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Amodern 3: Sport and Visual Culture

INTERSECTIONS

Ways of Knowing Mixed Martial Arts and Visual Culture

Anu Vaittinen

Introduction

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), also previously referred to as No-Holds Barred, Ultimate Fighting and Cage fighting, is a highly mediated contemporary, full contact combat sport. It is an amalgamation of skills and techniques drawn from a range of unarmed martial arts and combat sports that gradually developed into a new, hybrid form of sports fighting.1 A brief introduction highlighting the development of MMA, since it emerged in its contemporary form in the early 1990s, is provided to give those uninitiated to this relatively new sport a basic understanding of what the sport is about and how it came to be what it is today. However, due to the limited space available, discussion of the full history of MMA is beyond the scope of this article. For a more comprehensive review on the history, emergence and evolution of the sport, see Gentry2 and Snowden.3

It is important to put things into perspective and appreciate that the emergence of MMA is only a culmination of different paths of development, rather than something entirely new. The mixing of fighting techniques has historical precedence: different combat and martial arts have been in existence since Ancient times. Far Eastern Civilisations of Antiquity, developed martial arts predominantly for purposes of warfare. A degree of hybridization has always existed in the form of adapting and borrowing elements of different fighting styles in order to develop a more effective form of combat that would improve the chances of victory on the battlefield.4 Sanchez-Garcia and Malcolm have discussed the sociology of sport and the international evolution of combat sports in the 1900s at length. They point out how Eastern and Western combat disciplines developed in relative isolation until the end of the 1800s, when the first commingling took place by Japan opening up to the West.5 This gave rise to the interest in the active comparison of different combat disciplines, which was also the driving force behind the development of MMA.6 This evolution resulted in the hybridization of Western and Eastern combat techniques, with ideological tensions between amateurism and professionalism shaping the process.

This process of the sportization of martial arts and combat sports, such as Judo and Karate,7 was paralleled by the rise in popularity of full contact combat sports, such as full contact Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai.8 Alongside these developments, boxing and Olympic wrestling equally flourished in the West. The roots of modern MMA can be traced to the development of hybrid, unarmed, full contact combat disciplines such as Vale Tudo (Portuguese for “anything goes”) from Brazil and “Total Fighting” from Japan. The desire to test one art against another was re-invigorated in the early 1990s, culminating in the emergence of what at the time was called “No-Holds Barred” fighting, the predecessor of MMA.9

The first No-Holds Barred event, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was organised in 1993 in Denver, Colorado. It was the result of a partnership between Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), the advertising executive Arthur Davies, and Rorion Gracie, a prominent proponent of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the United States.10 Two combatants inside a cage, with no time limit or referee and a handful of rules11 pushed the limits of what was considered to be an acceptable sporting contest.12 Since its early days, MMA has provoked widespread opposition and even legal action from politicians and boxing and traditional martial arts communities who vehemently sought to ban the sport due to the high levels of physical contact sanctioned in MMA and the concerns regarding safety of participants.13 At times this opposition was successful and MMA was, and still remains, banned in a number of US states and Canadian provinces. The controversial nature of the sport that almost led to its demise more than once during its relatively short existence, gave rise to some of the first academic accounts of MMA. These studies are concerned with developing an understanding of the contested place MMA has within the sporting world and how its emergence was situated within the wider socio-historical developments of sport in the West.14 However these studies incorporate practitioner perspective to a limited degree, as they seek to explore these concerns.15

However, despite the opposition, the popularity of the sport grew and as commercial organisations such as the UFC, responded to critics by re-structuring the rules to introduce time limits, referees, weight categories, and the specification of illegal techniques that could result in disqualification, MMA was able to survive.16 During this time, the name “No-Holds Barred” waned in favour of Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, because it no longer reflected the reality of a combat sport that, in fact, as a result of significant rule changes, now barred a wide range of holds.17 Instead of a proponent of one style facing an opponent from another style, MMA has now evolved into a sport in its own right. Following an aggressive marketing and lobbying campaign mounted by the new owners of the UFC organisation, the profile of the sport has successfully been raised.18 In 2008, Forbes magazine estimated the value of the sport to be over 1 billion US dollars.19 As a result of the changes in the rule structure, the sport has evolved. Downey, for example, offers a systematic review of the historical evolution of the fighting techniques.20

