Ultimate Fighting: Not Gay, Per Se

Why does mixed-martial arts have such a following in the gay community? Fight writer Sam Sheridan on the homoerotic realities of battling on the ground.

11.16.09 3:24 PM ET

Thad Russell recently wrote a short piece on this site asking, “Is the UFC gay?” He was referring to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, commonly known as cage-fighting. He wondered if this “manly sport” would soon be the “gayest,” referencing a rumored phenomenon, the growing popularity of the UFC in the gay community.

First of all, let me make an important distinction—the UFC is a promotion, and MMA (Mixed-Martial Arts) is the name of the sport…think of it like HBO and cable TV.

When someone is on top of you, punching you in the face, you try everything.

So, is MMA gay? What separates MMA from other ring sports (like boxing or kick-boxing) is that the fights continue if the combatants fall to the ground. MMA incorporates wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu and other forms of prone combat. Are two men fighting on the ground gay? That’s sort of in the eye of the beholder, although I understand where the confusion comes in.

The homoeroticism that purportedly draws the gay audience is a byproduct of the realities of fighting on the ground. Ground-fighting is a very technical game, with ex-Olympic wrestlers spending years studying various forms of “submission” wrestling. When two men fall to the ground, trying to kill each other with their bare hands, the man on the bottom is best served by getting his legs around his opponent’s hips, to control him, to limit the damage done by the top man. It looks like the missionary position. Believe me, if something else worked better, they would be doing it—MMA is based on trial-and-error; what works best in a real fight with as few rules as possible. When someone is on top of you, punching you in the face, you try everything.

If the bottom man has missionary position, called “the guard” and pioneered by the Brazilians, he can keep himself safe, and mount his own attacks. It looks like men humping at first, but you get used to it.

At its core, ground fighting is about applying leverage; creating mismatches, through superior position. I find a way to isolate my opponent’s arm, and then attack his elbow with the strength of my whole body (usually manifested in my hips); maneuvers range from wrenching arms out of sockets to cutting off blood flow to the brain. The experienced ground fighter has thousands of ways to wrestle his way around an opponent (or cause his opponent to fall into these positional “mismatches”).

A submission wrestler tries to choke or threaten such grievous injury that his opponent is forced to “tap” and concede victory, or accept the injury. This is the submission; and the beauty of it is, no permanent damage is done, as long as you tap. It’s by far the most benign way to win an MMA fight.

Having fought and trained a little, let me assure you that there is nothing sexual going on—fighters are in survival mode, the “fight-or-flight” instinct is in full swing. It’s kill or be killed, intensely claustrophobic, and a mental and physical war of counter and bait, deception, and speed. A fighter’s grappling style reflects his body type, his temperament, his training and his thoughts, just like an artist’s. There are thousands of variations on attacks and defense, “the ground game” is hard to appreciate at first, but worth the study. Is it homoerotic? Sure, if you want it to be. But, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke. Of course, to those boxers and boxing promoters who don’t understand and are threatened by MMA, homophobia is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

We’re accustomed to what in film school they call “the male gaze” of the camera; women’s bodies are seen at rest, as aesthetic and sexual objects, but men’s bodies can only be appreciated en extremis. MMA falls neatly into this category. But straight men have always appreciated and evaluated other men’s bodies, albeit in a nonsexual way. Evolutionarily speaking, a man’s survival might rest on his ability to gauge the health and fitness of the men around him. You’ve got to keep an eye on the toughest guy in the cave.

Speaking for MMA fans and practitioners, we don’t care if you’re gay and like MMA. The more the merrier. Dana White, the head of the UFC, welcomed gay athletes, and most fighters would agree: Nobody cares about anything but what you can do in the cage. Fighting professionally has always had that beautiful bottom line—just win.

Sam Sheridan is the author of A Fighter’s Heart, a memoir of fighting and traveling around the world; and the upcoming (January) The Fighter’s Mind: Inside the Mental Game , both published by Grove/Atlantic Press.