MMA as an Art: A Polite Response to Meryl Streep

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Fighting as Art

Even if you live under a rock, provided you have some sort of Internet access, you will have heard about Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes last night. For the most part it was a pro-diversity pep talk, which the vast majority of folks can get behind and which those at the award show could pat their own backs about. Streep also impressed with her absorption and recitation of the information about her colleagues' birthplaces and upbringings, certainly not bad for someone who apparently hasn't performed on the stage since 2006. But as Meryl Streep reached her crescendo the audience was already marking out as she asserted, to rabid applause, that if you were to kick all the foreigners out you will have nothing left to watch 'except football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.'

Those who like a good conspiracy theory in mixed martial arts have already pointed out that Meryl Streep is another figure represented by Creative Artists Agency. CAA is the largest rival of WME-IMG, the new owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The whole situation is bizarre with WME-IMG representing some of the fighters it now employs in the UFC, such as Ronda Rousey. It gets odder when the most recent attempt at a fighter's association—the awfully named MMAAA—was headed by a number of CAA's prominent athletes in the UFC. But we're going down a rabbit hole of unprovable Internet nuttiness there. No, here we are concerned entirely with the idea of art, 'the arts', high versus low art, and whether mixed martial arts can be considered art. We will leave football (presumably American football rather than soccer) to someone who understands the infinite number of ways formations, plays, and individuals can match up in that sport.


The problem is that art is entirely subjective. A thousand books have been written on what art is or should be, and every painter, sculptor, writer or poet of any note has been asked to boil it down to a simple couple of lines. Yet there is still room for debate. The great Italian director, Federico Fellini is quoted as having said that 'All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography'. Now Fellini spent much of his career on little known films such as La Dolce Vita and never struck out and attempted to make a film as courageous as Into the Woods or It's Complicated but his opinion should still be respected. Art is the story of the individual, expressed however he or she is able.

In the world of fighting there are those who fight because they must and there are those who fight because they want to. For every story of a man battling his way out of poverty there is one of a fighter who chose the rough life of seemingly few prospects because he felt it was his calling. Anyone who was fighting at the highest levels in mixed martial arts prior to around 2005 was likely doing so because they wanted to more than because they thought they could get rich off it. Conor McGregor famously abandoned a career as a plumber in order to pour time into a hobby which had no prospects even at the highest levels in 2008, training at a gym which had produced (to that point) no world class fighters and whose owner was struggling to make ends meet as it was. McGregor, through force of personality and years spent honing his craft, became mixed martial arts' biggest attraction and has brought unprecedented interest to the sport. But from 2008 to 2013 Conor McGregor appeared to be wasting his life. He became a much, much sharper fighter over this time period but he was making little to no cash and collecting social welfare. Watching his development on film from fight to fight, culminating in his most recent bout with Eddie Alvarez—none of that would have been possible if McGregor had not taken the risk and thrown himself wholeheartedly into the game that he loved. The precision and comfort which McGregor showed as he drew Alvarez's punches and slipped them by an inch, those are learned through months and years on the mats, on the mitts, and in sparring.

Then there are those that came from poverty. Meryl Streep's speech had been about the importance of a diverse array of 'outsiders', and that if they were sent away all we would have left would be football and mixed martial arts. This seems strange given that fighting is one of the most inclusive businesses in the world. Of the UFC's twelve champions, three are Europeans (one Pole, one Briton, one Irishman), two are Brazilians, three are black Americans, the heavyweight champion is the son of Croatian immigrants and the interim featherweight champion is a Hawaiian. Then the UFC's new women's featherweight belt is being contested between Holly Holm and the Dutch-Surinamese Germaine de Randamie. The idea that MMA is a sport for white skinheads is an outdated and lazy stereotype. In fighting the requirements for entry are low and world champions come out of the slums or the ghettos as often as they come out of the most advanced facilities in the United States. Andre Pederneiras, owner of the Nova Uniao team, has produced scores of world class fighters from the favelas of Rio De Janeiro and changed the lives of whole families in the process. His students include the great featherweight champion, Jose Aldo, former bantamweight champion, Renan Barao, and strawweight contender, Claudia Gadelha—all of whom at one point slept on the mats of the gym for lack of a place to call home.

