Opinion: The cruel double-standard and macabre contradiction of UFC

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay
Sunday 25 February 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Australia's journey from an atmosphere of outright fear to "living with COVID" demonstrates our facility for culturally re-interpreting risk.

Objectively, the danger remains real. Subjectively, however, we like to de-couple harm from alarm.

The joint winners of 2024's Australian of the Year, melanoma experts professors Georgina Long and Richard Scolyer, addressed this very human tendency in their stunning acceptance speech on January 25.

Declaring "our bronzed Aussie culture is actually killing us," Long said "tomorrow [Australia Day], thousands of Aussies will be on the beaches, working on their tans, or as we see it, brewing their melanomas".

It was a jolt to the nation's head, a teeth-loosening uppercut designed to rattle our postcard idyll of a sun-drenched paradise.

Concussive jolts to the head raise another example of avoidable harm where our cultural blinkers - in this case sporting - prevent us from seeing clearly.

Let me recount what I imagine is a fairly typical experience. In early primary school, we were sent each Monday night to what was optimistically called a "gym". In a draughty community hall, we were subjected to various admonitions and tests, one of which involved standing in a big circle while an adult swung a wharf rope with a knot on its outer end. We were told to jump the rope as it approached from behind. I was one of many who misjudged its height or speed and had my feet whipped from under me slamming me headfirst into the timber floor.

Another time, during a school football match, all were surprised when, as the most diminutive player on the field, I had marked the ball amid a pack of taller kids. In truth, there had been no skill involved. The water-logged ball had gone straight through my up-stretched arms, pounded off my head, and back into my hands. I distinctly remember lining up my kick when everything went a deep hue of purple (there may have been some vomit).

These days, we know more about repetitive head trauma and its life-long effects. The Melbourne Demons AFL star Angus Brayshaw retired prematurely on Thursday after tests showed microscopic changes in his brain tissue. Brayshaw was already unique for wearing a helmet, but of course, these only protect the skull, not its highly shockable contents.

I had watched the match last year when Brayshaw was shirtfronted at full speed during his kicking motion. With no idea it was coming, Brayshaw was hit by an airborne Brayden Maynard with the force of an oncoming car.

He will never play again.

Though needlessly violent, Maynard's "smother" was controversially ruled legal by the independent tribunal after the boofy hardmen who still dominate the code's commentary, reminisced about great bumps in their day. Having unsuccessfully sought a suspension, the AFL then changed the rules to make such acts unlawful in future.

For footy fans though it was all part of the theatre. Clearly, the same brutality off the field would bring serious criminal charges.

But in our favourite codes, we contextualise so fluidly we don't even notice it. There's that bespoke reality again - the world sifted of inconvenient details such as a vast body of accumulating scientific evidence.

Australian Rules, at least, has tried to minimise the incidence of brain injury by penalising head-high contact as well as tackles where a player's arms are pinned as they are swung or ridden into the ground.

Along with the AFL, other codes have introduced mandatory concussion protocols, which apply the moment a participant is struck in the head by the ball - as in cricket - or suffers a rapid head deceleration G-force rating - as in motorsport during an accident.

Yet still there is this contextual blindness. Broadcasters laud these enlightened approaches to player safety and yet continue to televise boxing as if it is just another athletic code. It is not. It involves deliberate head knocks even in its training.

Recently, an ABC TV news bulletin covered a UFC match where an Australian, Alexander Volkanovski, had been stopped in the second round - "stopped" being a boxing euphemism for knocked out, visibly concussed, brain damaged.

The thinly gloved ultimate fighting championship is hugely violent and hugely popular enjoying a burgeoning global fandom which crosses over with the hyper-violent gaming community.

Promos for the next UFC bout airing right now on Foxtel show an athlete pinned to the floor being punched repeatedly in the face and another felled mid-ring by a devastating blow to his jaw.

What distinguishes these punching (and kicking) spectacles from other codes is that far from minimising concussion, it is the very object of them. Current science based on retired fighters suggests many of these guys could struggle to butter their own toast by the time they're 60.

This is known, and yet unknown.

Broadcasters praise AFL, cricket, and F1 officials for conscientiously policing strict concussion protocols when head trauma is indicated.

Yet those same networks blithely promote boxing and UFC with edited highlights featuring the most spectacular hits and knock-downs.

Do we just not notice this cruel double-standard - this macabre contradiction? Or is that like the Spanish with bullfighting and the Thais with cockfighting, it takes an outsider to see the bloodlust and savagery for what it is?

Perhaps we've watched boxing for so long we've developed socio-cultural concussion?

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  27 February 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications