On Holly Holm Giving Us What We Need

Jeffrey Gibson, What We Want, What We Need (2014).

Jeffrey Gibson, What We Want, What We Need (2014).

Holly Holm picked Ronda Rousey apart. An undefeated fighter is there to be defeated. We root for the upset. We relish the agony, the dark thrill of watching the takedown of a champion. We need someone who can knock the stuffing out of the hype. That’s what we got. It’s what we wanted, and what we needed.

Sexing the Stop: Rousey vs McMann

Ronda Rousey, Sara McMann

Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann came out swinging, and for a little while it looked like we were going to have an excellent and entertaining fight. But soon Rousey had McMann against the fence – and while McMann defended herself well against a take-down, Rousey kneed McMann’s body – hard. On taking a shot to her liver, McMann dropped to her hands and knees. Before much else could happen, the referee stopped the fight. Did he stop the fight too soon? It certainly felt preliminary to the crowd and to a lot of fans who, of course, tweeted their frustration

Controversial decisions happen – the same referee had just stopped another fight late, allowing TJ Waldburger to take an astonishing beating from Mike Pyle: there was a moment when Waldburger appeared to flicker out of consciousness. And maybe that experience pushed Herb Dean to take a pre-emptive step which he might not otherwise have done.

Given the importance of the fight (it was long anticipated, it was a championship fight and the main event), and given the quality of that opening minute – it is natural for us to cry foul when the drama is cut short. Surely McMann should have been given more of a chance to stand up?

Given that it was a women’s fight, Dean’s decision brings out into the public something many women athletes and fans of women’s sports know well. Gender difference impacts how referees see women athletes. And gender difference also impacts how spectators see refereeing decisions. It can be hard to distinguish between these two things in reading a referee’s decision.

Did Dean allow himself to give in to the social conditioning which tells us that women are to be protected? On the football pitch, especially at the lower levels, referees will stop play over the smallest thing – assuming that any time a woman falls over she must be hurt; or, one encounters the opposite problem – referees will let women foul each other viciously on the assumption that anger between two teams over cynical play won’t erupt into dangerous play, or a fight. (My arm was broken in just such a match.) Of course, sometimes poor refereeing is just that – someone times one wants to see such things as about gender when, in fact, decisions will have been shaped by lots of other things. Gender might be the story, it might be a part of the story, it might also be how we see the story – sexism is not necessarily to blame for a crap decision made by a male referee working a women’s fight. The question is: how do we know where gender fits into our reading, our assessment of how women athletes are treated?

In general, we do not get to directly contrast refereeing in men’s and women’s sports. Until the UFC absorbed women into its professional world, we didn’t see – on the same night, on television and in the same hour – the same referee making decisions about men and women.

Immediately after the fight, McMann very graciously reminded people that the referee is there to protect the fighters; that this responsibility is paramount. Of course, this is why people – including the television announcers – were concerned about how long it took Dean to stop Pyle vs Waldburger. Why would Dean wait so long to stop one fight, and then stop the other so quickly, so reflexively? The contrast between the two refereeing decisions is stark.

The placement of women within a relatively desegregated context allows us to think the decisions together. And also to think about our investments in a fight, as a gendered story. For example: perhaps we ought to ask ourselves why, in general, we are more ready to accept the expression of brutality towards a man’s body than towards a woman’s? Or, why, as fans, we need McMann to have the chance to handle that brutality. I’m using the word brutality here (rather than violence) to mean that moment when a fighter is down – perhaps out – and when the opponent swarms, with the aim of “finishing” them. When the fighter losing the fight can barely buster any resistance – and begins to seem helpless. Dean kept the women’s fight – the main event, the last fight of the night – from going there.

And we are wondering: Was it just a conservative decision? If it were men fighting, would he have made that call? Would Dana White be championing it? Is it fair for us read the call as, perhaps, sexist? Or was it just a bad call, overcompensating for another bad call?

They Should At Least Be Topless

“If I’m going to pay $60 for a pay-per-view to watch women fight, they should at least be topless.”

