Nobody Forced You to Watch Cage Fighting
On Mike Ryan of the Le Batard Show vs. UFC middleweight champ Sean Strickland
A friend sent me this clip of UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland ranting at Canadian MMA reporter Alexander K. Lee, in a presser designed to promote the upcoming Strickland vs. Dricus Du Plessis fight. My friend’s comment was an observation on how the sport had grown stale. The Strickland tirade is seething, highly political, and predictably viral, but it’s something that could be happening in lieu of a sport growing on its own terms.
Maybe Sean Strickland believes every word of his rant about Trudeau, Biden, the media, gender, gay people, etc, but he’s also wearing a shirt that reads: “A WOMAN IN EVERY KITCHEN. A GUN IN EVERY HOME.”
I’m saying it’s a little much. His public performance might not be fake, but he’s such a culture war caricature that it seems contrived. Strickland talks more like he’s reading all the bumper stickers on the back of a car versus following a real train of thought.
Like so many sports, UFC has struggled to create stars in an increasingly fractured media ecosystem. That struggle has led to this situation where maybe the only way to cut through the noise is by playing the role of social media era Bobby Riggs. And it’s easy enough to do, especially considering how so many fighters have political opinions that repulse the media. That was my friend’s interpretation anyway (Note: My friend is Ryan Glasspiegel, who just did the podcast, and I’m not sure why I kept his name secret to begin this).
Whatever the provenance, the rant does get publicity, and I suppose it does work to promote a fight I was otherwise unaware of. It certainly provoked a reaction from Mike Ryan of the Dan Le Batard universe. I’m a bit unclear on Mike’s evolving role with the show, but he’s a very talented producer, with a keen ear for music. Years ago, Le Batard handed over the Executive Producer reins to a young Mike Ryan and I’d say that helped the show pop nationally.
Anyway, Ryan, who’s a big MMA guy, is understandably sickened by Strickland’s comments. Fair enough, Strickland’s unhinged, but Ryan doesn’t just stop there.
I ask [ESPN Chairman] Jimmy Pitaro, what gonads are you gonna show me in this instance? Because that pay-per-view is on ESPN+. That is on ESPN+; and I know Disney is an inclusive company. I worked for it. You say nothing?
I guess Disney could make a distancing statement, but they’re putting on the fight regardless. Making a statement just highlights that you’re in league with people you find unacceptable, which seems suboptimal for a company. Ryan continued:
I’m glad you made us play that video, because while the UFC isn’t gonna do anything about, I would challenge ESPN to make a public statement on this. Because that kind of hate is going over their airwaves — The Walt Disney Company. Are you a chicken shit that you allow this with impunity, regularly? But it’s never been this vile. The guy’s wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Women belong in the kitchen. A gun in every hand.’ Disney’s a family company. Hell, Disney’s a company! Take family out of it. This is revolting! You have that guy’s last name on a pay-per-view. At the very least, condemn it!
I’m not sure if Ryan wants Disney to simply condemn the comments or if he’s angling for a larger punishment. The issue for Disney, and to a certain extent for Ryan, is, to quote Hyman Roth: “This is the business we’ve chosen!”
As in, you’re in the fight game, and it’s dirty. There are no prizes for being nice or appropriately “inclusive.” There are prizes for knocking another man into incapacitation. The men who showed up for this job aren’t necessarily the men you want to hear from about social politics. I doubt Disney wants to hear from Sean Strickland, who mocked their stock collapse, but people will pay to see him and this is the business they’ve chosen.
Sean Strickland, whatever his world view, is the literal UFC middleweight champion. There’s no company board that determines who gets that designation. Perhaps you’d prefer the middleweight champion have a liberal outward politics, or just be nicer in general, but that’s not typically what you’re getting in what Le Batard himself has called, “human cockfighting.” The selection pressures for “fighter” don’t often produce a champion with an abundance of empathy. Yes, you’re more likely to get a “Women belong in the kitchen” shirt than an “Everyone Belongs Here,” shirt. It’s not shocking that Sean Strickland loves Donald Trump. So does the guy he’s fighting.
More to the point, there’s no stopping the fighter on the basis of social acceptability, or quelling “hate.” I suppose a fighter could theoretically go far enough with his words to get a fight cancelled, but it would be difficult to find that limit. I recall when Floyd Mayweather, who’d already had a history as a domestic abuser, mocked Manny Pacquiao in explicitly ethnic terms.
We're going to cook that little yellow chump…Once I stomp the midget, I'll make that mother fucker make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice.
I’d actually forgotten how extensively racist the 2010 rant was. It really went on and on.
Mayweather did apologize for the rant, upon getting some pressure from sponsors, but there was no punishing the boxer with literal fight cancellation. A rant like that would get you suspended in other leagues; But there’s little that can be done about a fighter when so much business rides on selling the very best fight.
Fights are viscerally captivating spectacles. To paraphrase UFC CEO Dana White, when a fight breaks out at a sporting event, everyone stops watching the game and turns to the brawl. That’s why the fight game works as a pay-per-view business, and in this era of Peacockification, media companies are desperate for events that compel payment.
So Disney just has to deal. Even if the company has a mandate to stay out of politics, there’s not much it can do about Strickland’s rant or about Dana White featuring his buddy Donald Trump at the biggest UFC events. They accepted this when they invested in this.
Can you criticize a Sean Strickland? Sure. But if you’re a progressive MMA fan, can you really get so huffy about his opinions? Can you really demand that the grownups do something about it? Nobody forced you to watch men crack each other in the skull before an audience of drunken gamblers. This was the business you’ve chosen and these are the people within it.
This is their world, and it’s one they pay to enter with pain that lasts a lifetime. They like Trump. They hate the media. They’ve got issues with entire groups of people that liberals believe deserve protection. But nobody else showed up for the dangerous job. I certainly didn’t. I’m a comfortable, college educated laptop class guy. So, I realize that I can’t project my own modern codes and standards on people I’ve asked to perform a premodern spectacle. Or I would understand it were I a dedicated UFC fan, which, incidentally, I’m not.
Given that we’re talking about a bloodsport, asking Disney to do something about Strickland just seems off to me. Maybe the Mouse can shut Strickland up, but every other fighter seems like they’re more or less just like this. Before asking corporations to shield you from the reality of what fighters are, you should maybe first ask yourself why you’re addicted to the reality of what fighting is. This is the business you’ve chosen. You can’t then realistically ask a corporation to sanitize blood itself.
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