I talk to Dr Alex Channon, a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Sport Studies at the University of Brighton and on the board of The Martial Arts Studies Research Network. He also manages a group called Love fighting, hate violence which promotes teaching non-violence through martial arts.
He authored a paper titled Edgework and Mixed Martial Arts: Risk, Reflexivity and Collaboration in an Ostensibly ‘Violent’ Sport that explores the nature of violence and risk in MMA which we discuss in depth.
Podcast Transcript – Episode 021
Sonny Brown: I’m here today with Dr. Alex Channon, who is a academic. I came across your work, first of all, with a paper entitled Edgework and Mixed Martial Arts, Risk Reflexivity and Collaboration in an Ostensibly “Violent” Sport. Violence is in apostrophes there. That’s what we’re going to get into. How are you today, Alex?
Alex Channon: I’m pretty well. Thanks. It’s really nice to be on your podcast and thanks for inviting me. I love talking about this stuff. Jump at the chance for anyone to listen their ear off about academic theory of martial arts.
Sonny: Pleasure is all mine. What drew me to the article is really you’re putting forward a case that MMA isn’t really violence as we consider traditionally. To do that, you encroach on the topic of or the subject of edge work. I love that even more because I find out that it’s roots of that word is in a Hunter S. Thompson novel, which is brilliant. I wonder if you can just give us an overview of what your ideas are and then maybe into the concept of edgework itself.
Alex: Sure. The idea that Mixed Martial Arts and another combat sports aren’t really violent is something that myself and my colleague, Chris Matthews, who I’ve done a fair bit of work with over the last few years, we’ve been developing these ideas for a while. It basically stems from different research projects we’ve done where he does his work in boxing. I did my work in a range of martial arts initially, but then more focusing on mixed martial arts more recently. One of the consistent things that we were hearing from people was, this isn’t really violence or I do this, and it’s a violent sport but I’m not a violent person. There was always some qualification that separated these activities from what people call “real violence”. We find that quite interesting, how is it that people can spend X number of hours a week learning how to be good at beating people up and enjoy beating people up and even perhaps enjoy themselves getting beaten up from time to time and call it, and say it’s not real violence or, use some other term to describe it. That sparked our curiosity is as researchers, but of course, doing martial arts ourselves we’d also had this feeling too. This isn’t the same as what happens in a street brawl or fisticuffs at the bar or domestic violence situations, even though the actions might be the same, punching kicking, chocking people. The meaning that we associate with that action is quite different. The feeling that we get, the relationships we have with the people we do it with, these are all very different. We decided that we wanted to have a think about this as academics do theorize it, investigate it a bit more. We published a couple of papers, which we challenging other sports academics to think carefully and critically about their use of the word violence. What is violence to begin with? Is it really fair and fitting to apply it to sports such as MMA boxing, even rugby and American football, and so on? When the people who do those forts are saying, look, this isn’t actually violent, or this is violence of a very different type and so on. That’s where we started. In a nutshell, the core of our argument is that for something to constitute violence, it needs to involve both the physical force that we typically associate with that term, the punching the kicking, but it also has to involve a violation of somebody. If you and I are sparring, we spar within the rules of, let’s say we’re doing kickboxing, it’s perfectly normal and perfectly legitimate. In fact, I would want you to try to kick me. If you didn’t try to kick me actually, then it would be an invalid experience for me. There’s an explicit consent involved, or maybe it’s an implicit consent, but if we meet on the mat, we meet in the ring, I give my agreement to you to try and hit me. I might touch gloves with you. Here’s, my fist, here’s your face. We’re going to touch gloves. Then let me go because it’s like a little ritual that symbolizes that. The referee gives us a rules talk before a competitive fight and tells us what’s allowed and what’s not. There’s like formal parameters there that shape what we explicitly consent to in a martial arts context. We’ve argued that that issue of consent is what differentiates the types of interactions that go on in a martial arts fight or sparring and so on, from violence on the streets or violence in other contexts. It’s that consent principle that’s, plays a large part in the legal status of combat sports and philosophically and also, from a social sociological and social psychological perspective, consent is a really key underpinning principle that makes this different. That’s the main thrust of our argument in a nutshell.
Sonny: The main thing there seem to be that even though the actions of punching and kicking are the same in a violent compared to what you’re putting forward as a nonviolent context, it’s the meaning that those actions have behind them. Is that correct?