UFC fighter Matt Brown made this remark on the inaugural episode of what was meant to be a regular podcast (Legit Man Shit, which is back on-line but is, I think, edited). That one sentence – as banal as it is – captures a lot. The sexualization of the woman athlete; the straightening out of women’s athleticism into an acceptable, non-threatening product; a resistance to the idea that women athletes be paid; the positioning of women’s athleticism in direct conflict with their sex appeal – it’s all there.

UFC issued a boilerplate apology on behalf of Brown – something about UFC’s conduct policy, the practice of inclusion and a non-discriminatory workplace. The hullabaloo has provoked a familiar conversation. The remarks are disavowed, there’s discussion of a fine etc, but, as Aurora Ford reminds us in her opinion piece for Fightland, this attitude is absolutely common – it has more stamina than it should. Brown is not an outlier.

Women athletes are routinely told to be feminine, pretty – to “sell” the game. The language that manages their appearance is only slightly more refined than Brown’s comment. It is packaged as some sort of service to the marketing and development of the women’s game. If women athletes are told to grow their hair long, to wear dresses to awards ceremonies, if they are given makeovers as publicity stunts or asked to pose nude to advertise an international tournament, it’s because sports officials and corporate executives still believe that people want to see in women a sexual spectacle – and that any other narrative frame for the female body is a turn-off.

It’s important to signal that the sexual spectacle invoked in remarks like Brown’s tends to be very specific: it conjures the “hot girl” imagined by a very vanilla straight guy. A “pretty” girl with long hair, curves. Feminine, straight. White. Fit, athletic – but not muscular. More graceful than strong. People like Sepp Blatter think like this. Ronda Rousey was marketed this way – think of that ESPN Body Issue which pictured her as a sex-kitten in pastels. Which is a riot when one thinks about what Rousey’s personality is actually like. (I’m trying to picture Johny Hendricks in his gloves, naked and with this come-hither sex face.)


The uptightness of attitudes about women athletes, about women’s athleticism should be read as not only sexist but as homophobic – it supports gender policing as women are “dolled up” to reassure the spectator that they are “really” women. And it is a displacement of the panic the homophobic spectator feels when asked to consider the amount of attention and energy he spends thinking about, talking about, and playing with other guys.

Ideologies of sex, sexuality and gender shape our ideas about what a sport spectacle is; they shape how we experience those spectacles. They in fact shape how we experience the sports we practice.

Embedded in Brown’s remark is the resistance to the professionalization of women’s sports (“If I’m going to pay…”). The sports world is one arena in which men do not have to compete directly against women and much of the rhetorical shit that gets thrown around on the boringness of women’s sports reinforces this segregation as somehow “right” and “natural.”

Brown’s remark may in fact express professional worry about having to compete against women – for audience, for prize money and sponsorship dollars. Most pro male athletes do not have to live in the same economy  as women athletes – UFC is the one popular professional sport where women participate in the main event. Where a fight between women might be named the fight of the night (e.g. UFC 168, Rousey v. Tate), where men can lose a huge financial bonus ($75,000 for each fighter) to women because the women put on a better show. This is one thing that keeps me glued to UFC: I’m curious to see how all this plays out – because there is no ignoring the fact that the fights between women have the capacity to upstage fights between men.

Matt Brown’s remark was dumb, but like a lot of sports fans I don’t like singling him out – or even censoring him. Because as long as the only issue of Sports Illustrated dominated by women is the issue in which they wear bathing suits and do nothing (for example), the true sports fan knows that the opinion expressed by Matt Brown is, in fact, an opinion endorsed at every turn by sports media and its attendant commercial monsters.

the rape of a teammate

In January 2013, two athletes sexually assaulted a co-worker and teammate.

