Fight Club: How Gay is MMA?

Mark Simpson attends an epic UFC event and finds him­self turned on to the charms of ‘gay porn for straight men’

(Originally appeared in Out magazine, June 2008)

IMAGINE THE SPACE SHUTTLE tak­ing off with a really fat cus­tom­ized exhaust pipe. Or the Visigoths sack­ing Ancient Rome with kick­ing bass tubes fit­ted to their 4-by-4s. Or 20,000 super­charged male orgasms. Simultaneously. And you have some idea what it sounds and feels like in Montréal’s fam­ous Bell Centre tonight for Ultimate Fighting Championship 83, as a spunky young car­rot red­head in shorts pins an auburn lad on his back with his heels some­where around his ears. I think the tech­nical term for this is a “full mount.” Or maybe it’s “ground and pound.”

Never Back DownAs the chis­elled and blond bad guy with the low-slung shorts (Cam Gigandet) in the recent mixed mar­tial arts (MMA) exploit­a­tion flick Never Back Down says leer­ingly to the doe-eyed bru­net boxer  good guy (Sean Faris) new to MMA, the good news is that in this sport you can choke, kick, punch, pin, and throttle. “The bad news is that it’s gotta end with you look­ing like a bitch in front of everybody.”

Perhaps it was bad news for him — and for the auburn lad in the ring tonight — but cer­tainly not for the 22,000-strong over­whelm­ingly young-male audi­ence for the biggest-ever UFC event.

Over 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas, Brit boxer Joe “slap­per” Calzaghe is tonight defeat­ing light heavy­weight Bernard Hopkins on points. In the long-established world of box­ing, there is rumoured to be an ancient and secret tra­di­tion called the “perk,” or “per­quis­ite” — by which the los­ing man may be required later to lit­er­ally give up what he has lost sym­bol­ic­ally. In other words, the fucked gets… really fucked.

I don’t know how much truth there is to the “perk,” though the breath­less trash talk of modern-day box­ers in the run-up to a fight — “I’m gonna make you my bitch/girlfriend/punk” — cer­tainly doesn’t dis­credit it. But I’m fairly cer­tain that the “perk” doesn’t exist in the “full-contact” brave new world of mixed mar­tial arts (MMA), an omni­vor­ous blend of box­ing, free­style wrest­ling, judo, tae kwon do, kick-boxing, kar­ate, jujitsu, and Thai box­ing that is rap­idly repla­cing bor­ing old tra­di­tional box­ing, espe­cially among young men, as the fight­ing sport. The perk isn’t needed. Because in MMA you get perked in the “ring” in front of every­body. On pay-per-view TV. The “perk” is the whole perking point, man. And UFC, by far the most suc­cess­ful pur­veyor of MMA fights for the cable TV voyeur, looks remark­ably like gay porn for straight men: ulti­mate fuck-fighting.

ufc83_07_danzig_vs_bocek_001In the octa­gonal UFC cage set up over the Bell Centre ice hockey rink — octa­gonal per­haps because it bet­ter affords mul­tiple view­ing angles than a square box­ing ring — Mac Danzig is still on his back; his sweaty, pumped, almost trans­lu­cently white torso is flushed with the auburn heat that auburn skin pro­duces when it is aroused. His pant­ing, fetch­ing head has been pushed up against the cage by red­head Marc Bocek’s ener­getic pound­ing, as if the cage were in fact a head­board. Bocek isn’t mak­ing love, how­ever, or at least not the vanilla kind. He’s ham­mer­ing the liv­ing day­lights out of Danzig, stok­ing the crowd into ever-higher waves of frenzy. Although the Octagon is right in front of me, I’m watch­ing all of this on one of the giant screens over­head: MMA is mostly a hori­zontal sport — one that requires mul­tiple zoom lenses and a big TV to enjoy properly.