Alex: Yes. It’s what those meanings tell us about the relationship between the people involved. In a sparring context, you and I are rolling, let’s say, and I’m a junior belt and you’re a senior belt. I’m going to get something out of this by you beating me, I’m going to get something out of it by you choking me or armbarring me. I’m going to learn, and I want that to happen. Our relationship is shaped around that my dependence on you as my senior or my instructor, perhaps. If you and I get into an altercation outside and you choke me, the relationship that exists between us then is very, very different. I’m then in an object of your hostility and I’m being destroyed by you rather than being taught. Does that make sense? It’s that relationship that’s really important here. If you think about any context where in which we’re doing things that we would normally consider to be violence, think about the relationship that exists between the people who are involved. The objective action is important and certainly, when the objective action includes things that might render you unconscious or cause you lasting damage, we need to think quite carefully about that. Am I really clear on the risks I’m taking when I go to box, for instance? Can I really consent to something I don’t understand, et cetera? The core issue here is the relationship that exists between those two people. Is one forcefully violating the other, or are they doing something which they find mutually beneficial?
Sonny: That does make sense. It’s something that is interesting to think about, especially in the context of a sparring practice like kickboxing, where there could be agreed upon intensity where one person will then actually take it a bit further and there’s that negotiation might even happen on the fly. Right?
Alex: Absolutely and it’s funny, we were trying to write a paper about this now, how is consent actually worked out, in practice. One of the worrying things is that it often isn’t explicitly articulated, I’m okay with you going a little bit harder. We do sometimes do that, but not always. In situations where let’s say you’ve got a new person coming along to the gym, they haven’t sparred before, maybe the coach hasn’t really got their eye on things and escalates and they throw a heavy shot when they shouldn’t. That’s when we start to see problems in the gym. It’s because of consent. I didn’t consent to you loading up on that right hook. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t fair and I wasn’t expecting it. Now we were at odds and now it’s not a productive, mutually beneficial exchange. Thinking about consent, it’s not to say that all martial arts fighting is never violent. It’s to say that when we don’t have consent and when our actions aren’t explicitly framed by what we’ve consented to, then it risks falling into that. One of the things that we’re trying to argue is that we need to be quite careful with how we approach that as coaches, as practitioners, or we ensure that our training partners are happy with doing A, B, and C.
Sonny: That’s funny. I know that when we have someone new or just everyone in general when we’re sparring, the golden rule is only ever hit someone as hard as you’re willing to be hit back. That gives a good little rough guideline, but of course, sometimes that isn’t good enough because people sometimes don’t quite exactly understand how hard they are. They are punching. On the topic then of consent I know that there was Nicholas Dixon who you refer to a fair bit in your paper who was putting forward the idea that really consent can’t be given, I think was his main thrust for people competing in a fight because– Maybe you could be best to explain that. It seems to be a common what would be a more mainstream opinion of violence in MMA, right?
Alex: Yes. Dixon’s argument rests on the idea that the things that happen in MMA are so far beyond the limits of what’s acceptable, that it becomes almost a crime against yourself to allow yourself to be put into this situation. The notion that you can’t give consent to allow somebody to damage you is basically what underwrites his argument. The main problem I have with that is, he doesn’t really attend to what people who do MMA actually think about MMA. The vast majority of the points that he makes, while there is a logic to it philosophically, and this is a difference between the philosophy, academics and the sociology, academics, such as myself when we’re interested in what people are actually doing and saying, whereas philosophers tend to, not all of them, but they tend to place less emphasis on the empirical data. They’re more in the realms of logical theoretical arguments. What’s missing from Dixon really is a sound appreciation of what it actually feels like to be a fighter. What is that motivates people to step into the cage and to take their lumps and to put themselves in harm’s way? What do they actually think of their opponents when they’re beating them? He consistently uses this term, “they see one another as worthless objects to be destroyed.” I have a huge issue with that. I’ve never-
Sonny: Me too.
Alex: You get your trash talking that you get your Conor McGregor’s given it all this on the camera, but we know there’s a reason for that. That’s to get ticket sales. By and large, the vast majority of fights, I’ve seen the small number of competitive fights I’ve had in my previous life as a semi-contact kickboxing, I’ve never seen that. People genuinely believe their opponent was a worthless object to be damaged. Yes, it looks like that as an outsider, but when you step inside this world, when you listen to what people in the world are actually saying about it, then that perspective starts to fall away. I’m sure that Dixon if he was in on this conversation would have a pretty robust argument to what I’m saying but that’s the main issue that I have with it. It’s devoid of that voice of people who actually trained and experienced this firsthand and the meanings that they bring to the sport.
Sonny: I’d agree with you there because I too, would consider myself not a violent person, but yet I spend a good portion of every week teaching how to throw elbows or punches or kicks or choking, and all that good stuff. I’m well aware that that is the perception that people would have of the sport. Very often when I tell people what I do, their first instinct is to reply along with something of lines, “Oh, you don’t look like a fighter.” I take it, that’s because the idea they’ve got in their head is like something from the movies, basically, the stereotype. To me, it seemed like a big portion of what your argument was to bridge that gap, then is that fighters are getting something out of the experience. That was where that notion, I think of edgework comes into play, where it’s the idea of extreme sports and pushing boundaries for a valuable experience in a valuable goal. Is that kind of correct?