Parallel to these developments, outside the US and the UFC, MMA events emerged all over the world; Japan in particular developed a lively scene of “Total Fighting”.21 Furthermore, as the sport gained momentum, international MMA fight leagues have developed. However, the UFC a major US corporation is still the most dominant, elite MMA organisation and has branched out to organise events outside the US: in Brazil, China, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden, for example.22 Outside the UFC many successful independent national and local promotions exist, although recently many have been bought by the corporation which owns the UFC. The position of MMA is quite unique within the sporting word because it is a sport that, despite its prominence, does not have an international governing body, but instead is predominantly controlled by (and at the mercy of) commercial organisations, such as the UFC. The UFC contests are sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which also sanctions professional boxing. Of course there are some exceptions to this at a national level; for example, Finland has had a national MMA governing body since 2006.23 More recent developments of the sport include the rise of women’s MMA and in fact, 2013 witnessed the first UFC event with two women, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, as the headline event. Furthermore, despite the continued resistance, the sport is making headway in moving from the margins of sport to the mainstream, with a broadcasting deal with Fox Sports 1 in 2013.24

MMA is a sport that has evolved in a close relationship with the media, including cable and pay-per-view TV. Interestingly, despite the exponential rise and its controversial positioning within the sporting world, MMA has received relatively limited research attention and only a handful of studies exist to date and, the early studies focused on the implications of the emergence of MMA against the wider socio-historical developments of modern sport. However the past decade has witnessed a growing academic interest in MMA and a more wide ranging scholarship is beginning to emerge.25 Nonetheless it is still a field of study that is in the early stages of its development. Within the existing scholarship on MMA, Downey is the only author who has considered the connections between MMA and visual media in relation to practical, corporeally grounded knowledge of a sport.26 He offers an in-depth discussion on the relationship between television and No-Holds Barred fighting, detailing the different stages in the development of this relationship. Downey considers how television transmits fighting techniques and offers new flows of athletic information. He proposes that:

“television is the mediating technology for the sport [that] actually facilitates the transition from passive consumption as a spectacle to active engagement as instruction […] television enhances the possibility of the leap from visual spectacle into embodied knowledge.27

Here Downey clearly makes the connection between the flow of athletic information and sporting practice via television. However, what emerged from the research for this article was that the channels through which this “leap” occurs and the way practitioners and coaches engage with visual culture are more diverse. MMA reaches practitioners around the globe via television broadcasts of MMA events, but the findings of this article show that the Internet is just as, or even more, prominent and appears to be extremely pervasive in contributing to the information flow that reaches local practitioners, such as those in the fieldwork settings. A variety of online material is available to the local MMA practitioner with a mere click of a button.

Having provided a basic outline of the emergence and development of MMA, what follows is a brief introduction to the practices that constitute the sport of MMA. This offers a reference point for the rest of the discussion. As noted above, MMA combines skills and techniques from a number of existing, unarmed, combat sports and martial arts. The practices of MMA are based on the idea of two practitioners engaging in a full contact contest which can take place standing up, in a clinch or on the ground.28 MMA contests take place inside a cage made from metal mesh. The floor surface is covered by rubberised vinyl. Each contest lasts three or more rounds of 3-5 minutes. A referee oversees the contest and can stop it if one of the contestants is no longer able to intelligently defend him/herself. The practitioners can utilise 1) strikes (punches, knees, kicks and elbows) that can be directed at the opponents head, limbs and body; 2) control positions and pins designed to control the opponent by taking them down onto the ground, attempting to gain a dominant position to deliver strikes; and, 3) submission techniques such as chokes, joint locks and bars designed to make the opponent submit through pain or unconsciousness, unless they signal submission verbally or by tapping out.29 This article refers to the experientially grounded and embodied skills, shared understandings and the ability to utilise both in action as “ways of knowing MMA.” The term “ways of knowing” is used instead of “MMA knowledge” because, as Harris and Rapport have pointed out, the term “knowledge” in English language has an instant connotation of being something fixed, and cognitively-based, whereas “ways of knowing” more accurately captures the embodied, situated, processual, and constantly evolving nature of sporting knowledge,30 or what Jacquelyn Allen Collinson refers to as “knowing in action.”31

This paper is based on the insights that emerged from field and interview data collected from two MMA gyms during the ethnographic PhD thesis study, “Varieties of embodied knowing: an ethnographic study of Mixed Martial Arts.” Assuming the dual role of researcher and practicing mixed martial artist, the collection of the data utilised ethnographic, insider-participant observation, informal conversations, and was complemented by semi-structured interviews. The analysis revealed that the MMA coaches and practitioners critically engage with the visual in a variety of ways beyond televised MMA as part of the process of developing experientially grounded ways of knowing MMA. In particular, the data highlighted the role that new media and new media technologies played in the way these sports practitioners actively utilised the visual and how it shaped the embodied pedagogies and enskillment, the everyday learning and coaching practices in the gym. The aim of this article is to offer a contribution to existing work by examining and illustrating, 1) the insights that can be developed by attending to the ways visual culture and sporting knowledge intersect in the daily sporting practices; 2) how sports practitioners actively engage with visual culture in a way that informs the politics of practice and practical processes of embodied pedagogies and enskillment; and, 3) demonstrate the role both old and new media technologies play in connecting these processes that further illustrates the interconnectedness of the local and global sporting arenas.

