Almanac Mixed Martial Arts: Making sense of a disturbing weekend

It’s Sunday morning. I am up before the rest of the family. I am feeling sad; upset; concerned; puzzled.

 

I’ve made an early start to work on another chapter in the story of Lander & Rogers, a Melbourne law firm set up by Hartwell Lander in 1938, or Chic(k) as he was known. It’s a pleasant task to be writing about Chick who loved the law, and was committed to law reform particularly in the area of road safety. He believed in the notion of a civilised society and its dependence on the rule of law. He also believed that those who were blessed with talent and position had an obligation to act for the good of all. He loved football and especially the Hawthorn Football Club which he served for many years as a committee man and honorary solicitor.

 

Family Harms is asleep, our three young children tucked into their bunks, all in the one room, a sight so peaceful and perfect, it’s enough to make you stand there and weep: tears of imagining their innocence; tears for the world they will inherit; and tears of concern for what life might bring them.

 

Last night, just after they went to bed, I poured a glass of red wine and watched the second half of the A-League match between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory. It was a beauty. Barbarouses gave Victory the lead with 20 minutes to go, and then, in injury time, the champion Besart Berisha scored his second goal of the night, and celebrated with his trademark intensity. Sydney FC 2, Melbourne Victory 4. Berisha was in another world, crazy-eyed and unstoppable. He is such a charismatic player – to his teammates and fans. He is the antithesis to opponents, whether players or fans. No stranger to hardship – Berisha’s family fled the dangers of Kosovo, for Berlin in the former East Germany, as the complicated conflict in the region escalated and atrocities were committed. There is something of Berisha’s past in every moment he plays.

 

Europe was on my mind. I poured a second glass of red in a fruitless attempt to release the weight of the Parisian slaughter, shaking my head and shuddering as I contemplated the prospect of, Heaven forbid, it happening to my own. Not even the darts – such a harmless pursuit – could appease me. The sheer terror in the moment of the act, when you face your fate, or when your loved ones face their fate, is too much to contemplate – whether you be Parisian citizens, the victims of Milosevic, New Yorkers, or villagers in Iraq.

 

How can I sleep?

 

Phil Taylor was in good touch, as was MVG.

 

I picked a book off the shelf. I read a little of Ever, Manning, the collection of Manning Clark’s personal letters – I’m not sure why. Even his letters can be grandiose. But they are instructive: speculative in thinking, and drawn to the search for understanding. Manning Clark never shied away from what lies in the human heart. Despite the darkness, I always find Clark engaging. What might be?

 

But on Sunday morning my focus is on what is.

 

The heavy-heartedness is still there.

 

I am writing about Julian Burnside who did his articles at Lander & Rogers in the early `70s. Julian is not one for sport. A graduate of Monash, he was drawn to the Bar after success in university moot competitions.

 

Later in the morning, we take Theo to his friend Zoe’s birthday party, held at a clown studio. Clowning has rarely held such appeal. Or do clowns eventually bicker too?

 

When I return home, there isn’t a car park in the street. We live near a pub and people are streaming along our nature strip towards the entry. Then I remember: the UFC is in town, at Docklands; it has been mentioned on ABC’s Offsiders. I pop in to see what’s going on. People are half-watching the undercard, enjoying a beer, catching up. There’s a fair few in the pub.

 

I head home for a couple of hours, write a bit more, recalling that Julian Burnside has told me about Clarence Darrow (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Darrow), an American lawyer and civil libertarian of the early twentieth century. I look at Julian’s website, his latest tidbit features Barry Dickins who has written about being strip-searched by police in a Carlton bus shelter. It’s a disturbing story, written with the black humour Dickins often employs. The Victorian police have asked for it to be removed from the Age site – and the newspaper has acquiesced. Burnside makes his feelings known.

 

The kids are playing happily enough on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I walk back to the pub. It is now absolutely chockers – hundreds of people packed in. Some TV monitors show the cricket, some show the racing, some show the UFC.

 

When Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm appear the whole crowd’s focus changes. Pretty much everyone is watching the UFC. Next to me three men and two women, all in their twenties, are talking about who they hope will win. Two are undecided, but they all seem to know enough about the backgrounds of the two fighters to be debating it. Ronda Rousey is the hot favourite, her previous fights have lasted just seconds.

 

As the introductions begin the pub manager turns every monitor to the fight, except for one of the two, side by side, near me, which remains on the Test from Perth. The hardened punters gather in the TAB alcove – where the monitors are perma-fixed on racing, as they get set to jump at Donald where it is Cup day.

