Fighting in the Age of Loneliness: The History of MMA


#1

(As recommended by Waypoint’s own Danielle Riendeau!)

Over the last week, SB Nation has been released episodes of a five-part documentary series called Fighting in the Age of Loneliness. Written and narrated by Felix Biederman (Chapo Trap House co-host) and produced and directed by Jon Bois (of SB Nation and 17776), it is a strange and fascinating review insight into the world of MMA.

I’m not much of a video person, but I watched the first ten minutes and know that I am hooked. Danielle’s pitch on the episode is great, but I think Bois’ production work and Biederman’s narration cohere the opening preamble well in a way that bodes well for me sinking through the next 4.5 episodes in short order. The episodes aren’t too long (~25 min each), so I am definitely interested to sink my teeth into it, even though I am not in the MMA demographic at all.

You can watch it here on their website, but it is also up on SB Nation’s YouTube channel directly. Please note: the episode isn’t joking about a content warning for extreme violent imagery! As Austin says in the podcast (content note: violent imagery), there is a visceral shot of a man’s leg breaking and being turned into “jello”. Go into it aware that there are some pretty gnarly scenes.


Finally, We Have an Excuse to Explain Evangelion
#2

I think I’m going to listen to the warnings and avoid the majority this, but watched the intro and it looks great.


#3

Just finished watching episode V, the tone shifts all over the place, from “this sport is dumb, right?” to “nah, this sport is awesome” to “this sport has had everything I love siphoned away by commercialism”

This documentary has been my only exposure to the world of MMA so the history was fascinating to me.

MMA fans that have watched this: it all seemed accurate right? I’d hate to walk away with the wrong idea.


#4

So I’m only finished up to episode 3, but something that really bothered me is the framing of MMA’s popular success being that of “the unwashed masses”. Particularly, the need to frame PC/HR Culture as a need for people to suddenly seek out violent release because… well, that’s the problem. The underlying assumption that people are supposed to act base and violent, and that by taking that away via rules has them act out is basically the same thing as saying “oh the liberals MADE me a nazi”.

Given that the rest of the piece so far has been very focused on class divides, and how people use their superior knowledge and connections to exploit people, it’s a pretty big blind spot? Maybe the piece isn’t interested in interrogating what draws people to the sport, but they person speaking sounds like he really likes this stuff.


#5

I’ve been enamored with Felix’s narration, his sincerity here is striking & very effective especially considering other outlets through which I’ve known his work. Jon’s editing style is so unique and works so well in this doc, particularly the last segment is incredibly well done. Particularly the image of that octagon floating among a black void matches thematically with Felix’s narration and the social issues that he ascribes to the sport’s rise.

The fifth episode is an absolute gut-punch. I’ve been a fan of Jon’s since I was in high school and I’ve been a sort of passive observer of Felix’s for much less time but they work very well together here.


#6

I mostly really liked this? I knew some bits and pieces of UFC and MMA history but getting a deep dive like this was really fascinating.

One thing that was weird to me though, was the content warning’d part in Part 1 when they show Silva’s injury happen. I don’t particularly want to go back and watch it again to confirm but I feel like they lingered on it and just showed the replay of it a couple of times with no commentary over it? It just felt really gross in a way that no other part of the series did. It felt like some thing where they wanted to show MMA as some gruesome bloodsport that people just watch for moments like that but then I feel like later on they fight against that exact stereotype by saying that it isn’t just some base desire for blood. What made it even weird is that rest of the series just doesn’t have anything else like that. Sure, there’s facepunching and blood and such but nothing nearly as gross or gruesome as the Silva moment. It really stood out and felt like a weird bad moment.

The other thing is that something about Felix’s writing and narration didn’t sit right with me. This is the thing I’m having trouble identifying what exactly I didn’t like about it. I think part of it may have been seeing Jon Bois’ name attached to it but then all the writing being someone else’s style so it didn’t really match my expectations I guess. I’ve followed Jon since Breaking Madden and am completely unfamiliar with any of Felix’s work so that is probably part of it but I feel like there’s more to it than that.

This reminded me of a really interesting documentary I saw a few years ago called Choke. It follow Rickson Gracie and a few others as they compete in a vale tudo tournament in Japan in 1995 (the kind that is mentioned in Fighting in the Age of Loneliness where the entire thing is done in one day). It’s interesting to see the point in MMA where they hadn’t quite figured it out and were just sort of throwing people at each other to see what would happen. I recommend watching it if you’re interested in seeing more of that era of MMA but it does show a lot of the fights and I don’t remember how graphic it is so maybe a content warning is appropriate for it.


#7

This is one of my… issues? Points of interest? Quibbles? With this, which I just wrapped up watching last night. I think the documentary presents an interesting case well, but I think a lot of its bold claims are only loosely substantiated.

Biederman’s narrative about MMA and the eras within it makes sense within the work, as does the production work done by Bois and SB Nation that tie it all together in a clear and coherent way, which is no small feat.