The next part of this article sets the scene by critically examining the existing literature on visual culture and pedagogies, and the existing work on the subject within studies of sport and physical culture. It will outline the gap in the literature, into which this article taps, and the body of work in which it looks to contribute. The main body will subsequently discuss the data that offers insight to how MMA participants actively engage with different forms of visual culture: a) the televised elite MMA; b) the visual materials in print; and, c) visual materials online. The concluding section then briefly discusses the implications of these examples to the study of sport and visual culture, and considers some of the many possibilities for further research.

Situating the study of intersections between sport participants, ways of knowing and (mediated) visual culture

The previous section has introduced the topic of this paper. The interconnections that have so far been made between MMA, media and the new information economy, and their role in the emergence, evolution and diffusion of this new sport have also been outlined.32 However, in contrast to existing work, this article seeks to explore the potential of examining these connections – in particular, connections between visual cultures, experientially grounded embodied ways of knowing sport (pedagogy and enskillment) and new media technologies. Interestingly, outside of the formal physical education context, which has predominantly focused on textual and content analysis, research that focuses on the examination of the relationship between ways of knowing sport and visual culture from the perspective of the sports participants has received little attention in sports media studies and physical cultural studies. This section situates this article within the existing research landscape on the subject of physical culture, visual culture and new media technologies. The discussion begins with a brief consideration of the pervasiveness of visual culture in contemporary society, physical culture included. Subsequently, the way new media technologies have been addressed in studies of the media, sport and visual culture so far is examined. Finally, an outline of some of the existing work that has emerged more recently in a call for incorporation of a more systematic study in connection with new media technologies, visual culture and physical culture education is provided.33

Visual culture, according to Rose, is about “the plethora of ways in which the visual is part of social life.”34 She, alongside many others,35 continues to underscore that in contemporary society, the role of visual culture is increasingly pervasive. Martin Jay, for example, has referred to this centrality of the visual in contemporary Western society as “ocular centrism” and, consequently, this has a powerful influence on different aspects of society – the world of sport and physical culture is no exception.36 Television broadcasts endless streams of sporting events bringing the heat of the action into our living rooms; while front and back pages of newspapers are filled with images of sportsmen and women. Increasing amounts of time is spent watching sports events streamed via the Internet, which is equally saturated with still and moving images, not to mention the popularity of sports video games and virtual simulations. It is safe to say, sport and physical culture is inextricably connected to visual culture and thrives on the production of images and, as Azzarito has pointed out, the images consumed play an increasing role in our lives, experiences and concerns.37

Goldfarb has emphasised the way in which the development of an increasingly visualised culture is closely connected to and accompanied by the global expansion in communications technologies and media. These networks and technologies are the media that facilitate our engagement with visual culture because they have transformed the ways that knowledge and information is disseminated and produced.38 It is suggested here that this further underlines the importance for examining the role that new media technologies play in our engagement with visual culture and sport. The following paragraphs will examine some of the ways in which the visual and new media technologies have been considered in social scientific studies of sport, highlighting some of the limitations of the existing approaches, which this article seeks to begin to address..

The study of sport and media is a flourishing field of research as the cultural significance of sport has grown to new heights in the media age. A wide range of studies has emerged to examine the ways in which sport and various forms of media interact with culture. Some major strands of development include, but are not limited to: the influences of globalisation, marketing and commodification of sport; intersections of racial and gendered power relations in sports media; the postmodern mediation of sport and the Internet; violence and mediated sport.39 Furthermore, the wider lines of development in sports media research have tended to focus on three areas: media texts, media institutions and audiences. However, it is not the aim here to offer an exhaustive review of research on mediated sport, but rather to offer an outline of some of the key lines of enquiry that have dominated the field so far. What is important to take away from this is that the dominant approaches in sports media studies have been focused on textual, content and discourse analysis, and, as Wilson has noted, the existing work offers valuable contribution to the field, but different methodological approaches would offer further insight.40 In one of the most recent additions to the field, Higgins and O’Mahony have explored the relationship of sport and visual culture through a historical perspective, offering a contribution to the existing corpus of work.41 Nonetheless, the analysis of mediated visual culture of sport using alternative qualitative or visual methodologies in particular has been limited and practitioners’ engagement with it as a part of learning sporting skills and coaches pedagogies have been absent from the existing accounts. On a general note, the existing research landscape reflects Bank’s observation on social sciences as a discipline of words,42 and Goldfarb’s point that traditionally, in the Western world, words have tended to have a higher ranking than images.43