Alex: Yes. That’s in terms of my own thinking, this conversation has followed the lines of it quite nicely actually. The initial idea of the interaction or study of fights and what frames those relationships, consent, et cetera. That was what we started, then encountering work like Dixon’s this very strong critique, which we thought, oh this thing’s wrong with that. Then I came across edgework or at least I revisited it. I read it when I was an undergraduate and pretty much forgotten about it for a few years and came across the work again. It seemed like this was the missing link in some of this theory that if fighters aren’t engaging in fighting purely for money, or because they hate each other, what do they get out of it? Specifically, with respect to sports like MMA which are, I don’t like using the word extreme, but I think we can agree, it’s towards the more extreme end of combat sports in the sense of it’s risky, it’s injurious the kinds of things that can happen, though there’s more variation in the ways you can get hurt and so on. What is it that motivates people if it isn’t those things that we’ve already dismissed. Edgework is a really nice concept. It won’t work for everyone. It won’t fit every fighter that steps in a cage or in the ring, but I do think it has a lot of explanatory potential, particularly. This is when I wrote this paper, I went to every study that I could find that was ethnographic. People who have participated in MMA themselves as researchers, as well as interviews with fighters. What is the voice from inside the sport saying about this phenomenon? Actually, from the theoretical work on edgework, it lines up very, very well with the empirical work on MMA. Things like seeking out the most extreme challenge you can find, wanting to push yourself beyond what most people think is physically impossible. Having done other sports, like kickboxing or Judo, and wanting to go beyond and have something more, something that’s even more of a challenge and pushes you out of the normal reality of your day to day life. All of these experiences, they tell us a few things about the motivation, which is to seek out those experiences which give us the chance to test ourselves like nothing else can. That’s what edgework is all about. It’s about finding an extremely dangerous risk that gives you the opportunity to test your mettle in the face of overwhelming odds. Can I really defend myself against someone who’s really trying to beat me? You can’t really answer that question in a semi-contact karate match. You can answer that question, at least to an extent in the confines of a professional mixed martial arts fight. That gives us some explanation as to why mixed martial artists do mixed martial arts, but it also points toward something very interesting about their relationship with each other. You remember from before when I was saying that the relationship that exists between the fighters is very important here in the whole fighting violence thing. I can’t do my mixed martial arts edgework without you genuinely trying to beat me. This experience that I’m hungry for, this self-affirming, very, very positive existential search for my true self or whatever I want to frame it, I need you to genuinely try to hit me and beat me unconscious, in order to get that experience. If you don’t try, then I don’t get it. Our relationship then becomes in that moment where we look like we’re very, very strong antagonists trying to knock each other’s heads off, actually, we’re doing each other a service, which is to build towards that opportunity to experience edgework.
Sonny: Which I guess is when fighters will congratulate each other at the end of the fight, to an outsider, it might seem just strange why that would even be possible, but in my own sake, most of the opponents that I’ve had keep in touch every now and again and there’s no ill will or anything like that. It’s they did us a favor by actually stepping up and fighting when– People can drop out of fights and it doesn’t happen and you end up all disappointed, a training camp gone to waste. I guess that’s getting that mutual benefit from each other rather than an enemy or what was it, a useless object. [laughter]
Alex: Worthless object? I just love the language you use it, man. By love, I don’t mean love. That notion that opponents are there to help each other, it’s inspiring. It’s much more obvious. I’m there to learn, and my partner is there to help me learn, to teach me, and whatnot. If I’m doing a self-defense class, yes, I want to be able to defend myself so you need to scare me and you need to intimidate me, you need to actually try and hit me. Otherwise, I will get the benefit of becoming better at defending myself. In competitive match, of course, again, to go back to the qualify for before, not everyone is going to have the same motivation. Not every fight is going to fall into this category, but I think from what I’ve seen from the research that I’ve done, going to events, speaking to fighters, and looking at other people’s studies as well, it does seem to be a very normal motivation and a very normal state of affairs that you and I as fighters are doing each other a favor by stepping into the cage. Certainly, at the lower levels of participation where we’re not looking for big paydays. If you beat me, I don’t lose sponsors, and I don’t lose out on opponent, person, whatever. Even at the high levels, you do have that commercial motivation. Still, that needs an opponent, willing opponent, especially as you say, to step in at the last minute and save a fight. We talk about professional fighters, you’re talking about a big payday to breaking even for most of the money with the expenses of training. In that can be the whole edgework relationship. There is still a mutual dependency, which we need to take into account if we’re thinking about a list of moral issues.
Sonny: Continuing on with that, I guess one of the things I really liked in your paper was the idea of reframing the violence as then a mutually constructed risk between the two competitors. Can you explain that idea a little bit better for us?
