In late May, Tito Ortiz made a public appearance at a Donald Trump rally, holding up a bumper sticker that read, “Hillary Clinton killed my friends.” It wasn’t the first time he’d publicly backed the demagogue developer; earlier this year he went on a radio show and explained his support of Trump by delivering a jumbled approximation of a sentence about extremists and Mexicans. (Ortiz himself is of Mexican descent.) Before that, he was a contestant on Trump’s show Celebrity Apprentice; the future GOP nominee fired him.
The news was treated as a funny sideshow by fight fans, given Ortiz’s general inability to speak and overall weirdness. After all, this is a man who claimed he had a “cracked skull” following a close fight, walked out to Eminem’s anti-Bush anthem “Mosh,” and almost fought in a televised boxing match against UFC president Dana White. This was just another bizarre thing that Tito did.
Still, it speaks to a larger phenomenon in the world of mixed martial arts, which is that the participants, at all levels, have some really weird politics.
Take Ronda Rousey, who in 2013 took a break from dominating the women’s bantamweight division to find out the truth about the Sandy Hook massacre. Or Jeff Monson, the former UFC heavyweight contender and social worker who moved to Russia and now finds himself in RT articles decrying American imperialism. Or Tim Kennedy, the UFC middleweight/Army Ranger who appears on Alex Jones and has the beliefs of a John Birch Society conspiracist who was cryogenically frozen and revived in the late 2000s:
There are dozens of other well-known MMA figures, from once-hot prospect Brandon Vera to renowned grappling coach Eddie Bravo, whose social media profiles seem to detail every single conspiracy laid out in history.
Perhaps the biggest example isn’t a fighter, but an analyst: longtime UFC color commentator Joe Rogan. He isn’t a 9/11 truther, as some erroneously allege, but he has his fair share of “out there” beliefs. Rogan’s highly successful podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, features the host conjecturing about everything from the JFK assassination to the drug DMT opening up humanity’s “third eye”—and this from one of the UFC’s most prominent public faces.
Why does MMA attract adherents of such nonstandard belief systems? Other sports are filled with apolitical competitors or guys who fall into narrow categories of religious conservatism or Democratic centrism. What is it about wearing four-ounce gloves that causes a person to talk about how Egyptians had space shuttles 4,000 years ago and warn that Jade Helm is coming any day now?
For one, MMA has less competent “brand management” than other sports. I would say this is overall a good thing, as the term evokes sharp-dressed young professionals with precise haircuts “tssking” through their teeth at athletes about what is and is not a “good look.” Other sports obviously do not lack for strange people, but their views are kept under better wraps as their organizations dedicate significantly more resources to managing their appearance than, say, the UFC does.
The main thing here is simple, though: MMA fighters are weirder people than the general population of athletes.
American fighters often matriculate from wrestling. This isn’t a sport like any other. It’s brutally difficult, lonely, and just doesn’t come with the promise of glory or a lucrative professional career in the way that football or baseball do. Talented wrestlers have to deal with the possibility of taking on their own teammates to secure spots in meets, and later to earn scholarships. Wrestlers have friends on their teams, but whether on the mat after a six-minute period or on the scale following a tortuous weight cut, the athlete is alone in a solitary crucible.
Wrestling is also a way out for a lot of kids. Tito Ortiz was born to two drug-addicted parents and lived through a turbulent adolescence while dealing with his own meth addiction. He often says that wrestling saved his life because it was a sport he could wholly dedicate himself to. It was also a path he could follow to college through scholarships. Ortiz’s story isn’t unusual.
Other fighters come from disciplines that aren’t really magnets for normalcy themselves. Take three fighters known for their Brazilian jiu-jitsu—Fabricio Werdum, BJ Penn, and Nick Diaz.
Werdum started training in the sport because his girlfriend’s ex triangle-choked and humiliated him as a teenager. Penn had to take it up because despite his affluent background and intelligence, he was so wild and prone to trouble that his parents demanded he train every day so he would stop screwing up. And Diaz, probably the most iconic outsider of our sport of outsiders, was an angry kid who felt alone and vulnerable and out of place in every institution; violence and insanity followed him everywhere. The Brazilian grappling art became one of the only things he could throw himself into. It made him feel peace.