The influence of new media technologies has begun to attract more interest in the field of physical cultural studies, also generating calls for a more diverse range of methodological approaches to be utilised. For example, Wilson, who has studied the potential of the Internet as grounds for development of sport-related social movements, has pointed out that the implications of new media forms for the sociology of sport are yet to be placed under systematic, in-depth enquiry.44 Other examples of existing research that investigates the role of new media technologies in sport include a number of studies on sports video games. Plymire, for example, has examined the implications of virtual worlds of sports video games and the manner in which they invite users to adopt posthuman subject positions through immersion in the gaming experience.45 Others, such as Crawford and Gosling, have explored sports-themed video games and player narratives, and Atkinson has examined the role of simulations in the sports video gaming world.46 Outside of studies focused on sports video games, Ferriter’s study has sought to understand the role of Wikipedia as a vehicle for communication between sports fans and its role in reinforcing the existing public narratives about sport.47 Interestingly, considering the prominent role of visual culture and new media technologies in sport, there are no studies on MMA that have been conducted examining the role of new media technologies, or studies that consider how sports practitioners, not fans, engage with visual culture as a part of developing ways of knowing their sport. It is this gap in the literature that this article seeks to attend.

Only recently have there been calls for systematic research attention to the use of visual methodologies in the field of sport and physical culture.48 In 2013, a welcome addition to the field was an edited collection by Azzarito and Kirk that specifically addressed the topic of physical culture, pedagogy and new media technologies within the formal and public educational context.49 Seeking to embrace the “visual turn” in understanding the visual in physical culture(s) and pedagogies, they examined the subject from a number of angles within the context of physical culture, education and health. The authors in this volume sought to integrate the visual in physical cultural studies on pedagogy, and into the methodological approaches utilised. The first half of the volume focuses on formal contexts of school physical education. The opening contribution by Oliver highlights one of the most significant insights of the volume, which focuses on the pupils’ or young people’s perspectives and activities (such as photo elicitation and co-operative production of visual materials) as a part of the research methodology. The second part examines pedagogies of physical culture beyond the school environment, which is also the focus of this article. These essays also investigate young people and their use of “photo voice” in the context of policy research,50 YouTube as a source of data and presentation of ways of learning in physical culture,51 and examine the meanings children assign to physical activity.52 This volume is an instrumental contribution to the study of physical culture and new media technologies. This article offers a contribution to this developing field of study by exploring it from yet another angle, not covered by most recent collection of studies, which is one of the first systematic efforts to place visual culture at the centre of study of pedagogies of physical culture.

The following paragraphs will shed light on how MMA practitioners and coaches are engaged with different forms of visual culture and new media technologies, as a part of the process of developing experientially grounded ways of knowing MMA in practice.

Use of visual culture as a pedagogic device and learning tool in the local MMA gym

The ethnographic insider-participant observation research which took place from 2010 to 2011, and the subsequent analysis, revealed that the MMA practitioners and coaches actively utilise a range of mediated and self-produced visual materials as part of their daily training and coaching practices. The main part of the paper examines the different ways this occurred in practice, in the local MMA gym, through selected examples from the field data. Consequently this article examines these connections and their implications outside of formal educational contexts. Also explored is the role of new media technologies in sport beyond the studies of media content, institutions and audiences through textual approaches that have dominated the existing work on sport, visual culture and media. The following three sub-sections are dedicated to examples from the collected field data, which illustrate the argument presented in this article. These examples consist of, 1) ways practitioners engaged with the visual culture provided by televised elite and national MMA events and programming; 2) utilisation of printed visual material to inform coaching and learning practices; and, finally, 3) the engagement with the visual MMA materials available on the Internet, including the role of new media technologies and social networking sites (SNSs) to the ways in which practitioners and coaches engage with visual culture. mdpfglobal.org  

Mediated, elite MMA on TV:
Enskillment, pedagogy and politics of practice

Downey, whose work has been introduced earlier in this paper, is the only author who addresses the relationship between MMA knowledge and televised broadcasts of MMA events.53 He argues that through the medium of television, a repository and flow of specialised technical knowledge is transmitted to the MMA fighters. He attends to the visual inasmuch as he discusses how the televised distribution of events and the slow motion replays facilitate the dissection of fighting techniques, with which fighters can experiment in the gym. However, the aim here is to investigate how non-elite practitioners in the local gym utilise these mediated visual displays of sports fighting to inform their practice, in particular in relation to coaching, learning and politics of practice. As noted in the introduction, MMA and the role media played in its emergence, development and diffusion makes it particularly fertile ground for examining visual culture in sport. This is not to say that the visual is less relevant in other fields of physical culture, but to demonstrate with examples from MMA, the value of the approach proposed here.

