In just two decades MMA has grown from a violent niche competition accurately advertised as having little to no regulation to a global sport televised on major networks. Popular fighters have gone from working second jobs to support their “profession” to gracing the cover of ESPN Magazine and receiving sponsorship from Nike, Gatorade, and Budweiser. While it was once difficult to find a place to learn, much less compete in MMA, training schools are now located in most American metropolitan areas. The growth, however, has not come without controversy. Popular media has demonized MMA as dangerous “play” for the maladjusted, state hearings on sanctioned professional events have seen it described as barely a step above “legalized assault and battery” and containing “extreme violence and brutality”, and concerned citizens have taken to the local papers to express concern MMA marks the “moral collapse of the new Roman empire”.
Yet, within the generally suburban locales in which the training schools are located, this is not the whole story—nor, as I argue, the primary story. Rather, from the moment I entered a MMA gym as a potential researcher and a potential participant, I unexpectedly found a site of overwhelming openness and intimacy. The mats were filled with reflective men, and the occasional woman, learning about the limits of their own and each other’s bodies through use of painful, martial-arts techniques—an exchange reliant on high levels of trust and a willingness to expose one’s vulnerability. Even more surprising was the continuous chatter that surrounded the physical practice. In between drills, after sparring, and while getting ready to head home or back to work, members of the gym engaged in weaving together complex, generally masculine, and sometimes contradictory narratives. Commonly these tales were attempts of making sense of their commitment to the practice. Even more often the narratives oriented both outwards to explain society and inwards to connect with their shared experience in the MMA gym.
My dissertation emerged from six years spent alongside the men who fill suburban mixed martial arts (MMA) gyms to spend their free-hours punching, kicking, choking, and hurting each other. By engaging in an intensive ethnographic study that included participating in training, talking on the mats, competing in grappling and amateur kickboxing tournaments, following fighters to the bar to watch fights, and escorting them to the cage to compete, I offer insight into what the men actually do and say. This deep engagement provides insight into what draws people into the gym, how they spend their time on the mats, and how participation builds their continued commitment to the practice.
A shorter methodological reflection on the importance of paying attention to the mundane and less exciting moments on the mats can be found on the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog and an essay on how ethnographic participation can provide insight into the talk that surrounds a physical practice is included in the SAGE's collection of methodological case studies.