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TUF Guys Cry

April 4, 2011
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Pro fighters are mostly tough guys.  Tough guys do indeed cry.  And who can blame them? Imagine walking in their shoes.

Let’s say you are a mixed martial artists trying to make it. The UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is not a tournament anymore, but effectively a league.  It is far and away the major-league promotional organization for the men.* Like the Major Leagues in baseball, the UFC is quite literally “the show.” Fighters try for years to make an impression and get into the UFC. One of the ways to make it into the show, is to make it onto the show– The Ultimate Fighter, or TUF. It’s a reality show where fighters live and train in isolation in a house in Las Vegas, and participate in an elimination tournament.

So let’s imagine you’re one of these guys. Maybe you’re one of the horde of competitive wrestlers who come up through US high school programs and college programs. Mixed martial arts has created a place for these wrestlers to essentially turn pro, and compete against fighters whose backgrounds include submission grappling (like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), kickboxing and other styles.

You got here by impressing someone at a regional qualifier, or by paying your dues fighting no-names for no money. You’ve got a day job, maybe as a surgical tech or a coach or a personal trainer, while you try to make enough fighting to support yourself, and maybe your family.  You’ve got a narrow window.  Every month, you learn more and sharpen your skills, but you also get a month older, and age and injuries hamper the body’s ability to recover.  If you don’t make it in a few years, you never will.

So you show up at some gym in Mobile or Detroit or wherever for a tryout with two hundred other fighters, and they want to watch you spar with the strikers and roll with the grapplers and see what you have, and you’re good, better than most of the guys there, and you have an interesting story, and out of thousands, you’re picked as one of maybe sixteen or so on the show (the format changes; some seasons they’ve picked 32 who have to win their first fight to stay).

And now you’re in the Fighter House.  You’re away from home for months. Maybe you’ve quit your job. Maybe you have a wife or kids at home, and you can’t see them. You’re cooped up with no outside media, living with a bunch of strangers, each of whom you may have to beat to win.  The tournament finals are on national TV and the winner gets a six-figure contract, and a few other fighters from the show make an impression and get to appear in the UFC. This is your shot.  Maybe you think you can win. Even if you don’t, if you’re good and exciting, at least your undercard fights will have some money, an audience and the potential to move you closer to the title picture.  Maybe you don’t know what else to do if this doesn’t work out.

When the fighters walk in with their split-finger gloves on for the fights on the show, there are years of work walking with them. Wrestling or boxing or martial arts training often since adolescence. Sweating to make weight, pulling the skin off chicken, measuring and weighing portions. Injuries and MRIs and bruises and training through pain.
Frustration. The breadth of mixed martial arts means constantly filling holes in your game. Fights start on the feet. The fighters approach and throw strikes from long range- leg kicks, jabs. The better strikers have the advantage. A wrestler who can’t defend against a good striker may get knocked out before ever attempting a takedown. Fighters who would rather wrestle have to do a lot of boxing and kickboxing. Whoever is less good at striking usually tries to take the action to the mat. The greatest striker’s best weapons are neutralized if he can’t avoid a takedown, so the fighter who would rather punch and kick spends a lot of time wrestling, learning to sprawl to thwart the takedown or to get back to his feet. The successful strikers are not just good on their feet, but good at staying on their feet. Whatever you do well, you spend so much of your time doing the things you are crap at, so they don’t hold you back. Get punched. Stop. Listen to the striking coach tell you why you keep getting hit. Do it again.

They say everyone’s got a plan until they get hit.  Fantastic strikers walk in thinking, “my jab will freeze this guy.  I can stuff his takedown, keep him on his feet, pick him apart and knock him out.  My whole family will watch it on TV.”  And they get run over, dumped on their backs, stuffed up against the cage.  Jiu jitsu wizards think, “I’ll submit this guy. He’ll leave an arm loose and I’ll lock onto it and he’ll tap,” only to find themselves pinned against the chain-link octagon in a standing clinch, trying to dodge elbows and knees.

But maybe your plan is working.  Maybe the first five-minute round went your way and you probably are ahead on the scorecards.  You’re tired, but he looks more tired than you.  All you have to do is follow the plan again: avoid the big punch, scoop up his dangerous, gangly kickboxer’s legs and keep him on the mat where you can control the fight.  You just did it, and you know you can do it again.  Keep your guard up.  You know exactly what you need to do.
It takes a long time to make that conversion.  Wrestlers bend over, hands low, looking to grab legs, but they can’t do that in mixed martial arts.  But you’ve had thousands of hours to learn this.  Chin down, hands up.  And you get the takedown, but the action stalls on the ground in the middle of the round.  Two long minutes left.  The ref stands you up, and everything is going to plan, and all you have to do is get the takedown again, score some points, not fall into an easy submission and you’ll take this round and the fight, and show you can beat a good striker.

