The Sociology of MMA: Fight Sport Theatre: Silva vs. Sonnen II

This weekend on July 7, mixed martial arts’ (MMA) most dominant champion, Anderson Silva, will defend his middleweight title against long time nemesis, Chael Sonnen. The fight is a rematch from their first fight, which took place on August 7, 2010, when Sonnen controlled Silva for four and a half rounds, before being submitted by Silva with less than two minutes left in the fifth and final round. Though MMA reflects one of the more physically visceral sports out there, the Silva-Sonnen rivalry is known as much for Sonnen’s brash trash talking, as it is for their first epic encounter in the cage. In this post, David Mayeda examines the hype going into the Silva-Sonnen rematch to illustrate the concept of “fight sport theatre.”

Ask just about any athletic coach what values sport brings to society, and s/he will typically rattle off a number of clichéd responses: “Sport builds character”; “Sport teaches people to bounce back from defeat”; “Sport produces discipline.” Okay, I won’t deny that sport if coached under certain conditions can, and sometimes does teach those values while also enriching our lives. On the other hand, there is no denying that sport is tied intimately to the capitalist market; sport is a form of entertainment with its own set of commodities (namely the athletes) that can be bought, sold, and used for profit-based motives. As John Sewart (1987) writes, “when sport becomes a commodity governed by market principles there is little or no regard for its intrinsic content or form” (p. 172). Like other professional sports, MMA is no doubt governed by market and gendered principles.

Furthermore, MMA is a combat sport where competitors engage in 1-on-1 competition, with the sanctioned objective of physically harming their opponents. This is what differentiates almost all combat sports (e.g., MMA, boxing, tae kwon do, judo) from non-combat sports – inflicting pain and physical damage on opponents is a necessary sporting component built into the sports’ rule structures. True, behind locker room doors, players and coaches in American football and rugby may talk of physically harming opponents. However, doing so with intent is technically against those sports’ rules. In boxing on the other hand, the sanctioned objective is to hit one’s opponent so many times and so hard (mostly in the head), such that s/he is unable to continue fighting. In judo, a competitor can choke out an opponent as a means of securing the win. In short, inflicting levels of pain and/or physical damage on opponents are not just allowed in combat sport; they are necessary.

Thus, as combat, or “fight sport,” is increasingly marketed in our society – produced, advertised, sold and purchased as entertainment – we are witnessing the evolving commodification of fighting, or the development of a concept I call, “fight sport theatre.” Fight sport theatre includes the publicly displayed commodification of combat sport and typically includes the following five conditions:

  1. Increasingly advanced media technology is used to promote fighting competition through exaggerated rituals.
  2. These exaggerated rituals rely on cultural ideals of domination and subordination tied to hyper-masculine norms (e.g., sexism, homophobia), and frequently to additional forms of prejudice and discrimination (e.g., racism, xenophobia).
  3. Physical combat (i.e., fighting) is further glorified as the practice through which these cultural ideals of domination and subordination are disseminated, thereby perpetuating a broader hyper-masculine society connected to violence.
  4. A stratified, hierarchal structure within the sport exists, where those with greater power orchestrate the public display of hyper-masculine rituals, predominantly through use of those members of the organization holding less power.
  5. The overall objective of the above conditions is to create and extend company profit, something that is possible because a market already exists that values different levels of violent masculinity.

These conditions of fight sport theatre are apparent in the world of MMA and are blatantly evident in the pre-fight hype that has been put on display predominantly by Chael Sonnen, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) organization, and to a lesser degree by Anderson Silva. Let’s look at the first condition regarding media and advanced technology. In the following video clip, we can see how online media (YouTube) is used to promote the Sliva-Sonnen rematch, as well as how their first fight is repeatedly quantified by highlighting Silva’s dominance in the sport as a whole, but also by Sonnen’s dominance of their first fight (minus him being submitted at the end of competition). The points made in the video and the video itself illustrate how advanced technology contributes to the fight game.

Now for the second condition – fight sport theatre relies on hyper-masculine cultural ideals (think hegemonic masculinity). In one of the longer promotional videos for this re-match (presented below), Sonnen uses all kinds of language attempting to subordinate Silva. In one case Sonnen speaks of Brazil in general, highlighting how he values Brazilian women as sex objects; at 22:20 in the video Sonnen says, “I don’t have anything against the Brazilian people. I got something against a Brazilian that’s sitting a few feet from me [referring to Silva], and maybe a couple other gentlemen but your women are all okay with me so feel free to give me a call or pay me a visit.” With regard to subordinating Silva specifically, Sonnen says earlier in the video at 7:47, “I don’t leave the game claiming that I was hurt. He comes out and says, my ribs hurt. Well of course your ribs hurt Anderson. Your ribs have the same problem that your hands and feet have. They’re attached to a cowardly charlatan named Anderson Silva.”

And finally, Sonnen relies on nationalist (and arguably racist) ideology in the video’s opening minutes. At 1:30 Sonnen states, “…a lot like America ya know when I was a little kid, I remember goin’ outside. I’d sit around with my friends. We’d talk about the latest technology and medicine and gaming in American ingenuity, and I look outside, and Anderson and the Brazilian kids are sitting outside playing in the mud.” See video, below:

The third condition occurs when we see fight sport used to perpetuate a broader hyper-masculinity, not only through verbal jabs, but also through the actual fighting competitions. In the short promotional video, below, we can see many of the spoken punches exemplified that speak to condition number two, above. In addition, at 0:42 in the video we see the imagery shift to physical competitions, used to confirm the athletes’ social dominance as athletes and as socially defined exemplary men. Consequently, publicly displayed, physically violent domination is ultimately used to signify the most dominant male; physical domination trumps verbal wit:

The fourth condition speaks to an organization’s stratified internal structure. Here, promotional figures with extensive power coordinate public, theatrical activities where fighters who hold less power reinforce hyper-masculine ideals (e.g., intimidation tactics). In the video below, UFC president, Dana White (wearing the black collared shirt over faded jeans) manages the Silva-Sonnen staredown. And while some – not all – fighters make a good financial return during their relatively short occupational “fight life,” promoters and owners in the biggest organizations typically make substantially more, and for lengthier time periods.

Collectively, the four examples and conditions presented above contribute to the final condition – the theatrical aspects of fight sport ultimately seek financial profit through the promotion of hyper-masculine dominance and subordination. All the videos presented here offer examples of purported dominance over a subordinated other. However, these fight-based verbal and physical tactics also help to sell tickets, pay-per-view buys, and MMA merchandise. The marketing tactics work and yield company profits because significant segments of society already have a thirst for hyper-masculine violence.

If you’re a fan of MMA or another combat sport, remember, sport does not exist in a social vacuum. Like all sectors of society, sport it is impacted by broader social forces. In the case of combat sport, even cases involving female competitors, the concept of fight sport theatre shows us how public aspects of gender are manipulated to increase profit.

Oh, and go Anderson Silva! Yeah, I got a bit of that thirst too.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What might be some broader social implications concerning the ways masculinity and femininity are presented in fight sport? Have gendered presentations of fight sport affected your identity? If so, how?
  2. In what ways might fight sport be reorganized such that it does not preserve rigid notions of gender?
  3. How can capitalist motives be dismantled from combat sports, such that aspects of fight sport theatre diminish?
  4. How do you see public/theatrical presentations of masculinity and femininity demonstrated in sports other than MMA?

Reference: Seward, J. J. (1987). The commodification of sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 22 (3), 171-192.