As mixed martial arts grows, so do its subsets, organized according to nationality or fi ghting style. The Brazilians bear the yellow, green, and blue earth-spattered banner of submission. The Japanese exhibit fi nesse and technical prowess, while the prototype all-American white wrestler uses Greco-Roman to solidify his presence. Alongside these groups, there’s the African-American community. Though covering a variety of specialties, this is a unique segment all its own. From the myriad black fi ghter personalities and stories (both new and veteran) to the growing audience of black MMA spectators and black MMA-related businesses, there exists a cultural shift in the world’s most rapidly evolving sport.
Traditionally, relations between black Americans and martial arts rarely lasted past the teenage years. Other sports that reigned throughout American history, like boxing, basketball, and football, took precedence as an exercise outlet or career aspiration. But with the growth of mixed martial arts as a “popular” form of entertainment, the ranks of professional African-American fighters have swelled, and the level of interest among African-Americans is now approaching that of the rest of the MMA world. Some attribute the diminished glory of boxing in the African-American community (and in all communities) to the well-roundedness of MMA combat. Others, like David Dinkins, Jr., Executive Producer of Showtime Sports, see it in terms of economics.
“I think that boxing in general has historically been a mirror of the socioeconomic times. You can go back to when the Italian and Jewish immigrants were the predominant fi ghters, then you had African-Americans and Hispanics; we now see Eastern European fi ghters, fi ghters from South America and Asia.”
As the Executive Producer of Showtime Sports, Dinkins is probably the highestranking African-American behind the scenes of combat sports programming. Under his watch, the ShoXC and now-defunct EliteXC franchises shaped the way the sport was seen on television . In addition, he produces all the Showtime Championship Boxing and ShoBox programming. Dinkins, son of the fi rst African-American mayor of New York City, has blazed a unique trail in combat sports that’s reminiscent of his father’s historic political triumph.
“It’s a tough sport. It’s a tough sport for the athletes. It’s a tough way to make a living. A lot of people will identify with the people who are in the ring, and with their life stories,” said Dinkins. “MMA fi ghters are a more diverse type of athlete. You’ve got college-educated to street fi ghters, and guys that competed in wrestling tournaments who wanted a professional outlet. You’ve got guys that trained in martial arts in dojos, you’ve got guys that were boxers. You’ve got a very diverse group of people. Then you have the women fi ghters, too, who are very exciting competitors.”
May we invoke the spirit of Jack Johnson, please? A combat sports legend, he gave the MMA world its fi rst dose of a color and cultural shift when he became the fi rst black heavyweight champion. Johnson was also known for his showiness, via a penchant for gold teeth, tailor-made suits, and vixens. Today’s black MMA athletes sport everything from huge bicycle chains and skull-and-bone designs to Bill Gates mug shots on plain white tees.
“I love the fact that the brothers are represented so well, man,” said mellow-voiced title contender Rashad “Sugar” Evans. “I think that more black people seeing us out there will encourage young people to get into the mixed martial arts, or the martial arts in general. When you get into martial arts, it’s a lifestyle change, you know, and with all that you can conquer all the things you fear. You get respect and all that honorable stuff. It’s the martial arts way. People need to see that it’s not just a white person’s thing, and there will be more acceptance of it.”
Evans’ words reveal the current ambivalence that black MMA athletes feel. It’s true that MMA awareness is now growing among African-American combat sports fans, and that boxing, the traditional entertainment staple in the black community, is losing fans to MMA. But for the black MMA athletes, it’s not happening fast enough.
“It’s been kind of slow, and I don’t know if it’s because of marketing, if it’s not being marketed well, or what not. But a lot of black people aren’t really on mixed martial arts and s**t, Evans said. “They had the Iron Ring on BET, and that kind of exposed it to a lot of people but, for the most part, a lot of black people are not on it. I stayed in Brooklyn for about a week and a half, walking up and down the street, and I maybe had one person come up to me and say, ‘are you a fi ghter from the UFC,’ and it was a white dude. So a lot of black people aren’t on it.”
As interest has begun to emerge among African-American viewers, businesses focused on the black dollar have caught on. On the television front, there was Black Entertainment Television’s MMA reality show, Iron Ring. Placing predominantly black professional MMA hopefuls on teams helmed by hip hop glitterati, the show took on a gritty, survivalist feel that recalled the movie Fight Club. Contestants who often showed their lack of diverse training battled it out for prize money and for the chance to be the ambassador of MMA to the mostly young viewing audience of B.E.T.
Contestant Dymond “Iron Man” Jones was among the hopefuls. As a standout fi ghter in Atlanta, Jones leaped at the opportunity to introduce the world to his brand of fi ghting. Alerted to the casting call by 10-year MMA veteran George Allen, Jones went to the tryouts, and found his way onto the set shortly thereafter.
“I think it was a great show to introduce (the sport) to the non-traditional urban audience. They used what they needed to capture that audience, with the hip hop guys and what not. But even the producers admit they could have done the show a lot better. There should have been more emphasis on the athletes instead of the damn rappers. How can you show the rappers while somebody is fi ghting?”
Jones, a member of Floyd Mayweather’s team, went 3-0 into the fi nals, which he won, becoming one of the middleweight champions. Although he felt overlooked and straight-dissed by “Money” Mayweather, who Jones says didn’t “do jack” for the team, he remains optimistic about the talent that is out there via vehicles like Iron Ring.
“There were some sectors of the MMA community that didn’t think very highly of the show, and because of that, I think some of the athletes got overlooked,” Jones said. “The production turned a lot of people off. That’s messed up for the guys like myself, the athletes. Some people are legitimate athletes and some people are just trying to get in where they fi t in, I think, and all of that showed in their performances. My thing is I want to get the guys that are fi ghters, guys that really train and really take the sport seriously. I want to get them more recognition and more exposure so they don’t drop through the cracks.”
Of similar mind is Camad Hembree, content producer for the urban-lifestyle Web site HYPERLINK “http://www.headbussa. net/”www.headbussa.net. An avid MMA watcher and hip hop fan, Hembree cofounded the site with some friends of his. It serves as a link between the MMA and hip hop worlds, previously found at opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. With an emphasis on the stories that aren’t being heard on the sound tracks of new hip-hop music, this site is aimed solely at African- American and Latino males.
“Headbussa is a lifestyle movement that combines all the interests of our target demographic, including MMA. We try to tell the stories of the Houston Alexanders who do quadruple duty as a radio disc jockey, MMA athlete, hip hop culture lecturer, and father of six. Stories like his will be embraced by the burgeoning urban audience.”
That was the case with Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson. His rags- to-riches story inspired the African-American community, which honored him as their unoffi cial face in MMA to those not yet initiated. Detractors, however, cite the demise of EliteXC as reason never to bank on stories alone.
“What we recognize in the wake of Kimbo- gate, when Elite XC fell because of his one loss, is that this new audience will only respond loyally when the fi ghter’s story and image are not contrived,” said Hembree. “In the case of Kimbo, he became a beacon of hope for your average tough guy, but he also showed that trumped-up credibility will always be rejected. It is the exact same response towards the contrived street resumes of hip hop artists. Fabrication will bring ruin.”