UFC 114 Main Event Brings Racial Gap to the Forefront

The main event at this Saturday’s UFC 114 is a long-awaited grudge match between former Light Heavyweight champions Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans. The fight is occurring after nearly three years of squabbling that has bubbled over into media interviews and a season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Unfortunately, the fight was long delayed due to injuries and Jackson’s departure from the promotion to shoot the “A-Team” movie.

Jackson and Evans go at it verbally (Josh Hedges, UFC)

While both are adept at promoting a fight through soundbytes and trash talking, the pre-fight hype reached a sensitive area when Evans called Jackson out on various comments and behaviors that he felt reflected badly on his race and played into negative black stereotypes. Taking umbrage with Jackson’s repeated promise of “black on black crime” as well as other comments made in relation to the fight, Evans finally called Jackson out on what he perceived to be racist behavior during a media call last week.

Jackson responded to a reporter’s question by joking that he didn’t understand the words “detrimental” and “advantageous,” after which another reporter asked Evans what it was about Jackson that made him so upset and lose his composure so quickly.

“You [Jackson] say ignorant stuff, and you perpetuate stupidness” Evans said in response to the question . “You’re not stupid. Stop acting like you’re stupid. Stop acting like because you’re black you’re stupid.”

Jackson was so taken aback by the comment that he went completely silent, which is pretty telling considering the fact that anytime Evans took a breath during the rest of the call, Jackson would immediately interrupt with rants and insults. The silence hung heavy in the air for a good five to ten seconds, with a reporter finally breaking it by thanking Evans for his answer.

Evans, not wanting to let Jackson off the hook, continued with his assessment.

“I’ve talked to this dude. This dude is pretty smart, he knows what’s going on. But he just does a…’oh, it’s comedy.’ But why perpetuate that stereotype that you’re stupid? Why perpetuate that stereotype that you can’t read?”

An uncharacteristically nervous Jackson, having had several minutes to digest the accusation, half-heartedly said “I didn’t say that, I never said that” in a voice that cracked in an apt representation of the shattering of the veneer that gave him comfort and confidence. He then jumped back into Rampage mode, his voice changing in tone and cadence.  He tried to steer the conversation back to their respective fight records and, that route failing, started tossing homophobic slurs towards Evans.

Some may have heard the exchange and interpreted Jackson’s silence and wild deflection as him being too “in character” to have a serious conversation or defend himself. Others see his silence as not so much a moment of confusion as one of shock that Evans had, accurately, called him out on his act. Regardless, it raises not just questions of where Jackson falls in terms of his behavior but also how it might be affecting an entire segment of the population that has thus far eluded the UFC’s most ardent promotional efforts.

A recent post over at MMA Fighting by Ben Fowlkes (one of the better writers you’ll find out there covering the sport; I’ll be posting snippets for the sake of discussion but I urge you to read it in full) discusses the historic first ever UFC pay-per-view to be headlined by two black competitors, and in it Fowlkes also points to some of the more racially charged interactions between Evans and Jackson. N

For a sport with so much international appeal, and one that pits Japanese, Brazilian, British, Canadian, French, and American fighters against each other, often all on the same card, MMA has still struggled somewhat with the African-American demographic.

That’s all the more reason why the “Rampage” Jackson-Rashad Evans fight is a delicate matter for the UFC and its fans. The clip of Jackson promising “black-on-black crime” after Evans confronted him following UFC 96, for instance, is a prime example of how the pre-fight hype can send the wrong message in this case.

Fowlkes then asks if it’s fair to label Jackson’s behavior and statements as black stereotype:

At the same time, even if you take for granted that Jackson is playing a character to some extent when the camera comes on, since when is a fighter responsible for representing his entire race while hyping a fight?

No one criticizes Brock Lesnar for playing to negative stereotypes of white midwestern farm boys with his ornery attitude, or B.J. Penn for evoking an image of a blood-licking Polynesian savage with his post-fight celebrations.

There’s an inherent unfairness to designating someone as the appointed representative for an entire group of people, especially if he never asked to carry that burden. If every other fighter speaks only for himself, why should Jackson be any different?

Then again, some things are different just because they’re different. It doesn’t have to be fair to be the reality of the situation.

Another interesting personality in the sport, Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champion “King” Mo Lawal, is quoted in the piece.

But it’s not just Evans, who has every reason to be ungenerous to Jackson after all the animosity that’s brewed between them. In a recent conversation with “King” Mo Lawal he repeatedly singled Jackson out for playing to the prejudices of white MMA fans, saying, “All that ‘black-on-black crime’ stuff, acting like a dog, who do you think that’s for? It’s not for [African-American fans], and you know it.”

