The latest Christianity Today features an article by Gordon Marino that asks an important question, particularly for Christians who enjoy watching combat sports: “Is it morally wrong to relax by drinking in the sight of adults trying to beat in each other’s brains?”
I’ve been a fan of combat sports for as long as I can remember because I come from a family of fighters. My dad was a Golden Gloves boxer. So was my uncle. Heck, my parents’ second date was a boxing match — yes, my mother likes boxing, too. Growing up, my house was filled with conversations about boxing greats like Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns. I learned the importance of good footwork, having a miracle healer for a cut-man, and throwing the perfectly timed jab. That’s why, when Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) began its precipitous rise in popularity, I was primed. And I’ve watched my share of free and pay-per-view MMA events surrounded by family and the noise that comes with celebrations at good fights.
Recently, though, Gordon Marino’s question has become serious. For a person like me, who grew up appreciating the sweet science of boxing while also loving Jesus and trying to live at peace with all men, it’s not a simple question. If I turn my back on combat sports, I’ll miss out on an anchor of family identity and a good connection to the Godly men and women in my life.
I blame Michael Bisping.
When British MMA fighter Michael Bisping fought Dan Henderson at Ultimate Fighting Championship’s “UFC 100” in the summer of 2009, he thought he had a really good chance at fulfilling his dream of becoming a champion. He was an up-and-comer with a loudmouth personality and the fighting skills to indicate he could be one of the best. But in order to become a champion, he — like many in the light heavyweight division — had to get through MMA legend Henderson, a former UFC champion and Olympic wrestler. In the run-up to the fight, Bisping seemed unable to quit talking about how he was a better, younger, and quicker fighter than Henderson. In response to all the talk coming from Bisping, Henderson often talked about how he was going into the fight with one goal: to shut Bisping’s mouth. It was the run-up to a classic British versus American, villain versus hero scenario. I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
When I say I was looking forward to the Bisping/Henderson fight, I mean to say that I was looking forward to seeing Bisping get beat. I wanted it to be a good fight, and there was a pretty good chance that the loudmouth Bisping would win, but I figured Henderson had a puncher’s chance of making a fight out of it. And Henderson had one thing that few people have: a one-punch knockout.
We watched the fight at my parents’ house, with each of us pitching in money to cover the cost of the pay-per-view. My father gets most excited about watching MMA, but we all like getting together and giving amateur commentary and good-natured teasing when one of our favorites loses the fight.
The first part of the fight was, to be perfectly honest, predictable. Bisping used his speed and footwork to get away from Henderson’s walking-forward plodding style. Most thought this would happen, because Henderson is a world-class wrestler and he has dynamite in his right hand. Everyone he fights tries to move away from that knockout punch.
When the second round began, however, Bisping seemed to forget who he was fighting, and my father’s den buzzed with commentary on Bisping’s hubris. He was circling clockwise, right into Dan Henderson’s right hand.
It was an amateur’s mistake. Or maybe it was arrogance. Or maybe he was just tired. Whatever the reason, Henderson saw Bisping’s wrong move and swung his right hand in the same motion that a pitcher in a baseball game makes: high and looping, over the top. The fight was over quickly, and while Henderson jumped up on the top of the octagon cage, Bisping’s stiff, unconscious body lay on the mat.
Even years later, I’ve never forgotten that knockout, and neither has anyone else who saw it. I also remember my reaction to the scene, as Bisping lay there. I thrilled to it, not merely in the violence of the defeat, but in the fact that Bisping’s mistakes — both in his talk and in his actions — had caused him to lose.
Actually, there is one person who has forgotten that knockout: Michael Bisping. It’s just in the past few weeks that I’ve come to understand the extent of what’s happened since I last saw his battered face. According to a recent interview, Bisping woke up from his knockout thinking that he still had two weeks until his fight. From one punch, he’d lost two weeks of memory.
What’s more, since his fight with Henderson in 2011, Michael Bisping hasn’t won two consecutive fights, and over the past year, he’s worked to do one thing that’s more important than being the best: he’s been in physical therapy, hoping to regain the sight in his right eye.
After learning about Bisping’s physical health, I faced my own reaction, even apart from my love for MMA. I grieved for my excitement at Bisping’s defeat, not just because he was physically beaten, but because Henderson had done what he’d promised: he shut him up. Henderson’s punch was so violent that Bisping’s career, health, and voice were put on hold, and I cheered.
Even in light of my response, though, I don’t know if I’ll stop watching. I’m sure that, if you’ve read this far and you’re against violence, you may be horrified by my indecision. If it weren’t for my father, I would be, too.
My father introduced me to the love of Christ and the life of a believer. As long as I’ve been alive, dad has prayed daily that I’ll know Jesus and follow His teachings. I have not experienced a moment in my life that hasn’t been covered in the love and concern of my father, and I don’t want to miss out on any moment with him simply because it includes MMA.
Yet, feeling triumphant at the brutal beating of another human being is not a very Christian response. I’m not going to divorce myself immediately from the sport that connects me to my family in important ways, even though it might damage me.
My dilemma is what William Faulkner describes as “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” It’s the contradiction that occurs when my Christian father teaches me to appreciate combat sports. But my dad also taught me the more important lesson that damage doesn’t occur from watching something violent, but rather, as a result of what grows from my heart.
In his CT article, Gordon Marino offers a suggestion for those of us trying to decide between their father’s faith and their father’s fandom: “Perhaps those of us who thrive on arena combat ought to do so with a sense of humility and a tinge of regret.” Taking his suggestion, I’ll pile on humility with the regret I now carry. I don’t want to respond to anything else like I did to the Bisping fight. I know I can’t embrace this indecision for long. So I probably need to move quickly because humility and regret often fight in the same ring.
I haven’t decided whether I’ll watch combat sports or not, but I’ll be checking on how Michael Bisping is doing via my Thursday morning news feed. He fights on Wednesday night.