by Al Alvir
(This is a follow-up to Garrett Morris’s “What Makes MMA Gay?” I preface this commentary by making it known that I am a full supporter of mma and want the sport to grow. I want people to see that mma can be so much better so that fighters from all disciplines may follow mma in the future.)
Grappling (Greco-Roman wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, etc.) is just not satisfying for many fighters, no matter how effective it is in MMA competition. Aesthetically, it isn’t pleasing to the worldly viewer or to many a fighter. Even in real life situations, as in avenging a wrongdoing, wouldn’t it behoove one to do damage to one’s enemy by taking that person’s dignity through beating him on equal ground? – equal ground meaning “equal leverage.” By equal leverage I refer to a free standing position in which there is no intrinsic safe ground, as in clinching positioning or grappling. Isn’t this why we fight instead of shoot guns?
Consider this: Two uniformed lawmen get into an argument about their schedule. One guy smacks the other in the face. The other reacts by tackling him. They wrestle until one officer manages to gain dominant positioning, and he puts handcuffs on the other cop. Then, he lies on top of him and starts beating the downed officer. And maybe he puts the helpless guy into a knee-bar. What is so cavalier of any of that? What does it prove on the playing field of fighting? What fighting need does it satisfy?
This is subjective, and it could vary from opinion to opinion, but the above situation would probably warrant a rematch by the logic of fighting principles. The guy who was handcuffed would probably think it was unfair (perhaps he would never use his handcuffs in a supposed fair fight with a fellow officer), and he’d want to fight again. Fighting, beyond the visceral anger and self-defense notions, is about satisfying a curiosity, “who would win on fair ground?” It is about damaging an opponent while an opponent can damage you (not after gaining unfair positioning), and it’s about making the statement that you are worthy. Borrowing from Rocky Balboa, fighting is about saying, “I am.” Even when someone’s intent is to humiliate another person, he chooses to do so through fighting because it satisfies his personal duty to earn it. There is honor in fighting. And if it were only about self-defense, one should walk in droves, carry a gun, or just be a sissy. That old cop-out of “self-defense” is virtual nonsense. Fighting is almost always a choice.
Many grapplers choose to tumble and toss on the ground, perhaps, to satisfy some desire; they like to fight that way. This is precisely the root to why people talk about mma sport with the tongue-in-cheek reference of it being “gay,” or homoerotic. They want to be close, in tactile quarters. Of course most fighters probably have no homosexual thoughts when they are wrestling. The same goes for any sport with head-to-toe bodily contact, like football; “it’s only gay if they make it gay,” as the saying goes. The question so many people pose against mma is: “Do they make it gay?” Surely, there must be more gay people drawn to grappling arts than stand-up arts because of the nature of grappling. Its latent and suggestive intimacy is almost distinct. Why do guys wrestle their girlfriends and their children? There is a closeness stimulated by the fun and varied positions of dominance in wrestling, even without the sexual innuendo. On top of that, it’s safer; you can practice wrestling without getting hurt. Wrestling is akin to play-fighting, so why would anyone choose to turn real fighting’s intense emotions (although it’s better to be calm) into a wrestling fight? If two friends were wrestling as a joke and it became serious, they wouldn’t continue to wrestle-fight. They would probably stand-up and square-off. This is the notion of eroticism that wrestling toils with: when a couple wrestles, rubbing bodies, it may get hot and heavy. So, two men wrestling just seems inappropriate. Whatever the case, many guys like to roll around twisting and contorting with other men because it’s more accentuated to those guys’ senses – gay or not. Is that why so many kids seek contact sports? But they should remember, however, that more surface area bodily contact does not connote more impact.
Stand-up fighting has never been about jockeying for such positioning in which one fighter gains unfair advantage then proceeds to hit his opponent. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is awesome in that respect—it is all about leverage—but this is exactly what also makes it a yellowbelly game. Boxing and kick-boxing have always been about the use of fine idiosyncratic skills encompassed in a moment, or on the opposite of the spectrum, the ever exciting “free-for-all” – standing in front of a foe and brawling, shot for shot. But stand up arts have always maintained a grave element of danger that is less prominent in grappling arts. For the majority of the public, wrestling seems more strategic than boxing because it holds true for people who don’t know anything about fighting. If you get two guys who never boxed or wrestled, they are going to be more strategic in wrestling each other. They wouldn’t know the angles, defense, set-ups and traps that are part of standing up, but they could probably improvise with some holding maneuvers however technically incorrect they may be. And every guy thinks he can wrestle – even if the last time he wrestled was in elementary school. Not too many guys think they can box unless they proved it to themselves with some correlating experience – stand-up is simply much scarier of a pursuit. There are many smaller guys who may rather wrestle Brock Lesnar than stand up with him because he’s so intimidating, and Brock Lesnar was an All-American wrestler.