Lawal also notes that much of the hate mail he receives is racially motivated, and that he (along with Evans) believe that much of the negative reaction they receive – both at live events and on the internet – is mostly racially motivated.

As far as the reactions of the live crowds are concerned, I disagree with the assessment that they get booed because of race. Lawal gets booed because of the persona he’s crafted, which is a bit too showy and cartoony for most American sports fans (unlike in Japan where that sort of thing is encouraged). Evans garners boos for doing stuff during a fight like smiling, licking his hand and rubbing his crotch after an exchange. Jackson gets a mixed reaction for a multitude of reasons having to do with his statements and actions outside of the Octagon.

As for an inherent unfairness, I think Ben’s partially right. There always seems to be pressure exerted on black athletes to be representatives of their race whenever one of them gets into some legal or ethical trouble. The NFL is a prime example. When Pacman Jones, a cornerback, was with a party of individuals of questionable merit and one of them shot someone, he was decried as being a poor example and role model for children and all but declared persona non grata by the sports media. However, when Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual misconduct and a litany of other poor behavioral choices that may or may not have resulted in a criminal indictment, it was played up in the media as an isolated incident that reflected poorly on Ben as a person and nothing else.

Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal has a flamboyant and carefully crafted persona when the ameras are on, but none of it could be called a stereotype. Still, he feels race plays a big part in how fans react to him. (Daniel Herbertson, Sherdog.com)

When black athletes behave badly, there’s more of a talk of it as a pandemic pattern rather than a personal transgression. In other words, with Ben the reaction carried a tone of animosity towards “him” whereas with Jones it carried an attitude of animosity towards “they,” with the “they” vaguely being alluded to as athletes but specifically conjuring the image of black athletes in American sports.

In the case of Quinton Jackson, I think there’s definitely a point to be made. It’s accurate to say that Jackson plays dumb for laughs at the expense of himself and his sport, though it’s tough to say if it can really be said to be at the expense of his race. I do think the barking, chains, and other aspects of his persona definitely pertain to a more questionable element, with specific statements such as “black on black crime” and “why you gotta use those big words” most definitely playing to a more racially-charged element.

One thing that needs to be pointed out is that Jackson crafted the “Rampage” gimmick and persona in Japan, where promoters unashamedly play up to negative racial stereotypes. “Rampage” blossomed in the country at the same time that the sport’s top star in the country, Bob Sapp, was appearing on billboards locked in a cage and eating bananas. His popularity in the country as part of the Pride promotion bled over to the States, and was segued into his popularity stateside. For someone who knew stardom in a wildly different culture with far different cultural mores and racial sensitivities (or lack thereof), the transition to celebrity status stateside can be a rough one. Particularly when so many of the more disturbing racial elements are the very things that made him a star and got him a big money contract with WEC (and eventually the UFC through their acquisition of the promotion).

Evans isn’t just blowing air when he expresses disdain for how Jackson acts in relation to black stereotypes. Like Fowlkes said, it points to the fact that Mixed Martial Arts has yet to gain a strong foothold among black sports fans, who are still by and large loyal to boxing when it comes to combat sports. Personally, I think the reasons are many but fairly evident: it’s a relatively young sport with gyms only now starting to appear in inner-city settings, most successful American competitors come from a wrestling background which has a stronger foothold in predominantly white areas, and it’s a sport that still isn’t in many States with a sizable black population (with the most glaring example being New York).

This may explain why Evans is so sensitive to the subject, to the point of appearing reactionary to those who might not grasp the full scope of the race conundrum. He wants to see the sport’s black audience grow, and as such doesn’t want anyone coming away from it with the impression that its participants or fans carry with them a racial bias that excludes participation or appreciation of the sport.

I can’t say I completely agree one hundred percent with the statements Evans and Lawal have made regarding Jackson playing up to negative black stereotypes, but I do understand where they’re coming from. It might appear to many as “playing the race card,” but it’s also addressing a very real racial chasm amongst the sport’s fanbase. After all, it wasn’t long ago that big-time promoter Bob Arum, despite apparently pulling a 180 on the sport, once referred to its fanbase as white skinheads. While the implication that all MMA fans are racist is ridiculous and improper from a major boxing promoter, the observation that its audience is far less diverse than that of boxing and other sports is far from inaccurate.

For fifteen minutes on Saturday night, however, none of this will matter. Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson, both former champions of their sport, will eye each other across the canvas. They’ll bob in place in anticipation of the call of the bell, waiting for the referee to signal the end of all the waiting and all the talking. Once that fight is over, another begins: to capture (or perhaps retain) the interest of an audience that has thus far not turned on to the sport for lack of exposure and seeing enough of their own on the main stage.

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