Is it time to stop glorifying this appalling and inhumane sport?
JOSEPH KELLY: Occasionally there are moments in sport when the whole world takes notice. Before last weekend few people had heard of Conor McGregor, but by Monday the media was awash with commentaries about his famous ‘13 seconds’.
In case you missed it, 27 year old Catholic Dubliner Conor – aka ‘the Notorious One’ – is a Mixed Martial Arts fighter who grabbed the fastest ever victory in UFC title history. The contest, if that’s what it could be called, took place after days of hype at the MGM Grand Las Vegas in Paradise, Nevada, in an octagonal cage that is the combat zone for this sport.
Brazilian Jose Aldo, also Catholic, 29 years old and undefeated in 10 years, stepped up to start the contest and walked straight onto the infamous left hand of Conor, which sent him collapsing to the floor, semi-conscious, followed in a flash by McGregor who battered the concussed fighter about the head with his semi-bare fists, before the referee intervened.
McGregor leapt out of the ring and wrapped himself in the Irish tricolour to the roars of the crowd. Far fewer witnessed the sadder sight of an utterly devastated and dejected Aldo weeping inconsolably in his dressing room. The spectacle divided the crowd, the media and the sporting public.
Not that anyone complained at the result, it was far more that people had paid hard-earned money for their tickets, and the media rights, and presumably wanted far more of a prolonged punch-up for their money. Contests involving ritualised violence are nothing new; we can trace them back to the arenas of ancient Rome and Greece, as the state machine made its first efforts to contain the primitive, primal aggression of its non-transient populations.
At least that’s the theory, though there are those of us who would argue that we more likely began as sentient, co-operative beings created in God’s likeness, and our selfish aggression is a fatal flaw in our nature that we have acquired over time. The story of the Fall, and the first four chapters of the Book of Genesis, through to Cain’s killing of Abel, suggest as much. For many, the dramatic victory of McGregor over Aldo was a moment of celebration and rejoicing, and the biggest talking point of the week. For others, the spectacle of two poor-background Catholics consigned to a cage fight for the entertainment of wealthier folks and the brutal manner of the contest raise deep and fundamental questions.
The whole issue of the position we should take on aggressive sports is one that has divided Catholics for decades. On the one hand there is a well-established and historic connection between many Catholic churches and parishes and Catholic boxing and martial arts clubs, on the grounds that such pastimes encourage confidence and health.
Elsewhere there’s the view that something is fundamentally unscriptural in an activity that sets out to injure a fellow human, often with permanent effects. We can discount martial arts here, as there is never an intention to injure an opponent but, as Christians, can we really endorse a sport whose sole purpose is to inflict brain damage on an opponent? Some Catholic commentators are in no such doubt – boxing is sinful. Period.
On 17th September 2005 American world champion lightweight boxer Leavander Johnson defended his newly-won title for the first time against Mexican fighter Jesús Chávez. The fight was stopped early in the 11th round after Johnson received a barrage of punches from his opponent. Despite being able to leave the ring under his own momentum, he collapsed in his dressing room shortly afterwards. He was rushed to the hospital and had emergency surgery to correct swelling and bleeding on the brain.
Following the delicate and difficult operation, Johnson was placed in a drug-induced coma. Despite initial fears that he would not survive the night, even after the surgery, he survived into the next week and was showing some early signs of improvement but still remained in critical condition.
However, his condition stopped improving and on 22nd September it was decided to discontinue efforts to artificially prolong his life. Just three weeks later the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, whose articles are vetted prior to publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State, ran a strongly-worded editorial refering to the Johnson tragedy, and describing boxing as “a form of legalised attempted murder.”
Fr Luciano La Rivera, one of the Catholic priests who penned the editorial, said that boxing was contrary to human and Christian morality and gravely damaging to man, his life and dignity. If the basic purpose of a sport is to harm another human, then that sport is clearly sinful, he declared. “If the defeated boxer doesn’t die in the days following the bout, he carries the signs of death on his body and face, and especially in his soul,” he said.
In essence, Catholic critics believe that boxing and other sports whose specific intent is to injure another person, contradicts both the Fifth Commandment – Thou shalt not kill – and the second great Commandment given by Jesus to the Pharisees – Love thy neighbour as thyself.
