Going for the Knockout

'Savage' is a compliment these days

Pandemonium broke loose last Saturday night as the highly anticipated UFC 229 battle between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov spilled out of the octagon and a virtual riot ensued.  This is not the first time something like this has happened, although when even Mike Tyson calls a “fight riot” crazy it ought to give pause.  Pause, not because the post-fight melee ruined a perfectly good fight but because there really is no such thing as a perfectly good fight.

In an age where morality is governed by mutual consent, it is like yelling into the wind to say anything about MMA or its pugilistic parent, boxing.  If two men want to pummel each other until one of them loses consciousness, then who are we to stop them?  Besides, most sports are violent.  Would you have us stop watching sports all together?  Isn’t all this joyless moralizing what made the Church irrelevant anyway?

Certainly boxing and MMA are not the only sports that contain violence.  The NFL is fighting its own battle against violent hits, a battle the NHL has been fighting for years.  For these sports, violence may be a part of the action, but it is not the goal.   As evidence of this fact we would say that a player who makes violence his goal is a “dirty player.”  Boxing and MMA, on the other hand, have as their sole aim to do violence to the other person in such a way that they lose consciousness.  To deprive another man of consciousness, without a proportionally grave reason, is always wrong regardless of the purse size or his willingness to do so.  To deprive a man of the use of his reason, the highest and most uniquely human faculty that he has, is always wrong because it attempts to make him into something less than human.  “Two men enter, one man leaves” is true in more ways than one.

Note that these sports are different than other martial arts and wrestling.  The latter have the goal to “beat” the opponent, but, as evidenced by the fact that the head is always off-limits, not to deprive him of consciousness.

For anyone who has seen movies like Cinderella Man, there is a certain nobility attached to fighting and this can certainly explain some of its appeal.  This of course would not mitigate the fact that the fans are cooperating in the evil, at least materially.  The large purses attached to the matches are due to the large audiences, and spectators are attracted precisely by a potential knockout.  Put more bluntly, the spectators take pleasure in watching another man’s pain.  This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of UFC’s popularity—what it reveals about ourselves.

In our post-Edenic brokenness we all have a tendency to relish the suffering of others.  While this is written into our anthropologic DNA, it is when we continually feed it that it becomes who we are.  Herein lies the problem with these sports, at least culturally speaking.  A society in which UFC becomes an “event” is a culture that takes pleasure in other people’s pain.  As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “A man who is angry without being injured or with one who has not offended him is not said to be cruel, but to be brutal or savage.”

To be called “savage” in our age is actually a compliment among the young.  But that is only because savagery is all around us.  “If it bleeds it leads,” the popularity of videos like “Top 10 Epic fails,” and the popularity of “roasting” all mark the descent of our culture.  We should be moved to compassion in the face of the sufferings of others, but we become incapable of it when it is our choice of entertainment.

Our Lord admonished His followers to “turn the other cheek,” but when it comes to the inherent violence of prize fighting like MMA, we should simply turn our heads and walk away.

Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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