 

Etihad Stadium is in darkness. Spotlights buzzing around. Coloured lights here and there. People are cheering. Screaming. The stadium is excited; aroused. The deep voice of the announcer helps make the atmosphere. Over 50,000 people have turned up – to watch cage fighting, or whatever this is. That is a phenomenal figure.

 

Rousey and Holm wear the faces of hate and of concern. Their skin is taut across their brows. Their glare-stare is piercing. They are at once alert and afraid, only they have chosen fear as motivation. They must overcome any sense of doubt. They must put aside any sense of empathy; they must desire the maiming of their opponent. They must mentally rehearse the moves that will torture her until she begs for mercy by tapping the floor.

 

I have watched these fights, bouts featuring men who look like pit-bulls with goatees, bouts featuring enraged, athletic women, on TV – but I have never watched with any purpose or intent. I know they are brutal. I know anything goes. Heaven knows, this is far more than a glimpse of stocking.

 

I’m a stranger to brutality. I’ve led a sanitised life; a fortunate beneficiary of a time and a place. And yet I am not. I have seen the reign of terror that exists in a school playground. I have seen acts of violence. Once in the men’s dunnies at the Royal Exchange Hotel in Toowong, I saw two men engineer what was the demolition of a third seemingly unknown to them. At a crowded urinal one antagonist bumped the bystander into his accomplice. The accomplice, mock-aggrieved, claimed what he believed was his right to retaliate. The complete set-up left a victim unconscious on the wet cement. It happened in seconds.  They burst away and left us to treat the injured man.

 

Holm goes to touch gloves (are they gloves?) with her opponent but Rousey snubs her. Although some in the pub say, “Good on you Rousey!” most don’t like it. The room is immediately with Holm, the preacher’s daughter.

 

The two women come out and dance around the caged octagon. The knowledgeable crowd expects Rousey to attack. They spar. The first engagement brings a cheer – it’s really on now. Holm does not take a backward step. She lands some penetrating straight lefts. The two women clinch and wrestle. Rousey grabs hold and looks to strangle her opponent. “Holm’s gone!” someone yells.

 

But she’s not. She’s still in the fight.

 

The five-minute round takes forever. It has the intensity of a State-of-Origin contest. I marvel at their endurance, their eighth, ninth, tenth efforts. They must be so fit, so strong. They trade blows again desperate to belt each other. Lefts and rights and forearms thump through defences.

 

On the adjacent TV monitor Nathan Lyon ambles towards the crease and balletically delivers a gentle offie. Ross Taylor pushes toward mid-on and there’s no run. The keeper, Nevill, says something – encouragingly, ritualistically. The fieldsman lobs the ball back to Lyon who returns to the top of his mark.

 

Between rounds both Rousey and Holm retain the face they have worn throughout. Holm looks pink in the cheeks, but is showing her opponent no sign of weakness.

 

Round 2. Holm is intent on being the aggressor – a tactic perhaps, taking advantage of the doubt which has infiltrated Rousey’s being. Rousey is not used to this. Holm lands an ungainly half punch-half push. Rousey loses her balance and turns. Holm has an opportunity to go in for the kill. He crowd screams. While Rousey’s back is turned, Holm unleashes a high kick. Her foot, at the end of the long lever that is her leg, smashes into Rousey’s head and neck just behind Rousey’s left ear. I think, immediately, of Phil Hughes. She’s stunned, if not unconscious, as she hits the floor. But it’s not over. Nothing will stop the frenzied Holm from landing more blows as her opponent lies helpless on the canvas – which it seems she is entitled to do. She attacks her head with two merciless, angry, crunching blows. The ref stops the fight.

 

The crowd is going wild – at the stadium and in the pub. “She’s won. Holm’s has won!”

 

I grimace. I am concerned for Rousey. Her mouth is filled with blood. She is barely conscious. Holm is pumped, receiving the accolades of the crowd. The vanquished lies on the floor.

 

Yet Holm is also close to tears, if not crying. Such is her heightened state, such is the proximity of her deepest humanity in all its complexity.

 

I am also close to tears myself as I try to piece together some sort of response to the events of which modern media has made me part. I am implicated in this. I am the member of a community which condones this. And what does what I am seeing say about me – and my children. Of what are we capable? What appeals to us?

 

I have been unable to hear the commentary throughout the bout. I certainly can’t hear now. I see an injured sportswoman, Rousey, desperately trying to stand up to restore her own sense of dignity. She has not played the cocky champion role well.

 

I stand silently, trying to make sense of it all. The idea of personal freedom and the right to make decisions to be involved in this sort of thing bounces around in my mind. The cultural impact of what I have just witnessed does too.

