative left unquantified. This will, of course, raise the hackles of MMA lovers who see their sport routinely portrayed as coarse barbarism. Personally, I don’t think MMA is the most violent sport, and I don’t like seeing it misrepresented, misunderstood, or dismissed as mindless brutality, either. But is this really what bothered people most about the Real Sports story, that MMA might be misrepresented, in the same way it has been for years, yet again? And if the answer is yes, then is there a better manifestation of how blase the MMA industry is as a whole regarding domestic violence? And its ‘gather the wagons’ mentality about the sport?

Because, let’s be real. Promotions have always had the choice to vet fighters to the best of their ability, and to make decisions about who they want to associate with. And they chose, from the smallest to the biggest, to not give a single fuck. Maybe not every single promotion, sure. But enough to have developed a culture where domestic violence is treated as such a non-issue that Dana White, president of the most prestigious promotion in the world, can’t be bothered to respond when asked about the convicted domestic abusers who fight for him.

I understand why people are protective of MMA. But it’s not as though there haven’t been numerous instances where promotions could’ve established a track record of taking domestic violence seriously. That would’ve been a great defense to fall back on, but promotions made the choice, over and over, to dismiss domestic violence as an issue not relevant, real, or pressing enough to care about. That is representative of MMA, because that’s the decision they made repeatedly. And now that mainstream sports journalism is taking notice – an intensified scrutiny that should surprise no one, least of all the promotions trying to grow the sport – neither promotions nor fans want to lie in the bed their indifference has made.

This is why I don’t have much sympathy for complaints that elevate the perception of MMA over the reality of domestic violence in MMA. MMA culture is and has been largely complicit in this perception, building a documented history of apathy to some of the biggest and most alarming red flags one can wave. If the industry wants the sport to grow and be taken seriously, it needs to act as though it has ethics and professionalism routinely exercised. That starts with the UFC not being unabashedly hypocritical about who they allow to fight under their banner.

Convicted domestic abuser Anthony Johnson fights at UFC 191 on September 5th.

Convicted domestic abuser Anthony Johnson fights at UFC 191 on September 5th.

The response from those who report on MMA was far more receptive, though generally without much editorializing. Bleacher ReportBloody ElbowMMA JunkieSherdogMMA FightingMMA Mania, and Cage Potato all offered some degree of coverage.

And now, mentions of the story are waning. Save for Dana White’s sole Tweet, neither the UFC nor Bellator made mention of the story. Heads firmly buried in the sand, what are they hoping for? That this will be the only time domestic violence in their sport will be examined by mainstream journalism?

This is not and never has been the smartest approach. If people like War Machine are the worst examples, and one of Real Sports’ point is that these men are trained killers, does that not merit further examination? War Machine is what happens you don’t heed red flags, and if MMA doesn’t start taking note, we’ll have more of them. Maybe not often. But every one of them that has a sustained career in bigger promotions while racking up charges for violent crimes will be incredibly damning. So vet the fighters. Smaller promotions letting people fight with convictions of domestic violence or violent crimes is not a free pass from accountability for larger promotions. The larger promotions, as the face of MMA that people outside the sport see, need to refuse to associate with people that dangerous. All the athletes in the study were active fighters. And the results showed they were arrested at a much higher rate than the general population. This is the necessary focus – not whether the Real Sports story was a hit piece that misrepresented MMA.

And, to avoid misrepresentation, MMA needs to present a unified front – even within a single promotion – that does what it says and doesn’t contradict itself on its domestic violence policy. MMA isn’t misrepresented, because the sport hasn’t presented as something cohesive and definitive. Neither have the promotions. There is no conscious representation, only a clunky patchwork of profiteering, opportunism, and hypocrisy cultured from a drive for success ready to justify any means.

The excuses offered by Dana White, the UFC, Bellator, fans, etc, fall short. The conviction was years ago. We don’t know the circumstances. The charges didn’t stick. It was Bellator under Rebney. It’s an ongoing legal case. The alleged victim fled the country. The alleged victim is crazy and vindictive. The alleged victim wants fame and/or fortune. He’s an exception. He’s not relevant. He’s not representative. Et cetera. These are inconsistent excuses for a consistent pattern. How many caveats do fans and promotions get to add to explain away the industry’s negligence? How many caveats only amount to denial about how clumsily the industry has treated domestic violence?

Nobody can control who commits domestic violence, or when. It’s going to happen, and everyone knows it happens. The only defense promotions have is an impregnable policy of non-association with those who are criminally violent.

No one individual can make an entire sport look bad, so when the industry wants to hang the blame on a select few, they are refusing to acknowledge their role in why those few were newsworthy in the first place – and why they now reflect poorly on the sport. It’s because promotions chose to continue promoting and associating with them. Blaming individuals for making MMA look bad is the type of flimsy deflection that doesn’t hold weight when mainstream journalism takes notice of the sport. Instead, promotions need to stop shirking responsibility for those with whom they choose to associate their brand.

Dana White has shown that, in essence, he is the worst type of MMA fan. Defensive, dismissive of all criticism, values violence in the cage above the safety of women – except with the additional motivator of profit for his company. Would the response from the fanbase be different, had Dana gone on Real Sports denouncing domestic violence or responded reasonably to the story on social media? Hard to say. But it would’ve looked considerably better for MMA.

The Real Sports story was a jumping-off point. The question of whether MMA may appeal in particular to people more likely to commit domestic violence, or whether some aspect of MMA – training, culture, steroids, brain damage, violence as a part of everyday life, and so on – contributes to the higher arrest rate is unanswered. And until it is, promotions will have to deal with fighters being arrested for and convicted of domestic violence. How they have dealt with it until now has been insufficient. Their indifference contributed to the higher arrest rate Real Sports found. One way to get that rate to drop? Stop signing fighters with convictions and they won’t qualify anywhere as a professional MMA fighter.


david scott

David Scott

In an extra clip provided by HBO, producer David Scott is very clear about the results of their study, absent the extrapolative catastrophizing MMA fans provided.  Their study was conducted to determine one thing, and they reported their findings: a shockingly high rate of arrest for domestic violence among their sample of professional, active MMA fighters.

Scott says, “As we’ve been talking about domestic violence in sports, one sport has been absent from the conversation, and it happens to be the most violent sport. And so now it’s in the conversation, and the empirical evidence I think suggests what would maybe confirm our sense of what might be, which is that these guys may have more of an inclination or problem limiting their violence to the cage.”

We know domestic violence is an epidemic. We know the industry has been embarrassingly incompetent at addressing it in the sport. Is that not enough to warrant greater attention?

And if not, what numbers does MMA need to justify taking domestic violence seriously?

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Sydnie Jones