Thursday 30 March 2017

Comment: Porn, video games and Machete - feeding the dark side of MMA violence

Russell Crowe in the 2000 blockbuster 'Gladiator'
Russell Crowe in the 2000 blockbuster 'Gladiator'
John Greene

John Greene

There's a scene in the film, Gladiator, in which the crowd in the Colosseum is baying for blood, urging Russell Crowe's character to "kill, kill, kill, kill" the stricken warrior on the ground. Having been treated to a blood fest, anticipation of the kill reaches fever pitch.

We like to think that society has advanced beyond those bloodthirsty days but of course it hasn't. Witness the nervous excitement that flows through a ground after a shuddering collision in a rugby match; or a hefty, well-timed shoulder on a Gaelic field; or a punch which connects cleanly in the ring . . . all events guaranteed to bring people to the brink of ecstasy. It is titillation; it is toying with something deep within us, something many of us can't even admit is there, but it is - an addiction to violence which both disturbs and thrills.

Modern sport has dressed this up and bound it in rules so that it can sit easier in our civilised society. But violence - even in its more watered-down form - remains at the core of many of the sports which have been pre-eminent in the last century.

Before that, violence, even extreme violence, was commonplace in most countries where sport, or 'play', was part of the culture. The lust for blood as entertainment did not diminish with time. Two of the most popular pursuits in Ireland, for instance, in the 1700s, and indeed 1800s, were bull baiting and cock fighting, blood sports which attracted raucous crowds who could become whipped up into a frenzy by the blood-letting.

Bull baiting was hugely popular in Britain and Ireland, and Paul Rouse writes in Sport & Ireland: A History, that "its appeal lay in the violent struggle between specially bred dogs and the bull". And: "Alongside the gory spectacle, the other great attraction of bull baiting was the gambling that invariably attended it as spectators betted, variously on the survival prospects of bull and dogs."

Violence and gambling still go hand in hand. Even with horse racing, the whiff of danger is ever-present. It is part of the thrill.

There is no doubt that MMA is of its time, or rather that it has found its time. It is a new genre in sport. To borrow from the world of cinema, it is an exploitation sport, cashing in on current trends and reaching out to a generation hooked on instant gratification.

Yes, it's an easy argument that this is a generational thing - and maybe we are more accepting of the baser elements of human nature, but as Eamonn Sweeney points out elsewhere today, MMA took a long time to become an overnight success. Less than 20 years ago it had no television exposure and was banned in America in 36 states. Now, MMA is a window to the world.

Video games with their casual approach to violence and death, exploitation films like Machete - as wonderful and all as it is - with its cartoon-like gratuitous gore, and easy access to porn has softened our immunity, shifted the boundaries of taste and altered perceptions of reality. So, we can do away with the foreplay and titillation of boxing and get straight to it.

Why wait? Especially when MMA seems so willing and ready to fit the bill: two near-naked men or women, caged like animals, fighting with no holds barred, calling out to a generation desensitised to violence, largely because it is being experienced in ways which aren't real, a generation arguably largely devoid of grander notions like consequence and responsibility.

Can we say for certain that the typically young audience truly comprehends what it is watching? Footage from last weekend's fight between Charlie Ward and Joao Carvalho in the National Stadium can still be viewed online. It is, as a friend said to me last week, a person being killed. It is a legal killing, nine legal punches to the head of a defenceless fighter. When the barrage is stopped by the referee, Carvalho looks vacantly into the crowd, some of whom have rushed towards the cage with their camera phones at the ready, caught up in the excitement and the thrill of it all. They think it's all over . . .

Carvalho is on all fours at this point; he then drops to his side. Knowing what we know now, it is a haunting moment. It is a person being killed.

The 1980s book, and film, The Running Man, features a television gameshow in which convicted criminals have to fight for their lives in a gladiator-style contest against armed pursuers. The idea that a mass audience would tune in to live television to watch extreme violence and possible death appeared outrageous at the time. The Running Man was set in the future, in the year 2017. How outrageous does it look now?

Sunday Indo Sport

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