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Reflections on the art of blood sport
I wonder whether the urge to punch someone in the face as hard as you can assumes an audience, beyond its victim. I guess I wonder at the ability of even one extra person to make the act of punching someone in the face so much more meaningful. If you have ever punched someone in the face (or imagined it), quite likely you’ve wished there had been someone there to watch you do it. If you’ve ever been punched in the face, you’ve surely wished the opposite. It is an act savored for its social regulation. I think there’s something there that might help explain the rise of mixed martial arts in America. I think it might be a phenomenon entirely based around the desire to see someone really punched in the face, something I think we really do need.
I say really in deference to two other cultural traditions of punching people in the face that mixed martial arts, it is often grimly prophesied, seems poised to supplant; one, boxing, is an iconic tradition of people being punched in the face, rife with allegory and part of the national folklore. The other, professional wrestling, has built a fictional edifice of Homeric proportions off the sheer delight elicited by simulated punches in the face.
All three sports (and yes, one can count pro-wrestling as a sport, if one admits that the wins and losses are tabulated solely by the sport’s practitioners in some secret Borgesian sense, and whose real strivings in no way resemble those on display in the arena), share that queasy relationship with bloodshed that hovers behind all sports but is the central purpose of these three. They are despised, the ascendant mixed martial arts most of all, for their brutality, for the utter necessity of violence to their enterprise. Their crowds thrill to something they would never want visited on themselves or their loved ones, a disparity that the sports’ detractors equate to some kind of moral or ethical lapse. I know a great many people who look to mixed martial arts as a sign of the times, reasoning that the more punches in the face that our sports, and thus, our society sanctions, the quicker our slip toward Sodom. But such opinions are a bit unkind to blood sports, I think. Unlike other games, you can hardly argue that the violence is superfluous. They’re blood sports, after all.
Compare them, for example, with football, whose violence is not only extravagant but grossly unnecessary to the actual mechanics of the game: We all played the flag and touch variants of it in grade-school, and yet no professional league exists save the one that requires protective padding and a helmet (a game which, by the way, allows strictly no punches in the face). Its lineman live to the average age of 52 and die in vain, for no reason within the game itself. Its legitimacy seems bound to extraneous violence, like the politics of some Latin American country in the 1950s. It is here where I see the most dangerous extension of our ideology: We may indeed have much to fear in the fatuous violence that goes unnoticed around us, becomes normal, disappears. But when blood is the point, this is impossible.
Blood sports, like venomous snakes, allow themselves to be classified by the amount of lethality they employ. On this score, one cannot misunderstand them. The blood they draw is necessary to them, and the manner in which it is drawn: If it is however much the crowd demands, we have wrestling; if it as little as can be managed, merely a reminder of the stakes, we have boxing. If it is by the bucketful and more, in the name of victory, we have mixed martial arts, gloriously aware of itself. It is the sport where a real punch in the face is all that is asked for, and all that is received.