Alex: Yes. If we’re calling the action of a mixed martial arts fight violence. The reasons that I would say we need to think past that is usually the term violence, not always but most often, the term violence gets associated with quite strong moral condemnation. This is one of the reasons I think that most people who I’ve spoken to who say, “Oh, I’m not really a violent person.” That’s one of the reasons there are pains to make that clear because to be a violent person is to be dangerous, it’s to be potentially a criminal, it’s to be bad for one of a better term. We do need to think if we’re going to attach these labels to sports, even if, as an academic, I might not always want to conflate violence with something that’s bad. People generally do see violence as bad. There is a desire to clarify and to refine that sort of thing. As with the theoretical ideas we mentioned earlier, this notion of edgework leads us to thinking about the action of fights in a different way. It serves as well to think well, if it’s not violence, then we might as well come up with some other way of describing it. Mutually constructed risk is a bit of a mouthful, might need to have worked a bit harder on that, maybe, but I think it does explain what the meaning that gets attached to that action is for the people who are doing it. It’s not that I’m engaging in this fight because I enjoy destroying somebody else, or because I want them to try and damage me for its own sake, I enjoy this and I go into this and the meaning that I take from it is that it’s a risk that allows me to test myself. Again, that notion that I need you to construct that risk comes in. A mutually constructed risk, I think is a better and certainly more adequate way of explaining the action of MMA than using this quite problematic term, violence.
Sonny: Yes because of course, there’s so much meaning of the negative connotation attached to violence. I like the term mutually constructed risk and a couple of other people I was talking to about it enjoyed it too. Even if it is a mouthful, it’s certainly I think it’s got a good ring to it. There’s that idea then that people will get into MMA as a way of developing character and showing character. We do that through the process of developing our skills in the sport. Is that a part of the edge work process itself or is that really just confined to the competition now?
Alex: The guy who initially articulated this concept is derived from Hunter Thompson’s work, but it’s a chap called Steven Lin, who’s a sociologist who’s been writing about sports and other extreme activities for quite a while. In his conceptualization of edgework, there are numerous components to it. The most important one is this thing we’ve already discussed, seeking out extreme risks that allow us to test ourselves into seeing what we really made off, and so on. What that involves is giving yourself the opportunity to demonstrate mastery in the face of chaos. In order to demonstrate that mastery, that self-control of your emotions that remaining calm and being tested, and so on and so on, you need to have the skills to allow yourself to exist in that environment, the physical skills. Edgeworkers of all stripes will spend a lot of time preparing. They spend a lot of time studying, learning those physical skills, developing strategies. They will get the right equipment in place, they’ll do their research, they basically want to make sure that they don’t encounter risks that they can’t control. Because the point of edgework is to put yourself in a situation that you do have the capacity to resolve, but you’re going to be placed under so much stress that you test yourself in doing that, resolving that situation. For MMA fighters, you wouldn’t go into the cage without practicing Jiu-Jitsu because you know, that you need to do that in order to succeed. Of course, some people do, and they don’t generally tend to do very well. Whether that’s standup or striking, sorry, I’m grappling there that they’re lacking, you do need to be well versed in the vocabulary of the activity that you’re pursuing for edgework in order to actually use it to test yourself to that extreme level. The skills trading element is a central part of edge working in all variety of things. In so much as this notion of preparing for risk so that you know, that you can physically overcome that risk. It becomes more of a mental challenge, that test of self, rather than a test of your skill. As for the community and the identity belonging, proving yourself, again, this is something that’s written about in links, other work, and other people who’ve used the edgework concept. It’s not necessarily the point of edgework. It’s not that people do edgework in order to get other people’s approval. There is some theoretical difference between edgework and other conceptual frameworks. One of Ling’s papers, he compares edgework with another famous sociologist, Erving Goffman, who’s written a lot about identity and performance that we put on a particular performance in certain social spheres to get recognition and respect from other people. Certainly, there could be an element of this, that presentation of self and that performance of the desired identity in a martial arts context. To try and win status and to win respect. In terms of edgework as its own concept, it’s not the central part of it. It’s more that that respect, it develops alongside edgework when you recognize other edgeworkers, this is someone who’s also tested themselves to the extreme and shown that they’ve got what it takes. You have respect for them because you also know what it takes. It’s not that you are doing it specifically to win that respect if that makes sense.
Sonny: Yes. It does. There’s two portions of that. The first part you were talking about it’s really not just risk for risk’s sake, it’s got to be a well-planned, well-calculated attempt to control those elements of risk. Is that correct?
Alex: Absolutely, yes. If you’re talking about skydiving as a form of edgework, you don’t get people skydiving without a parachute. You obviously uninte
Alex: lligible 00:27:23 the equipment that you need in order, to overcome the challenge that this involves. It’s no being an adrenaline junkie or wanting to live on the edge. It’s about wanting to give yourself the opportunity to demonstrate to yourself as much to others, your true character, your true self.