In both of the local gym settings that were a part of the ethnographic field research, the practitioners and coaches were no strangers to televised MMA events and, on a general level, the transnational MMA scene was present in the daily interactions, conversations and most importantly the practices in the gym. It is very illustrative of the relationship between MMA and media that many of the coaches and more seasoned practitioners had their first contact with the sport via old fashioned VHS tapes or DVDs they had managed to get hold of through friends who were already training in combat sports, or postal orders from the US or Japan. Michael, an assistant coach and Rick, a novice fighter, conversed about their first encounter with MMA, echoing the experiences of many MMA coaches and practitioners in the field settings:

I’d seen a video of the very first UFC like a VHS thing. I put it in the video player and just watched, thought well, I’d fancy having a go at that.54

 

Well I kind of saw a lot of the early UFC’s when I was about nine or ten and then picked it up from there.55

This illustrates the diffusion of the sport in practice, and the coaches told me the practitioners would share videotapes of MMA events with other practitioners in the gym. One of the coaches, Luke, explained to me how in the early days it was much more difficult to get hold of the videos and be able to learn about the practices at the elite level; whereas now, with the Internet, it is much more easily accessible. At this point it has to be acknowledged that the broadcasting of MMA events on cable and pay-per-view television does somewhat overlap with the visual material that is available online because, for example, the UFC streams some of the preliminary fights on Facebook. I will return to this point later on in this article.

During the participant observation and interviews it became evident that the MMA practitioners (recreational and competitive), as well as the coaches, utilised what they had “seen on TV” to inform their learning and coaching practices in the local gyms. On one level, the techniques and approaches to training advocated by certain elite fighters were keenly observed by the coaches and practitioners who then would seek to experiment with these approaches in the gym during their training sessions. For example, on one Saturday afternoon, our coach Matthew had decided to structure the session based on an approach to striking as demonstrated by one of the top UFC fighters at the time. Everyone had seen him in action and as we practiced there were numerous references to what we had seen the previous weekend on TV, so when our coach made these references everyone knew what he was talking about. This is, of course, but one of many examples of how televised MMA informs the practices in the local gym. On the other hand, both practitioners and coaches also individually study what they have seen and use replays, slow motion footage and the forward and rewind function on their TV/DVD/Video recorder to watch the fighters in action again and again, studying every single move, with the aim of learning from the best. Peter, one of the fighters told me:

When I got introduced to the UFC [it was] about at the time of UFC 30 to 40 and that’s when I started watching it and then come [UFC] 60 and 70, I was right into it, watching every single one. I’m an absolute nerd, watching, learning [from] hundreds of hours of footage.56

Coaches, as well as MMA practitioners, seek to develop their skills in coaching on an ongoing basis. Conversations with the coaches revealed that all of them spent time studying the elite events. They utilise footage to study the fighters at the top of the game and examine the competitors applying their skills in action against another top competitor. During a conversation in the gym, Jake, a coach and a fighter, explained that there was always something you could learn by watching the way someone is using a particular technique, the way they move or the way they combine the skills into a whole. He kept emphasising how he always tries to learn something when he is watching MMA, because there is always stuff you can learn, because the sport is constantly evolving.

Furthermore, the televised elite level MMA materials highlight the trends or fashions in what are the most effective techniques and shape, what I call here, “the politics of practice.” The politics of practice is facilitated by the constant flow of information about successful skills, techniques and training methods that are filtered into the practices of the local gym via televised events and elite fighters’ and coaches’ performances. During and around training, discussion between the coaches and practitioners were lively and as the sport evolved they were quick to respond by incorporating new approaches into their training, coaching and competitive practices. These politics of practice are exemplified by a discussion of the utility of Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu. A number of elite fighters had trained in this particular system and some had successfully utilised it in the UFC events that the participants and coaches followed closely. On one occasion during a training session, a heated debate took place between some practitioners about the value of 10th Planet system to MMA practitioners and those in favour of it were quick to quote the fighters they had seen using it successfully in MMA competitions; whereas, others considered fighters incorporating more traditional Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu into their MMA game were more successful. This illustrates the kinds of interchanges that took place between elite competitors’ performances broadcast around the world and the practices in these local MMA gyms. The practitioners and coaches in these local gyms actively engaged in debates about the most effective skills and techniques for MMA, which consequently informed the ways they sought to develop their ways of knowing MMA as well as the coaches embodied pedagogies in the local MMA gym.

Frame by frame:
Knowing MMA through visual materials in print

The participants and coaches also use a wealth of visual MMA materials that can be found in print. Although not focusing on development of sporting skills, Wheaton and Beal have demonstrated how sport-specific, sub-cultural magazines have instrumental influence on practitioner identities in the context of windsurfing (UK) and skateboarding (US).57 Here the discussion explores examples of two kinds of visual materials utilised by MMA practitioners and coaches: 1) MMA magazines and, 2) technical MMA manuals. Although print materials were used by many practitioners, some preferred to use the online materials, which are discussed in the next section, due to the ease of access, which has been further facilitated by the new media technologies (camera phones in particular).

