On the Sexuality of Mixed Martial Arts

Of the top ten most popular sports in America, MMA is viewed as both the gayest and the straightest

The term “super gay” has been buzzing in the MMA community due to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s tribute video to UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre. Something similar happened in December 2007 when he kissed and “fondled” Fedor Emelianenko, the baddest man on the planet in those days. Van Damme’s latest video splices scenes of him kicking ass in movies with St. Pierre doing so in the cage and there’s some looped footage of them practicing kicking techniques. But much of the gay talk comes from the prominent featuring of Van Damme helping St. Pierre with a groin stretch. A few Twitter comments:

I thought about putting “super gay” to the side and maybe simply writing about how washed-up martial arts action stars, most notably Steven Seagal, have kept themselves relevant by leeching on to America’s fastest-growing sport. That is, until I came across what Seth Davis, a respectable college basketball analyst for CBS and writer for Sports Illustrated, recently tweeted and then deleted about MMA:

Looking on news sites showing picture of two muscular bloody men in homoerotic fighting pose…. Sorry, I’ll never get this UFC thing. Maybe I’m a prude on this but I’m also a dad. I don’t mind my sons watching boxing, but I wouldn’t want them watching a UFC bout

The quote wasn’t so much a shock to me as it was, like comments by members of the GOP this year on rape and women, the erupted microcosm of how many people actually feel. I thought of the quote “For every spider you see in your house there are countless others you don’t see,” of the palpable political tension when I lived in Tucson that made it seem like the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords was damn-near predictable, was the natural result of hidden tension bursting. Of volcanoes. Of earthquakes. Of how when I was competing in MMA I was deemed gay by some and a typical testosterone-filled womanizer by others. I thought of the days when the cheapest way to watch fights was to go to Hooters and how homophobic MMA comments always swirled there, and, I came to see, in any place that teems with blatant and often stilted heterosexuality. To say I was grateful for Jesse Holland’s response on MMA Mania to Seth Davis’s comment is an understatement. Here’s the gem:

Allow me to translate.

Davis saw [George] St. Pierre, known primarily for his unstoppable wrestling, smothering [Carlos] Condit and working from side control. So what’s the first thing that popped into his head? Gay sex. And that’s something to be condemned in the Davis household, as he would surely fail as a parent if he allowed MMA to convert his children to homosexuality.


It’s all about the prolonged and sustained “grabbing.” None of the other top ten sports have such a thing. Even in American football there’s a distance and then a grab/tackle and then a distance again. Not to mention the athlete’s bodies are totally covered in pads. In MMA the fighters often wear nothing but spandex shorts and the “grabbing,” here-on-out referred to as grappling, can bring the athletes into all sorts of positions, positions most outsiders have only seen or experienced through sex. The guard position, for example, is one of the core positions in any grappling art and therefore in MMA and, as such, it’s the one that generates the majority of gay comments. Yet it’s also a core position in combat training for the U.S. Army (can’t get much straighter than that, right?). Here’s a photo of it from their Flickr account:

Some may chalk this all up to an ignorance about the complexity of grappling and of how ancient wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports and was done naked so as to ensure nobody could cheat, or of how homophobia will always run rampant where masculine heterosexuality flourishes most, but there’s something else at work here, too. As mixed martial arts becomes more and more mainstream, and it will, the dichotomies and juxtapositions it creates is sure to continue and possibly deepen the conversation about man-to-man contact and, therefore, about male sexuality.

–Photo: kellbailey/Flickr

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Peter Houlihan says:

    Firstly, it is pretty homoerotic, and so is naked, classical, graeco roman wrestling.

    Secondly, if I had any, I wouldn’t let my sons watch either. It’s waaaay more violent than an olympic boxing match and homo-eroticism is no more suitable for minors than hetero-eroticism.

    Doesn’t stop me watching it though 😀

  2. I shared this article on my Facebook page, and being a gay man with a lot of intelligent and sporty gay friends we tossed around a bunch of ideas and criticisms about the piece. Here’s what my friends and I had to say.

    1) the offhanded comment about the US Army being a benchmark for straightness was a sticking point for most of them. FYI: Gays in the military is the counterpoint there. Gay and Lesbian folks have fought hard and won to be recognized openly in the military, and that’s a fresh wound. To say that military service is inherently straight discounts all those people.

    2) One of my friends brought up the fact that because MMA is an entertainment sport, rather than actual life-or-death fighting as in the military, and that this lowers the threshold for how grappling can be seen as homoerotic. Because it’s something that people engage in voluntarily, rather than under duress, means that they have chosen to engage in a sport that puts them into situations that could be seen as homoerotic. It’s the act of volition that lends to the perception of gayness.

    3) Perception vs. Reality. This is a problem that queer folks and folks who just happen to have different mannerisms face on a regular basis, and becomes another sticking point for homophobia. It’s not that anyone is necessarily gay in fact, but the mere perception of gayness raises an uncomfortable spectre for some straight men. Masculinity then becomes something that they need to define as being *not that,* often defensively. This is the “hooters” phenomenon that you describe in the article. This leads to greater and greater macho posturing in order to prove a point. The cognitive dissonance comes from their interest in the sport, and the perception of gayness.

    4) There is no “straight” or “gay” sport. Sports are sports. They have no sexual content, and therefore should be able to be played and enjoyed by anyone of any orientation. I think where a lot of young queer kids get lost in sports is because there is this bias of perceived straightness in sports, and for a very long time this has been perpetuated on a professional level. Again, it’s only very recently that we have developed amateur leagues that promote LGBT involvement in sports. And only fairly recently have professional athletes come forward as openly gay, and professional sports taken a stand against homophobia. See the NHL’s “You Can Play” campaign, and Rugby champ Ben Cohen’s “Stand UP Foundation.” And I think MMA should be no different in this regard. Though one of my friends asked if there were any openly gay MMA fighters. I don’t know the answer to that, maybe you do. How did that go for them? Did it matter in any meaningful way?

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      1) Not to mention that the Army has been held jokingly as a gay symbol (along with the Navy) long before don’t ask don’t tell was lifted.
      2)Good point! Nothing sexier than consent 😉
      3)Yeah, there’s probably a bit of that. None of the guys I know who are into MMA are in any way insecure so I haven’t seen much of it.
      4)Oh come on! It’s two pairs of shorts away from being gay BDSM porn! Didn’t Sakuraba actually start spanking one of the Gracies the other day?

  3. Huh.

    I’ve never been the least bit interested in watching MMA events, but after reading this, I may give it a try. I’m a fan of wrestling *because* of the grappling, and also a fan of anything that allows men (or women, for that matter) to move beyond that idea that physical contact MUST signal sexuality.

  4. QuantumInc says:

    It’s a old joke that wrestling has the same components as gay sex, usually used by nerds to make fun of jocks. The joke not only calls them gay, but also hypocrites since the jocks are presumably proud of their heterosexual prowess. Apparently the logic of the joke can occasionally grip the minds of adults too.

    Like anything, to understand the spirit of an activity or culture it is not enough to examine the physical elements. They’re not to be ignored, but most of the time focusing on the movements is besides the point. Imagine if someone published a study featuring mathematics of the “Gangnam Style” dance would that help you understand the intentionally baffling video? (If you haven’t heard if it, understand it has a dance similar to riding a horse, the music video is from Japan, it has hundreds of millions of views on Youtube and is specifically designed to be bizarre).

    The only way to understand the spirit of an activity or culture, such as wrestling, MMA, or watching bizarre internet videos, is to talk to someone who is involved with that thing.


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