BY PETER LAMPASONA
Disclaimer: This piece deals with racism and white supremacy in MMA. The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various authors on this web site do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the thefightnerd.com. The editor of this site has chosen to censor a few sensitive words in this piece as well.
The bell rang. Round four of the five round title bout between the newly crowned Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and everyone’s favorite red-head, clown underdog Forrest Griffin had just come to a close. I had the champion up by one point on my scorecard, but the majority of the rounds were close enough to go either way. With five minutes left, the most coveted title in all of MMA, the UFC light heavyweight belt, was still up for grabs.
It was the perfect fight, except for the locale. Some poor choices I made that day had me observing the drama from a Hooters in rural Pennsylvania. The waitress, who I guess did the best she could to cover her caesarian scar while still displaying her midriff, couldn’t seem to get the hint that what I was spectating was far more important than whatever horrible food I had to choose from.
The crowd were also Hooters. And Hollerers to boot. Fiercely pro-Griffin based on the nonsensical advice that every drunk has to shout at live sporting events.
Griffin has been a fan favorite ever since his bout with Stephan Bonnar at the end of the first Ultimate Fighter reality series. The Bonnar fight was a slobber knocker with less competent defense than a Harlem Globe Trotters game, far inferior to the technical drama that was unfolding on the big flat screen. But Griffin’s eagerness to bleed for fans has always taken precedence over his ability to win for them. His history of hard-fought brawls and his whacky sense of humor had this crowd won long before he stepped into the cage that night.
Or maybe that wasn’t why they liked him.
“Kill the n****r!”
The shout came from behind me as the round five bell opened. It was the first time I did a 180 away from the action all night. I looked through the room, wondering who could be so classless. But, among the Hooters and the Hollerers, everyone and no one fit the description. What I heard was a ghost.
A specter of something I thought was long dead before that light heavyweight tilt.
During the days before the Unified Rules of MMA, the competitive circuit was nowhere near as robust or standardized as it is, today. No Holds Barred fighting ranged from legitimate precursors to American MMA to bar-room Tough Man fights.
In many rural areas, including small pocket locations in Pennsylvania, NHB clubs were used as a front for white supremacist groups. While a few had real skill, the vast majority were glorified fight clubs. The membership were local tough guys: Strong. Throw mostly overhands. Angry. Care more about laying a beating on someone than accumulating competitive skill. Sucker for a straight left. Perfect for cult or paramilitary recruitment, really.
Long before Forrest or Rampage were household names, I was an 18 year old fight fan going to college in Pennsylvania looking to get back into competitive martial arts. I had become intimately familiar with these groups. It actually took me a solid year to find a legitimate coach.
For all the credit that people give to the UFC for growing the sport of mixed martial arts, there’s one accolade that is often left out. The boom of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s popularity encouraged real training centers to pop up in main stream America. Every region developed its own fight teams and MMA promotions, cutting the cancer of white supremacist rhetoric out of the sport in just a few years.
By the time Griffin squared off against Jackson, the weight advantage of the majority had won out. Google hits for the UFC and the short-lived stroll of EliteXC onto network television had buried the remains of the sport’s darker time. The Hooters and the Hollerers were probably as much a stranger to the idea of extremists in MMA as anyone who grew up training in New York, where the culture was mercifully absent.
But, hearing those three words, “kill the n****r,” my mind started to play tricks on me. Maybe the crowd was pro-Griffin because he’s one of the most beloved name in the sport. Certainly likely.
But maybe I was sitting in the middle of a bastion of something that I thought was long dead. A bunch of hard line white supremacists gathered to witness their great white hope taking the belt from a black man who cut his fighting teeth in Japan.
Of course, it’s far more likely that the voice I heard was just that of an asshole- a creature indigenous to sports bars the world around- just shouting the most obnoxious thing he could think of. But, looking around that night, all I could see was a room full of ghosts.
Listening to UFC middleweight contender Chael Sonnen talk up his title contention against Anderson Silva, I started seeing those ghosts again.
Sonnen, previously an obscure grinder known for getting some upset victories by sacrificing damage to his body to score takedowns, has quickly risen to prominence through his sheer ability to talk trash. Sonnen’s sheer lack of respect for his opponent and the sport’s most dominant champion has resonated with the MMA fan base.
Anderson Silva’s recent show boating and temper tantrums in the octagon have given him a reputation as a Prima Donna. And the champion’s falling out of favor has provided the perfect spring stage for Sonnen’s mouth.
However, many of the challenger’s comments have had an increasingly less subtle subtext of bigotry. A full treatment of his commentary, including a tweet where he recommends Silva’s manager, Brazilian-American Ed Soares, pray to “whatever voodoo idol” he believes in, can be found on Bloody Elbow. The short version is that Sonnen’s talk has had an air of nationalistic superiority over countries with an African influenced culture.
My initial reaction to Sonnen’s nationalism is, “well, yeah.” Combat Sports are inherently nationalistic. Fighters are always talking about representing their country, which they do. Filipino national treasure Manny Pacquiao is arguably the best pound for pound boxer in the world. Now, they love fighters in the Philippines, but I think the near god-like status of the Pac-Man might have something to do with the fact that he is from the Pacific isle.
Ricardo Mayorga says worse things ordering lunch than Sonnen has said in his entire media circus. Sensitivity to Chael’s fight selling tactics may lead newer fans to wonder why suburban white males are the only people who seem suspicious when they root for the guy they most identify with.
The reason is that specter of white supremacy. Fans could have any of the logical reasons to root for Sonnen mentioned above. But as soon as comments start touching the race line, every Sonnen fan has that phantasmagorical shadow cast on them. Because every legitimate fan is a hiding space for that subculture we wished long dead.
It might seem a radical, even paranoid suspicion. Except for the fact that the Nazis at Hoelzer Reich had to be banned from sponsoring fighters as recently as last year.
This bares repeating. As recently as last year, a group of bonafide, SS thunderbolt wearing, my grandfather proudly displayed his medals for shooting them Nazis were sponsoring fighters.
Some things just won’t stay dead.
Peter Lampasona is a guest contributor for thefightnerd.com. He may be reached for comment or questions at PeterLampasona@gmail.com.