16 Semi-Related Thoughts About Race and Combat Sports

Black Fighters
DENVER, CO – SEPTEMBER 21: (L-R) UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones and challenger Quinton “Rampage” Jackson pose for photos during the UFC 135 pre-fight press conference at the Pepsi Center on September 21, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)

(Believe it or not, it’s possible for two black fighters to generate completely different reactions among MMA fans. / Photo via Getty)

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is arguably the most talented MMA fighter of all time, and has spent the last three-and-a-half years utterly dominating his weight class as 205-pound champion. Theoretically, fans should love this guy. And yet they don’t — a situation that is probably best explained by Jones’s odd shifts in personality, and a streak of regrettable behavior that never jibed well with his early choir-boy persona. But on yesterday’s edition of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, UFC commentator Joe Rogan voiced an alternate theory:

I don’t know why Jon [Jones] is not more loved or popular than he is. I don’t understand it. In my opinion, I will never miss a Jon Jones fucking pay-per-view. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, he’s cocky. He’s this and [that].’ I wonder what the fuck is going on with that and I’m going to throw this out there, I’m just going to say it: I wonder how much of it is racism. I really do.

You know why? Because I think they look at him as this cocky black guy and I think a lot of people have an issue with that. I think that if he was a white guy and he was doing the same thing, a la a Chael Sonnen, I think he would be way more popular. Chael was never the successful athlete that Jon is, but I think Chael was way more successful as a promoter than Jon is. Jon has not been nearly as cocky or outwardly braggadocious as Chael was.

I just always found it odd when everybody would get upset at him and say that they didn’t like that ‘he’s cocky.’ He’s 25 and he’s the UFC’s light heavyweight champion. He’s the youngest ever UFC champion. He destroyed Shogun [Rua] to win the title and I mean destroyed. He threw a flying knee and hit Shogun in the chin five seconds into their fight. I mean, Jon Jones is a motherfucker. He’s a motherfucker, but for whatever reason people have had an issue with that. I know I’m going to get a bunch of hate tweets. ‘Fuck you and your fucking bullshit. What do you got? White guilt? Calling out racism?

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I’m probably going to get an equal amount from ‘the Aryan race,’ mad at me for defending Jon Jones, ‘The cocky negro.’ I really think there’s something to that. I think people want a guy who is so physically gifted and young and brash and black and rich, they want him to have more humility or fake humility, as it were. I think Jon’s trying that a little bit and that’s one of the reasons Daniel Cormier was like, ‘You are so fake.’ Cormier was saying that to him because I think he’s trying to counteract how people feel about him.”

Claiming that Jones would be more popular if he were white strikes me as a blatant oversimplification. But claiming that race has no effect on how stars are made in MMA is laughable. Since Rogan has everyone talking about it today, I figured I’d share my own thoughts about the intersection of race and combat sports, in no particular order…

1. There’s a reason why Rampage Jackson was beloved by fans in his prime, and Jon Jones never has been. The average Jon Jones-hater will claim that it has to do with “realness” or authenticity, but fans only respond to a particular kind of realness. Rampage Jackson was a caricature of an intimidating black guy, and people seemed to love him for it.

2. Rampage was never what you’d call “humble.” Mike Tyson wasn’t either. Muhammad Ali was the cockiest human being on Earth in his prime, and he’s now worshipped as a combat sports demigod by boxing fans of all races. If you look at the most popular black fighters in history, a lack of humility almost seems to be a prerequisite. So when Rogan wonders if Jones isn’t getting over because he’s a “cocky black guy,” it seems misguided in a historical context.

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3. (“And also, a UFC employee publicly declaring that their fans are racist is a weird and counterproductive thing to do.”)

4. If Tim Kennedy was black, UFC commentators would often comment on the thickness of his thighs. It’s funny how they never do that.

5. If Daniel Cormier was white, UFC commentators would drop the phrase “blue collar” at least twice per fight. It’s funny how they never do that.

6. If Chael Sonnen was black…Jesus, we would barely be able to process that person. At the very least, he’d probably be called a “Muhammad Ali wannabe” who never lived up to his “great physical potential.”

7. “[Roger] Mayweather briefly stylized himself as the ‘Mexican Assassin’ after a string of victories, most by knockout, over a series of world-class Mexican fighters in Los Angeles between 1986 and 1989.” At the time, fight fans were totally cool with this as a method of promotion.

8. Earlier this year, slow-witted boxer Adrien Broner was accused of racism after jumping on the mic and saying “I just beat the fuck out of a Mexican.” I don’t know if that’s progress or not. At the very least, race has become an issue so sensitive that you can barely bring it up without losing your job.

9. Jon Jones crashed a Bentley into a telephone pole, Rampage Jackson smashed his monster truck into a bunch of cars, and they both fight other men in cages for a living. Let’s not pretend that one guy is more or less of a role model than the other. The difference is, Rampage got famous by humping reporters while wearing a chain around his neck and panting — acting like an animal, and playing up stereotypes for entertainment. Jon Jones never did that. I just think that’s worth pointing out.

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10. Call your promoter a dick-rider on national television, and they’ll love you for it.

11. The biggest star in boxing is a convicted woman-beater whose entire personality consists of ostentatious displays of wealth. The sheer existence of Floyd Mayweather Jr. should end all debates about whether blackness is a barrier to success in combat sports. Floyd is the highest-paid athlete in the world, despite being black and a terrible person.

12. On the other hand, comparing boxing to MMA might be an apples-to-oranges kind of exercise. MMA’s fanbase has been overwhelmingly white since the launch of the UFC two decades ago. Boxing’s fanbase, however, has been historically multi-racial. To get over in MMA, white people have to appreciate you.

13. I would love it if Daniel Cormier became light-heavyweight champion of the UFC, just to see how fans react to him as champion. Will he remain beloved because he’s a humble, hard-working family man, or will he fail to catch on as a draw because he doesn’t “act black” in a way that’s stereotypical enough for white fans to comprehend?

14. Fight fans don’t choose their favorite fighters based on race, they choose their favorite fighters based on personality. Of course, personality is often informed by race.

15. If Jon Jones was white, he would still be the greatest fighter on earth, and there would still be a large contingent of MMA fans who would hate him for being a two-faced weirdo.

16. If you still refuse to recognize Jones’s competitive greatness at this point, it suggests that your personal prejudices — whatever they’re based on — are affecting your judgment of the sport you’re watching.