A guy can roll at the gym for hours without damaging himself. Imagine light sparring for an hour. It would surely be much more afflictive. Millions of people with my sentiments of boxing and kickboxing don’t understand the appeal of men rolling on the ground together. Rolling by itself, the part of training important for fighting in mma, may be more frolicsome (gay) than any and all aspects of martial arts. I, personally, have no understanding what joy guys get out of it. I’m not homophobic, but the close wrestling is not for me. When I did BJJ, I was uncomfortable to the point when I wondered if the guys I was rolling with were ‘getting off’ on the grappling – they fancied the heavy contact, but I did it just because it was an aspect I wanted to know in case someone took me down. I understand that everyone has different boundaries of discomfort. And that is exactly it – it is what it is on its surface – discomfort.
Grappling is unsatisfying and sort of tasteless to viewers who want to see competition, not dominance (or worse, tumbling that appears to be more consonance than competition). It lacks the bravado and valiant aspect of stand-up fighting. One fighter said, “There’s much more skimble-skamble in MMA. If you can’t stand you can get on the floor. There is an anticipation of so many possibilities.” Those possibilities tend to overshadow the bore of it all and it is a lie to many new viewers of mma who see fighters either stand up and box poorly or get on the floor. They don’t see a true assortment of mixed martial arts. The grapplers grapple and the stand up guys stand. The freestylers flail until they fall. And when they each clash it turns into a stupid stalemate until the usual grappling match or the skill-less stand-up. In boxing, it can be argued that there is more talent needed and more discipline – a chess match of offense and defense, skill versus skill. In mma, one could figure out how to gain advantage by not matching his skill to the other fighter’s skill, and rather by “playing a different game.” Grappling itself is about maneuvering positioning to a safe and unequal ground. Wrestlers are, perhaps, drawn to mma because of this dynamic. If your hands are really good, the other guy can try managing to wrestle with you, or vice versa. In boxing, you can’t get away from danger by taking someone to play Scrabble instead of chess if your chess game is weak. Corollary to this, any big guy could be thrown into mma and he could roll around or punch and possibly survive for a long time. This is much less likely to be done in boxing without the guy getting mauled and humiliated. And in mma, it’s easier to give up; you can tap before any damage has incurred or you can lay in a fetal position covering any significant blows from landing while the referee hurries to halt the fight. No one will notice your “no mas” in mma.
Grappling is a tedious game of maneuvering that usually takes much too long to produce excitement, if any. Many grapplers even express that it is more gratifying to win on their feet by KO. Conversely, it is often a greater blow to fighters’ dignity when they’ve been KO’d. One mma spectator said that getting on the ground always seemed like hitting or being hit in the balls – “a B.S. fight, a cheat,” if you will. “Whether someone wins or loses on the ground, it always seems to be a jip.” Even after a hundred mma events, the ground and pound and even the submission have lacked the valiant factor—how much blood and guts and determination did it take. One bit of pressure on a joint and you tap. And once you’re in a dominant position, it’s academic. “If that’s what a good fight comes down to,” a friend suggested, “may as well get a gun instead of fight like these guys and forget these corny martial arts.”
What is it about choking someone out that appeals to some people? I somewhat see the value in clutching someone into a helpless position and feeling his body go limp. It is an exhibition of domination. But this tells me that the person who would rather choke-out someone hasn’t learned how to hit, hasn’t ever cracked someone hard, or can’t hit that hard. One Muay-Thai boxer who converted to mma said to me, “When you’ve felt the exhilaration of hitting someone in the face for real, you will never want to tackle or take-down another man again – unless that’s your thing (sarcasm).” The thing about grappling is that any man can choke-out someone in the right position. Knocking-out someone is so much more difficult—it’s arguably a truer display of skill and power than outwrestling someone with weight or muscle. I’m not saying that knocking-out a 16 year old boy is more impressive than choking-out a Gracie, but knocking-out a Gracie could cause so much more damage to a Gracie than choking him out. It may even be more demeaning. Knocking-out someone is just so much more electrifying and to the point. It’s sudden and quick. And for those who say, “In the street, working submissions, if you choke someone out you kill him, or you can break his arm,” how often is that going to happen? Really, what bar brawl or real self-defense situation is anyone going to be granted such an opportunity without being pulled-off the opponent, stomped-out, or imprisoned? How practical is it even in its most primal, non-cowardly application away from any organized competition? And don’t responsible martial arts practitioners always preach for people to just give up their valuables in any real situation such as robbery?
Fighting on almost every level is about pride and bravado. Skill versus skill. Man to man. Except for the rare self-defense, life or death situation, there are unwritten rules to fighting. There are actually morals. Whether in a neighborhood beef or stepping outside a bar, a fight is almost always about respect, not survival. One can walk away in tact, unharmed and with all his possessions in most encounters even if he may end up looking like a “sucker.” So fighting is not just to exist; if you fight, it’s out of dignity. And nothing gets respect like standing up and “fighting like a man.” Consider that if someone bites (unless he is crazed and out of his mind), grabs testicles, or lays and waits for someone to break it up, he is arguably the coward of a fair fight.
Then is it so ridiculous to have an unexpressed agreement on how to fight a streetfight? If not, then you can incorporate weapons or cheating. Fighting, anyway, is not the fighting we imagine without an absolute isolation of weapons, whichever those weapons may be (no use of garment or inanimate objects, no spitting, no fish-hooking, no clawing, no biting, no jumping-in, no ear-tearing, etc.). Because when you allow some weapons in certain positions and prohibit those weapons in other positions, only then, do you have an utter farce. When speaking of three types of fighting (mma, street, and self-defense), mma grappling and street-fight grappling each exude this contradiction. I once watched a barfight in which one guy laid in some amateur side control-like position and began vomiting uncontrollably on his foe’s face, much of which went into the supine guy’s mouth, seemingly accidentally. It was the most hysterical and appalling sight, especially as the man seemed to use his throw-up to blind his opponent while he viciously beat him bloody. My friends and I walked away shocked, but we also realized there was a moral to the story, aside from any jokes: The outcome of the fight was inequitable, empty; it was just plain “unfair” or it was a fluky way to good self-defense. At that moment, I knew that any grappling could only be completely rule-less in order to be an appraisable martial art. No one could know its value unless it was used in no-holds barred, life-or-death situations (like JKD, this would be almost impossible to test). In other words, grappling should only be used for complete self-defense, as even grappling in mma does not incorporate the most effective possibilities (“cheats” as I call it) that could be so useful in any life-or-death setting: biting, heat-butting, eye-gouging, crotch striking, ear-tearing, etc. And, I guess, vomiting. It is arguable that the new mma is just a diluted sport with displaced skills, displaced strategy, and the restriction of bodily weapons. Basically, grappling in mma, or in a civil street-fight, is just a bad representation of fair-fighting. Stand-up fighting is simply not close-range enough to exude any of the contradictions I speak of.
There is cowardice inherent in grappling, even with the use of extreme self-defense tactics (“cheats”). Because one would have to “cheat” to make it efficient and without the “cheating” the danger is limited. Furthermore, people who don’t like the idea of being hit in the face and standing on fair ground would rather be in positions they think they can squirm out of. They want to smother the danger that they conceive and jockey for position, jockey for a mismatch. Even if two skilled wrestlers battled, it would come down to one of them finding some convenient advantage—but they often fight a boring match made up of defense, no openings, and no risks. Wrestling combatants use the ground as a weapon, and even if they both have the weapon at their disposal, they are only sort of “trying to use the weapon first.” It’s almost like they are not purely matching skills; one guy gets a hold, by chance more often than one may think, and then the other guy is left at a disadvantage until some other slip-up. In wrestling, strength and size accounts for too much to be considered a supreme skill-set. For people in a fight who are pinned and pounded, what then? It may not even prove anything but dominant size. If a stand-up fighter is choked-out, he may even say, “What could I do? He beat me, but he didn’t want to match his skills against mine.” This is the culturally opposing outlooks on the two styles of fighting; of course a wrestler is going to want to take a stand-up guy to the ground, but to stand-up guys it just seems like the sissy way to fight. It’s like a “bitch-fight” in which two girls are trying to control the other person in order to beat-up the other one – the only difference is that girls pull hair. In stand-up fighting, fighters don’t care about controlling, manipulating, or dominating the other person. The sentiment of stand-up guys seems to be “do whatever the hell you want, you ain’t worth my time but to knock your ass out without having to lay-down with you.” Most people tend to grapple because they know that anyone, to some extent, has the possibility to wrestle to a stalemate in a given situation, avoiding jeopardy (even if only for a minute). Many guys have been known to hold-on for the duration in mma contests. People who don’t know anything about fighting will wrestle if they fight. And the stronger, bigger guy is almost always the one who wants to grapple. If that’s not a big red flag indicator of cowardice, you must have missed the object of what fighting is about: fairness and honor.
And so, when applied to mma, while I do recognize the greatness and importance of ground fighting in self-defense and overall martial arts, I personally second the old notion and applaud it: “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.”
* …It is common opinion in the fight game that there is nothing sweeter than knocking out someone who is trying to knock you out. Such is the reason why “the Manly Art” has been better known as “the Sweet Science.”