Dispelling the Myth of the Martyr-Athlete

I read an article once which talked about the correlation between Italian-American communities and Italian-American stereotypes in the form of depictions in works such as The Godfather films and The Sopranos TV series. Did The Godfather and The Sopranos prove to be popular because they were able to depict the nuanced worlds of Italian-Americans, or did young Italian-Americans model their behaviours on the empowering stereotypes of themselves which commanded attention and awe in popular media? (Or was the writer of said article just a sheltered academic with a lot of untested theories?)

I’ll leave you to think about that. But it does raise an interesting question: are stereotypes reflections of certain demographics, or do they serve to inform the behaviour of those demographics?

In the world of prize-fighting, we have more than our fair share of stereotypes too. The stereotypes which outsiders associate with us are not necessarily the ones which we associate with ourselves. Fighters don’t typically think of themselves as doing what they do because they’re too stupid to do anything else. (Even we could figure out that we’d be better off behind a desk somewhere, if that were our attitude.) “Why do you fight?” Adrienne asks Rocky in the first film of that (in)famous series. “Because I can’t sing or dance!” (or, presumably, articulate motivation very well) replies Rocky.

We do have stereotypes that are somewhat self-defined, though. We have stereotypes about ourselves as fighters, and I believe that these do inform behaviour. There’s the popular belief that, in order to be a fighter, you can’t be a normal person. There is some intangible “It” and you must have It. There is no greater expression of a lack of faith in another fighter’s abilities to succeed than to say that he or she doesn’t have “It” (whatever “It” is.)

There are some things associated with It. When you’re in the ring or the cage, It will make you perform, but when you’re out of it, It will make you unhappy. You’ll be perpetually dissatisfied with the life of an ordinary person, like a tiger trying to eat grass with its prey. It will drive you to run amock, drink, womanise, fight on the street. I mean, everyone knows that you shouldn’t, but “boys will be boys” (and yes, a girl who has It is one of the boys.)

If you have It, you will be a tolerable son or daughter, a good lover, a most excellent friend, but a terrible partner. You’ll neglect and disrespect your partner, publicly as well as privately, possibly cheat on him or her, and perceive this person as a nuisance, an impediment to your training. Sounds horrible, but you can’t help it if you have It.

This is a stereotype that we have of ourselves and are proud of. We conspicuously lament the fact that our (in)significant others don’t understand what we do or that they resent the time that we spend at training – what we are really doing is bragging about having It. If you have a happy home life, or a social life at all, maybe you don’t have It. After all, if your training hasn’t caused some kind of conflict with your (in)significant other, you’re not training enough.

I have to admit that I used to buy into this very strongly. I was “brought up”, so to speak, in environments where this kind of scenario was lauded as a sign that a fighter has “It.” It was a kind of martyrdom, a badge of authenticity, something to be proud of.

And then I met Mike Turner.

Turner had a happy life, and was not apologetic about it. He loved his mum, had an adoring wife for whom he unashamedly made a lot of time, and even had time for a hobby which brought him a great deal of fulfillment and which had nothing to do with fighting in cages, drinking, fighting on the street, doing cocaine, fighting in bars, playing soccer, fighting at soccer… you get the idea.

I wondered at the time, quite literally, if he was “for real.” I mean, sure, he had a purple belt in jiu jitsu (at the time) and had fought in a cage on a bunch of occasions, but I was still filled with Muay Thai snobbery back then (“rolling on the floor isn’t real fighting!”)

I quickly learned that Turner was “for real.” Did he have It? I didn’t know, and I still don’t. But I don’t question that any more. Now, I question the very existence of “It.” Turner is a slightly better-than-ordinary man applying himself to a trade and getting better at it. I believe that the attitude of constant improvement and uncompromising commitment that he brings to the cage aren’t due to It, but are due to his character. He is a man of integrity in every area of his life, and it shows in the results that he gets.

My point is that you don’t have to be an a**hole in order to be a successful fighter. You don’t have to be unhappy or to make the people around you unhappy in order to prove that you’re in “Beast Mode.” You don’t have to have some dysfunctional back-story, and you definitely don’t have to win the tournament a la Karate Kid in order to gain self-respect/approval from authority figures/literal or figurative vengeance/the girl of your dreams. If anything, you need to have all of that stuff sorted out first so that you can be professional and mature about what you’re doing as an athlete.

Turner showed me that I don’t have to be an a**hole. He outed me as a coward by showing no fear about saying “I love you” – to his wife Natalie, to his mum, and to us as his friends. He showed me that you can read comics or paint small plastic soldiers or watch pro-wrestling (or in his case, all of the above) and it doesn’t make you any less of a “fighter” – what defines you as a “fighter” is your training and your performance, not your adherence to a bizarre, dysfunctional Martyr-Athlete stereotype.

Fighting is just fighting, but it is almost always imbued with unintended symbolism when viewed through the lens of another person’s experiences and social context. The title that Turner won tonight has proved his legitimacy as part of the Light Heavyweight division. It’s proved the validity of the decision he and Nick Hughes made to establish Trinity MMA and to focus on full-time MMA training, and reassured those of us who made the decision to follow them. It has legitimised the sacrifices that Turner and Natalie have made in their finances and lifestyle. But to me, his honorary “Little Sister”, it has shown that you don’t have to be an obnoxious or unhappy human being in order to succeed in this sport. And that means a lot.

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