Bocek pauses for a moment to grab his partner/adversary by his hips, almost ten­derly, and drag him back­ward while still kneel­ing between his legs, not want­ing to break con­tact and nego­ti­ate that tricky “re-entry.” It isn’t, though, out of con­sid­er­a­tion for his chum’s cricked neck. He’s wor­ried that Danzig will use the cage to get up off the can­vas — and then get him in the “bitch” pos­i­tion. MMA is all about fight­ing for top. (Or maybe for extremely truc­u­lent bottom.)

bocekUnfortunately for Bocek, Danzig suc­ceeds in break­ing away any­way, jumps to his feet, and deftly, imper­son­ally, brings up his knee and smashes it against Bocek’s left eye­brow, which pro­vokes another roar of excite­ment from the crowd and opens up a very nasty lacer­a­tion that spills hot blood every­where, stream­ing into his eye, across his face, down his chin, and splat­ters across his lily-white chest — and all over his oppon­ent. MMA is def­in­itely not safe sex. The ref pauses the fight to exam­ine Bocek’s eye. If the blood is pre­vent­ing him from see­ing, the fight will be declared in Danzig’s favor.

posterTurning to my beau­ti­fully pro­duced glossy fight pro­gram, which includes full-page col­our images of the top­less young fight­ers arranged oppos­ite one another and their vital stat­ist­ics, I learn that Danzig is 5 foot 8 and 155 pounds, 28, and a Cleveland nat­ive. His feisty oppon­ent, Bocek, from Woodbridge, Canada, is 26, and is also 5 foot 8 and 155 pounds. As someone who has a thing for red­heads and short-asses, I’d say they are well matched.

The ref con­tin­ues the match — and why not? Blood looks good on TV. There are only a few seconds left of the third and final round (UFC fights only go to a max­imum three rounds at five minutes each — about the aver­age length of a porn scene). Bocek, des­pite the turned tables and his past­ing and what must be deathly tired­ness, is still put­ting up an aston­ish­ing fight. Danzig scores a take-down almost imme­di­ately and moves, as they say in MMA, “dir­ectly to the mount.” Bocek “gives up his back” to try to save his ruined face from fur­ther pun­ish­ment but is then caught in a “rear-naked choke” by Danzig’s power­ful, fatally invit­ing arms. He “taps out” (sub­mits) at 3 minutes, 48 seconds.

I don’t know about Bocek, but these were some of the longest 3 minutes, 48 seconds of my life. I’m aroused and inspired and exhausted and con­fused. For my money, Bocek won that fight — mor­ally speak­ing. Which of course means that he lost very badly. His face is roadkill. He is really fucked. But he dis­played that qual­ity you hear people talk about rev­er­ently in MMA: heart.

Despite the gore, MMA is gen­er­ally safer than box­ing — there are fewer fatal­it­ies and brain-damage is less com­mon. Because the fight is “full-contact,” the head doesn’t take all the viol­ence. When it does, though, it’s pretty grue­some. Yet amid all the may­hem, there is a touch­ing ten­der­ness to MMA. Not because it looks to my twis­ted, queer eye like very rough sex — but because of that “heart” busi­ness. After a bout is over, most fight­ers hug each other in a pseudo-post-coital embrace that re-enacts the war­like hug earlier, only this time it’s a hug of warm brotherhood.

Another huge, manly Gallic roar. The arena’s giant screen is now tuned to the locker room; a rangy young blond skin­head fighter has peeled his shirt off, reveal­ing a well-oiled fleshly fight­ing machine. The light behind him and his pier­cing blue eyes gaz­ing into the cam­era, not to men­tion the low pos­i­tion of the locker-room cam, give him the cast of a demi­god. It’s Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, the hand­some, styl­ish 26-year-old local Montréal boy who tonight is hop­ing to seize back his UFC Welterweight belt from Matt “the Terror” Serra, 33, the no-nonsense Long Island mas­ter of Brazilian jujitsu who dis­pos­sessed him of it last year with what some people said was a lucky punch.

We’ve only been watch­ing the hors d’œuvre. All this blood has just been so much fore­play.