The three members of the Lloyd Irvin martial arts academy ran into each other at a New Year’s Eve party at a nightclub. One teammate had too much to drink and didn’t want to drive home. The others offered this person a ride, but instead of bringing their teammate back home, they attacked her in a parking garage. The assault is described in detail in the criminal complaint filed against Matthew Maldonado and Nicholas Schultz: the police could narrate the rape in gruesome detail because security cameras in the parking lot recorded the whole thing. One of the least gruesome passages:

The Complainant then pushed Defendant Schultz off her as her body slumped to the ground with her head still against the wall. Defendant Schultz then advanced toward the Complainant and began to lie on top of her. Defendant Schultz again pulled the Complainant towards him, holding on to her until her body collapsed again, this time her head striking the ground. (from Zack Arnold on Fight Opinion)

As they assaulted their teammate, she fell over, she asked that they stop, she hit her head on the ground and against the wall.  When they finished, the two men left their Brazilian jiu jitsu (bjj) teammate unconscious on the parking lot pavement: it was 38 degrees. There she lay until someone walking by heard her cry for help. Schultz and Maldonado had offered her a ride home; instead of looking after a person they saw just about daily at their gym, they attacked her and left her for dead. As one member of the bjj community put it, they left her there like she was a piece of trash – which is, of course, exactly how other people in that community have talked about her.

When this story broke, it quickly came to light that in 1989 the man running their gym, Lloyd Irvin, had been charged with rape. He’d participated in a gang rape – most of the men involved went to jail. Because he didn’t have intercourse with the victim, this man did not.

This past winter, there was an exodus of fighters from this man’s gym: these athletes left as they learned of yet more harassment of teammates within the gym. This wasn’t a club they wanted any part of; they went public with their outrage. (See Brent Brookhouse’s reporting on Bloody Elbow/SB Nation; listen to Mike Fowler talk about these issues in an interview for Open Mat. That section starts at 1:14.)

This past week, in spite of video evidence of the assault, a jury acquitted the two men of kidnapping and first and second degree sexual assault. A mistrial was declared regarding a misdemeanor charge against Schultz.*

Over the past year, the leader of this gym, the man who’d escaped the rape charge in 1989, has scrambled to try to paper over the scandal of his conduct – much of this story has been acted out through social media, and much of his behavior has only served to confirm him as an abusive coach. People in the Brazilian jiu jitsu and martial arts community have been doing serious soul-searching: a public conversation about rape, violence, aggression and power began almost as soon as the story broke.

For example: from the start Georgette Oden, a bjj practitioner and an Assistant Attorney General in Texas, has been breaking things down for the bjj community on her blog Georgette’s Jiu Jitsu World. Her posts are very helpful to readers who need to understand what sexual assault is, and, more recently, how a jury might acquit defendants and why an acquittal doesn’t mean that the victim wasn’t raped.

Aaron France, a DC Police Detective who is also a bjj coach addressed the case in a Facebook post that has since been shared on Reddit and on blogs. He attended as much of the trial as he could, and saw the video evidence. When Maldonado was acquitted, some people were eager to celebrate this as a declaration of his innocence. France writes:

Ask yourself; if this happened to your wife, your daughter, your girlfriend, your sister, or even a close female friend, would you advocate Maldonado’s innocence? Most of you would be calling for blood. Some of you would even take it yourselves. So if we were to look at Maldonado’s behavior, put criminal implications aside and give him the benefit of the doubt, here’s the best thing we can say about him… He had sex with a woman who was intoxicated to the point where she could not walk, and afterwards he treated her like a piece of trash, by leaving her half naked on the cement floor of a parking garage, in the middle of the night, when it was barely above freezing.

And that woman? She was his “teammate.” Not many people outside of the Brazilian jiu jitsu Community can comprehend the bond that develops between training partners, due to the level of trust that training partners are required to develop in each other.

…Yet there are a few people who believe that we should let him back into the Brazilian jiu jitsu community. These people believe that he should be allowed to continue to sharpen his skills, learning to choke people and cause their joints to stop functioning. They apparently believe that he should be allowed to do this in the presence of women and children. How can you possibly ever trust this man not to just hang onto a choke, or not hold an armbar after you tap? He’s already demonstrated a propensity to do what he wants with another persons body, why should we believe it ends with sex?

That statement is preceded by a sobering account of the steps required to bring a rape case to trial: that it went to trial, he explains, has to be valued as a certain small measure of justice. Juries, he writes – citing the Rodney King verdict – don’t always get things right.

