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Eight decades ago, former International Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage stated that politics is “a savage monster” bent on disrupting the purity of sport. Ten years ago, former European Union President Milan Zver stated that “[Sports] is too important to use it as a political instrument.” These are some of the most noteworthy instances of the “stick to sports” sentiment, a phrase that has recently come back into fashion as NFL players started taking knees during the national anthem.
It’s an understandable feeling. If you have played sports non-professionally -- which is the vast majority of people who have played sports -- your experience of athletic participation is colored as an inherent good, a pastime that cultivates life lessons like sportsmanship, the importance of practice and physical well-being. Thus, it’s only natural for us to think of sports as apolitical; we never had an opportunity to politicize them, even if we wanted to.
Yet sports are undeniably political, if for no other reason than the fact that money is involved. Money is absolutely a political force. It informs the power dynamic on teams and within organizations; it wins political races nine times out of 10; and it maintains the inertia of the status quo, from unpaid labor propping up the multi-million-dollar machine of the NCAA to the fact that Bellator MMA will always play second fiddle to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Truly, if we wanted sports to be sanitized of politics, financial incentive for all parties would have to be comprehensively removed from the picture. That notion in itself, however, is a political statement, and frankly nobody wants that. In order to see the best possible athletes perform at the highest possible level, they have to be able to make a living off of their sport.
All of this leads up to two very different yet interconnected situations from UFC Fight Night 127 on Saturday in London.
First was Bradley Scott. He was left in the cold when his opponent suffered complications during his weight cut. The fight was cancelled two days out from the event. As of this writing, he received half of his show money -- that’s $10,000 -- and none of his Reebok sponsorship pay. Scott, who fights out of a small gym in England, traveled to the United States to prepare for this fight. He explained the financial details to the media: “Just going [to the U.S.] -- not paying for the training and all of that -- is £5,000 (roughly $7,000) for the food, the accommodation and the flights. Then I have to give my training camp 10 percent. I have to give my manager money. Then I have to pay my boxing coaches the fees for all the one-on-one training I get. I’ve actually ended up £2,000 in debt. That’s $2,600. That’s how much I’ve been left in debt from this fight. Now I’ve got to go and find a job to make up the shortfall and help make ends meet before I can fight again.”
It’s heartbreaking. It’s also disheartening how frequently this narrative plays out. It’s becoming a monthly occurrence. In January, Sherdog columnist Anthony Walker wrote about the need for a consistent policy for last-minute bout cancellations in the wake of UFC Fight Night 124. Last month, it happened again at UFC Fight Night 125. When fighters failed to make it to the Octagon, their opponents received different treatment: Some got their show money, some got half, some got none. Even if you watch MMA purely to be entertained, you no doubt want the best possible entertainment available. That requires fighters to have some reasonable expectation for compensation if they show up ready to fight. In the case of Scott, it’s not too much to ask the UFC to shell out the other half of his $20,000 show money, and it’s ridiculous for Reebok to not cough up the $5,000 he earned by rocking Reebok all week. That $15,000 is nothing to either of the billion-dollar organizations -- that’s with a B -- but for Scott it’s a much-needed lifesaver.
The second intersection of MMA and politics came in the headlining bout. Former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum was knocked out in the fourth round, which happens in the fight game. More imperative, though, is Werdum’s association with Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya and founder of regional promotion Akhmat MMA. A quick rundown of the accusations against Kadyrov is in order: systematic kidnapping, detainment, torture, rape and assassination of political opponents and whistleblowers, the use of terrorism to maintain control ND the rounding up and murder of homosexuals in concentration camps. He supports honor killings of women if they are so much as accused of “loose morals.” Three months ago, the United States imposed sanctions on him for overseeing “an administration involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings” and directing the execution of political opponents. He is truly one of the most horrific and ghoulish individuals on the planet, and he has several UFC fighters on his payroll, Werdum included.
Why would anyone willingly associate themselves with such a person? For the money. Now, imagine if Kim Jong-un or Boko Haram owned an NBA team; the backlash would be enormous and justified. Yet the reason why the “stick to sports” crowd doesn’t seem to mind the involvement of a criminal warlord is simple psychology. It doesn’t affect them. Victims live far away. Gay Chechens or reporters are flat characters, not three-dimensional human beings with families, feelings and dreams. It’s downright shameful and incriminating for Werdum and others to accept blood-money from Kadyrov. As exhausting as this topic may be, it should be dredged up in every one of their interviews.
This is ultimately why fighting is more than just mindless entertainment or escapism, though it is those things, too. It speaks to all people in a universal language. Sports distill the human experience on a stage for all to see. They remind us of a shared humanity that crosses barriers of culture and geopolitics. To refuse to engage in that interaction of sports is to willfully limit yourself from fully appreciating them. The choice to ignore reality is in fact a choice, and to pretend something isn’t there -- when it is -- is an expression of politics.
The irony is that the belief in sports as a pure, apolitical medium is itself a political stance. Brundage -- the Olympic chairman who argued politics is a savage monster ruining the purity of sports -- said so in defense of allowing Hitler’s Germany to host the 1936 Olympics. That’s an apt comparison to the relationship between Kadyrov and the sport of MMA. We instinctively cringe at the horrors of the Nazi regime and rightfully judge the IOC for allowing it to host the Games, so why do so many remain silent about Kadyrov’s involvement with mixed martial arts now?
No sport exists in a vacuum of purity, including MMA. To “stick to sports” is to continue to talk about the politics -- financial and otherwise -- that are interwoven with the games themselves. Money talks, but it also silences.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.