MMA magazines, such as Fighters Only, include MMA related fitness training information, sports injury information, nutritional tips and technical instructional. Each magazine has a number of instructional sections that often exemplify techniques used by a particular elite fighter, often with the title “learn to fight like them”. The majority of practitioners encountered during the field-research, bought magazines or read the electronic versions of the same magazines online. Alternatively they had access to magazines in the gyms, because both gyms had magazines left by the sofas and seats in the reception/changing area. Frequently the practitioners would browse the technique sections of the magazines whilst waiting for their training sessions to start and discuss what they had seen, relating their own learning experiences to the performances of elite fighters they had seen on TV. These magazines have instructional sections in addition to MMA news, product endorsements, fighter interviews and feature stories. These instructional sections offer frame by frame images, depicting a particular movement sequence or a technique, sometimes the sections focused on a particular finishing move, other times a sequence of movements or a particular striking technique. These visual instructionals also frequently include related fitness training exercises, similarly showing a step-by-step sequence of a bodyweight circuit adapted for MMA or training exercises to condition a particular aspect of fitness relevant to MMA.

The approaches utilised by elite fighters are also broken down to visual tutorials. These kinds of visual materials are designed and produced explicitly for practitioners’ and coaches’ learning purposes. This illustrates yet another way in which the daily training practices and interactions connect with the transnational MMA scene and ways of knowing MMA in practice at the local gym. Another point to consider, arising from the field data, is that the practitioners do not just passively consume the images, but use the information to change their training practices. The value and utility of the MMA magazines is subject to close scrutiny amongst practitioners. They relate and evaluate the instructionals that they have studied together with other practitioners and also experimented with them during training sessions.

Furthermore, in terms of visual materials in print, there are a large number of technical manuals available to MMA practitioners. These manuals give detailed step-by-step instructions with pictures on how to do particular techniques, very similar to the instructionals in magazines, but more extensive in terms of the techniques and movement sequences. The magazines provide more bite-sized instructionals. Many of these manuals have been compiled by an editor working together with elite competitors or coaches. Many of the elite competitors such as Anderson Silva,58 BJ Penn,59 Fedor Emelianenko,60 as well as coach Greg Jackson,61 have brought out their own detailed instructional manuals. The steps are presented in a sequence and at times the move is photographed from different angles to offer a more comprehensive picture of the technique. Many practitioners I spoke to studied these manuals closely, often when they had down time from training, at home. However, some also brought them into the gym. This was often the case for Nathan, one of the fighters waiting for his private one-to-one training session to start. He dug out an instructional manual from his kitbag, followed by his training notebook that he always carried with him. He began by closely studying a section of the book describing a bottom half guard technique called the lockdown, where the performer of the technique is underneath their opponent on the ground. They only have control of one of their opponent’s legs, which they have gained by trapping the opponents leg with theirs, locking it tight in place by manoeuvring their feet in a particular fashion. Suddenly Nathan was lying on the floor on his back studying the book eagerly, and then he dragged the training dummy in to help him, placing the dummy on the top, trapping its leg, and still holding the book.62

This is very illustrative of the manner in which global practice is mediated to the level of local practices. Equally, the some coaches use these written manuals as pedagogic information sources and crucial reference materials. During the field research, Keith, one of the coaches, explained how he avidly studies the manuals because the images allow him to trace the detailed sequences involved and offered him a reminder of key teaching points. He spends a lot of his free time in the evenings studying these materials and making detailed notes. Keith, Matthew and Luke, all utilised them at times to aid in the thematic structures of their teaching and as points of reference for teaching and planning their sessions.63 However, all the coaches agreed that without an experiential knowledge base these books would make little sense. They are designed for the practitioners, but their purpose is not to replace the embodied subjects’ lived, experienced involvement in the MMA practice. This highlights an important point about the value of examining the ways in which practitioners utilise these commercially produced and mediated visual materials, because it underscores the differences between the ways in which fans and practitioners engage with these materials. The final part of this section will examine the manner in which the practitioners engaged with visual MMA materials online via the Internet, mobile technologies. This will also offer insight to how the practitioners and coaches themselves produced and studied visual materials for learning and coaching purposes.

MMA, visual culture and the Internet:
Streaming videos, instructionals and video sharing

Another arena where practitioners and coaches engage with visual culture and where the flows of athletic information circulate is the Internet, a channel of information which is not discussed by Downey. There is a wealth of information available on MMA online. Not only are there fighters, fight teams, coaches and gym web-pages that contain information about the gyms, training times and coaches, there are also discussion forums, instructional databases and YouTube channels dedicated to MMA instructionals. These online forums operate in similar fashion as the instructionals offered by MMA magazines and books discussed above. With regards to the visual materials utilised by practitioners and coaches in field settings, the focus is on the instructional databases and use of YouTube video sharing. Finally, this article will discuss the ways in which the practitioners and coaches themselves engage in the production of visual materials, which they then utilise and share with fellow practitioners using social networking sites and YouTube.

