Do you want to upset a UFC fan? Bring up race.
Of the 63 champions the UFC has had, only 8 have been black men (Kevin Randleman, Maurice Smith, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley, and Demitrious Johnson). You could add two more to that list (Benson Henderson, who is half black/half Korean, and Carlos Newton, who is an Anguilla-born Canadian), but even that only bring us to 6.3% of all champions.
Yet this small number brings with it a lot of ire.
As Ariel Helwani asked on the MMA Beat, “Is there something to that?”
Luke Thomas responded:
Tyron Woodley is from Ferguson, Missouri. Everyone likes to deny that there are racial components to the fight game. The fight game is in fact built on, partly, a racial stratification and what that means for exploiting people’s differences. I don’t know to what extent they are problems in each of those cases [speaking about current champions Tyron Woodley, Daniel Cormier and Demitrious Johnson], but it is hard for me to buy the idea that someone’s racial background in this country, and in countries elsewhere, that that doesn’t affect how fans perceive them. To what extent, we can debate, but that it is there, I think is absolutely incontestable.
Thomas argues that the racial component of the fight game is incontestable, yet a look at any conversation about this topic among fans says something very different.
As this 2007 thread on mmaforums.com captures, many fans think this isn’t worth discussing:
This is a stupid thread, why even bring this up?!?!
The fans arent cheering because of the colour of the fighter, they cheering because they like the fighter.
Both the fights you mentioned Franklin/Silva and Chuck/Page in both cases the white fighters were far more popular and Rampage and Silva were relative unknowns in America. Once the fans get to know the fighters and see how good they are they will be cheering just as loud.
One of the reasons, I believe, that we are able to see the effects of race and mixed martial arts so easily in aggregate but can’t solidly pin down clear examples of it is because this kind of thinking is an example of larger societal issues with race.
In Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals, authors Kinder and Sander make the following argument:
Animosity toward blacks is expressed today less in the language of inherent, permanent, biological difference, and more in the language of American individualism, which depicts blacks as unwilling to try and too willing to take what they have not earned.
That should sound familiar to anyone following this debate. Tyron Woodley has frequently been derided for being unwilling to fight any opponent, instead choosing to fight opponents who would lead to a title shot. Now that he is champion, many call his decision to challenge former champion Georges St-Pierre something he has not earned.
MMA is the ultimate manifestation of American ideals. Fighters go into the cage by themselves to prove their worth. The trouble comes when this ideology is used to undermine black champions.