The Sociology of MMA: Do “Real” Men Have Emotions?

Does a “real” man cry? Does he get scared? All of us, regardless of our gender, experience the entire range of human emotions, but where do they go if we don’t show them? In this post David Mayeda explores what emotions the men of MMA can express publicly and how they manage emotions they cannot.

Back in September of 2011, Sociology In Focus’s Alex Megna examined the rigid ways that masculinity is constructed in our society through music. Sports are another venue where men learn to become so-called real men, and women, so-called real women. So do “real” men, even professional male athletes, express emotion? Aren’t “real” men supposed to be emotionless, standing tall, calm, and bravely in the face of danger and uncertainty? Let’s return to the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) to see how men engaged in fight sport cope with their emotions.

A fairly common perception of masculinity is that men, well “real” men, keep their emotions in check, in contrast to women, who are not policed so heavily by society in expressing their emotional states. But the reality is, men do have emotions, even those who try to repress them in the face of public scrutiny. Perhaps one of the few emotions men are allowed to express publicly, in particular when in confrontation with one another, is anger. Hence, confrontational interactions like that seen below between MMA fighters Nate Diaz and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone prior to their December 2011 fight, are not terribly uncommon (see this video).

A recent article published in Social Psychology Quarterly titled, “Managing Emotional Manhood: Fighting and Fostering Fear in Mixed Martial Arts,” synthesizes interviews conducted with 121 MMA fighters about the different ways male athletes manage their emotions in the fight game. And guess what, results of the study show that MMA fighters manage emotions other than anger. In particular, MMA fighters go to great lengths in managing the emotion of fear.

The study shows that MMA fighters fear two things most often – being injured and losing. In a collision sport like MMA, where intent to harm your opponent is sanctioned by the rules, injuries (though not catastrophic ones) are common place. An injury – even a relatively minor one – can mean losing training and possibly competition time. By not being able to compete, professional fighters miss an opportunity for a payday, and all fighters (even the amateur ones who don’t get paid to compete) lose a space where they can publicly showcase their manhood through sanctioned physical violence.

The more interesting part of the study illustrates how male MMA fighters also manage fear with regard to losing. Think about what losing means in this context. Losing symbolizes a number of things, but perhaps most importantly, losing is associated with femininity within a patriarchal hierarchy. Remember, the successful expression of violence is currently constructed in society as a masculine trait. Therefore, when an MMA fighter loses in competition, he is symbolically feminized, driven down in masculine status. In turn, many male mixed martial artists fear the possibility of losing masculine prominence on the public sporting stage. Losing to a competitor is one thing, but losing as an individual who represents a gym and in front of a large crowd raises the stakes tremendously. The gendered shame associated with losing (and winning) is all the more amplified when done on a public stage, and this speaks to the frequency of male MMA fighters crying after a loss. It has to do with emotional shame, not physical harm.

The authors of this study show other ways that fear is built into the fight game. Returning to the YouTube video, above, numerous MMA fighters engage in behaviours prior to competition like that demonstrated by Nate Diaz (who knocks off Cerrone’s hat). Here, Diaz works to foster fear in his opponent through intimidation tactics. Athletes know that if one lacks confidence and is insecure with his/her sporting abilities relative to the competition, athletic performance tends to decline.

Hence, in the fight game (and other predominantly male sports), we see fighters going to great lengths to cultivate fear in their opponents. By doing so, the aggressor further showcases his violent manhood, while simultaneously promoting anxieties in his opponent. And while part of these gender-based performances may revolve around promotional tactics to drive ticket sales, they are also done strategically, in hopes that opponents will wilt emotionally and physically once the actual competition begins.

Suggesting that men do not experience emotional highs and lows is absurd. To the contrary, the research shows, even those men involved in activities considered highly masculine cope with extreme levels of emotion, including emotions deemed feminine by society, such as fear.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Identify a number of emotions you cope with in your daily life.
  2. Now think about when it is socially acceptable for you to show or hide those emotions.
  3. Next, link those emotional states to specific activities you engage in and determine if they are influenced by societal understandings of gender.
  4. Finally, consider emotions not discussed in this essay, such as love. Determine how the emotional construct of love might differ between people from different status groups (males, females, people from different cultural or age groups)? Remember, in many cultures, love is not a prerequisite for marriage.

Reference: Vaccaro, C. A., Schrock, D. P., & McCabe, J. M. (2011). Managing emotional manhood: fighting and fostering fear in mixed martial arts. Social Psychology Quarterly, 74 (4), 414-437.

[Picture provided by author.]