UFC flyweight Ian McCall and 170 pounder Matt Brown have both overcome clinically dying from drug overdose to become elite fighters. As combat sports became a way for Diaz to not feel like an outsider for once in his life, they were a way for Brown and McCall to stay alive. Basketball, football, and baseball have no doubt done the same for others. But there just isn’t the same proportion of guys who physically died and went on to compete at a high level.
When we cross the ocean, it’s just other groups of societal outcasts. Take the Dagestani and Chechen fighters who have run riot over the last few years. Their very geographical identities are in weird gray areas, and growing up during the course of two civil wars, they internalized various strange belief systems. These are the wrestlers who couldn’t quite make it on Russian national teams, had to make money, and got into MMA, leading to the spectacle of top cage fighters who preach Salafism or Russian nationalism. Go anywhere in the world and take a look at their MMA fighters. Independent of nationality, ethnicity, religion, or feeder discipline that brought them to fighting, they will tend to have just had trouble fitting into society.
That’s not at all to say that fighters are a group of crazed sociopaths who can’t cohabitate with others unless it’s in a cage or a sweaty basement plastered with mats. The pros I have trained with were almost universally sweet, considerate, and easy to talk to. Former UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub has a monstrously successful podcast and t-shirt enterprise. Two-division champion Randy Couture has a budding, albeit mumbly, career as a bit player in action films as well as a few businesses. Bellator heavyweight king Cole Konrad hung up his gloves to become a dairy commodity trader, where he probably makes more than he ever did in the cage.
Still, they’re weird people, because weird circumstances brought them here. Fighters are obviously not wholly isolated from society, but they tend to have experienced isolation due to their upbringing, the sports they competed in growing up, or just the types of people they are. It’s part of why Ortiz enthusiastically supports a man who has called millions of people like him rapists, and why so many fighters keep trying to find out what really happened during 9/11: The propensity to see threats and conspiracy everywhere is a trait of people who feel isolated in some way.
On the issue of guns in America, Mark Ames once wrote (emphasis added):
Looking back at Big Business’ violent reaction against the New Deal and the political culture that it created: a more “collectivist” political culture, as the libertarians derisively call it, where people were more deeply involved with each other and their communities, and with that involvement in their politics and communities came greater trust in their communities. [...] Much better is to pour arms unrestricted into the population, give them legal cover and political encouragement to take political matters into their own hands with laws like “Stand Your Ground”. That way you wind up creating a political culture of atomized, fear-fueled citizens who think they’re literally at war with each other, and their only way out is to fend for themselves and their family.
As promoters pilfer sponsorship money and image rights from their fighters, the athletes are chasing phantoms around WTC 7, zeroing in on ISIS plots in their own backyards, and inquiring about hidden pyramids. Because of who they are and what they’re prone to believe, fighters are after any number of improbable conspiracies, even as their very employers are constantly conspiring against them.
There’s never been any really serious effort at making a union for fighters, and why would there be? The athletes are as atomized as their politics. The self-delusion any fighter must have to be great involves thinking that they are at all times the greatest, and that every other fighter near their weight class is standing in their way. They are as alone as they were while running laps in a weight-cutting suit while in high school, as alone as Nate Marquardt was when he left his girlfriend so he could train in basements in Japan. There’s the familiar refrain of “doing whatever it takes” to become a champion, despite the high unlikelihood of this ever happening for most fighters and the fact that financial success isn’t really guaranteed as a champion anyhow.
I love my fighters to be weird people because it gives us a sport where the competitors are as weird as the viewers. They are more representative of most people than the other athletes who are image-consulted to death.
But just the same, I have always wished for a Cesar Chavez with gaudy crucifix tattoos to come along—someone who could circumvent the naturally maverick characteristics of their fellow athletes to organize and help them keep from getting screwed so badly by divide and conquer-minded promoters.
No one has even come close to pulling it off. I often fear that our highly individualistic heroes cannot, by nature, work with each other to stop billionaires from bending them over the table. I hope that I’m wrong.