On MMA Superstar Ronda Rousey, NFL Bounties, and Why Broken Bones Only LOOK Worse Than Broken Brains

by Irvin Muchnick on March 7, 2012

While the sports commentariat tried to figure out whether they are shocked, shocked by news that National Football League coaches offered “performance bonuses” to players who deliberately injured opponents, I spent Saturday night glued to the Showtime cable coverage of meteoric mixed martial arts sensation Ronda Rousey’s Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship victory over Miesha Tate. This was both the most important sports event of the month and an object lesson in the contradictions of American bloodsport.

Rousey, bronze medalist in judo at the Beijing Olympics, had dispatched all of her first four MMA adversaries within seconds with armbar submissions. The amazingly tough Tate would tap to the Rousey armbar, too, though not before somehow escaping an initial submission attempt, briefly getting positional advantage of her own, and lasting into the fifth minute of the first round.

More in a moment on the rousing future of this uniquely talented athlete – but first, some personal observations on the simultaneously fascinating and repellent elements of MMA spectatorship and how they relate to the football concussion crisis.

When Rousey locked in her armbar, you could clearly see Tate’s left elbow hyperextend gruesomely, well past the 180-degree price point. It was sick. I found myself turning away from the depiction of the carnage, which almost certainly will result in a hospital stay booked by a surgeon and a consulting anesthesiologist.

Yet I also reflected on how I’ve viewed dozens of pure cranial knockouts over the years, both live and recorded, without batting an eye. What are the differences?

Only two, I think. The first is that the process of rendering unconsciousness appeals to a particular, universal, deep-seated, and oddly sanitized fantasy. Though the KO is the ultimate manifestation of mano a mano dominance, it is unlike orthopedic damage or, in the metaphorical shorthand, blood itself: competition-inflicted injury offering essentially cost-free guilty pleasures. If the victim doesn’t openly convulse, or get his spine snapped or wind up strapped to a gurney, the detached spectator pays no visual price whatsoever.

What seems to be happening in the football debate is that more and more intelligent and responsible fans are emerging from a stupor all their own: the barbarism-enabling delusion that a book can be judged by its cover. Just because we don’t always get immediate visual evidence of the damage of systematic brain-sloshing doesn’t mean that it isn’t exacting a profound, frightening, and unacceptable toll on national quality of life.

That is one part of the football-vs.-MMA calculus. The other has to do with “intentionality,” which I think gets confused with “honor.” I have great respect for Rousey, Tate, and other mixed martial artists of both genders, and not simply because they take crazy physical risks on behalf of my safe entertainment. Combat sports competitors square up and face each other, and use their skills to prevail on easily understood terms. Football players face flying, superhuman moving parts from all directions (“some guy who is like 340, who runs a 4.8,” in our genius Jocksniffer-in-Chief’s formulation) in a setting akin to warfare. Except it isn’t warfare, and sports shouldn’t be trivializing real warfare with corporatized imitations.

At the sports site grantland.com, Charles Pierce wrote of sensitive people who once “drew a bright moral line between boxing and football. Boxing, they said, gently stroking their personal ethical code as if they were petting a cat, is a sport where the athletes are deliberately trying to injure each other.

On the other hand, football is a violent sport wherein crippling injuries are merely an inevitable byproduct of the game. I always admired their ability to make so measured – and so cosmetic – a moral judgment.” But the “silly pretensions” surrounding, among other recent developments, the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal change all that: “Good, honest pagan savagery is looking better and better by the day.”

(On the NFL bounty story, note how there hasn’t been a word about the New York Giants’ frankly acknowledged targeting of the oft-concussed San Francisco 49er Kyle Williams, whose fumbles turned the Giants-49ers conference championship game. There was no dedicated bounty there, of course – only the financial awards of advancing to the Super Bowl.)

Back to “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, who has borrowed the nickname of a legendary pro wrestler, Roddy Piper. Rousey not only can fight, she can talk, and that makes her, in my mind, the fourth significant crossover figure produced by the nascent sport of MMA. The first, YouTube street brawler Kimbo Slice, turned out not to have anywhere close to the top-rank multidisciplinary skills necessary to succeed in the pro ranks.

The second, girl-next-door beautiful Gina Carano, could have gone into orbit, but she got knocked off by Brazil’s Cris Cyborg (who since and unsurprisingly has been exposed as a steroid freak) before being discovered by Hollywood, where you can make more money without getting your pretty face smashed in. The third was ex-collegiate wrestling champion and WWE Neanderthal Brock Lesnar, who rocketed to the top as swiftly as Rousey before illness and a bully’s reticence over being on the receiving end sent him into retirement.

But for all of you who, like me, can’t be badgered into embracing soccer or the WNBA, I say take note: Ronda Rousey is the real deal.

Irvin Muchnick’s newest ebook, with Anthony Roberts, is THE CHINA SYNDROME: How Athletes and Celebrities Get Their Performance-Enhancing Drugs – How a Rogue Prosecutor Bungled Their Bust (http://amzn.to/y7X5SX). Muchnick’s website is http://concussioninc.net.

Filed under: Archive