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Is MMA Goon Culture Staining The Sport?

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A spate of recent violent incidents involving MMA fighters and wannabes has the potential to damage the reputation of Mixed Martial Arts.

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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A little dangerous knowledge can be murder.

That's what two Ohio aspiring MMA fighters found out when they got into a brawl at a party and one of them ended up battered, choked and left to die alone in the woods. Now 27-year-old Zachary Brody is in jail facing murder, voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault charges and the family and friends of 25-year-old Phil Masterson must endure the loss of their loved one.

The press coverage of the Masterson killing hasn't been especially sensationalistic, but the Ohio papers covering the story are mentioning the MMA connection over and over again in every story on the case. 

Here's an example from The Sandusky Register:

The suspect and the victim both had at least some exposure or training in mixed martial arts, a full-contact sport that combines various forms of fighting, including wrestling, grappling and striking, authorities said.

Even with responsible press coverage though, the singularly brutal and callous nature of Masterson's killing and Brody's use of Jiu-Jitsu techniques to render Masterson unconscious will stain Mixed Martial Arts in the minds of everyone following the story. 

According to affidavits filed by Brody and several witnesses to the crime, Masterson started the trouble by refusing to leave a cabin party when asked and trying to punch Brody. Even if that is in fact true, the response was out of all proportion to the offense. All accounts agree that Brody choked Masterson out then punched and kicked him while he was helpless. When the beating was finished, Brody dragged the still breathing Masterson off into the woods where he was left face-down under a plastic tarp while the party continued. 

No one called 911 that night or all the next day. Medical examiners are unanimous in saying that Masterson could have survived the attack had he gotten medical attention. 

Now let's be clear, dumb kids do horrible things to each other all the time without any martial arts training, but the combination of a little training, a lot of alcohol and testosterone is a lethal mix.

Just ask anyone at the Zephyrhills, Florida party in July of this year who saw 19-year-old aspiring MMA fighter Samuel Smith beaten to death in a carport after challenging 27-year-old Richard Starks, Jr. to a fight. 

Again the local coverage played up the Mixed Martial Arts connection to the case. However tangential the connection may be in reality, in the media it was an MMA-related killing.

The same thing happened when 1-0 pro fighter Jarrod Wyatt lost his mind on mushrooms and murdered his training partner Taylor Powell. That story got national attention because Wyatt horrifically mutilated Powell's body after the killing, tearing his face off and cutting out his still-beating heart. 

Again, MMA can't be blamed for the actions of any of these individuals, but the connection between MMA practicioners and violent crime is being forged in the mind of the public. Even I, an ardent supporter of the sport and a life-long believer in the role of combat sports in teaching young people respect, self-control and honor, shudder to think of going to high school in a world where all the bullies know Jiu-Jitsu and "train UFC."

If it damages the sport's reputation when wannabe fighters are implicated in violent crime, it's even worse when big time fighters get in the headlines. This week Mike Whitehead, a UFC veteran and star of the second season of The Ultimate Fighter, pled guilty to sexual assault in a widely publicized rape case. Whitehead received probation but will be officially registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life. 

Whitehead's story got national and international attention in hundreds of media outlets. Every single story prominently mentioned the UFC.

Former Strikeforce star Brett Rogers stands accused in a violent domestic assault that got him fired from the organization. Rogers asserts his innocence, but the stories were ugly and the image of a 265 pound martial artist brutally beating his wife in front of their children and neighbors is a hard one to erase from your mind, or keep out of the media

And we haven't even mentioned the notorious War Machine, formerly known as Jon Koppenhaver, another reality star on The Ultimate Fighter and UFC veteran who just finished serving a year on a felony assault conviction. War Machine, who legally changed his name to his MMA nickname after a copyright dispute with Marvel Comics, had been involved in a string of public brawls -- all of them getting news coverage. 

Most infamously, he ended his brief career as a pornographic performer by beating up numerous of his fellow porn actors at Brooke Haven's birthday party. The 80,000 Google hits for "War Machine porn brawl" speak for themselves as regards the damage done to the reputation of the sport by the former Mr. Koppenhaver. 

And Koppenhaver's blogging around that time is very relevant as well. While he's apparently become much wiser in prison, before he paid for his crimes he was unrepentant and anything but an honor to the martial arts tradition. Here's a typical commentary from War Machine circa 2010:

So I have pretty much decided that in the next couple of years I am gonna move somewhere LESS CIVILIZED. After all, civilization and LAWS are in place to protect the WEAK anyway. Me being the Alpha Male, Spartan, SAVAGE that I am...I see no need for this type of B.S.

He goes on to detail an incident in which some passers by made fun of his hair and bemoans the fact that if he assaulted them, HE would be the one facing charges. Ai yi yi.

I haven't even mentioned the infamous brawl in the cage between Jason "Mayhem" Miller and the entire Cesar Gracie camp (including Jake Shields, Nick Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz)  that got Strikeforce kicked off of CBS. MMA fans may have mocked announcer Gus Johnson when he said, "These things happen in MMA," but millions of first-time viewers took him at his word.

Stories like these as tragic, sordid or farcical as they may be individually, add up in the minds of non-MMA fans to link the sport and martial arts as a whole with violent, unrestrained and very dangerous thuggery. 

When big-time fighters like Koppenhaver openly advocate violence as an appropriate response to being teased in public, it's no surprise that the kids out in the audience are taking that message to heart. 

When those kids are also learning how to punch, kick and choke, that's a dangerous mix. 

Martial arts and combat sports at their best have always included self-restraint, self-discipline, humility and honor as key parts of the tradition for this very reason. If you're going to teach kids how to fight, you've also got to teach them how to carry themselves.

It's time for MMA to get more David Carradine in Kung Fu and less Cobra Kai from The Karate Kid. The reputation of the sport is at stake.