in Opinion | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

The Thrill of the Agony of Defeat

Cheryl Donegan on Ultimate Fighting

in Opinion | 07 JUN 97

The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess.

- Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)

'Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport ... the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat...' This announcement has now introduced ABC's Wide World of Sports for over 20 years. The latter phrase has fixed itself in the American popular imagination: you hear it bellowed by weekend warriors mimicking sportscasters as they fantasise the instant replay of their game-winning slam-dunk. And while the images used to accompany the introduction have changed over the years, if you watched this popular sports program during the 70s, you might remember one particularly dramatic piece of footage, illustrating not victory, but defeat. The image is striking. A ski jumper begins his descent down the slope preparing for his lunge into space. For an instant we see his body taut, straight, aerodynamically inclined over the skis at a perfect angle, like a human arrow. Suddenly, something goes dramatically wrong, his knees cave in, the skis cross and the once rigid form of the skier is limp as a starfish tossed by a wave. He spins and bounces down the jump, cartwheeling through coloured banners and hay bales until he crashes over the side of the jump and out of the frame. His tragedy seems choreographed to the theme music, the scale tumbling down with him... dum, dum, da dum.

The kind of defeat represented by this skier is not the narrative of defeat, not the story of 'the rise and fall of fortunes', as in a war, a political election, or a bankruptcy. It is fate presto, the defeat of an instant, reducible to 'before' and 'after' snapshots. In his essay on wrestling in Mythologies, Roland Barthes describes the man who is down as being 'exaggeratedly so ... (he) completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.' Perhaps our interest in the flailing body of the skier is related to this need to see absolute loss portrayed, without symbol, without allusion, with 'everything presented exhaustively' and intelligibly: a ringside seat at the Exhibition of Suffering.

Barthes further argued that Wrestling provides the crowd with an intelligible spectacle of Justice. Insisting that wrestling is not a sadistic spectacle, he suggested that the spectators do not wish for the actual suffering of the contestants, only for the perfection of the sport's iconography. Neither, he argued, was the viewer interested in whether the Wrestling was rigged or not - 'what matters is not what [the public] thinks but what it sees.' For contemporary audiences too, I would argue, the same is true but with a proviso: what we think is of no consequence as long as what we see is guaranteed real. With programs like Cops, Real TV, When Animals Attack, and America's Funniest Home Videos, the Theatre of Suffering - from the tragic to the cruel to the pathetic - has become a cinema verité. Now add to this line-up a new sport: Ultimate Fighting.

Ultimate Fighting was established in 1993 to decide which of the martial arts was superior. The SEG Sports Corporation, a division of the Semaphore Entertainment Company, which oversees the production of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), has modelled the sport on similar events in Asia and South America. On their website, the promoters of UFC claim their sport can trace its roots to the ancient Olympic contest of Pankratian, a combination of boxing and wrestling. Today UFC bills itself as a no-holds-barred, full-contact, mixed martial arts competition where 'world class' athletes do battle to establish the superiority of their fighting disciplines. In the ring, or 'The Octagon', an enclosure 30 feet in diameter and five feet high purportedly designed for UFC by movie director John Milius whose credits include Conan the Barbarian (1981), fighters face each other for a match with no rounds and, supposedly, no rules. It is this notorious feature that has tagged Ultimate Fighting as 'human cockfighting', ensuring its ban in 49 states in America.

Of course, while UFC's promoters are quick to advertise the 'no rules' feature in their videocassettes and pay-per-view specials, they simultaneously disclaim the fact. 'There are rules' points out Fact #3 on the 'Facts About Ultimate Fighting' web page. 'No eye-gouging, no biting, no "fish hooking" (hooking a finger in an opponent mouth or nostril and pulling...), no throat strikes. Ultimate Fighting is not street fighting, they distinguish. Although a match has no rounds, it ends when a fighter 'taps out' (signalling submission to the referee with a tap on the mat), knocks out his opponent, his corner throws in the towel, or a doctor or referee stops the fight. No Ultimate Fight has ever been terminated by time limit. Most fights last under five minutes; as one fighter said: 'If the fight goes on longer than one round, there's something wrong with the way (they are) fighting... This isn't boxing'. In Ultimate Fighting the vast array of martial arts, their combinations and national varieties, are represented: from the familiar arts of karate, Tae Kwon Do, Jiu-Jitsu, and Kung Fu to exotic new styles like Shootfighting, a Japanese sport combining wrestling, kick boxing, and Jiu-Jitsu; Kapu Kuialua, the Hawaiian art of bone breaking; and Capoeirca, developed by Brazilian slaves as a martial art disguised as dance and gymnastics. One style, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, is so associated with the family that developed it that it is referred to as 'Gracie Jiu-Jitsu'. Some of these fighting styles emphasis kicking, others teach punching or hitting, still others focus on ground grappling skills. Ultimate Fighting pits these different arts against each other, letting the fighters find their advantages and exploit them to the full. Thus an announcer of a UFC match, football great Jim Brown, was moved to say: 'Yes it is violent, but you have a lot of action, excitement and science.'

This unlikely comment proves a rather accurate description of most Ultimate Fighting matches. Although the video promotional material suggests that the viewer will witness 'fractured bones, stitches, contusions, concussions, lacerations, haematomas, hyper-extensions, torn ligaments, bruises and blood!', most Ultimate Fighting matches are won by technical advantage rather than extreme violence. In these cases, the fighter with better grappling skills takes his opponent to the mat and coerces him into an arm or head lock, thereby forcing the immobilised loser to 'tap out.' However, the technical nature of these victories do not keep the UFC announcers from crying, 'He broke his arm!' followed by the assurance, 'They'll embrace after this.' Sometimes, their hyperbole is justified, and Ultimate Fighting lives up to its notorious reputation. The aim of testing the superiority of the martial arts melts away as one fighter's domination is established in seconds, prohibiting the loser from demonstrating the skills of his discipline. Brute force, strength and speed are the only skills in these matches. A fighter caught in a vulnerable position, usually prone, face-up, may receive multiple blows to the head with an elbow or fist, resulting in a bloody knockout. These battles appear like car crashes, relentless and inevitable. In instant replay, the violence of these moments is intense, precise, operatic. The fist falls repeatedly as the victim's head wobbles in time, blood and protective mouth piece erupting in a spurt.

The brutality of Ultimate Fighting is in the simplicity of the cause and effect of suffering, its directness. The convention of 'reality' only guarantees the superior intelligibility of the spectacle for the viewer. The fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Octagon has no guises, no refuge. Without gloves or uniform, he and his opponent are engaged in an algebra of cause and effect. The promoters of the sport put it this way: 'Combat distilled to its basic equation - survival or destruction.' In contemporary life, ambiguous and inexplicable failures such as those in the name of 'downsizing' and 'out-sourcing' are swept away before the spectacular view of a falling skier, or bloodied fighter performing pure, thrilling gestures of defeat.