UFC 165: Working the Bag, Blood in the Stands

September 23, 2013

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada, formerly the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of Misery, is...

If you’re a woman and you don’t want to wait in line for a public washroom, just go to a live UFC fight.

Saturday night, Toronto hosted its third UFC pay-per-view. Mixed martial arts fighting had been illegal in Ontario up until three years ago, but those three fight-nights have been enough to prove its staying power, and at UFC 165, there were just a handful of unfilled seats in the Air Canada Centre (approximate capacity: 19,000). The light-heavyweight title fight of champion Jon Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson was the main event, but anyone can watch that at any bar with a few televisions. Half the fun of seeing a live UFC event is watching everyone in the stands, people suffering meltdowns over punches not landed and failed choke-holds.

For all the stigma surrounding MMA and the UFC brand in particular, the crowd was remarkably diverse. Sure, Hazlitt’s The Arcade producer, Anshuman Iddamsetty, and I were the shortest, brownest people in our immediate field of vision, but there were also moms and dads with their young children, making short work of $11 nacho plates, and women who were just as keyed up as their male friends, wearing their own UFC shirts and hats. They even censored the songs played over the arena’s PA in order to make them PG-13. Face-punching: it’s a family affair!

There were also, of course, plenty of people ably fulfilling the stereotypes of those who would pay $175 to watch adult men wrestle, grab each other about the taint, and essentially mount each other from behind for five minutes at a time, while furiously denying that it contains even a hint of homoeroticism. There was the lingering scent of Axe body-spray and sweat, and a host of bored-looking girlfriends sipping house red and checking their phones, and more than a few rows of ‘roided-up bad tempers pouring out of inconceivably thick necks.

Yes, a more varied crowd than expected, but still, as a woman, it’s not easy to convince the masses you’re a “legitimate” fan in the male-dominated UFC circuit. The guy sitting next to me was eager to explain the sport’s intricacies to me, because I am a lady, and my vagina tends to get in the way of understanding sports. He offered predictions (which were wrong every time), gave me the history of UFC before the current rules (which I already knew), and essentially broke down the very basics of punching (I have punched and been punched before). He was a nice guy, and meant well, but he was also incredibly annoying. Then he started talking about how sore his shoulders were from “working the bag all day.” Even his friend told him to tone it down.

On my other side were a 60-something man and his adult son. The older man, at one point, leaned over to me, eyebrows furrowed in something that looked like equal parts disgust and concern for my physical safety. “You … like the fights?” he asked, talking to me as if I may not speak English and am perhaps lost on my way to the mall.

“I do. Do you?” He did not talk to me for the rest of the night.

Another thing: While it’s almost redundant to talk about sexism in sports, it should be be noted that, for what it’s worth, Dana White and the UFC seem to be making legitimate efforts to enable a role for women that goes beyond being an Octagon Girl. (Which, by the way, seems like a dream job. If I could be flown around the world to watch men touch each other’s butts in exchange for holding a placard, waving to a camera, and being hot, I would do it. I would do that job. I am also available for Munk Debates. I will wear a bikini to that, too.)

Two years ago, Dana White said he would never allow women fighters in the Octagon. This fall, the 18th season of UFC reality show The Ultimate Fighter premiered, featuring female coaches and contestants for the first time. At the ACC, a Jumbotron ad featured female fighters prominently, the final image being of a female fighter dripping in sweat, covered in blood from a gushing cut above her eye, drool running down her face. The crowd cheered as if to say, “that bitch is tough.” I wouldn’t be surprised if White’s change in tone were influenced by thousands of dollars’ worth of market research, but I also don’t really care. Nor do I care if it were simply a cynical move on the UFC’s part of appeal to a new set of viewers: White’s sexism stopped dead in its tracks once he realized how to monetize the opposite sex. Finally, he’s figured out a way to use women as something other than objects with big tits and shiny hair. His reversal is significant, even if it is delayed.

As for the main event itself, it was disappointing no matter who you cheered for. Jones won the five-round fight by unanimous decision, but just barely, his right eye blotted out entirely by blood gushing from a cut on his brow. The fans around me huffed with disappointment, either because they wanted Jones to crush Gustafsson or they didn’t want him to win at all. For all the pretense that MMA is a sport in its own right, a physical contest like boxing or hockey in which skill and technique are paramount but sure there just happens to be the occasional concussion, it still seems driven to a large extent by bloodlust. It’s still about pleasing a ravenous crowd that doesn’t actually want to watch a five-round fight as much as it wants to see a man be put the fuck to sleep. I’ll admit that I went there hoping to watch someone leave the Octagon barely able to stand. Many of us just want to see someone drag their opponent right to the brink of death and then walk away, hands in the air, leaving their fellow combatant to catch his breath and probably vomit in a bucket backstage.

At one point during his history lesson, the guy next to me told me about Douglas Dedge, the first known American MMA fighter to be injured fatally in a fight. This was back in the late ‘90s, before current rules and regulations were implemented, back when you could wail on someone’s head 15 times after they’d crumpled onto the mat, covering their face in fear. You can still watch a video of the fight that killed Dedge online. But, should you?


To be honest, Jones-Gustafsson felt almost secondary to the bar-brawl that broke out a few seats away from us during a Wilson Reis-Ivan Menjivar bout earlier in the night. It seemed to be over some spilled beer, or maybe it was just the sheer volume of testosterone that could no longer be effectively contained by TapouT T-shirts and flat-brimmed Pride hats, but it came out of nowhere, three or four guys going at it with an intensity that felt extreme even for that setting. As soon as fists started flying in the stands, the couple behind us with two young boys decided this was too gruesome a sight for their young sons—only regulated bloodshed for them, thanks. They whisked their kids away and didn’t return.

ACC security and the police showed up to escort the amateur fighters out, but one of them, looking to be in his early 50s, refused to leave. Instead, he started an argument with three tough guys in their 20s seated behind him, taunting them, literally begging them to fight him. “Bring it on, homie,” he pleaded, waving his hands over his head like a target. The three men didn’t budge from their seats, and one of them just started laughing, his giant body shaking at this absurd show of unnecessary male bravado.

“Come on, man,” he said. “Just get out of here. We’re only here to see the fight.”

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Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada, formerly the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of Misery, is forthcoming spring 2017 (Doubleday Canada).

Are you trying to sound out her name right now? You probably are.