Sonny: That then makes sense with all the training that we do, and that has to be done really. It elevates it beyond what someone might do if they took a flight on a day’s notice with no training. As you might say, we can’t really look at them as another edge worker which brings up something else you touched on in your paper, which was the idea of what you call independent fighters but what I guess might more colloquially be known as cans or flat as we maybe aren’t putting in the effort of others. Let’s just say. Can you expand a bit more upon that idea then and how that you mentioned would rob some fighters of the satisfaction of doing that edgework?
Alex: The cans and the crush matches is sometimes referred to I suppose. In the UK at the moment, I’m not sure if it’s the same in Australia, I would imagine probably is if the organization of mma is any thing like it is here. It’s quite common for these very low skilled type of journeyman fighter that travels around to earn a quick buck for filling in for people who’ve pulled out the last minute. They don’t put any resistance in or some of them might, but there’s no real chance that this guy is going to win the fight. They’re purely there to keep a fight on the card. Promoters, generally that the lower level promoters, seem quite happy to employ them. Not all of the promoters I must say. The study that I’ve recently finished, which was about a different topic, it was about medical provision in the sports, I was seeing this phenomenon through the eyes of the medics who were there and they really didn’t like it. The amount of risks these guys were taking with their health fighting sometimes three times in a weekend, getting the crap kicked out of them each time. The promoters that I encountered, some of them wouldn’t employ these guys, but a lot of them did, purely to protect ticket sales. You’ve got a fighter who sold a lot of tickets and if he gets pulled from the card at the last minute, his fans are going to want refunds. It’s going to damage your reputation and all the rest of it. They do employ them quite often. These guys, they take fights far more regularly than they should. Of course, they aren’t taking the beatings in training because they aren’t training and they’re not taking that much of a beating on the night because they just fall within 30 seconds. The fact that they’re getting properly tuned up, some of them each time they get in the cage, it does pose a bit of a risk to thinking about brain damage, concussions, and so on, and accumulation of repeated strong blows in a very short space of time. It does happen. With respect to its implications for edgework, generally speaking, and again, this is a generalization, it might not be true of everybody in the field, most people in MMA don’t look too kindly on this thing. They don’t really appreciate what these guys represent. They know that it’s there as a quick fix to keep a card, looking reasonably healthy. Of course, if you have done a training camp, it might be better than nothing, but you step in the cage and do something, even if it’s over in 20 seconds. Generally that they’re not looked on with much favor because their precedence it detracts from the opportunity to really test yourself. If I’ve trained for six months and I’ve seen these developments in my abilities and then I’ve put in a really grueling few weeks of a training camp, I’m having my first fight and the experience is over that quickly. I know, and everybody else knows it wasn’t a real fight, then it certainly isn’t the same as if I’d had a fair match with somebody who is at my level. There is a sense that perhaps their presence detracts from the opportunity to experience edgework. In the paper, I argued that this was one of those exceptions that proves the rule about what motivates fighters and what the relationship should be between two evenly matched opponents in the ring.
Sonny: Then along with the idea of it being a mutually constructed risk that these two people are undertaking, you could also look at it like there’s a mutually constructed reward that both parties have to bring to reap the full benefits of the experience of a fight. Would that be one way of looking at?
Alex: Yes. I think that’s a good way to put it. Even if I lose, I’ve still have gone out for three rounds or however long the fight is where I’m at is or whatever. We’ve put ourselves through our paces. We’ve really proven that we’ve got what it takes. For some people even getting into the cage, is a victory in itself. To come that far in your training and to not back out from nerves and so on. Even if I lose, I’ve still experienced that thing that’s really valuable to me. Certainly, I wouldn’t have known to get that reward without my opponent. Even if they beat me, I still got that thing that I wanted. Of course, I might be upset, I might be in tears. I’ll reflect on it as that was my first fight, and I learned so much. I learned about what I’m really capable of et cetera. Sure, I think there’s certainly a mutually constructed reward. If you’re a professional, the reward might be financial, particularly if you’re developing a career as well as that the experience of the fight. Certainly, at amateur level, I think the rewards are far more intrinsic and without your opponent, you’re not going to be able to get them.
Sonny: I think there’s definitely that change of motivation or just those different opportunities for motivation when it turns into the professional realm. It does seem like there’s although intrinsic motivation especially, of course, at the amateur level that would even draw those professionals into the sport, to begin with. In other conversations I’ve had with fighters touch on if people are doing this just for the money, just for them to make it professionally, they’re going to have a hard time because you got to get through a lot of low paying fights first before that slight chance of making big money even gets put on the table.
Alex: Of course, yes.
Sonny: One thing you talk about in your paper too is then how people will or the idea of those lower-skilled fighters will then have the onlookers or other people detracting from the experience as well. That was one thing I thought of was that for me, if I see someone beat a can and then they celebrate a bit too much, a bit too happy with themselves, it could be a reflection on me that I’m like, “Come on, come on, settle down, settle down, I saw that other blocks record, and maybe you should just be a bit more subdued in your celebration.” Is that anything you’d pick picked up along with other people or is that just my own problem?
