It is a thinly veiled dirty secret that I still follow The Ultimate Fighting Championship (The ‘original’ MMA). In the days before the internet (well at least in my world) the corner store in Altona, isolated on the southern plains of Manitoba, somehow acquired VHS copies of the first UFC bouts. In 1993 alongside copies of White Men Can’t Jump and A Few Good Men there was the striking image of a man with large fists standing above a globe. On the back were images of men . . . in cage . . . fighting. As a straight ahead hetero teenage boy that was enough. I quickly found out that these events answered the primordial fascination of who was the best fighter. Prior to this, in my mind, this usually played out in terms of animal differences (who would win between a bear and a tiger).
The early events were in an experiment in the bizarre. There were very few rules. No biting. No eye gouging. There was of course the boundaries of the cage and the limit of one-on-one combat. There was a boxer with one boxing glove on so he could hold on to his opponent with the other. There was a sumo wrestler who had his tooth kicked out that went flying into the audience. One of the early tournaments vividly demonstrated the need to employ a no groin striking rule. And in the early years it could not have been scripted better with the 180 lb jujitsu fighter winning most of the tournaments.
What I find interesting about these events is how they have adapted. All these fighting techniques had internal disciplines that had their own logic and history. When these disciples brought into contact with each other, when their authority over particular boundaries and limits was removed, they had to adjust in direct relation to their opponent. While there was a visceral and at times chaotic clash when these disciples first met each other something very interesting happened within the first few years. The events became boring.
There were no rounds and no time limits and so the best fighters were the most strategic and the most patient. The final event often saw the two fighters locked in a grappling position for half an hour. It was like a chess match . . . but with less action. What happened? The rules changed. It is true that some of the rules changed to protect the fighters but the most significant rules were the ones that created more action. One rule was to create shorter rounds with an overall time limit. This meant that fighters would have to be stood up occasionally (which usually meant more ‘action’). This also introduced a point scoring system if a fighter was not knocked out or submitted within the time limit. The points were based in part on, literally, ‘aggression’ and ‘control’. The most interesting rule was the one where the referee had the fighters stand-up if they were not working. In fact you could often hear the referee say, Come you guys, I need to you to work, or I’ll stand you up. The law was introduced to produce more violence, more action. There was an inscribed notion of what it was to ‘work’ for your employer; expectation for compensation.
There remains the lie which says that without rules chaos will reign. Around the same time that UFC began I was in high school and in my social studies class we were asked to write a brief reflection on what would happen if there were no laws. Apparently I was the only one who said that after a period of chaos and re-adjustment there would be a time when people would negotiate what would be mutually beneficial. This is in fact what happened in the UFC. But for it to profitable there needed to be the creation of more work.
I will readily admit that this imagery has its limitations. I am not an anarchist. However, there remains the illusion that we need the law to stem chaos and violence when, at least in many instances, it is the law that creates or instigates it. This was also the case with sports. I remember people talking about the need for referees in minor sports. Well, sure, when you have an applied structure of victory and defeat stirred by anxious and aggressive parents. But when, in junior high, we played basketball on the weekend by ourselves we somehow had no (or little) problem monitoring our play. The worst case scenario was that we just stopped playing. But we wanted to play. So we returned and figured it out.
Again, I am not trying to abstract this beyond its limits, however, I think even in the case of the church (which in my tradition tries to be voluntarist) we can learn from this gathering and re-gathering. A gathering not proscribed by external claims to ‘holy order’ but developed through ongoing engagement with each other, with our tradition, and beyond our tradition.