The recent news of Nick Denis’ decision to retire from mixed martial arts might not move the figurative needle in quite the same way as the never-ending tide of Anderson Silva vs. GSP superfight coverage.
However, it has at least kick-started a fresh discussion on fighter safety, particularly as it relates to the long-term effects of treating one’s skull like a piñata.
It also makes one wonder why so many fans have taken to arbitrarily defining a “real fighter” as someone who shows no regard for their own well-being.
Perhaps more importantly, it raises the question of whether such a barbarous mentality is healthy for the sport going forward.
It is a collective mindset that has been perpetuated not just by the sport’s fans, but also by its leading figures.
We have an intuitive appreciation for fighters who are willing to put their bodies, or even their lives, on the line in the quest for glory.
It is a seemingly paradoxical disposition, celebrating that which goes against our nature.
The desire to willingly sacrifice one’s body is not something that has been hardwired into us. Rather, it is a maladaptive contradiction that has been instilled in us largely through cultural transmission.
In modern culture, it is in many ways a product of the countless theatrical depictions of heroes battling adversity in the face of overwhelming odds.
Whether it’s Sylvester Stallone overcoming a juiced-up Russian or Jean-Claude Van Damme wheel-kicking a psychopathic Chinese hulk into submission, our minds have been trained to revere even the most inconsequential of courageous acts—those awesome 80s action flicks have a lot to answer for.
That isn’t to say it’s wrong to admire those who go above and beyond in the pursuit of greatness. Fighters who routinely sacrifice their bodies inside the cage, and who are willing to scrap at a moment’s notice, deserve all the praise they get.
I’m no less prone to marking out during a career-shortening fight than the next person.
That being said, this mentality has certain undesirable consequences, such as the unfair pressure it places upon the sport’s athletes to take fights that do not best serve their interests, physically or monetarily.
What we see now is, for all intents and purposes, a shaming culture within the sport. If a fighter does not meet our lofty expectations, he or she is immediately dismissed as not being a “real fighter.”
Dana White is as indispensable a figure as we have in mixed martial arts, but he shoulders much of the blame for the rise of this odious attitude towards athletes who view fighting as a job, rather than as a purely defining characteristic.
The UFC President can often be heard praising fighters who are willing to suspend their natural instinct for self-preservation, while criticising those who take a more pragmatic approach to both their careers and their health.
The problem seems to be that Dana White has a zero-sum conception of the relationship between fighting and pragmatism.
As he sees it, fighters are meant to fight, not think. Real fighters do not turn down fights, no matter how bulletproof their reasoning might be for doing so.
It’s unfortunate that this attitude is so pervasive within mixed martial arts. It has gotten to the point that even some fighters have adopted White’s “fight first, think later” attitude towards the sport.
Only a few days ago, BJ Penn could be heard implying that he is a real fighter because he would take on Anderson Silva without hesitation, whereas Georges St-Pierre has been less enthusiastic about the prospect.
Is this how the fighter mindset should be defined, as a dichotomy between the impulsive and the pragmatic?
In truth, there is no conflict between fighting and the judicious management of one’s career.
The recent trend of professionalisation is part of MMA's natural evolution as a sport, whether we like it or not.