Alex: That’s really funny, you should bring that up. Actually, I have my day job, I’m a lecturer. The majority of my work I’m teaching and I teach on a PE program, and sport management and sport studies. I have a module that’s in martial arts and we do a little bit of practical. We go on field trips to the boxing gym and the MMA gym, have a karate guy come in and do some stuff. We’ve got some practical things going on. We also have quite a lot of theory where we talk through some of the stuff that I’ve done, and there’s plenty of other martial arts studies literature that we worked through. We had a lecture on this sort of topic a couple of years ago, and we actually addressed this point. What is worth celebrating as a fighter if we take all of this into account? We watched a video of a guy. A guy that I don’t know him that well, I’ve met him. When I first met him, he was like “I am a pro fighter, I’ve had, and my record.” Oh, that’s really impressive, but I thought, this guy is the real deal. Then I saw his videos of who he’s fought and they’re all cans. It’s just quite funny using it as a teaching resource to get the students to reflect on these questions of motivation, and intrinsic versus extrinsic, and that wider structure of the sport. I would say it’s a good question, and I don’t think you’re alone at all in raising an eyebrow at the overenthusiastic celebrations of those fighters.
Sonny: I know it’s one of those things that it’s only to the trying to either can pick that up. It’s maybe for the majority of people in the crowds, they might not see the other person’s record or they just might not notice the skill disparity and then for them it’s just winning to win. It’s really just you can look at someone else who knows and goes, given a note of that was a bit easier for them, wasn’t it? It’s that undercurrent of understanding there. Then the overall idea then of the paper that you’ve put forward is that these negotiations are going on then constantly with people inside the sport and it has to be outlined then to receive the full benefits other than a monetary gain. It’s, we both competitors have to come into the sport, looking for that reward in a good fight with each other. Then that offers up those moments of self-reflection, and in time of introspection back on training and how you performed, and how you handled that risk. I guess that reflection and that experience then is where the value can come from. Is that round in the right ballpark?
Alex: Yes, I wouldn’t say that both fighters necessarily need to have that as their primary or only motivation. Certainly, if somebody throws a fight for instance, and it’s ruined it for the other person and if you both do share that motivation, then I suppose it would be that notion of community and friendship that forms after a fight. If I lose and I was only really in it for the paycheck, or I was only really in it because I want to improve my record and find someone better and I’ve lost, maybe there’ll be some sour grapes. I wouldn’t really look at it in the same way that my opponent might who was really genuinely seeking that introspection and that chance to demonstrate autonomy and so on and so on. I wouldn’t have thought that it needs both people to really be aligned with that motivation. Although, I think in most cases, most fighters probably are, even if they have other things going on as well that drive them. Certainly, when you’ve got those very one-sided matches with the independent fighters, the cans, or when you have a match that perhaps somebody isn’t really taking very seriously, there are numerous ways you can go wrong, and early stoppage as well. Nobody likes an early stoppage. Least of all the fighter who got eye punched and feels fine because they’ve been robbed by circumstance. I didn’t include that many notes from the fieldwork in that paper because of lack of space. There were several examples. I’m sure, you and your listeners will be familiar with these situations that fight nights where there’s been an eye poke or there’s a heavy bleed. If it’s an amateur to fight, usually the medics and the ref will maybe be a little bit more hesitant to let them continue even if they say they’re fine. You do get that really strong anticlimax, and you can feel for these guys because they’ve been no fault of their own, they’ve been deprived of what they’ve been working for.
Sonny: Certainly, a few things come to mind when you mentioned that. Actually, I was just reminded then of something that I did myself, where I guess there was a fight that I was taking a lot of punches and the ref didn’t stop it, I ended up coming back and winning it. I remember thanking the ref for, “Oh, thanks for letting that go on and allowing me to get that victory.” As you’re saying I’m thinking, I guess to any outsider that would seem like a weird kind of gesture to say, “Thanks for allowing me to take some additional shots to the head and give an opportunity to come back and win.”
Alex: Yes, absolutely. I think referees face such a dilemma in those situations because the majority of them have been fighters themselves, haven’t they? They know what it’s like. They empathize and they know that if they stop it early it deprives you of that experience. It possibly deprives you of a chance for victory, and that becomes important for your livelihood if you’re a pro. They also know that it deprives the fans who are paying and financially supporting the sport of a good and a more climactic end. They have to balance all of that with the stated commitment. Which all the referees I spoke to, all of them said front and center, the most important thing is the fighters welfare. I’m the only one that rests on my shoulders because it’s very rare, isn’t it, for a corner throw in the towel, and it’s very rare for a fighter to tap strikes or something. The referee has the primary responsibility. Yes, the pressure they’re under to balance all of those competing risks, if you like and make decisions in split seconds. I don’t envy them for sure.
