10.31.09

Is Ultimate Fighting Gay?

The head of the Ultimate Fighting Championship recently became the first head of a major sports league to welcome gay athletes. Thaddeus Russell on the mixed martial arts’ homoerotic appeal.

I had heard the accusations and innuendo. And just two minutes into the first preliminary fight of last week's Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event I saw something that confirmed them. I was in a sports bar in the San Gabriel Valley, a predominately working-class suburban area just east of Los Angeles that has produced a disproportionate number of mixed martial-arts (MMA) fighters and is home to some of the sport's most committed fans. Malls in the area are filled with men wearing gothic-inspired MMA t-shirts and baseball hats, and the parking lots often become mock battlegrounds for teenage boys acting out the punches, kicks, and grappling moves of the fastest-growing and what many believe is the most macho sport in the United States.

Spokesmen for professional boxing, which has seen a large share of its fan base gravitate toward MMA, have been quick to accuse their rivals of promoting gay porn. Boxing promoter Bob Arum described MMA as "guys rolling around like homosexuals on the ground."

But when Chase Gormley threw Stefan Struve to the mat and mounted him between his legs, a young woman in the corner of the bar yelled "that is so hot!" A minute later, Struve turned the tables with his own throw and mount, then clasped Gormley's head, neck, and shoulder between his legs in what is called a "triangle choke hold." At this point the woman, who was sitting with two quiet and increasingly embarrassed men, moaned lustfully then turned to her companions and told them she was "getting ideas" for things to do with her boyfriend. A man wearing skull-and-bones MMA gear sitting near me slammed down his Bud Lime and shouted at her that she was "ruining the fight."

I found out later that the two men sitting with the aroused women were among a growing gay MMA fan base. They told me that they were just as turned on by the action as their female friend but contained themselves for fear of retribution from the "hyper-macho" crowd. "She says what we can't when we watch the fights in public," one said.

Recently, gay bloggers, homophobic critics of MMA, and even straight fans have declared that one of the great appeals of the sport is its homoeroticism. They note the large number of gay men and straight women who have become fans of MMA and attribute it to the appeal of the nearly-naked hard bodies of the fighters and the intimate, often pelvic techniques of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the favored grappling discipline in the sport.

Jim Buzinski, the publisher of Outsports.com, a web site devoted to gay sports fans and athletes that has counted NFL Network and ESPN Radio among its advertisers, calls MMA "intrinsically homoerotic." He claims that "while it is impossible to quantify numbers, it's clear that MMA has a gay following." This month, one of the site's most viewed articles was a list of "A Straight Guy's Top MMA Hotties." Spike TV's "Ultimate Fighter" reality series, in which a group of fighters live together in a house and compete for a UFC contract, is especially popular with Outsports readers. Buzinski calls it "the most homoerotic show on TV." Moreover, the site's readers "routinely send us links to what they think are hot MMA fighters, so they clearly pay attention to more than just their skills. [UFC welterweight champion] Georges St. Pierre in tight trunks equals page views."

And then there's matbattle.com, a website devoted to "helping homosexual grapplers explore and express their fetish in a welcoming environment." The site features movies and photos of gay Judo and Jiu-Jitsu fighters performing what it calls martial-arts "sporno."

Perhaps acknowledging MMA's pan-sexual appeal, Dana White, the president of the UFC, recently became the first head of a major sports league to welcome gay athletes. “Any guy involved in grappling is the furthest thing from homophobic in the world," White said. "I honestly think it would have no impact whatsoever with not only our fighters or our fan base. The guys in the UFC, everybody is so cool, it’s great sportsmanship, everybody has respect for each other. I honestly, it wouldn’t be a big deal to me and most of the guys I know in this sport, it wouldn’t be a big deal for them either.”

Not surprisingly, gay-friendliness is far from universal within the sport. UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar issued what ESPN described as "a curse-laden outburst" against homosexuals when a female fan informed him that her friend "Shawn" thought he was cute. "I don't like gays," he announced to reporters. "Write that down in your little notebook. I don't like gays."

Dana White himself was denounced by gay rights groups for slandering one of his critics as "a pussy and a fucking faggot." He responded quickly with a public apology and the statement opening the door to gay fighters. According to Buzinski, this was a wise business move. "White knows his audience and knows that overt homophobia won't sell. By appealing to as many segments of the market as possible, including gay men, White can grow the sport beyond its niche."

Spokesmen for professional boxing, which has seen a large share of its fan base gravitate toward MMA, have been quick to accuse their rivals of promoting gay porn. Boxing promoter Bob Arum described MMA as "guys rolling around like homosexuals on the ground." And legendary middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins called it "grown men with panties on, sweating, [with] nuts in their face. . . . It’s a porno. It’s an entertainment porno."

These are not the first observations of homoeroticism in violent sports. The historian Elliott Gorn found that journalistic accounts of bare-knuckle prize fighting in the 19th century commonly featured "loving descriptions of boxers' bodies" and celebrated the "manly beauty" of fighters. In 1978 the anthropologist Alan Dundes argued in a famous scholarly article (which garnered several death threats) that American football represented a form of homosexual ritual combat in which "the winners feminize the losers by getting into their end zone." Yet there has never been an openly gay male athlete in a major American sport.

Could it be, given Dana White's apparent openness and the growing number of gay men drawn to MMA, that what is commonly believed to be the manliest of sports will soon be the gayest? And if so, should we be surprised?

Thaddeus Russell has taught history, philosophy, and American Studies at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class (Knopf, 2001) and the forthcoming A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).