The data revealed regular references by coaches and fighters, as well as recreational practitioners, to instructional videos and learning materials available online. The field research also involved spending innumerable hours studying MMA videos online, predominantly via YouTube because of its free access. Some MMA fighters and coaches have also set up websites that operate as specialised archives that contain instructional videos of MMA techniques, see for example 10th Planet website archive. These sites are available to those interested around the world and can be accessed either free or via subscription payment, which allows full access all to the instructional materials. As a way of accessing these video instructionals, the Internet is a popular medium amongst practitioners and coaches. For example, one of the coaches, gym owner Matthew, subscribes to a particular Jiu-Jitsu/MMA website for $5 per month to get full access to all the instructional videos. Having subscribed to the website he has instant access to a library of instructional videos, which, like the technical manuals discussed in the previous section, offers detailed moving images and step-by-step instructions for the viewer. Websites such as this are used as reference material as a part of the ongoing study of MMA.64 Both coaches and practitioners use the website instructionals to learn about techniques they are particularly interested in, have been practicing during training sessions or have seen elite practitioners use successfully in competition. Some of the practitioners told me that they now used the videos available on the Internet rather than instructional books, mainly due to ease of access. Martin, one of the practitioners, noted how they were literally available with a click of a button.

Furthermore, YouTube is one of the most vibrant channels where MMA materials can be viewed free of charge. Burgess, Green, Jenkins and Hartley describe YouTube as a disordered public video archive that has developed into the largest and most widely used video sharing websites on the Internet.65 Some of the practitioners indeed use the site for posting footage of their MMA contests. This article approaches learning from YouTube from a different angle than that explored by Quennersted in a recent essay in an edited collection on visual culture, media technologies by Azzarito and Kirk.66 Instead of considering the ways in which practitioners use these materials for learning, this article examines how fighters often request a friend to record their fights on video, using smart phones or mini video cameras. This footage is then posted on YouTube or shared with friends on social networking sites (SNSs), namely Facebook, so that it is freely accessible for their friends from the gym (who they also connected with through online social networks). Boyd and Ellison, for example, have argued in their research that Facebook is often used to maintain existing connections outside the social networking site.67 Often, prior to competitions, the coaches and fighters also seek video footage of their upcoming opponents on YouTube with the purpose of learning about their opponents’ fighting style, strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, the practitioners also use YouTube to access the wealth of instructional MMA videos freely available for learning purposes. Often they utilise their smart phones to view them when it is most convenient. Illustrating this, Noel, a 24 year old novice fighter, explained how he frequently views MMA videos on his breaks during nightshift in order to learn more about techniques and strategies for fighting. He wants to learn and then adapt elements that he sees suitable for his style.68 This reveals an interesting detail about this process where, as a result of the wealth of information available, the local practitioners in the fieldwork context are active and critical in the manner in which they utilise this diverse range of visual information.

This kind of visual material is often watched communally in and around the training environment. On one occasion, one of the practitioners mentioned a fantastic knockout with a flying kick performed by one of the UFC lightweights he had seen on TV. At the end of the training session he dug out his smart phone and the all the practitioners gathered around, the video was played on the smart phone via YouTube for everyone to watch. Everyone keenly commented on what they had just seen and the video was replayed multiple times for those wanting to see it. On another occasion the coaches were together watching fights that some of the practitioners from the club had elsewhere, which were streamed live and posted online for free. This illustrates another way in which new media technologies play a role in mediating the flow of athletic information to the practitioners in the local gym who then utilised it to inform their daily learning and coaching practices. As I have noted in the discussion of visual MMA materials in print, rather than being passive recipients the practitioners actively and critically evaluate what they have seen and then in turn experimented with them in practice. Consequently, what they had seen is often discussed with coaches and other practitioners during the training sessions. The information about the embodied pedagogy and practice of MMA is not just mindlessly absorbed but viewed and discussed critically in dialogue with other practitioners and coaches.

Finally, the new media technologies, in particular the smart phone, facilitated the production of materials by practitioners and coaches. Because of the camera and recording technologies incorporated in the smart phone, it is easy for them to record training materials in the gym and post their own MMA material online if they so wish. The practitioners and coaches regularly recorded videos with their mobile phones during MMA seminars. These seminars were a kind of master class where a prominent MMA fighter or coach came to teach the practitioners for anywhere between 2-4 hours. This illustrates further the role that new media technologies and the Internet play in the everyday training practices in the local MMA gym. It also shows how new media technologies facilitate the use and production of visual materials by the practitioners themselves for learning purposes, allowing them to record their own learning experiences and what they had witnessed during seminars with elite coaches and practitioners. Examining some examples of the ways in which MMA practitioners and coaches in the local MMA gym engage with a range of visual materials via a number of mediums highlights how the visual informs the learning and coaching practices in the gym are and offers insight to the role that new media technologies play in mediating their engagement with visual culture.

