By Josh Stein on Feb 02, 2010
The New York Times publishes articles on MMA periodically, and while sometimes they’re completely off the mark, sometimes they actually address something interesting in the sport, which is why when a piece on Christian organizations teaching MMA ended up in my mailbox, I was curious.
Of course, the “warrior-pastor” syndrome is not something that’s new to MMA. Kimo Leopoldo’s famous ring entrance at UFC 3, with a cross on his back and a huge tattoo of the word “Jesus” across his stomach is case-in-point.
I will say this: the decision to focus on Ohio-based groups like the Canyon Creek Church (which has been on my radar for a little while) is a little weird and, of course, misses some huge components in the overall history of the sport. But this is the New York Times, so I don’t expect the writers to have a background in what they’re writing about.
A Brief Sidebar: I hate to let my biases out too much, but the decision to include the patriarchal bullsh*t of Ryan Dobson dribble through is a bit off the mark.
As far as the overall history of evangelical Christianity in the world of MMA, the NYT article does have a misleading visual. After all, Diego Sanchez is not among the evangelical Christians described in the article and with so many Christians to choose from (Matt Hughes, to name the most obvious) it’s surprising that the NYT didn’t make a better decision.
Now, it’s important to make a few things about the history clear:
MMA has been a platform for Christian ministry since Kimo Leopoldo appeared on the scene in 1994, but it has not done very well outside of convincing fighters who are already religious to accept sponsorships from religious brands (i.e. Jesus Didn’t Tap). Promotions remain non-religious, because they have to keep their talent options open (and, let’s face, restricting participation to protestant Christians kills off a lot of options; most of the Japanese fighters don’t qualify, and neither do the overwhelmingly Catholic Brazilians).
What’s fascinating is that religion plays a very minor roll in the training of most fighters. While there are camps that engage in prayer on a regular basis (like the Canyon Creek Church) there are only so many times you can read off Psalm 144 and reference the book of Timothy before you have to get the pads out and start pushing weight, and most of these camps (at least, the one’s that bring any sort of talent to the promotions they work with) know that.
And, of course, if one were to take a survey of professional fighters, the religious demographics don’t seem to skew any more than the demographics of the American populous, though there are only a few verbally irreligious individuals (Mike Thomas Brown is notable; especially following a particularly inane comment made by an opponent he proceeded to beat the crap out of).
Like any sport, there are social applications to MMA, and what the article touches on is MMA at its best: getting guys off the street, keeping them out of gangs, and giving them something to do that concentrates the mind, improves the body and can be a lifelong pursuit of personal improvement. As far as I’m concerned, religion doesn’t need to play a roll in that, but insofar as it helps motivate people to create programs that have beneficial effects on the community, that’s fine. My problem with the piece is that it does focus on the openly patriarchal elements of evangelical Christianity (and, arguably, Christianity at large) and largely glosses over what the article should be about: the use of a sport seen by some as “excessively violent” to rehabilitate communities and improve the quality of life for young people.
Also, I wish people would stop referencing John McCain, not just because the comments he made were rooted in ignorance and stupidity (though they were), but because McCain has, following regulatory interventions by major gaming commissions, changed his stance on the sport. For historical context, it’s fine, but that statement made up the article’s only historical research (which is either intentional, or very poor prep-work on the part of the writer; I defer to Hanlon’s Razor).
Anyway, it’s always interesting to see how MMA is portrayed in the mainstream media. Despite my frustration with the poor quality of research and expertise, it is nice to see people discussing the sport and ensuring that knowledge among casual fans (and even casual opponents) is building. I just wish they’d present a fuller picture (though admittedly difficult within the word-cap), as humanizing the sport and showing its potential benefits is a huge political benefit as we continue to work for legalization in the state of New York.
NOTE: It occurs to me after writing this that this sounds very similar to an argument I make about the Nation of Islam in my hometown of Oakland. So, to make my position on both more clear: As far as the institution goes, I don’t support it and I don’t agree with it, but I will not deny that there are major benefits to the community that ought to be discussed in any intellectually honest discussion of the organization. The fact that the point seems made only in the peripheral by the New York Times makes the article seem disingenuous, and when coupled with poor background, it comes off as poor journalism.
Filed Under: MMA
About the Author: Joshua Stein is a writer and editor for MMA Opinion. He has worked as a photographer and journalist and has a number of print journalism credits. He also works as a moderator for MMAForum.com and a grappling columnist (covering judo, collegiate wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling) for profighting-fans.com.