05 August 2008

McCain and Fighting Fair

The latest New Republic has an interesting article on an aspect of Senator McCain that I've been long aware of but hadn't generated much comment over time. McCain is the man who coined the phrase "human cockfighting" to describe the sport of mixed martial arts, particularly the Ultimate Fighting Championships, which started in the early 1990s. Contrary to the article's author, the UFC was not inspired by but predated the movie Fight Club. In any event, McCain appeared often on talk shows in those days to denounce the sport with such vehemence that I had to wonder whether the senator was getting donations from boxing promoters. The article suggests that this was not the case, that McCain was in fact an enemy of Don King, the most notorious promoter, and has demanded stricter regulation of boxing in the fighters' interests.

McCain insists that there is a moral distinction to be drawn between boxing and mixed martial arts, despite claims from the UFC and other promotions that their sport is safer and less corrupt than boxing. While the Arizonan reportedly has downplayed the distinction in light of reforms in UFC rules, he remains a major boxing fan and seems to buy into the whole concept of boxing as the "manly art of self-defense." From the perspective of a boxing fan, mixed martial arts, especially in its early days, "appeared ... lawless and wild and utterly without the supposedly dignified 'honor' of an old-school heavyweight fight," Michael Crowley explains.

When I first saw a UFC tournament in the mid-90s, it resembled the sort of tournament you might see in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie from the 80s. It was as much a competition among styles of fighting as it was a contest of individuals. Fighters of all disciplines and weight classes faced one another, boxers fighting sumo wrestlers, grapplers against self-styled "pit fighters," and so on. This was bound to look chaotic to some observers, and has since been altered to separate weight classes, but why should it appear less honorable than two men punching each other in the face? Crowley suggests that boxing "represents McCain's belief in the honorable war, one in which both sides follow a mutually agreed-upon code of organized violence." Notwithstanding that UFC, even in its earliest days, banned such tactics as biting and gouging, a fight pitting two distinct styles against each other might well look like "asymmetrical warfare" to men like McCain. He might also believe that the less options one allows oneself in a fight makes it more honorable. The ultimate expression of such an ideal would be the pistol duel in which, having fired and missed your man, you were obliged to stand your ground and let him have his shot at you.

Speculation aside, I suspect that McCain's dislike for mixed marital arts reveals his basic conservatism rather than any principle of honor. Boxing only took its modern gloved form fairly late in the 19th century, but in this country that's enough to make it an unassailable tradition for many people. We might ask what exactly makes modern boxing the most "fair" form of fighting, but for people like McCain the fairness and hence the civilized aspect of boxing is beyond dispute. I detect in his reaction to mixed martial arts a hostility to new concepts that in any way challenge his traditional perceptions of honor or fairness. That attitude, if I perceive it correctly, throws his ability to think outside the box and consider solutions to national problems that might offend conservative ideological sensibilities into question. You may consider boxing and Ultimate Fighting equally barbaric, and you might abhor combat sports altogether, but you might still be able to draw a political conclusion from this story.

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