What ‘House of Cards’ and Demian Maia Can Teach Us About Compassion

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

I tried and I failed. For all the talk about the joy and value binge-watching entire seasons of TV series, it took me four whole days to finish the second season of House of Cards on Netflix. I had a long weekend and plenty of time, but I could only handle three or four episodes at a clip. The steady stream of nihilism lighting up my screen left me feeling that the human experiment is a hopeless enterprise.

House of Cards is a compelling piece of political drama, obviously fictional and hopefully hyperbolic. The characters are sociopaths living in Washington, D.C., who assure everyone that their motivations are pure, that they’re playing by the rules, that they have others’ best interests at heart—and then with a handshake and a smile, they have another patsy. Frank Underwood, a Southern Democrat with skyward ambitions, is the most cutthroat of them all, but virtually every one of the principals on House of Cards is consumed by ambition or debt. The rare sympathetic character is a hapless victim under someone else’s thumb. When traces of compassion appear, they are later revealed as part of a complex ruse or stamped out altogether.  

This has everything to do with Demian Maia, who fights Rory MacDonald this weekend at UFC 170 in Las Vegas.

It’s been exactly a day under five years since Maia fought Chael Sonnen, the former a decorated jiu-jitsu practitioner undefeated in mixed martial arts, the latter a recent WEC export in the embryonic stages of his trash-talking metamorphosis into superstardom. Somewhere around the two-minute mark, after a half-hearted flurry, Maia and Sonnen clinched against the fence, Maia executed a lateral drop straight into mount, and rolled to his back to cinch up a triangle choke. Sonnen stubbornly refused to tap but finally resigned himself. Neither man looked damaged. And as admirable as his swift technique proved, when Maia pulled out his mouthpiece and finally got past a request for a title shot that was as perfunctory as the punches he threw in the fight, his words made a stronger impression.

“I want to show jiu-jitsu to the world,” Maia said to Joe Rogan as cornerman Wanderlei Silva implored the crowd to cheer, “and show to the people that you can win the fight without hurting your opponent.”

Those words were as near a reconciliation as could possibly be made between pugilism and pacifism, and a reminder that in the maelstrom of knockouts, open wounds, and torn ACLs, the possibility exists for something gentle.

The sentiment, of course, was idealized, and maybe hypocritical, if we equate hurting an opponent with delivering physical trauma as punches and kicks. Maia already had achieved a quick TKO victory via punches in his first MMA fight. After his own KO loss to Nate Marquardt, the guy who made a name on beating high-level MMA fighters with pure BJJ turned into a middling kickboxer, purposefully putting his fists and shins into the flesh of others, obviously with the intent to cause some kind of hurt. And, draws and no contests aside, fighting is a zero-sum game. Careers are built on the backs of others’ bad preparation, bad fight IQ, and bad luck. A little more than a year ago Jon Fitch got his walking papers from the UFC after being dominated by Maia in what was essentially a grappling match--and there's no pain worse than a pink slip. And on the flip side of the equation, whatever currency Maia possessed as a welterweight contender was lost when he came out on the wrong end of a split decision to Jake Shields. The worlds of politics and professional fighting overlap in fickleness.

Here is the contrast: The characters on House of Cards are part of a class that should, theoretically anyway, express the kind of nobility expected by those who elect and entrust them to carry out the democratic experiment. Instead, their actions reveal them to be fiends in pressed shirts with personal drivers and ugly secrets, the gears of manipulation always churning behind their eyes. Maia, meanwhile, is part of a group of athletes who, despite all of MMA’s advances into the mainstream, are still considered pariahs--brutes dressed up to look like artists. Yet here he is, talking about some utopian world where fighters fight and no one gets hurt.

And that's not really that far off. While it’s easy to become enthralled by the bloodlust of MMA—we all are to some degree—the fact that audiences cringe at injuries confirms that bodily harm can be separate from victory. If you train and you feel any common bond for your teammates, you know this on a practical level. You pull your punches in sparring and you feel bad for cranking submissions too hard. The violence that can be done with those tools is not the point, and it’s not inevitable.

That’s not to equate training among friends with fighting an assigned enemy under the spotlight for a living. The nature of professional fighting dictates that participants be willing to give in to savagery. But as Demian Maia showed five years, even in a cage fight, there’s room for a little compassion.

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