And when the ref stands you up, that lanky spider of a man sees that your hands are low before you realize it, and while you’re thinking about how to shoot for a takedown, his shin is whistling over your left hand, past your shoulder …
It’s all very fuzzy, and then the world is bright sunlight and the camera crew is standing in front of you and you’re in your warmup clothes being interviewed about the loss, your second round knockout at the hands of the guy you were sure you had beat.  Just a lapse, just a blink – there are so many ways to lose.  The world’s best heavyweight lost his body position against a submission specialist and tapped out.  One of the best middleweights had the belt all but won and then made a mistake.  One strike, one takedown, one submission – the mistakes they train not to make, sometimes they make.  The mistakes they train to recover from are sometimes unrecoverable.

As the camera crew rolls tape, you realize that when the show airs in a few months, your family is going to watch you lose, and you’re not going to fight in the UFC, and you’re now farther from your goal than you’ve been in a long time, and your chance to get to the UFC through the show has come and gone and will never come again.

And that’s when they cry.  Wouldn’t you?

*Some organizations have women, but not yet the UFC.  One of the issues is that all the major pipelines for the men — academic wrestling, full-contact striking forms and submission grappling — are open to but not popular with women.  If there were more women wrestlers, more women grapplers and more women in Muay Thai, there would be a fuller talent pool for women in mixed martial arts.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2011 12:42 pm

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only male feminist who likes MMA!

    It’s an awesome sport – although I prefer Strikeforce to UFC, precisely because it’s open to women.

    In any case, you’ve really accurately described the struggle that those fighters have to go through to get to the top of their game – again, it’s nice to see an appreciation for athleticism in a feminist space (so many feminists – and political progressives in general – have this irritating anti sports bias that I find really annoying).

    With that said, that whole line about crying at the end of the piece seemed like a swerve out of left field!

    In America, every boy learns from an early age that crying is unmanly and will get you bullied and accused of being unmasculine and gay on the schoolyard. Boys who enter the world of elite athletics get that message in spades.

    In that context, why do you demand that these guys cry?

    That’s where I part company with feminism – it’s possible to be for gender equality and still respect how people perform gender including the gender performance of masculine acting cisgendered men

    For better or for worse, crying is coded as female in our society and for a lot of men (myself included) crying in public is just not something men do. Hell, it’s something we literally can’t do – in my entire adult life, I’ve only cried publicly once, and that was at my dad’s funeral! I didn’t even cry when I broke my leg in a construction accident!

    Honestly, if you want to win male MMA athletes to support feminism, how about trying to get them to support opening UFC to women, so they have the same competitive opportunities that the men have? That would be a much more realistic demand then trying to get them to cry in public!

    GREGORY A. BUTLER

    • April 10, 2011 10:20 pm

      Gregory, I don’t where you got that Thomas was *demanding* that these guys cry. He stated specifically that they *do* cry. You’re the one who’s saying they shouldn’t.

      I’m very sad to hear that you part ways with feminism for wanting to take the pressure off men to not cry. Growing up, I watched that shit destroy my brother, who is very sensitive. The last time he admitted to crying was at age fourteen, and he felt guilty for doing it. He told me he sometimes cried at night, and then berated himself for doing so. Are you saying young men *should* do that? He didn’t even cry at our Nana’s funeral, even though she had been more of a mother to us, and especially to him, than ours had ever been. This is not okay!

      Sure there are *people* who don’t cry, men and women, but you shouldn’t expect women to cry and men not to. The fact of the matter is that the men talked about in this article *did* cry. This isn’t a demand, this is telling what happened, and saying it’s okay that it happened. You’re saying they shouldn’t have cried. The one making demands is you.

  2. April 4, 2011 1:09 pm

    I didn’t demand anything in this post. I merely noted that crying is a common reaction these guys have to the frustration and disappointment of losing on the show. (Also, left field? I would think the title was a bit of a tipoff.)

    I’d love to see more women. As girls work their way into the wrestling pipeline in greater numbers I suspect they’re most likely to come from there, and maybe from submission grappling and Judo. There are still so few women boxing and kickboxing seriously that I just don’t see women coming to MMA primarily as strikers — though the corollary to that is that a woman who can really strike would find a women’s field where very few competitors can defend against a really capable striker. A ten-years-younger Ann Wolf might clean out the division before finding anyone who could take her to the mat.

  3. April 4, 2011 3:04 pm

    Awwwww. This is such a sad story. I really feel for them, the way I feel for anyone who has sacrificed everything for their dreams and lost it all.