 

On the other TV, Mitchell Starc bowls with raw physicality and aggression. I think of the agon expressed in cricket and all codes of football. I think of the fear and the desire to overcome fear. Survival. Attack as a form of defence. I think of Phil Hughes – again. I think of Sunshine Coast rugby league player Jason Ackerman, killed by a shoulder charge in the opening minutes of a game.

 

I think of the notion of play, and how mixed martial arts (I believe that is the accepted name of this sport) fits in with understandings which surround sport. I wonder whether the elements of play and artistic performance in footy are a way of channelling the darker aspects of violence which are also part of footy, and were, even more so, in earlier times. Or whether that’s just a sham.

 

As I walk the few doors up the road to my home, I feel awful. What was that? What is Paris?

 

I go inside and hug my children.

 

 

Read more from John Harms

 

Check out the sports writing journal Long Bombs to Snake which features John Harms.

 

 

 

 

 

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie10. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. I barrack for Hawthorn. I have just had dinner with Lander and Rogers parters. I love to hug my kids. I have absolutely no idea how anyone can think it acceptable, let alone pay good money to see, people kick each other in the head

  2. I played cricket on Sunday and was blissfully unaware of the UFC goings-on.
    Until I got home.

    There was $50 in notes and coins piled up on the bench.
    “What’s that for?” I asked Mrs Smokie.
    “The boys had a bunch of mates around. It was mayhem. They rang Foxtel
    and booked Main Event to watch the Rousey fight. It costs $50.”

  3. I could write 1000 words in response, John, or just say: Yep.

    Nice piece.

  4. I don’t mind UFC. I don’t watch the PPVs, I don’t watch the numerous reality-TV shows springing up around the sport, but like boxing, UFC/MMA provides as much meaning and narrative to life from sport as you could possibly want.

  5. Neil Anderson says

    Thanks for creating the Almanac where no baddies roam and force us to leave our homes.
    The only wrestling and fighting we do is mentally as we search for the perfect ending or title for the pieces we submit. A wonderful antidote to the troubles around us.

  6. John
    I’m glad someone has written about the grotesque juxtaposition of the UFC and the events in Paris. All notions of humanity being on a continually upward trajectory of civilization go out the window at times like this.
    My (adult) child and his girlfriend lost a mutual friend in Paris. Never stop hugging your children.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    What pisses me off even more is the State Government saying that this is a good thing for the following reasons:

    “Under a Labor government, UFC will always be welcome back to Melbourne, because it means a big boost to our economy and jobs for Victorians,” he said. “The UFC has been a stunning success for Victoria. The enormous crowd and our steady stream of interstate visitors prove it.” – http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/nov/16/ronda-rousey-hospitalised-as-victorian-government-hails-ufc-fight-a-success

    As if that is all that matters.

  8. Good think piece, John. MMA is undoubtedly compelling – while I don’t seek it out, when it finds me I watch, seriously conflicted. These people know what they are doing including the potential consequences and are well remunerated. To a certain extent they have a much better understanding of how their profession will change them than most of the rest of us. While it looks more brutal it could also be argued that MMA is less harmful than boxing as it is shorter and leads to fewer head impacts (although there are still plenty to go around).

    What is the acceptable level of brutality in a ‘civilised’ society? How do we balance the risk? Does what happens in the octagon and what happens in Paris come from the same place? I don’t know.

  9. Good one John. Your Sunday went from the very high to the deepest low. A pox on the UFC.

  10. JTH,
    This is big.
    This writing and the ideas in this writing and the questions raised by this writing.
    Who am I? Who are we?
    What do I wish to be?
    What do I wish for others (family, neighbours, opponents, sharers of the urinal)?

    Wonderful images.
    Of the bunk bed of innocence.
    Of NM Lyon’s flighted speculation juxtaposed with UFC.

    Love this. And so we go on

  11. Nice one, John. I remember writing a piece for Spencer St after the September 11 attacks on the USA. My first-born wasn’t even a year old. The responsibility of being a parent, a protector and nurturer, in a world that was darker and more violent than a day earlier, felt heavier than ever before.

  12. Thank you for your comments.

    It is a complex issue. I have a strong belief in people’s freedom. One of the many complications in this, for me, though, is the cultural dimension. It is public. Promoted. Highlighted etc. Even I am playing a part in its prominence. Would I show my kids? What does the casual, uncritical, (or even immature) observer take from this, or learn from this, when they view it simplistically? What meanings does it contain? What messages does it convey?

  13. This morning I read that Darebin City Council is threatening to fine a resident $500 if he doesn’t remove a basketball ring and a soccer goal from a quiet cul de sac in McLeod where about 20 neighbouring children regularly play (instead of being glued to a screen playing some killing game). Neither goals impinge on road or footpath.

