Friday, July 1, 2011

Matt Morin - The Confessions of a Cage Fighter: Masculinity, Misogyny, and the Fear of Losing Control

This is an interesting first-person perspective on MMA and masculinity issues (with a foundation of faith-based life meaning). The author is a former "cage fighter," so mcuh of what he is looking at here involves embodiment and masculinity, seen through a Biblical lens, but there is also much more to his article.

This comes from a site called The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture.

Before enrolling in divinity school, I was a cage fighter—not a full-time cage fighter, not a world-famous cage fighter, not even a person for whom cage fighting paid the bills, but a cage fighter nonetheless. Now, before I go any further, I need to be more careful with my vocabulary or else I’ll risk losing credibility. You see, real cage fighters don’t like to be referred to as such; we prefer the term mixed martial artist. And we prefer that our sport go by the name mixed martial arts or MMA instead of “cage fighting.” There is a long, sordid history behind the sport’s various name changes, and it has everything to do with public perception, influential politicians, and corporate cash (Amy Silverman, Phoenix New Times, February 12, 1998). (But then again, what doesn’t?) Given my history of participation in and love for the sport, my ears perked up last year when MMA arose as a topic of conversation in my theological ethics class.

During the course of our class discussion, one of my divinity school colleagues referred to a recent New York Times article that describes the way a number of churches throughout the United States are turning to mixed martial arts as a way to draw men into their buildings (R. M. Schneiderman, February 1, 2010). Some churches train fighters to compete, while an even greater number of churches host gatherings for men at live fights. On top of this, clothing companies such as Jesus Didn’t Tap and websites like market themselves to a crowd of Christian fight fans—a crowd that might be called a niche if it weren’t already so big.

To some Christians, this new MMA movement represents an expression of real, natural, God-given masculinity. One captain for this team is Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, who in the film Fighting Politics says, “I don’t think there is anything purer than two guys in a cage. [. . .] As a pastor and as a Bible teacher, I think that God made men masculine. [. . .] Men are made for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion. [. . .] That’s just the way men are made.”

And yet, not all Christians are so keen to adopt MMA as a spiritual discipline. Many people are repulsed by Driscoll’s comments yet respond to his sophomorism in kind. Take for example, the responses I heard from some fellow students during the course of our class conversation. “That’s the church of the rich,” one person stated from behind his Apple laptop. Not to be outdone in terms of ersatz answers, another student chimed in, “I’d say it’s the church of the bored.” That is the way these conversations tend to go—like two pugilists past their prime, both sides dance around one another, trading harmless jabs and failing to deliver a decisive blow.

In this essay, I hope to take a different tack altogether. I do not intend to make a case for MMA Christianity but neither do I seek to dismiss its representatives as unworthy dialogue partners. I do not think that mixed martial artists must be transformed into good Christian hipsters before they can teach us something about masculinity. Rather, I believe that MMA can make a substantial contribution to the conversation on masculinity. Therefore, in what follows I am going to consider MMA on its own terms; I am going to take its self-descriptions at face value. I am—in all charity—going to attempt a sympathetic reading of MMA.

In doing so, moreover, I will engage selections from The Confessions of Saint Augustine in order to ground my sympathetic reading of MMA theologically. By putting MMA in conversation with the Bishop of Hippo, I hope it will become clear that the sport does not shore up the particular notion of masculinity that Driscoll and others like him imagine it does.

The Fighter’s Body

According to MMA fans, masculinity is deeply connected to the body. For example, in the video clip, Driscoll makes disparaging remarks about the “fat guys” who sit on the sidelines and critique the sport. The implication, of course, is that the fit guys in the cage are the real men; true masculinity is revealed in the fighter’s body. A simple glimpse of a boxer or a wrestler—these guys are extraordinary physical specimens—reveals thick necks, tree trunk legs, v-shaped backs, even strong jaw lines. No doubt about it, so the argument goes, these are the archetypes to which all men ought to conform.

Furthermore, this emphasis on the relation between masculinity and embodiment seems to be a Christian one. After all, flesh and blood are central to our faith.

And yet, for all of MMA Christianity’s insistence on the centrality of the body for adequate conceptions of masculinity, my experience as a fighter taught me something entirely different. You see, far from acknowledging myself as a living body, success in MMA required that I ignore this fact, that I (somehow!) try to forget that I am a body.

It started in training. I had dozens of training partners who never competed. Their only job was to beat me up as I prepared for the fight. I would spar for a nonstop, ten-minute round, where every minute, a fresh, rested training partner would come in and lay a beating on me. Though exhausted, I would try to give one back. The point, of course, was that when fight night came, the real thing would actually be easier than the hell I had put myself through at practice. And after each training session, far from feeling angry with the people who had just pummeled me, I sincerely thanked them for helping me train, for making me a better fighter.

What was happening along the way, however, was nothing less than being schooled in how to ignore my body. Perhaps you’ve seen the T-shirt slogans that bark with false bravado, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” That was my attitude toward training: ignore the pain, redefine it, explain it away—it’s not real, it’s for my own good, it’s not a message from my body; it is just something in my “mind” (whatever that means).

A similar thing would happen on the night of the fight. The adrenaline dump that you get before a fight is incredible. Even after having fought for years, including for a number of large promotions, on fight night the same thing always happened: I got jittery, and my jaw would chatter. When that adrenaline first hit me, I found it difficult to make a tight fist or take a deep breath—both of which are somewhat important for a fighter to do. Early in my career, I came to dread this feeling before the fight. But over time, I learned how to deal with my hormones, how to talk myself out of the message they were trying to send me.

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!

