For all the heat MMA takes for appealing only to the basest human instincts, the sport has been relatively free of the racism that has marred most other major sports. Maybe it’s because MMA is inherently multicultural, not only in terms of its athletes but the techniques those athletes have to master – Brazilian grappling, Thai kickboxing, Russian wrestling, Japanese hip-tossing – but MMA has yet to birth a star like baseball pitcher John Rocker (who famously ranted against foreigners, homosexuals, and New Yorkers in general in the late Nineties) or incidents of race-baiting like those professional soccer can’t seem to rid itself of. And sports writers rarely ponder the cultural impact the arrival of a fighter of a particular race will have on the sport, the way they did when Tiger Woods showed up on the PGA tour, the Williams sister started to dominate tennis, or Jeremy Lin took over basketball for a few delightful weeks last winter. Which isn’t to say the sport is clean, only that so far it’s cleaner than others.
Still, the issue of racism is rarely far from the surface in American life, though these days it usually only makes itself known through coded language and dog-whistle criticism. In this recently released promotional video spotlighting Rashad Evans before his fight this weekend against Rogerio Nogueira in Las Vegas (a video shot by Fightland friend and collaborator Ryan Loco), the voices serving both as the source of Evans’ disenchantment with MMA and his inspiration to improve in it aren’t just criticizing the fighter’s character; they’re criticizing his blackness.
“Dancin’ around, runnin’ you mouth, dancin’ around: Man, like, take that to the club; that doesn’t belong inside the Octagon.”
Since at least the days of Muhammad Ali, African-American athletes of a particular charismatic stripe have engendered this kind of venom from certain (sometimes small, sometimes not-so-small) pockets of the white viewing public. The sports fan’s racism manifests itself in all kinds of ways – from criticizing black basketball players for ruining the game by supposedly shunning fundamentals and depending too much on running fast and jumping high, to slamming black boxers for ruining the beauty of the so-called “sweet science” with their flash and their flair and their self-indulgent attitudes (as if boxing is at heart a sport of modest gentlemen). Rashad Evans (who, to be fair, has engendered some racial controversy of his own over the years, accusing other African-American fighters of being Uncle Toms and "white boys") is just the latest in a long line of black athletes whose very blackness terrifies and angers a small minority of insufferable white people. As far as they're concerned, Evans could win every fight he's in, redefining the possibilities of the sport as he goes, and he still wouldn't belong in MMA. Not as long as he, you know, talks and moves.