Just as with theatre, the fight game used to be one of single night performances. You could see the spectacle once and then it was gone, only to be recounted in increasingly hyperbolic fashion to friends. With the coming of celluloid, fighting was among the first spectacles for which the public demanded film. (Strangely enough, there was a ban on fight film shortly after the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson battered the white former champion, Jim Jeffries in the most anticipated fight in boxing's short history back in 1910. Johnson was among a handful of black fighters including George Dixon, Joe Gans and Joe Walcott to use a mastery of prizefighting to achieve real social mobility. It is sad that the nation was willing to turn its back on a sport it had adored under the previous six heavyweight champions in order to attempt to undermine him.) But in the modern era, with most fights being documented, by a professional crew of cameramen or some shakey phone footage, we now have a record of a competitor's entire fighting life. Through the course of three, five, or even thirty fights a man or woman may be seen to grow and learn. The aforementioned McGregor went from a clumsy, one handed banger to a dangerous counter puncher over the course of a few years after packing in everything to train full time.

But there are sad tales too: the legend of the sport who hangs around too long, or the promising young fighter who chooses to fight in a strange and self-destructive way, or the old timer who pours his heart and soul into a performance but just doesn't have the chin or the grit to take the punishment anymore. No one said art has to be happy or inspiring, but if actually moving the viewer is a criteria, most fight fans have been brought to the brink of tears through the agony and ecstasy of a fight more often than through a movie. Certainly one of the writer's most treasured memories in the fight game is the unforgettable moment when the forty-five year old George Foreman defied the usual fate of the ageing fighter and reclaimed the heavyweight boxing title he had lost a decade before, late in a fight that he was losing. Cornered through his comeback by the ancient Angelo Dundee and Archie Moore, and wearing the same trunks that he lost the title to Muhammad Ali in all those years before, it was hard not to tear up as Foreman knelt in prayer in his corner following the fairytale finish.

Overcoming Resistance

Nobel Prize winning author and French name owner, Andre Gide gave his view on art in Poetique, stating that “Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labour” If you subscribe to this interpretation of art, fighting is art at its purest. Unlike the majority of artistic pursuits, fighting is one in which the artists are in active competition. One man will walk away having failed. The stakes are very well understood by both men and there is a good chance that both the victorious and defeated party will get hurt in the process. Stupid? Maybe. But courageous and daring, and beautiful in a way. Certainly indicative of a fire inside which any artist would wish to be able to show in their work. Francis Ford Coppola described risk as a necessary part of any true art. In an age where reboots and sequels are the norm in cinema, and everyone is just waiting for the part of the movie with the big CGI, city destroying fight scene where the hero eventually rises from the ashes to come out victorious, the very real stakes of an actual fight remind us of that 'truth' that is always talked about in relation to art. There is nothing more honest and brutal than a fight and often the hero ends up bloodied and broken.

These stakes make every brush stroke in a fight all that more important. If a painter makes a mistake he has a number of options to recover or make the most of it. Bob Ross' famous 'happy little accidents'. A fighter gets blasted in the head or thrown to the mat when he makes an error. But when you see this threat handled expertly, it is hard not to rate fighting as a true science. When TJ Dillashaw took apart the hard hitting counter puncher, Renan Barao not once but twice, he did so with masterful use of feints to draw Barao out, plant the seed of doubt in the Brazilian's mind, and to force Barao to loosen his finger on the trigger.

Dillashaw's feints draw Renan Barao out of position.

If you can sit through that pair of bouts, witness TJ Dillashaw manipulate Barao's expectations and beat him psychologically amid beautiful displays of footwork and angling, and still not believe fighting is an art form, you are a hard person to impress.

Dillashaw flicks out the right, darts off to the left, switches into a southpaw stance and returns on a forty-five degree angle with a one-two.