After the fight, my whole body ached. If it were a quick fight, I would usually feel better in a few days. But if the fight lasted all five rounds, it would be a good week before I felt like getting out of bed. To cope with the pain, I would drink at night—not a lot, just enough to take some of the sting out. On the really bad days, I would pop a few pain pills—again not a ton, just enough to mute some of the pain.

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

And now it seems appropriate to ask what account of masculinity requires a man to forget his body? The answer can only be that it is not a Christian masculinity but a Manichean masculinity. The Manichees, a sect founded in the third century by Mani and depicted by Augustine in his Confessions as a popular movement during the mid-fourth century, believed that this world was a fusion of divine spirit and evil matter. By this account, it was only through the spirit’s escape from the vile material realm that it was able to reach the transcendent world. Augustine describes his time among the Manichees like so:

I fell among a set of proud madmen, exceedingly carnal and talkative people in whose mouths were diabolical snares and a sticky mess compounded by mixing the syllables of your name, and the names of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, who is our Paraclete and Consoler. These names were never far from their mouths, but amounted to no more than sound and the clacking of tongues, for their hearts were empty of the truth.”[1]

Having joined their ranks, Augustine soon subscribed to a variety of otherworldly philosophies:

I derided your holy servants and prophets. Even as I laughed at them I deserved to be laughed at by you, for gradually, little by little, I was being lured into such absurdities as the belief that a fig wept when plucked, and its mother tree too wept milky tears. Then, I was told, if one of the saints ate the fig, it would be absorbed by his digestive system and then when he belched or groaned in prayer he would spew out angels, or even particles of God [. . .] I believed, poor wretch, that it was accordingly a higher duty to show mercy to the fruits of the earth than to human beings.”[2]

Now if that didn’t make much sense to you—and it shouldn’t—Augustine’s experience as a Manichee can be described as follows: after falling in with a crowd whose hyperspirituality caused them to paradoxically become “exceedingly carnal,” Augustine developed a disregard for the human creature that was ultimately evidenced in some rather absurd practices. Or again, as a result of accepting a false description of the human body—one that mistakenly taught the separation of human spirit and flesh rather than their interwoven and mutually constitutive nature—Augustine also came to adopt a false way of being in the world. Thus, both his flesh and spirit suffered, or in his own words, he became “misshapen.” This description rings as true of some twenty-first-century hypermasculine Christianists as it did of fourth-century Manichaeism.

Any Christian account of masculinity must take our embodiment seriously. Violence will result whenever we forget that God created us as flesh and blood, that God came to earth in flesh and blood, and that the flesh and blood of Jesus is now present to the world in the church’s sacraments.

Go read the whole article.


Sage said...

It has taken me a long time to comment on this article Bill. That is for many reasons. One reason is that this article hit on so many aspects of my life in one fell swoop, I literally found myself taking huge breaks from reading and found myself playing video tapes in my head of many of the specific events in my life the memories of which were triggered by reading this.

First, I believe this is a very well written, thoughtful piece. I found myself getting completely enraptured by it.

I believe you know I am a former seminarian and a former catholic monk (Benedictine). I don't believe you know I am a former (quasi) outlaw biker as well as a former very heavy hitter in the global gay BDSM scene and as well as being a former "cage fighter" of sorts. Let me explain that "of sorts" part. My first roommate in the seminary was Vietnamese. He had come to the US in 1975 and was already in his late 20s when he entered the college seminary. In Vietnam he had been an accomplished Taekwondo instructor. He enticed me to learn this martial art. I became quite good. Years later when I entered the BDSM world I found my niche as a "top who enjoyed "topping other tops." But some tops are not so keen on being topped. But these were really the *only* men I was interested in topping at the time. The solution---we boxed or kickboxed (you might be amazed how many gay men have martial arts experience) to decide who would be the sexually dominant partner. At the time I had a good friend who had a boxing ring in his basement. I had a key to the house. From this I moved into managing and occasionally competing in very brutal underground bare-knuckle matches that had nothing to do with the BDSM world. I had always been very, very aware of the intimate and homoerotic aspects of forms of fighting. When I was a teenager, I got into many-- some very brutal-- middle school fights. Years later I realized this coincided eactly with my deep awareness of my emerging homosexuality. In middel school however, I didn't have a clue about how to get the physical intimacy I so wanted with other males. So I instigated fights with the boys I was most attracted to in middle school. It apparently was the only way I could figure out how to be intimate with other boys without being labeled a faggot. All of that was unconscious of course. At the time I had no idea why I, a very good, well mannered student found himself suddenly walking down school hallways punching the fuck out of someone. The underground bare-knuckle gig was before "Fight Club." But surely Palahnuik had some awareness of these underground "fight clubs" well before writing his now famous book. All of this took place during a time in my life that seems well light years ago.

Anyway, this article brought back all hose events back to me. Also, I am a very astute reader of Saint Augustine.

Every single thing Morin says is in complete alignment with my experience---completely. And I completely agree with his assessment of Pastor Driscoll as well, as it relates to the context of the article.

Also, just for your information, there is an openly gay MMA fighter who was chronicled in The New York Times several years ago. At the time he was the *only* openly gay "cage fighter" in the world. And this is likely to still be the case. His name is Shad Smith. Here is the link to that story. It is very interesting. And it is quite long.

Be Well Bill. Sorry I went on so long.

william harryman said...

Hi Sage,

Thank you so much for sharing your story - I did not know about the MMA or outlaw biker part of your history - you have led a very interesting life, my friend.

Would you be willing to shape the comment you left here into an article that I could share with readers as a featured post? Your experience is different from the author's (though also similar) - it would be good for the men who read this to be exposed to other perspectives and experiences - exposure is how people learn about others, so it's crucial.

You can email me if you are interested in doing that - and of course, I'll link to and promote your blog.