I’m still not sure if I really like it, though. I don’t necessarily buy the huge meaning that the sport is prescribed & I’m not really sure that Biederman’s distaste for the last eight years of MMA is substantiated in the work (although the apparent shittiness of the corporations that run it do come close to making a case for it). While it’s wrapped up in a narrative of the ‘mainstreaming’ of the sport combined with Dana White establishing it as his own personal fiefdom, I suppose I don’t necessarily buy that UFC is a sport of the working classes in the ring, anymore now than it was in the early 1990s.


#8

I would say MMA is mostly made of working class individuals…but high level MMA isn’t. I was watching Bellator this morning and Jeremy Spoon was fighting. An above average dude who has a 21-4 record. Not someone you would ever expect to work his way into the title picture of a top 3 promotion but a tough out at that level and would probably be a good regional champ. But you have commentary talking about how he trains out of a city that doesn’t have a great scene and that if he wants to find success at the next level he needs to move to an area where there is good training and fighters that will push him. Essentially that unless he literally goes for broke, he has no chance. Unless he can afford to uproot his life he isn’t going anywhere. Even then, like Danielle was saying, gyms aren’t cheap. Even if you are in the right place and talented , you are at a disadvantage from those that can afford high level training with elite coaches.


#9

I just finished this and enjoyed it a lot. I think as a history of MMA and it’s growth as an organized and heavily monetized sport it is impressive and effective, but I thought a lot of the connections they were trying to make to the political climate and the rise of “PC culture” fell a little flat for me, mostly because it’s really inconsistent with a lot of its messaging and I’m not completely sure what statement they were trying to make? It is at times celebratory, cynical, hopeful, mocking, and proud of MMA. It thinks the sport is ridiculous, and romantic, and dangerous, and essential. I think being all over the place tonally like this is mostly deliberate, but it didn’t work for me sometimes.

I think the whole thing still succeeds just because that Jon Bois brand of forlorn, surreal, numbers-heavy analysis is just so damn captivating to watch/read and I think the narration is really strong (great strategic use of the word “fuck” throughout this. Not too many, but just enough). As someone who used to casually follow the UFC, it is fascinating to see some those bigger moments and fights contextualized in an interesting way.


#10

MMA is all those things and I appreciate that they tackled it as such. All sports are essentially problematic but there is something about the UFC, and WWE but that’s a separate thing, that takes it to another level. The UFC just released a pro Trump doc in their streaming service and how he had benefited the sport. This is a company that doesn’t want you to be able to ignore its affiliation. But it is also filled with these tremendous athletes, some tremendous people with tremendous stories, and entertainment that is hard to match.


#11

I agree in that those descriptions are mostly accurate, it’s just the way it’s presented I find a bit muddled. The dreamy/abstract sort of way they like to jump around from topic to topic is cool, but it often meant they weren’t focusing long enough on things I think are important to any conversation about the sport. I mean, just one brief mention of the catastrophic effects of CTE on a fighter’s life in a 5 part documentary? Little to no mention of the benefits of fighters unionizing? Maybe also not enough condemning Mcgregor, the most popular figure in UFC in recent years, for using overt racism to promote fights and getting a complete pass not just from the UFC ownership (to be expected), but also from an alarming number of viewers.

Also just wanted to say I did love the discussion about the ridiculous conservative leadership pearl-clutching surrounding how horrible and damaging MMA is to the fabric of society, all while they vote to bomb any country they can at every opportunity. Relevant to bring up the average American’s completely warped perspective on violence. Two men consensually punching each other while an official and a medical team watch them carefully, ready to step in at any time, is unacceptable but turning entire communities into rubble overseas isn’t worth 30 seconds of airtime.


#12

i agree that overall the series feels scattershot and muddled. seems torn on what it wants to be. gunshy about advancing it’s thesis too forcefully for the average sports fan who is confused by politics being brought up at all, but also too truncated to go into the depth necessary to satisfy the interest it piques with smaller narratives a la Pretty Good. like the bit about Jon Jones and how they came off as a pompous narc until they “showed more of their real personality” and got the fans on their side – seems like there is SO MUCH story there but all we really get are a few lines and it’s off to the next thing.

similar missed opportunities happen with the cultural commentary. regarding the “HR culture” bit, while i get that a sport where an individual can seemingly overcome the odds that would be otherwise be stacked against them in any other situation would be appealing to someone stuck in a precarious and bullying job, it doesn’t really underscore just how racist and homophobic the 90s were. consider being aware of all those that were just allowed to die in the AIDS crisis, and now your options are to either to throw other marginalized groups under the bus while spending the next two decades on the respectability politics gay marriage train or be shamed and silenced and beaten down. that’s as indicative of 90s PC/HR culture as someone in a precarious shitty job who is put under even more pressure because they know “saying the wrong thing” can be used against them. both situations can apply to the same person even and the appeal MMA could have does as well. the argument the series is making could have been greatly strengthened by going into something along those lines, and given more payoff to the later success of queer women UFC fighters (which is otherwise only briefly mentioned in the series)

similarly, neglecting Bolsonaro really seems like a massive oversight. someone whose entire career is largely made up of pandering to gamergaters and MMA fans who can’t do a pushup was elected PRESIDENT of BRAZIL!

anyway, clearly the series hooked me, it just really left me wanting more i guess


#13

I do think this scattershot approach, which is brought up in the Waypoint Radio episode too, is intentional and not necessarily something to slam. Part of focusing on (mostly) 30 years of history in 90 minutes is going to leave gaps & it can be better to passingly allude to something fascinating rather than diving down every rabbithole.