STOP LOOKING LADIES!” some funny guy in the audi­ence shouts. It’s the weigh-in, a day earlier. Ed “Short Fuse” Herman, another 20-something boy-next-door red-headed fighter, from Vancouver, Wash., is naked on the stage under the spot­light, a towel held up by two lieu­ten­ants to shield his “short fuse.” Funnily enough, it’s mostly men rather than ladies doing the look­ing here in this packed aud­it­or­ium. Though some are per­haps doing more look­ing than oth­ers: From where I’m seated at the side, I man­age to catch a glimpse of Ed’s white butt as he bends over to slip off his briefs (a day later he will fight in shorts cheekily advert­ising ‘CONDOM DEPOT’ – across his butt).

Several guys have had to take their under­pants off — to cheers. I can’t help but won­der whether the UFC offi­cials, for showbiz’s sake, pre­tend some of these guys are closer to the weight limit than they are.

UFC knows all about show­biz. According to Forbes magazine, its pay-per-view shows have drawn well over 2 mil­lion view­ers, most of them male and ages 18 to 49. Formidably shrewd, motor-mouthed former box­ing pro­moter Dana White hosts The Ultimate Fighter, UFC’s hit PPV series on Spike (a men-only Big Brother with grap­pling gloves), which has taken MMA, essen­tially a semi-organized bar­room brawl in the ’90s, cleaned it up, intro­duced some rules — includ­ing no stomp­ing, no spit­ting, no throat strikes, no punches to the back of the head, and “no groin attacks of any kind” — and made it into a hot, mul­tiangle, high-impact PPV commodity.

Described mem­or­ably by John McCain in 1998 as “human cock­fight­ing,” and under threat of a total ban, MMA has become a dif­fer­ent, more sale­able, less relent­lessly viol­ent kind of “cock­fight­ing” in the nur­tur­ing hands of the UFC — so much so that McCain him­self recently relen­ted: “The sport has grown up.” As a meas­ure of just how grown up, UFC — for which casino own­ers the Fertitta broth­ers paid $2 mil­lion in 2001 — is today val­ued at roughly $1 bil­lion. Cultural respect­ab­il­ity has arrived too in the form of a recently pub­lished $2,500 MMA art book titled Octagon with a fore­word by man-loving straight play­wright David Mamet, who wrote and dir­ec­ted the MMA-themed movie Redbelt. MMA is also com­ing to major-network TV: CBS recently announced plans to air four MMA fights (non-UFC) annu­ally — des­pite the dis­ap­proval of CBS chair­man Sumner Redstone. “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” he said, per­haps miss­ing the way UFC brings lov­ing and fight­ing spec­tac­u­larly together.

There is a lot of pas­sion­ate hero wor­ship in the world of MMA, not so much homo­erotic as hero-erotic — or herotic. Straight male fans and fight­ers them­selves will enthuse with shin­ing eyes about “my idol”, in a way that in most other con­texts would be con­sidered much too ‘gay’ to keep a straight face.  But per­haps that’s not so sur­pris­ing, since MMA owes a lot to those notori­ous war­rior homos, the ancient Greeks. Although today’s MMA came to us via Brazilian jujitsu (alas, not con­duc­ted in Speedos, as the name may sug­gest), many con­sider it the mod­ern ver­sion of pankra­tion, a com­bin­a­tion of box­ing and wrest­ling that was the basis of com­bat train­ing for Greek sol­diers and an ori­ginal Olympic sport. With lethal pur­ity, pankra­tion had two primary rules: no eye-gouging or bit­ing. Fingers were often snapped off. Sometimes death or uncon­scious­ness was the only form of sub­mis­sion (rather like this year’s Democratic primaries).

MMA’s younger fans are not likely to acknow­ledge their sport’s homo­erotic her­it­age. For most of these young men, many of them blue-collar and swoon­ingly in love with mas­culin­ity, gay means unmanly and pass­ive and emas­cu­lated - and there­fore major turn-off. MMA is gay porn for straight men because its viol­ence not only jus­ti­fies the intim­ate, pro­trac­ted, eye-popping phys­ic­al­ity of the sport but also pre­serves its vir­il­ity — the very thing that gets many of its fans hot. These fight­ers can’t be fags — look how fuck­ing tough they are, dude! It’s a bit like how in gay porn “real” tops never bot­tom — for the sake of the bot­toms watching.