This writer's favorite definition of art comes from that great painter of vagina-like flowers, Georgia O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe declared that art is “Filling a space in a beautiful way.” It is so wonderfully vague. You can fill a space with words, or paint, or actions. Where a painter has a few feet of canvas to cover, a mixed martial artist has seven hundred and fifty square feet. How a fighter covers or fills that space dictates the course of the fight. If an offensive fighter cannot cut off the cage with his footwork or get his opponent to step in and lead, he is going to be ineffective.

Ronda Rousey being completely stumped by the beautiful ringcraft of Holly Holm, who never takes two steps back and always seeks to break the line of attack.

And who timed check hooks to pivot past Rousey's lead leg, folding behind her left arm to protect herself on the way out.

If an outfighter cannot circle the cage without getting caught on the fence, he is going to have a rough night and get beaten up in a range that he doesn't like. If a grappler cannot create opportunities to shoot on his opponent's hips, he won't be able to get them down. But each of these tasks can be accomplished in a dozen different ways by fighters with vastly differing physical attributes. 

And if self expression is your criteria for art, mixed martial arts is rife with it. The simple but permissive ruleset allows such freedom that the only limiting factor is the live, resisting opponent. But the resisting opponent is what makes it so unique—anyone can fight on film in a blurry, shakey camera mess with close ups to obscure the mediocre stage fighting ability of the actor—doing actual kung fu movie stuff in a real fight is genuinely impressive.

Anthony Pettis is famous for his use of the cage as a surface to jump off.

Similarly, the terrifying ground fighter Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza used the fence to walk over his opponent's guard in an act that was both completely new to fans and hasn't been replicated in the UFC since.

And if you want yet another definition of 'art' let's go to someone whose opinion is a little tougher to disregard, old Leo Tolstoy. A decent author in his own right, Leo Tolstoy is most famous for being distantly related to Aleksey Tolstoy: author of The Gigantic Turnip. Leo wrote in an essay entitled What is Art?

“It is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

In times of depression and recession it is sports that benefit. Boxing, in particular, saw great advances during the bleakest times in American life. People love coming together for a good ball game or fight for exactly the same reason that people go and see a movie. The vast, vast majority of people who are going to Meryl Streep's movies are doing so because they enjoy them and to that end they are, to those people, a kind of art. A few of those same people will go out and watch a fight for the same reasons.

Now I'm not going to pretend that watching fights is purely an enjoyable experience. There are plenty—and I mean plenty—of fights which could only be described as garbage by even the most loving and enthusiastic fan of the sport. Such is the nature of the struggle between two people, it often just shuts down into a grueling battle of inches in the clinch. But the imaginary entry requirements for art should probably not include being entertaining or impressive one hundred percent of the time. In fact that is why achievement in any field matters: because it is hard. It requires grit, and determination, and all too often a good deal of luck. But when you see a good movie or a good fight it doesn't matter how many bad ones you have seen, they only serve to highlight the excellence of what is going on in front of you.

Meryl Streep is providing some easy traffic to MMA media right now with her remarks. We think she's wrong about mixed martial arts, some reading this article might not. However, I would encourage anyone who agrees with Streep and hasn't seen any of the truly great fights in mixed martial arts to get out there and find them. When you have seen the science and discipline of a complete technical dismantling like Holly Holm versus Ronda Rousey, Cody Garbrandt versus Dominick Cruz, or TJ Dillashaw versus Renan Barao, decide how you feel. Or swallow your squeamishness and sit through a blood and guts brawl where both fighters are held together by nothing more than desire and pride like Doo Ho Choi versus Cub Swanson, or Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald. Certainly Meryl Streep was punching down on mixed martial arts and the stigma it still carries, but anyone who has watched their share of fights knows that there is an honesty, a cruelty, and an ecstasy to the fight game which all too often just cannot be replicated on the silver screen. It is telling that stories like Rocky and Raging Bull have achieved critical acclaim and won Oscars for attempting to replicate those awe inspiring moments which can come about organically through the strange and surprising world of combat sports.


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