Indeed, the Jon Jones part is something that stood out to me as a bit of a rabbithole – it gets a decent chunk of the final episode to make a single point, which Biederman might otherwise have skipped over. I think it does draw attention to the ‘cleaning up’ of MMA (which is its purpose), but going into every side-path can become onerous in a production framework where every second has to be accounted for in a video context (especially given the creativity that Bois & the SB Nation team deploy).

I don’t know if I’d call it a strength, but I think Biederman’s approach is valid. Of course, I’d love to hear the extended cut, too…


#14

I hope that this inspires more stories that dig deeper into what this doc only has time to gloss over. I like to think there are more eyes surrounding the politics of the UFC than ever before and that we might now be able to see these stories in front of an audience that is primed for it.


#15

I know people might have an issue with the Chapo podcast (This is the only episode I’ve ever listened to so I can’t really speak to its usual quality) but if anyone is interested the most recent episode has Jon and Felix talk more in-depth about the project and tell a few more stories they couldn’t squeeze into the doc, which was cool. Content warning for a pretty graphic story they tell about the first ever UFC fight, just a heads up. There’s a pretty clear cutoff point when they stop talking about the series at around the 51 minute mark if you prefer to bounce at that point.


#16

I’m so glad to read some critical opinions on FitAoL, I should have checked here sooner, all I have seen elsewhere is glowing praise.

@jacob_I_guess I definitely agree that the show has some weird moments of classist punching-down.

@Lastly Felix’s writing and narration also kinda bugged me and when I re-watched the series and transcribed some quotes I got a better idea for why. It’s a lot of little things, his prose is a bit sloppy in places, there are some kinda clumsy edits where the quality of the audio abruptly changes, and maybe I am just spoiled by listening to too many experienced podcasters but Felix kinda slurs his words and fails to enunciate a lot of the time.

I definitely liked the show at first but I think the last episode is terrible, especially the part about PEDs but ESPECIALLY the way it presents Jon Jones. It put such a bee in my bonnet that I am currently finishing up a 6000 word response breaking down the whole thing, I will link to it here when I’m done because based on the responses here I think (hope) some of you will find it interesting.

Have any of the Waypoint crew commented on the last couple of episodes? I scanned through Danielle’s twitter and didn’t see anything, obviously they were pretty high on it on Waypoints but they recorded that when only three of the five episodes were out and I think the third episode is probably the high point.


#17

I watched the first 4 episodes at work and seriously enjoyed it. I have the same problems that most people seem to have with it, but knowing nothing about MMA and having a pretty big interest in politics it grabbed me right away. I’m left wanting to know more about the women’s side of MMA; from what I remember I’ve only seen one picture so far of women fighting. No discourse at all. I love powerlifting, where women and men compete on the same platform, and UFC seems to have that same vibe. It’s a shame they haven’t talked more about that.

That being said, there are some parts that I thought were genuinely funny, specifically the line about the guy who “looked like he has been chiseled from the finest needle filled with the finest anabol” and the line about how Sho Gun (?) had the face and body of a podcaster.

I’ve had some reservations about Chapo Trap House, but this video series inspired me to give it a try.


#18

Chapo can be good sometimes, especially when a James Adomian impression is involved

it’s fundamentally a podcast about obnoxious weirdos desperately in search of catharsis sometimes being shitty to each other and others but always trying to tap into an intense shared love amongst the downtrodden (the parallels with how Felix describes the merits of MMA are stark)

Felix’s whole persona is poor ennuciation, slured words, mispronunciations and genuinely funny bits


#19

I’d be fascinated by this! I definitely got the angle that it was a, hm, pretty lopsided view that reflects some of Biederman’s biases without offering much in the way of alternative perspectives.

Not as far as I’m aware – might be worth checking with Riendeau on Twitter if you’re curious, as I think the team typically only watches the relevant parts for Waypoints.

Good news for Episode V… (although it’s still quite brief).


#20

I am not on the bird site but if anyone else felt like asking for her opinion I’d appreciate it.

Here is my counter-screed, if any of you make it to the end I’d really like to hear your thoughts: http://jamsque.tumblr.com/post/180840102330/bitterness-in-the-age-of-fighting

I’m probably going to make a video using that as a script, I just haven’t yet decided whether it will be a badly edited video or an unedited video.