    The issue of civil liberties and government intrusion in our lives is an infinitely burning candle. How does one juxtapose that example with an ALP state government that previously banned UFC on grounds of it being barbaric and bad for society, only to backflip on the grounds it’s good for the economy?

    Is the outrage heightened because they were female fighters? Is that in itself an un-PC thought?

    Personally I gave it a wide berth, I have no interest in male or female UFC, or indeed any activity (nb. I don’t consider horse or greyhound racing as sport) where life and limb are regarded as expendable. But then I lament the sanitisation of football. I’m strong on animal rights but I haven’t quite weened myself off meat.

    Life throws up so many shades of grey to grapple and reconcile one’s self with. I guess that turns people down the easier, scary path of black & white extremism.

    Thought provoking piece JTH.

  14. Good article John, my Sunday thoughts were far less profound; I was attempting to correct my 7 year old son’s batting woes, I think I have confused his effective cross bat slog with a straight bat and now he loses more wickets than scores runs. As an admirer of boxing and boxers I am challenged by many things in the sport and yet admire their courage. UFC is a physical contest that I will not watch. I understand that there are many styles of martial arts involved and you must respect their execution, however I remain unconvinced. I also have issue with inconsistencies in the message of Danny Green, promoting the perils of the cowards punch and yet he watches a fight where a fighter knocked out can then receive a tirade of blows to the face and head in the act of competition. Mixed martial arts with mixed messages.

  15. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Timely and prescient piece JTH,
    What startled me when I reflected on the events after reading this was the casual, almost matter of fact way I accept these things as virtually normal nowadays . Speaking to relatives and friends on the weekend:
    “What have you been doing? ” ”
    “Just watching ‘The Attacks’ and a bit of cricket.” I found myself replying. Have I become insensitive or just desensitized?
    I’ve never been a fan of boxing or MMA, but if the girls want to have a go why should gender stop them? The only thing that worries me is that they may be copying traits from a gender that has done and is doing so much damage to the world.

  16. I was raised on a world of boxing and world championship wrestling. I have sparred a few hundred rounds with mates,, but never been any good’ far too old now |!

    I’m interested in learning more about UFC, though i will remain a boxing fan to my .end. If two girls have trained are fit and wiling, go for it. I saw some highlights and it looked interesting.

    Like Daveep i totally support the message of Danny Green re the horrors associated with an cowards punch. Fighting as a legitimate contest is as old as humanity, that i have no problems with.

    Being fair dinkumi have far more problems with two 40+ blokes, in Danny Green and Anthony Mundine getting in the ring for a hyped up bout, than i do in having two younger females in the prime slugging it out. UFC, i’d like to know more about.

    Glen!

  17. Phil – speak for yourself. I haven’t damaged the world.

    I just can’t reconcile how the Labor Government broadcasts its opposition to family violence so loudly and constantly, and then sanctions such brutality as this. And they let kids watch it!! Something smells to me. Plenty of questions to answer in my view.

    The world has gone mad.

  18. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Follow the money, or at least the votes

  19. A gazillion $ says this Dips person was mortified when Kevin Rudd said sorry to our indigenous people.

  20. Matt Harvey says

    Great piece John. Yes fighting is as old as humanity and women should be allowed to do it too, but there is still something worrying about its glorification.

    Short pitched bowling is in the same vein. Yes the batsman has a bat and helmet, but the bouncer is intended to intimidate, hurt or kill.

    We should probably do even more to protect the head in football and to punish the charge. Surely football does not need to be played to kill!

  21. Thanks John, and nice work. I didn’t watch the MMA and am appalled at what happened, including and especially the state government’s dollar-signs-for-eyes view. It (apparently) sounds and looks like the colosseum redivivum. We managed to wean ourselves off that only to fall for this licensed thuggery.

    I’ve never boxed, but for a long time was interested enough to read about it. Increasingly I have misgivings about it at a professional level – not so much the amateurs with a limit of three rounds and virtual pillows on their fists. I probably share Peter Fitzsimons’ view. I think I understand the attraction violence has for some people, but I despair at the reality of a sellout crowd “enjoying” it. I’d like to see it go the way of gladiatorial fighting.

  22. Simon Killen says

    Agreed John, it’s complex, but it’s good to read some words that feel closer to where I sit on the subject.

    Thinking about it on the ride home yesterday, I recalled the first time that I stepped out into the sunshine at the Colosseum in Rome, and the tour guide was describing what was going on there 2,000 odd years back. And they had sell-out crowds too.

    Hunger for naked fighting isn’t unnatural it would seem, though anathema one would assume to many here. But it’s been contained for such a damned long time.

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