Jesus Didn’t Tap: Masculinity, Theology, and Ideology in Christian Mixed Martial Arts

Justine Greve

God, you are the ultimate, you are the ultimate fighter. —Joe Boyd

 

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A shot of the Bible against Ben Henderson’s bare chest cuts to a hazy video of the fighter boxing. In a voice-over, Henderson reads the Twenty-third Psalm. ‘‘The Lord is my shepherd,’’ he says, and he punches the air. ‘‘He leads me in paths of righteousness’’—Henderson steps into the bright lights of the arena to roaring cheers from the crowd—‘‘for his name’s sake.’’ The video, a clip from a feature on Spike TV, goes on to discuss the fighter’s successful career in mixed martial arts and his Christian faith.2 For Henderson, the two are inter- twined. He is a fighter, and he is a Christian, and these identities reinforce each other.

To some onlookers, the juxtaposition of Christianity with mixed martial arts (also called MMA or ultimate fighting) seems almost blasphemous. ‘‘These men are ‘Christians?’’’ an incredulous viewer commented on the YouTube video ‘‘Christian MMA fighters.’’ ‘‘There is nothing Christ like [sic] about making others bleed for ‘sport.’’’3 And the athletes do bleed. MMA—a combination of wres- tling, boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—was once labeled ‘‘human cockfighting’’ by Senator John McCain.4 Yet Christian mixed martial artists and MMA fans—from Catholic to evangelical—do not see their faith and their sport as incompatible. Rather, they say, ultimate fighting teaches Christian values. It can be a means of spreading the gospel and remasculinizing a faith some perceive as feminine.

This is not the first time sports have been deployed to serve Christianity. In several of his epistles, particularly 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul capitalizes on his readers’ interest in Olympic sports, comparing the Christian life to a race or a fight. U.S. evangelicals have

Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 24, Issue 2, pp. 141–185, ISSN: 1052-1151, electronic ISSN: 1533-8568. © 2014 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press website, at http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/rac.2014.24.2.141.