Sometimes the MMA fighter really is homo — like pro­fes­sional MMA fighter Shad Smith, who was recently pro­filed in The New York Times. From a tough blue-collar back­ground, Smith was des­per­ate to hide his sexu­al­ity at first. “I was pet­ri­fied because I didn’t want any­one to find out,” he told the Times. “And I would try to be the toughest per­son around. That way no one would sus­pect. No one would ever say it. No one would think it.” Doubtless there are quite a few Shad Smiths who became very good, very determ­ined, very motiv­ated scrap­pers because they weren’t escap­ing to col­lege or open­ing a hairdress­ing salon.

Georges St.-PierreThe tough-guy image is some­thing of an illu­sion — if an entran­cing and con­vin­cing one. Surprisingly often, fight­ers turn out to be sens­it­ive, intro­spect­ive loners — “fags” who aren’t actu­ally fags — such as Mac Danzig, the beefy auburn-haired killer who is in fact a vegan and whose main pas­time, when he isn’t turn­ing another lad’s face into ten­der­loin, is nature pho­to­graphy. That’s also the story of Georges St-Pierre, a bul­lied slight boy at school who turned to MMA for sal­va­tion, who with his tight, wiry body, immacu­lately groomed present­a­tion and designer clothes looks rather metro. As one observer put it: “He’s the kind of flash Europunk you might think you could wipe the floor with if you came across him in a bar, but you’d be very, very wrong.”

Likewise you might expect a fight between Serra and St-Pierre to be billed as good ol’ USA versus Frenchy “fag,” but you’d be wrong. Because GSP — to give St-Pierre his brand name — is gen­er­ally con­sidered to be an excep­tional fighter, genu­inely excel­lent in sev­eral dis­cip­lines, or maybe because this is such a visual medium, he has begun to look like the David Beckham of UFC, albeit one who actu­ally reads books and is, heaven for­fend!, inter­ested in philo­sophy (that’s the French for you). His pho­to­genic face and body and his workouts have been splashed across count­less health and fit­ness magazines.

His oppon­ent, Matt Serra, may be breez­ily unpre­ten­tious and resemble an unpainted fire hydrant, but he is def­in­itely no idiot: “I think they look at Georges as the Crest poster boy with the sparkle in his teeth, the looks, the physique, the body and the athleticism…the real ver­sion of what Van Damme was doing,” he’s said. “And then comes me — the Joe Pesci–style ‘Heyooo!’ But it’s cool, man. I’m down with it. I fit in those shoes real well. I’m just look­ing for­ward to hav­ing another good fight.”

When he turns up for his weigh-in, a relent­less tidal wave of boos greets him. An Italian-American pocket battle­ship at 5 foot 6, Serra weighs in at 169.5 pounds; he appears indif­fer­ent to the roil­ing sea of hatred around him. The boo­ing doesn’t stop when the host offers him the micro­phone, and whatever he says is com­pletely drowned out. So he offers the crowd two fin­gers, mean­ing “two times” and V for vic­tory – and, per­haps, “fuck you.”

Ecstatic cheers greet his chal­lenger St-Pierre, who’s taller by four inches but in stature by sev­eral feet. St.-Pierre flu­idly strips down to his taste­ful and tastily filled-out black under­wear and also weighs in at 169.5 pounds. Offered the mike, he gra­ciously tells the crowd they shouldn’t hate Serra and that “I don’t fight with angerrr — I fight with my ‘eart.” The two men pose for the cam­eras in a fight­ing stance and then they hug, GSP kiss­ing Serra’s huge neck.

There was no trash talk in the quieter sur­round­ings of the press con­fer­ence the day before. The fight­ers had been polite, respect­ful, even friendly. “C’mon, I’ve got noth­ing against the French,” pro­tested Serra when the journ­al­ists dug up some “Frenchy” quotes from the past. St.-Pierre, for his part, was touch­ingly open. “I am nervous and scared to fail but that’s nor­mal,” he admit­ted. “I ‘ave but­ter­flies. but I ‘ave to make the but­ter­flies fly in formation.”



