MMA’s Ridiculous Culture of Toughness
By now you’ve likely seen the Ronda Rousey-Miesha Tate fight from Saturday night in Columbus. Failing that, you’ve read or heard about the result (if not, take a look at the video below). Once again, Rousey found herself the victor, in the first round, by armbar. She moved her record to 5-0 and became one of the quickest fighters in the sport to attain a major championship, especially in the modern era.
One of the major narratives coming out of the fight is obviously Rousey’s dominance, and her place as perhaps the biggest star in the history of Women’s MMA. However, something I find interesting and mildly disconcerting coming out of the fight is the celebration of Tate’s “toughness,” in regards to her unwillingness to tap to the second armbar Rousey had her in. As much as I hate to reference Twitter in any journalistic sense, it’s quite apparent that MMA has a disproportionate presence on the medium. Fellow fighters, fans and even some media were lauding the former champion for her “warrior spirit,” “fighting to the bitter end,” and the like. This is the part that I don’t understand.
If you haven’t seen the fight yet, here is one of the post fight replays:
Had Tate tapped out to the first Rousey armbar, which looked like it too caused some damage to her right arm, I don’t suspect that anyone would have batted an eye. When Miesha survived that hold however, she had already earned the respect of myself and most others watching the fight. My personal expectations of Tate in the fight had been exceeded. Of course, her expectations heading into the fight and mine were two vastly different things. I’m sure she intended on retaining her belt, however unrealistic that was, and was willing to do whatever it took to do so. Where that crosses the line from being admirable and turns foolish is the issue.
The second time Rousey caught her foe in an armbar; Tate was completed flattened out with no chance to escape. Flail about as she might, it was clear that the fight was over at that point. Yet rather than tap, Miesha decided to show her “toughness” and “warrior spirit” allowing Rousey to snap her arm like a twig, and then ply it in the most grotesque angles possible. Let’s sum this up, the end result of the fight – where Tate eventually tapped anyways – was that she still lost, but instead of simply losing a very spirited affair and heading back to the training room, she has the unenviable task of going through what is certain to be a long, arduous recovery from a gruesome arm injury that may require surgery (if it doesn’t, I’ll be absolutely shocked). While we don’t know the exact details of the injury at this point, the likelihood of Tate fighting again in 2012 seems slim.
My question is: Why celebrate this? The former champion did herself absolutely no good at the end of the match. Her refusal to tap defies logic, and has only set back her career. Yet this is something we see regularly in MMA. The mentality from both fighters and fans that submitting is a sign of weakness, and those who would rather ‘Face the Pain’ (har har) get treated as heroes has long been one of the more perverse realities of the sport. In some cases, this toughness works out well for a fighter, with Seth Baczynski against Tim McKenzie being the most notable and emphatic example. More often than not though, when a fighter refuses to tap they simply end up with an injury, not a victory.
Even if we look at another example of “toughness” from this weekend, we see that this phenomenon isn’t strictly confined to tapping out to a submission. On the UFC on FX 2 card, Kyle Noke – fresh off a knee injury sustained against Ed Herman – reportedly blew out his knee in the first round against Andrew Craig, and yet fought through to a Unanimous Decision loss. Noke, like Tate, was celebrated for his toughness, but the question that I have is how much additional damage he did to his knee, and how much longer he will be out of action as a result.
On the flip side, you look at a fighter like Brian Bowles who bowed out of his Bantamweight title contest with Dominick Cruz due to a plethora of injuries, and how he was reviled as a quitter long after. To me, Bowles did the smart thing. He knew he couldn’t perform to his utmost potential given the injuries he had, and decided to fight another day. When you’re dealing with fighters at the highest levels of the sport, winning and losing come down to such fine details that it is hard to fault anyone for wanting to be as close to their best as possible.
This is a mindset that won’t go away without some change on behalf of guilty parties, as in every pre-fight interview, or every new season of The Ultimate Fighter, we’re graced with lines like “I’ll never tap out. They’ll have to break something or choke me out,” or “I’m ready to go [through hell]/[to the death].” Even just looking back to the last season of the show, there was no greater moment to me than watching when Akira Corassani – who was definitely guilty of such braggadocio – was in fact choked out by Dennis Bermudez. Still, I am in the minority, many fans saw Corassani as one of their favourite fighters on the show, and appreciated his mentality and willingness to follow through on it.
I understand that fighters are there to entertain us, but at the same time these are people who make a living with their bodies. By encouraging the sort of behaviour that results in fighters sustaining unnecessary injuries and exacerbating existing ones, we are doing no one any good. Fighters need to be healthy to collect a paycheck, and there is nothing about having your arm snapped, knee shredded, or brain deprived of oxygen that helps that become a reality. Both fighters and fans need to grow up just a bit, and realize there is no shame in submitting.
That said, I love both the fact that Rousey was more than willing to snap her opponent’s arm if she wasn’t going to tap, and that she had no remorse about it. If you’re going to be indifferent about what happens to your body inside the cage or ring, you might just get what you deserve. Just don’t expect me to feel bad, or applaud you for your stupidity… and enjoy your stint in rehab.