Sonny: No, I would not be that keen to start getting into refereeing, but never say never. Seems like that could be another element of risk, accepting risk going on. It’s useless to do that.
Alex: Absolutely. It’s one of the things that I haven’t got around to it yet with the study that I’m currently writing up the research on medics. Couple of papers out on that now, but I want to write something about the referees that I encounter because I think it’s a fascinating job. The decisions they have to make and the situations they make them in, and all the risks they have to balance while processing that, it’s remarkable. Maybe next year I’ll have something out about referees, fingers crossed.
Sonny: Beautiful. I’ll make sure to read that as well. Finishing on from that, or moving on from the ideas that you’ve put forward there, what can people be doing themselves to help reframe that idea of violence in the sport we love? I know you’ve got a organization called Love Fighting Hate Violence, that aims to potentially do that?
Alex: Yes. Love Fighting Hate Violence is something that Christopher Matthews, my colleague and I, we set this up a few years ago now. Initially, we wanted it to be an online presence for fostering this kind of debate. We’ve also written a coaching tool kit which we’ve designed so that coaches can explicitly use martial arts games and activities that involve martial arts training to specifically teach young people about consent, but about respecting your own, as well as others limits and being explicit about what you’re okay with. Basically trying to use that knowledge that a lot of fighters, a lot of martial artists, have about the difference between fighting that isn’t violent, and fighting the is violent. That knowledge is often quite tacit, it’s often implicit. It’s not something we spend a lot of time maybe discussing it overtly. They’re trying to use that knowledge as a way to make that explicit and to teach consent to young people. Which we hear a lot about the positive role of martial arts in reducing bullying for instance. Generally encouraging people to be more disciplined and to be more respectful, and all the rest of it. We thought that with Love Fighting Hate Violence, LFHV, we can try and do something that is purposefully aimed towards that rather than just assuming it happens on its own. If you put on a boxing club and you get some kids alone, they will become respectful. Not necessarily. Especially like they only go once a week, but if you do something purposeful, you specifically work towards those learning outcomes that you want, then maybe we’ll have some more tangible and robust results for that. That’s where were are at the moment. We’ve written this coaching tool kit and we’ve distributed to a few of our other partners in the project. We’re hoping to eventually do a study on how well this is worked, and refine it and make a version two and push that out more widely.
Sonny: I really like that idea because as you say, it’s accepted that it’s just an intrinsic part of learning martial arts, but everyone can probably think of an example where it hasn’t quite panned out that way with someone. I do wonder if it’s something with MMA, where some of that philosophy maybe was thrown out along with a lot of other traditions martial arts techniques. Where all the discipline and respect, even though I do believe that’s still taught in MMA, it’s maybe not as much a forefront as what it is or was in other traditional martial arts. Is that something that you would consider a possibility as well?
Alex: Yes. I don’t think you’re a million miles away really, my own take on this is that it’s highly specific to the gym that you’re talking about, the instructor, the local school. We’ve got fairly well-established notions that traditional, particularly Asian martial arts, are grounded in a culture of respect and discipline and so on. Equally, you could have schools where you get taught karate and you don’t get taught those things, or to borrow from The Karate Kid and we clear it up, Cobra Kai. Which is if you’ve watched the YouTube series.
Sonny: I have.
Alex: Where they have reinventing, I love that by the way, let’s talk about that for hours as well. They’re reinventing it and rescuing the legacy of Cobra Kai, and that approach to martial arts as being valuable. It’s not just about showing respectable times. Actually, you’d sometimes need to go out and stand up for yourself by beating up your bullies. There’s various ways that we can articulate what it means to be a fighter, and why we should train to fight, and I wouldn’t want to say that categorically traditional martial arts do this well, and MMA does it less so. Although you might be right, as a general observation, there’s less of a tradition in MMA really, and less importance attached to that in MMA. Again, historically speaking, but from one school to the next, it could vary a great deal.
Sonny: Yes, that makes sense that it is going to come down to the culture within the gym that is going to be the main determinant of that. While I feel that in our gym that it certainly is an element, and it is with the focus just being on effective techniques, and whatever works use it, it does seem to be something that you’re not going to spend valuable training time worrying about the philosophy of something when you better just be doing the things that work and they’re going to win you the fight potentially and in any way. I do like that idea. What would be, if you don’t mind, maybe one of the examples of in the coaching tool kit that people could put into practice?
Alex: Yes, sure. That’s not a problem. I can probably send you a couple of copies if you’d like, which will sort out later I guess.
Sonny: Yes, please.