He reminds his readers that people who commit sexual assault pose a danger to everyone around them. It is wrong, he points out, to assume that the violence of their behavior towards a woman is somehow unique to their relationships with women. It is evidence of how they treat people. Martial arts students are physically vulnerable to each other; an irresponsible training partner will hurt the people in his world.

The Gracie brothers (members of the first family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu) posted a sincere and thoughtful discussion of the crisis to their popular Youtube channel in January. In that discussion they emphasize the challenge of martial arts training: it can either produce a balanced, peaceful athlete or an aggressive and antagonistic one. They, too, stress the vulnerability of training partners – not women, mind you: but all of the people with whom you study a martial art.

The story of the abusive environment cultivated by Lloyd Irvin has scarcely left the MMA bubble, however. If it were not for Bloody Elbow’s contributions to SB Nation, I’m not sure this story would have any presence at all in sports media more broadly. It surely deserves much more attention than it’s gotten.

It deserves attention because the victims, the abusers, the bystanders and the defenders were all teammates and training partners. There are few sports communities in which such a thing is possible. And to outsiders, such a thing is truly remarkable, given the nature of the sport we are talking about. In the U.S., young women grapple against young men in high school competition – those women expand their training into bjj, boxing, Muay Thai, MMA. Men can get used to training alongside and sparring with women pretty quickly, people enjoy having women compete on the same card as men, representing their gym in team competition and in amateur and semi-pro competition. Martial arts competitions are heterogeneous – men and women are both a part of the sport spectacle. They are athletes, fans, trainers and referees.

As Ryan Hall writes in his “Open Letter to the Martial Arts Community,” “I am surrounded by people I respect not only as fighters and instructors, but as men and women, as human beings. I feel incredibly fortunate.”

As authoritarian and hierarchical as gyms can be – and by all reports Lloyd Irvin’s gym was and is a frightening example of that – they can also be something else (this is the subject of Hall’s open letter). A gym can be a place of humility and respect, a socially level space in which people commit to supporting each other as they attempt to figure out their goals, and help each other to meet them. This assault represents a crisis within the martial arts community not because it seems to express a form of masculine aggression latent to the sport (which is how we tend to frame rape cases involving football players) but because it betrays the value that define it.

Sexual violence between members of the same community is engineered to either expel the victim from that community or to make her sexual subjection a condition of her membership. Unlike the women assaulted by football players in the stories that make national headlines, the woman assaulted in this story was not only a fellow teammate; she was also a fellow employee.

There can be no assertion that rape culture is somehow endemic or specific to a sport that is desegregated: a sexual assault in that environment is like a sexual assault in any environment in which the victim knows, and has some kind of relationship to her attacker. It isn’t the sexism of the sport that’s at issue, it’s the sexism of that gym-space, and the sexism of the world. These are, in fact, the conditions under which most sexual assaults happen. A person might be attacked by her co-worker, a member of the same military unit, she might be attacked by her boss, a teacher. A member of her family. And, actually, where these football stories are concerned: these young women are not outsiders. They are, almost universally, fellow students at the same high school or university.

Of course every community must work towards a world in which there is no sexual assault. Every instance makes us ask why and how. With regards the case at hand, we must consider how little justice there is for victims of sexual assault and how much harder such cases can be for those assaulted by people they know. (Would that jury have acquitted those two men if they were strangers to the woman they attacked? In what world do you leave a consenting sexual partner on the ground, outside in the winter when she is too drunk to even sit up?)

This case shows us that we need to consider how should we respond to such a profound transgression of the athlete’s community.

We must work not only to make another attack less likely, but also to embrace the person attacked: to refuse to exile and shame her. To refuse complicity with narratives which make the presence of women within the sporting community into the problem, the “cause.” We must make room for conversations about sex, violence and power.

The football-centered conversations about rape just haven’t been compelling to me. Too often, such conversations are anchored in a deeply patriarchal language that re-inscribes the social vulnerability of women to masculine aggression. And while you will see the shadow of that mindset creep into the Gracie brother’s discourse, overall, the conversation that they and Oden and Hall and others have been forwarding is actually centered on the integrity of fighting, as an art that defines a community.