The view that boxing runs contrary to human health and dignity is one supported by the British Medical Association, which has been trying to get the sport banned totally since 1982. And as far back as 2007 the BMA extended its call for a complete ban on amateur and professional boxing to include mixed martial arts (MMA) competitions of the type witnessed last week.
“Ultimate fighting can be extremely brutal and has been described as ‘human cockfighting’. It can cause traumatic brain injury, joint injuries and fractures.” says The BMA’s Head of Ethics and Science, Dr Vivienne Nathanson.
“This kind of competition hardly constitutes a sport – the days of gladiator fights are over and we should not be looking to resurrect them. As doctors we cannot stand by while violent fighting tournaments are allowed to take place.
“Large amounts of money can be earned by participants, promoters and others linked to ultimate fighting but no amount of money can compensate for permanent brain damage and premature death.
“As a civilised society we should be campaigning to outlaw these activities,” said Dr Nathanson.
As early as 2005 the World Medical Association also shared this view that “boxing is a dangerous sport. Unlike most other sports, its basic intent is to produce bodily harm in the opponent.
“Boxing can result in death and produce an alarming incidence of chronic brain injury. For this reason, the WMA recommends that boxing be banned,” it said.
But it’s not just the physical effects of pugilism that are cause for concern. With the ever-increasing presence of violence seeping through family life and society, there are deep questions to be asked about inhuman public fascination with such ruthless blood sports, especially when the highly charged marketing is aimed increasingly at young people and children.
We bemoan the prevalence of violence in society, yet in its organised and spectator form, we seem to elevate and idolise it.
Of course this concern is nothing new. Back in 1868 J.S. Mill coined the phrase ‘dystopia’, an antonym of ‘utopia’, a word invented by Sir Thomas More to describe the perfect, idyllic society. We may not be too familiar with the word ‘dystopia’, but we all know the concept – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Clockwork Orange, Mad Max, Bladerunner, the Hunger Games, The Matrix, Robocop, or even Wall–E.
Long forgotten now, but one of the most vivid and prophetic portrayals of a society that came to idolise organised violence was Rollerball, a 1975 British-American dystopian sports science fiction action film starring James Caan. Back then 2018, the year in which the film was set, was way in the future, and the storyline followed sporting legend Jonathan E. who was so good and dominant at rollerball – a kind of baseball played in a caged circuit on motorbikes – that the unseen commercial forces behind the sport are forced to repeatedly increase the dangers of the game to satisfy the increasingly bored and frenzied public. In the final scenario all rules are abandoned and the derby final becomes a simple gladiatorial ‘last man standing’ event, in which just Jonathan and one opponent remain alive.
As Jonathan throws the last, helpless player to the ground and raises his lethal fist, the audience – and the corporate sponsors – hold their breath. But in one last act of moral defiance, Jonathan releases his victim – the crowd are ecstatic and the power of the bizarre, loveless state collapses. If only.
The final chapters of the gospels in particular have a similar story to tell us about how we as Christians should respond to this increasing idolisation of violence. Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus was taunted, his clothes were torn, he was spat on and punched, yet he remained silent and dignified.
After Pilate washed his hands of him, Roman state soldiers stripped him, put a crown of thorns on his head, and struck him repeatedly, but he stood resolute. As he is dragged to his Crucifixion Jesus warns: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ “Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”[Lk. 23:28-31].
If we want to turn our backs on this apocalyptic vision, we need look no further than Simon of Cyrene, who carried Christ’s cross, or Veronica, who gave Jesus her veil or Joseph of Arimathea who buried Christ’s body, to understand the profound witness that is love of one’s neighbour.
It is estimated that to date more than 500 young men have died in the boxing arena – the latest being 28 year old Australian Davey Browne Jr on 14th September. This statistic may not sit well with devotees of combat sports, but the question remains – are such activities consistent with the dignity of the human person, or are they just dehumanising and exploitative? It certainly seems so.
• Joseph Kelly is the CEO and Editor of the Catholic Universe.Tags: boxing, catholic, news