Alex: The important thing is, as you said, why would you waste valuable time on something that’s all about philosophy and not about training? What we’ve got here it’s not something that’s going to make you a better fighter per se. This is specifically geared towards, I’d say, younger adults and children really. It’s supposed to be a fun way of teaching them things like respect, and consent and what have you. We draw on the idea of values-based teaching, which my colleagues at University of Brighton have been using for many years, Football For Peace program. Which is a similar idea, use football-related games to teach a set of values. One of the activities- which one should I talk about? There’s a game where we divide the space into four quadrants. In the first quadrant, you might remember this sort of thing from PE from back in the day. We do this all the time when I’m teaching PE students. We’ve got these four quadrants divided by a rope or by coins, or whatever we want to use markings the on the gym floor. In one quadrant we’re only doing punches, in another quadrant we’re only doing kicks. In the third one we can do punches and kicks, and in the fourth one, let’s say we’ll just throw elbows, for instance. One person’s on the pads, one person is there doing the movement and you move around in your pairs around these four quadrants. As you cross that line, you then need to pay attention to that and you just switch to only doing kicks, or you could do it where you’re not using pads but one person’s the attacker one person’s the defender and so on. You use that little game, you get them doing it for a minute or two, and then you use that game as a way to think about that notion of crossing the line. What does it mean to cross the line? We say that all the time, don’t we? What does it mean to cross the line? Then you get thinking about younger children, you get some answers and it gives you a chance to have a quick little discussion about what crossing the line means. Then we could talk about things like is there an appropriate space for you to punch people? In the game, it was that first quadrant. In a gym, it’s okay to punch in the gym. If you go into the boxing ring, it’s okay to punch there. What about if we go outside? No, it’s not okay. It’s a way of just basically using these games as a physical metaphor, if you like, to help teach those lessons. Again, this isn’t about martial arts training. It’s about things that martial arts coaches or PE teachers who do martial arts, things that you can use to make a fun and imaginative way to teach children about these values.
Sonny: I really liked that idea. I think that’s great. Especially for youth and teens classes. That sounds like a wonderful way to help impart, as you were saying, physical metaphor, impact some knowledge of these topics in a fun and engaging way. I think that’s great. I’d love to see that the rest of those games that you’ve got.
Alex: Yes, sure. Happy to share. We do want to make a digitized version, but we’ve been holding off on it because say we want to refine it a little bit after we’ve done some evaluation of it and we’d rather not send it far and wide until we’re really confident in what we’ve produced. Yes, I’m happy to send you a copy of that and have a look through.
Sonny: Yes. Sounds great. Then, so if people want to get involved with Love Fighting Hate Violence, what should they do to try and help you out in supporting that?
Alex: Well, it’s been a while since we’ve been doing anything on the Facebook and on the blog and so on, but Christopher and I keep saying we’re going to kickstart this again. If we’ve got folks listening who got something to say about this stuff, anything to share, whether that be a reflection on something that’s happened recently in the world of combat sports. Whether it’s something to do with lessons that they’ve used like the one I just described that they know can be useful, anything that might fit on our blog. Just to say we haven’t updated it in a fair while, but if you do go on lfhv.org you’ll see on the blog is a few entries there about 1,000-2,500-word long mini-essays. If anyone wants to write for us, that’s great. We always love to receive that. Give us a like on Facebook and a follow on Twitter, they might give us a little bit of a reminder that we need to update those things and get moving with it. Otherwise, you watch this space really. We’re hoping that in the new year once the lockdown hopefully is over, we’ll be moving forward again with the evaluation of the coaching toolkit and hopefully have more tangible a little bit later on.
Sonny: Beautiful. I really like that idea. I’ve really been really enjoying this discussion, Alex. It’s been great. I’m wondering if people want to get in touch with you, what is the best way that they should go about doing that?
Alex: Drop me an email and that’s the best way, email@example.com. If you Google my name and University of Brighton, you’ll find all my contact details. Via email is definitely the best way. I’m always checking my emails way too often than I should . Always happens.
Sonny: That’s what we all do probably. That’s been wonderful. I’m very interested in those other upcoming studies that you mentioned you’re undertaking, especially, if we go back to the start, when we were talking about how the negotiation process takes place during sparring. That’s something that’s always fascinated me, so I’ll be very interested to see what you come up with in that.
Alex: Brilliant. Well, that’s a good little bit of motivation for me to put that to the top of my agenda then. It’s like a loose first draft to revisit, very much a first draft so a lot of work, but we’ll get there by the end of the summer, hopefully on that one.
Sonny: Beautiful. Because yes, it’s always, that’s just fascinated me how it’s all worked out in sparring. Do it every week and it’s still sometimes it just astounds me how it all plays out.
Alex: Yes. People who’ve been training for years and years still get it wrong and you still find those kind of moments where you cringe at your own ….
Sonny: Beautiful, Alex. I’ll let you go and you have a wonderful day.
Alex: Well, thank you so much, Sonny. Thanks again for having me on. Yes. Cheers.
Sonny: Pleasure’s all mine. Thank you. You have been listening to the Sonny Brown Breakdown, until next time. You can visit sonnybrown.net to find out more ways to break it down.
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