  4. Stephanie permalink
    April 5, 2011 1:00 pm

    Thomas, just one addition/question concerning this great post:

    You wrote “Maybe you have a wife or kids at home…” – or your husband /boyfriend?

    Maybe no one on the show was ever (openly) nonhet, but since you wrote there were several seasons I suspected it´s not sure.

    Oh, and: Thanks for posting! I am always soooo disappointed when I do my daily check of YesMeansYes and there´s nothing new :-)

    • April 5, 2011 1:33 pm

      Yeah, their might be some gay or bi or queer men fighting, but so far they’re all in the closet professionally except Shad Smith, and Shad’s never been in the UFC or on the show. There have been rumors that Albertan striker Nick Ring is gay, and Ring’s response is to basically counterattack, saying things like “no, but my boyfriend is” and “because I’m a big queer.” I think he’s said a few times that he’s het. I really liked Nick when he was on the show, but his knee is fucked and has cost him the best years of his career and I don’t think we’ll ever see him accomplish what he would have on two good legs.

      Fight fans on the whole — and it’s an internal critique, as I am included in “fight fans” — have serious misogyny and homophobia problems. It will be even tougher for a fighter to some out than an athlete in one of the four major sports in terms of fan relations. I suspect what will happen is that a wrestler will come up through the US or Canadian scholastic pipeline and be out from high school on, go through college and into MMA, training with a supportive team, and just assume the right to be out; rather than an active fighter coming out during his career.

  5. Spiffy McBang permalink
    April 6, 2011 1:41 pm

    When the title of the post is “TUF Guys Cry”, I don’t know how someone can consider the bit about crying a total non-sequitur.

    It’s worth noting that the UFC recently purchased Strikeforce, so women will at least be fighting under the Zuffa banner now. Dana White’s said he hasn’t shown interest in women’s divisions due to a lack of depth- which is still a reasonable complaint, unfortunately- but eventually the promotions will merge, so within the next few years we should see at least a 135-pound women’s division officially in the UFC. Other divisions are more questionable- 145 is where Cyborg Santos and Gina Carano fight, and they would bring numbers, but every major fight either of them has had (besides against each other) has been against someone suited to a smaller weight class. And 115/125 only have a handful of compelling fighters right now.

    I also have to disagree about where women fighters will come from. You talk about women coming up as strikers or wrestlers or whatever, but in reality they’re going to be trained as MMA fighters from the start. This applies to the men as well. MMA gyms are popping up everywhere, including several run by top pros, and someone interested in pursuing the sport will be able to focus on all the requisite skills simultaneously. Some people will shift from other combat sports, but whereas before it would have led to style vs. style matchups, it will become more common for those people to simply be at a disadvantage until they shore up their weaknesses.

    • April 6, 2011 2:04 pm

      Spiffy, I think we’re just seeing now the rise of the generation or hybrid-from-the-start athletes into the sport, and they’re still outnumbered by converted wrestlers, among the men. Women may follow that path, but I expect a lag time as the culture of MMA is still going to be offputting to girls. I expect women will convert in their late teens and twenties, but it will be a while before a large number of girls will be in the MMA gyms at 13. I could be wrong about that, though. I’d love it if there were actual data.

      I think you’re right that 135 will be the standardbearer division for women, and women over 140 have generally been rare. I would expect that as the sport moves forward, the lighter classes should be easy to fill, though, as there are a lot of women whose bodies fit into the lighter classes in fight shape. I think the 135s are around because bigger women have found it easier to see themselves and be seen as fighters in a male-dominated sport and 105s and 115s get ignored or laughed at; with more competition and more peers I think the downscale women’s divisions could draw a deep field, say, ten years from now.

      • Spiffy McBang permalink
        April 6, 2011 10:50 pm

        I study at Urijah Faber’s gym in Sacramento, so I can at least drop some anecdotal data and extrapolate from there.

        Yes, it’s a very male-dominated culture. Probably 80% of the students are men, as are all the coaches. But it’s not male-attitude driven; it’s fighter-attitude driven. There’s a healthy proportion of women in there pretty often, usually for conditioning classes. And across the board they’re accorded respect equal to their effort, the same as everyone else. Off-handedly sexist comments are pretty rare; Faber’s a smart guy and clearly a good businessman, so it’s possible he’s just told his employees to keep a lid on that shit, but even so it’s much more welcoming to women than you would expect from the stereotypical concept of a testosterone-driven fighting gym. They also picked up Miesha Tate about six months ago as the first female member of Team Alpha Male. (Her next fight is for the 135 belt.)