Concluding thoughts and a consideration for further research

This article has explored the intersections of ways of knowing MMA and visual culture, and on a wider level, beyond sport, examined the connections between visual culture and experientially grounded, practical ways of knowing. It opened with an introduction to MMA and the work by Downey, who is so far the only academic who has explored the relationship of MMA and new information economy.69 The second part of the paper examined the existing work on sport, learning, pedagogy and the connections it has to (mediated) visual culture. This highlighted how this existing body of work had so far paid limited attention to the ways in which sports practitioners and coaches actively engage and utilise the mediated visual materials broadcast on TV, available online and in print as a part of developing ways of knowing a particular sport. The discussion also showed how the interest in the manner in which new media technologies play a role in their engagement with visual culture has been absent from much of the existing work. The main body of the article offered a discussion of the data on how MMA coaches and practitioners in two gyms in the North-East of England (UK) utilised a range of (mediated) visual materials broadcast, online and in print, in their coaching and learning practices, as well as producing their own videos using their smart phones. This article will now underscore some of the insights and contributions made here to the existing work on visual culture, physical culture and pedagogy. A methodological note is also made about the value of ethnographically grounded approaches to understanding the ways in which the local and global interconnect. Finally, a brief comment on the possible avenues for further systematic research on the intersections of ways of knowing sport, media, and visual culture is offered.

The examples from the field research data presented in this article offer insight into ways in which mediated visual culture intersect in the development of experientially grounded ways of knowing MMA in relation to processes of pedagogy and enskilment in practice in the local gym. This paper offers a contribution to the existing work, by examining the ways in which sports practitioners actively and critically engage with a range of visual materials, accessed through different mediums to inform their daily learning and coaching practices. The contemporary nature of MMA and the role of mediated visual culture in the emergence, development and diffusion of the sport have allowed a drawing out of these insights. This article also contributes to the wider body of research, which has emerged as a part of the visual turn in the study of physical culture and pedagogy, by examining the subject matter from the perspective of the sports participants, beyond the formal educational contexts and context of physical culture explored in the existing research.

These insights also highlight the potential of the use of ethnographic participant observation and interviews for examining the ways mediated visual culture and experientially grounded ways of knowing intersect in practice. This method allows the researcher to observe the role visual culture player in the everyday learning and coaching practices, practitioner interactions, and the role of new media technologies in these processes. With reference to the examples discussed in this article, Wilson’s call for the need to be more attentive to the ways that interconnections between the global and local visual cultures, sporting practices and the Internet can be understood through fieldwork is also relevant in methodological consideration to the study of sport, media and visual culture.70 Increased incorporation of ethnography and different visual methodologies discussed by Phoenix,71 and the authors in the edited collection by Azzarito and Kirk,72 will allow a development of research that is attentive to the prominent role of visual culture in the field of physical culture beyond textual approaches that characterise much of the existing research.

This article offers a contribution to the existing corpus of work on sport and visual culture by demonstrating the value of examining intersections of visual culture and ways of knowing a sport from the perspective of the sporting practitioners. It has presented some examples of the ways in which MMA practitioners actively engage with a range of visual materials and new media technologies as a part of their daily learning and coaching practices. In conclusion, this potential can be further realised through studies in different sporting contexts as well as studies on MMA. Furthermore in the light of the insights presented here, the role new media technologies – smart phones, the Internet, video sharing sites such as YouTube, social networking sites and the production of visual materials by practitioners and coaches – play in the manner in which ways of knowing MMA and visual culture intersect, grants further investigation.


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  11. For example, biting and eye gouging were prohibited. 

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  15. These authors focused analyzing the implications of audience interest in this full contact fighting sport and sought to understand the boundaries of the acceptable levels of physical contact in sport. They examine these emergence of MMA against the socio-historical process of sportization where modern sport is considered to have developed towards more organized and less violent forms of activity, whilst still offering a source of controlled excitement. 

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  33. Azzarito and Kirk, eds, Pedagogies, Physical Culture and Visual Methods; Cassandra Phoenix, “Seeing the world of physical culture: the potential of visual methods for qualitative research in sport and exercise,” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise 2, no. 2 (2010): 93-108. 

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  36. Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: the denigration of vision in the Twentieth-Century French thought (Berkeley, CA: California University Press, 1993). 

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  64. Field notes, September 2010. 

  65. Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, You Tube: Online video and participatory culture (Polity Press, 2009). 

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Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Image: from Animal Locomotion
Eadweard Muybridge
http://www.muybridge.org