At the heart of a fight is a consensual relation to violence. That consensus is not merely an agreement to fight: it is also an agreement to stop fighting when one fighter submits to the other and “taps out.”

That rape was a violation of the bonds of trust and dependence that make that sport even thinkable.

Bloody Elbow reported in February that Lloyd Irvin’s best fighters left when one of the women on the team confided in a teammate that she’d been subjected to classic harassment that was moving towards sexual coercion. She needed help and advice.

In how many sports does a woman talk to a man, as a teammate, about this?

That one gesture – in which a junior woman athlete turns to a male colleague – and that one productive response – athletes united in their outrage – demonstrates how things might go: within at least the community of fighters invested in a not-sexist training space, the problem isn’t men, and it isn’t women. The problem is the sexist, authoritarian leader. That authoritarian figure is as much as a problem for men as for women.

There is no such thing as a “rape culture” unique to “jock culture” – it is only (only!) the deep, dramatic segregation of football as a purely masculine space that makes the Steubenville-like stories of social, public group attacks on women feel somehow unique to the sport. I wonder if one attraction to that phrase “rape culture” isn’t the way it lets us disavow the fact that gender segregation builds sexual violence into a social structure. You won’t find an authoritarian patriarchal space that doesn’t in some way produce the conditions of possibility for this kind of attack, a kind of violence that partners well with homophobic attacks on genderqueer people.

Making this story all the harder to tell is the ferociousness of public ignorance about sex and power.

I imagine that people who join together in sexual assaults against people who are incapacitated (by alcohol, by drugs – sometimes by drugs given to them with malicious intent) are people who would not dare to consider their relationship to eroticism, to sex, and to pleasure.

I imagine that these are people who do not know how to participate in a conversation about sex and power. These are people who cannot solicit consent from a sexual partner – they are too afraid to ask even themselves what it is they are seeking in a sexual encounter that is as much with their male teammates as it is against the woman they are attacking. Even in the community of athletes trying to do the right thing, many stay away from the subject of rape, harassment and sexism. Few know how to talk about it.

I end with this set of observations because Irvin’s defense of the 1989 assault seems to amount to calling the woman a whore, describing the attack as a group “pulling a train” on a “freak” who then changed her mind. And that’s how many people want to think of the NYE victim. Would these men even know what consensual group sex within a BDSM context even looks like? Of course not.

Within the sports media community there is almost no room for bringing a sexually progressive voice to bear on this topic.

People who play with those scripts (group encounters, D/s, bondage etc.) tend to be quite practical about sex – working knowingly towards wisdom, often within pedagogical relationships with more experienced people. It is, in fact, entirely possible to seek out sexual communities that give you something like what a gym promises: A better understanding of one’s body, one’s desires and ambitions, a social intimacy not bound by romantic/domestic partnership.

Sexually progressive folks can be extraordinarily careful about consent and perfectly able to make that carefulness sexy. I wonder if the jury that acquitted those two guys have any idea what a consensual three-way looks like? Sex-phobic people will imagine it is people out of their wits going at it in a back alley, so blind drunk because no one would dare do such a thing sober so if you are that drunk isn’t that what you were looking for? If we can’t trust a jury to do the right thing, it is perhaps because a jury of one’s peers isn’t likely to be able to think through the relationship between sex, power and violence.

For me, this is one of the horrifying things about heteromasculinist, sexist, homophobic, anti-sex spaces. They produce a fantasy of community, of collective identity but at the violent expense of specific bodies. They are driven by a terror of that-which-they-are-not. A fear of the bodies against which they define themselves. Sex becomes an instrument for producing specific bodies as socially abject.

In the totally segregated universe of football, the communal aftershock is not felt deeply enough. But in the bjj community, it seems at least within some quarters, this event has led to serious, serious soul-searching and an affirmation of the sport’s ethos, an interrogation of the power structures that distinguish one gym from the next, and an affirmation of shared vulnerability as not a weakness but a value. A thoughtful relationship to consent and violence is, in other words, built into the sport’s heart. This, I think, might be one reason why so many women enjoy belonging to this particular sports community. Because on the mat, no really does means no.

*Revised Nov 7 as jury decision came down right after this was posted.

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