        Are all MMA gyms are like this? Not a chance. Even if we only take the top gyms run by major fighters or trainers (Xtreme Couture, Greg Jackson’s, etc.), where the main people understand what it takes to be a fighter enough to respect that in anyone, I don’t expect all of them are so female-friendly. But given the state of the women’s game, where 135 has maybe a half-dozen rising stars and even MMA fans probably can’t name that many fighters from all the other divisions combined, it would only take a few giving equal support to talented women to have a major effect. For the same reason, no, you may not see 13-year-old girls studying MMA anytime soon, but if they jump in during their early 20s, a few years of experience and some physical talent will be enough to push them towards the top.

        Obviously there’s still a majority of fighters who started in particular disciplines and adapted to MMA; the new breed includes guys like Jon Jones, who is only 23. Along those lines, while there’s definitely a lag between when the men reach a certain point and when the women do in most sports in terms of organization and popularity, that’s due to numbers. The knowledge that MMA-specific training will be most effective isn’t affected by that. Thus, yes, it’ll take time for more women’s divisions to become competitive (and even for 135 to acquire legitimate depth), but girls who see the Tates and Coenens and Cyborgs and are interested in doing the same thing will have access to the same MMA gyms as the boys.

        (Yes, it’s entirely likely some girls will get frustrated with the attitudes of MMA gyms and study something else, but I don’t think it’s going to be a massive problem simply because MMA is still gaining acceptance and these gyms need customers. The real problem a girl might have today is not that some MMA gym is run by sexist douchebags, but that it’s the only one in a reachable distance. And that situation is changing- rapidly.)

        P.S. The subject interests me to the point that I wrote a paper about women’s MMA for a college class a couple of years ago, if that gives you any idea why I’m getting so wordy about these relatively minor differences in opinion. >_>

  6. April 7, 2011 3:34 am

    well, in case you missed my recent incident at my MMA gym I can vouch for fighter instructors and schools being overly male centered. My school boasts some of the baddest female fighters that I have ever seen, who can belt test men and turn them into puddles of sweat and anguish without even breaking a sweat themselves. The reason I was attracted to the school was because of it’s non testosterone heavy environment. It was a fighter centered mentality not a male centered mentality, and EVERYONE was there to prepare for an unexpected attack on their life or family…this works better to sell memberships to the general population. The FIGHT specific classes (the one that I was molested in: groundfighting) are almost all guys and it is admitedly difficult for them to learn how to adjust their grabs and holds around breasts that won’t go away and crotches that have seemingly different boundaries around touching them comfortably. After I had this incident with this instructor, I had a meeting w/ his superiors and it was over and done with it. I think I cried a little bit during this meeting. Not much.

    The next week, I forced myself to continue to go to a different fight class with a different instructor. Standing fighting. In these classes, we wear headgear, mouth guards, and boxing gloves. Every fight class I have taken to date I have noticed that self defense and fighting are two totally different things. I have never gotten in a street fight and getting hit in the head gear repeatedly was a new thing.

    This week’s class we had sparring matches in the office of the martial arts studio, instructed not to knock anything over and in the narrow hallway. 3 times during the hallway match I wanted to give up. Breathless as I was being held up by my opponents glove against the wall as he waited for me to catch my breath, I felt like,’whats the point? I’m dead in this fight already!” but no one would let me give up. This continued for 3 more rounds. The following week I could barely get out of bed. I took 6 advil a day in order to just function in a sit down desk capacity. I was recovering from a certain sexual trauma so I forced myself to endure a staged physical trauma. A strangers attack, a violent rape, relationship violence all from male perpetrators played by my male sparring partners. it’s intense being a woman in a male fighting world but it is certainly that inequality that fuels us to keep fighting as strong as we do. I have the same drive to be “tough like the guys” as the guys themselves do. After the meeting w/ the 3 instructors who assured me that I can and should walk out of class whenever things were too intense, I just felt as I was being held against a wall by a man’s boxing glove that I couldn’t. The pain I felt in my body paid the price for me being unable to voice or act out my resistance during any of my classes where I felt like I went too far with my own sport and body x 10. The comraderie in the fight classes is entirely different than that of the Krav Maga self defense classes. I wonder why that is. How does an instructor learn how to do crotch grabs that don’t offend? Does he have to adjust his moves for a female partner? Should he?

    I just watched “Battle Los Angeles” and there were plenty of tough guys crying in that movie. So much so that it made me cry! Movies, Hollywood, Reality TV play up these things that all of us in the human race are supposed to be fighting for the honor of LIFE, HUMANITY, FAMILY, FUTURE. These are universal themes that an alien attack metaphor can tackle, that a tough guy can relate to. Fearing a gang rape by a bunch of frat boys on spring break, not so much. But then on the flip side, a woman can’t usually understand what it is like to walk and take public transportation as a male in urban streets is sometimes just as dangerous for him as it would be if he were a her.

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