MMA Culture Can Be Deadly For Women -- And I'm A Woman In MMA Culture
Christy Mack, ex-girlfriend of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter War Machine (formerly Jon Koppenhaver) is lucky to be alive.
On August 8, War Machine reportedly planned to propose to Mack, but instead raped1 and beat her so badly she barely escaped with her life. The attack left her with 18 broken bones in her face, a broken nose, missing and broken teeth, a ruptured liver, and an injured leg.
Exactly one week prior to Mack’s assault, former UFC fighter Josh Grispi was arrested for savagely attacking his wife Kaitlyn, who has endured years of abuse from her husband. Grispi, who reportedly trained his pit bull to attack Kaitlyn, sent her numerous threatening text messages, including one in which he told her he will enjoy choking her to death.
As an avid MMA fan, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and self-proclaimed feminist badass, I was appalled and infuriated to learn of the dehumanizing violence Mack and Grispi suffered at the hands of these men. But I was not surprised. War Machine and Grispi’s murderous rampage bring to fruition a longstanding culture of misogyny in MMA.
The same week Mack was assaulted, UFC Light Heavyweight champion, Jon “Bones” Jones told reporters that on September 27 in Las Vegas, he wants to make Daniel Cormier his wife. But his proposal does’t involve wedding bells or Elvis.
For Jones, making Cormier his “wife” means beating him to oblivion.
Jones’ misogynistic metaphor had impeccable timing. Days later, War Machine demonstrated that all too often a deadly beating is exactly what wives have in store.
The parallels here are no coincidence. Jones’ words reflect and contribute to an ugly reality. MMA is a breeding ground for violence against women.
Jones and the UFC are complicit in a culture that defames, degrades and makes light of violence against women. It is within this culture that acts of violence become the norm. While everyone may be horrified by the actual violent assaults against women, no one blinks an eye when fighters use language that makes it sound normal -- even funny.
Not only do fighters routinely use words like “pussy” and “bitch” to feminize and devalue their adversaries, their cues come all the way from the top, as UFC President Dana White has a long rap sheet of his own sexist remarks. The culture of misogyny is so deeply embedded that neither UFC officials or the press hear these comments as the hate speech they truly are.
So how, as a staunch feminist, am I such a fan of the sport?
While I cringe when ring girls are used as props between rounds, send angry, disapproving tweets to fighters, like Jones, who use sexist language, and call out sexist behavior in my own gym, I know that the sport itself isn’t to blame.
Like any other sport (I’m looking at you, football), it is the people involved in it that are responsible for cultivating an environment where women are devalued and objectified.
The truth is there is nothing inherently misogynistic about MMA.
While it is a violent sport that combines striking and grappling to submit or knockout an opponent, it is highly technical, requiring great discipline, intelligence and athleticism. In fact, women are now competing alongside men in the UFC -- a feat unparalleled in professional sports.
My own journey with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA has echoed this contradiction.
On the one hand, in the six years I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu, I have become more assertive and confident through the physical, emotional, and intellectual demands of the sport. Learning to embrace my power and physically assert my will is something that has been beneficial in all aspects of my life.
On the other hand, I have had to navigate a male dominated environment where my competence is often in question, where the term “girl” is used as an insult, and where I am at times reminded of my own vulnerability in a room full of aggressive men.
I do jiu-jitsu to feel powerful -- and teach self-defense classes based on the same principle. Yet, my own attempts to challenge sexism within the sport have often been met with hostility. The same forces that work to discredit my jiu-jitsu also work to discredit my objections to the status quo.
Misogyny has infected MMA, as it has sports in general, and society as a whole. It will not subside unless those who wield power under its auspices work to counteract it.
The MMA community must understand that the attacks on Christy Mack and Kaitlyn Grispi are a direct consequence of the culture of misogyny they participate in.
Culture, language, and deeds cannot be separated, as they inform, support and perpetuate each other. Those at the helm of the sport (White, Jones, etc.) are responsible for shaping the culture -- determining what is and isn’t acceptable, in speech and in actions.
The UFC should take immediate steps to launch a campaign that addresses the link between language, culture and violence against women. They should educate themselves, their fighters, and their fans how to fight against this culture, rather than participate in it.
In addition, gym owners, practitioners and fans of the sport must take it upon themselves to put an end to the behaviors that normalize violence, including language and jokes that degrade women.
MMA is a sport that exalts toughness, perseverance, skill and intellect. As someone who knows firsthand how powerful and positive this sport can be, I am ready to fight for a new incarnation.
As Mack and Grispi’s story demonstrate, misogyny kills.
This hyper-masculine sport, growing exponentially in popularity, has the opportunity to be the vanguard of a new masculinity -- one that celebrates strength, power and aggression without destroying, objectifying or victimizing women in the process.
Most news sources are referring to it as a sexual assault because War Machine penetrated Mack using his fingers. ↩