When once asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have answered: “I think it would be a good idea!”
I find myself sharing Gandhi’s sentiments whenever I stumble across “ultimate fighting” (an oxymoron perhaps?!) on television. In case you don’t stumble across the same sort of stuff that I do, ultimate fighting is mixed martial arts (MMA) combat…in a cage…with very few rules.
Perhaps my own 65-kg frame has subconsciously given me a prejudice! Even so, I can’t help but think that the explosion in popularity of these increasingly violent encounters paints a pretty forlorn picture of some aspects of our present-day “civilisation.”
A recent New York Times article entitled The Fight Club Generation observes that regular boxing has been replaced by a rawer, rowdier second-cousin. “To this generation, who came of age alongside the notorious sport, mixed martial arts has come to represent everything that boxing once did to their fathers and grandfathers: the ultimate measure of manhood, endurance and guts.”
It’s like boxing, but with more blood and chaos – (Popular MMA blog is appropriately, if not a little alarmingly, titled The Bloody Elbow.)
It’s like boxing, but without the same rules and etiquette.
It’s like boxing gone postmodern.
Actually, it’s nothing like boxing.
The most interesting revelation in the article for me was not just the huge number of fans (MMA is now the fourth most popular sport among 18-34 year-old males, behind baseball, basketball and football) but who they are. Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University:
“‘People who don’t know these sports very well think their fans must be these kind of crazed, people-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown, violent kind of thing.’ But the students he sees who are most interested in the sport ‘tend to have really good grade-point averages and be really fine students,’ he said. ‘This is not something that smart young people look down their noses at.’”
It goes on to suggest that following or participating in MMA may provide an outlet for a generation of males who perhaps haven’t really known or been shown how to be masculine. As its title suggests, a generation whose imaginations and baser instincts were captured by the Edward Norton/Brad Pitt indy hit film Fight Club. The article reports Professor Thompson’s agreement that “the impact of Fight Club could not be discounted; it became a manifesto for a generation of boys who felt estranged from their masculinity. ‘It became this kind of magnum opus, and it described a certain culture of this kind of sport… This was their thing, and they defined themselves accordingly.’“
I’m not exactly sure how we teach a generation of males how to be appropriately masculine – or, for that matter, a generation of females how to be appropriately feminine. As a soon-to-be dad it’s something I am going to be thinking a lot about in the decades ahead – because doing nothing isn’t going to be an option.
But what I am pretty certain about is that any generation that gets its kicks from watching one individual beat the pulp out of another has probably lost something pretty central to an understanding of what it means to be human.
And if The Bloody Elbow is giving us our answers, we’re probably asking the wrong questions.