The Bell Centre out­does itself as Georges St.-Pierre, sur­roun­ded by his lieu­ten­ants, makes his way to the stage in a natty red jujitsu jacket. Climbing into the Octagon, he peels off his silky, tight black T-shirt, and then his baggy trousers come off, reveal­ing tight black trunks with just a white fleur-de-lis on the side of his firm right but­tock. It matches the arty tat­too on the back of his steely calf.

Cheers turn to boos. Matt Serra has arrived in a baggy black T-shirt with big white let­ter­ing: BUY GUNS SELL GUNSGUNSAMERICA.COM. The stats on the big screen make dif­fi­cult read­ing for Serra: GSP is taller and younger and has a longer reach. Worse, he is more pop­u­lar and better-looking and has nicer pants. He’s the favour­ite in every way.

The bell rings, and they touch gloves. In a flash St.-Pierre has Serra on the can­vas. All that frus­tra­tion, regret, resolve, train­ing — and heart — have exploded. All over Serra. To tire him out, St.-Pierre lets him get up, keep­ing him within range of his own fists but out of Serra’s. Then he takes him down again. St.-Pierre’s pur­pose­ful, omin­ous shoulders rise up like medi­eval armour, like Joan of Arc ser­i­ously narked.

End of round 1. Serra’s eye is swell­ing up badly. He looks beaten already.


Round 2. Plucky Serra tries a kick.  St.-Pierre catches it and takes Serra down. After Serra stands up again, St.-Pierre lets fly a bar­rage of punches. Serra is too groggy to parry them. St.-Pierre — part pan­ther, part lethal bal­let dan­cer — comes in for the kill, eas­ily tak­ing his oppon­ent down again. Serra offers his back, and St.-Pierre knees him repeatedly, ath­let­ic­ally in the ribs in a man­ner which some­how man­ages to be as pas­sion­ate as it is impersonal.

The ref stops the match, and it’s all over: tech­nical knock­out. Canada has won. Montréal has beaten Long Island. The but­ter­flies flew in form­a­tion. Terrifying form­a­tion. And judging by the noise from the crowd, the entire world and its dad have just climaxed.

A grin­ning St.-Pierre executes a win­ning somer­sault. The crowd chants, “FUCK YOU, SERRA! FUCK YOU, SERRA!” He has been fucked. He was fucked. He is fucked. He is without any doubt what­so­ever the fuckee. But he exhib­its no resent­ment. The war­ri­ors embrace warmly, another kiss from GSP to that huge, now sweaty neck. Serra holds St.-Pierre’s arm up for the crowd, then hoists him on his shoulder, car­ry­ing him for a few stag­ger­ing steps.

If MMA is gay porn for straight men, then tonight a part of me won­ders whether, for all its spilled blood and mashed faces, it isn’t the bet­ter kind.

After all, no one could ser­i­ously accuse gay porn of hav­ing “heart.”

Copyright Mark Simpson 2009

This essay is col­lec­ted in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story’.

17 thoughts on “Fight Club: How Gay is MMA?”

  1. I just ran across this sub­ject for­tu­it­ously and was sur­prised by the chance rel­ev­ance of a film I just recently saw, spe­cific­ally about MMA,“Warriors” in which the hot as blazes Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton (near hot­ness) brawl it out with other fight­ers and each other, while their butch ret­ro­sexual ex-drunk father and hand­some Frank Grillo act­ing as train­ers watch on.
    I’m not sure if it was just me or if oth­ers would colude, but the act­ing was supurb: full of pathos and male-male emo­tion­al­ity. Of course, I’m a pre­ju­diced judge since the male/male pas­sion­ate viol­ence was surely unbeat­able.
    People whose squeam­ish­ness with blood­shed over­ride their sexual and aes­thetic drive ma not like the film as well, but bar­ring that it is the best argu­ment for male sexu­al­ity in MMA yet. As much as there is viol­ence, there is tenderness.

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