This column is dedicated to the real tough guys in mixed martial arts. You might think I'm talking about hard headed sluggers willing to stand in the pocket and trade bombs all night long or about bygone legends from the pioneer days of the sport, but I'm not. All a fighter does is put his health at risk by enduring a punishing training camp and then facing off against a highly trained opponent whose sole objective is to cause him enough bodily harm to secure a victory. Stepping in a cage might take intestinal fortitude, but it's nothing compared to the cojones required to take on a theoretically infinite number of enemies all at once in the unforgiving arenas of message boards and news site comment sections. That's right, this one is for the unsung heroes of MMA - the keyboard warriors.
Maybe you're one someone who reads posts by these modern day Spartans with names like "STOCKTON_SLAP420" and you think to yourself, "That doesn't look so hard. I could do that." Oh yeah tough guy? Let's see you create a username and give it a try. Do you think you have that elusive combination of poor reading comprehension, a disregard for the conventions of English grammar, and a lack of social skills necessary to succeed in this game? Are you willing to put the long hours in staying up late at night thinking of new putdowns - usually a variation of either the oh so humbling term "butt hurt" or the rapier-like "nut hugger" - for anyone who has a differing opinion than you? Is your knee jerk reaction to insult first and ask questions never? When you comment on a story about a female fighter do you ignore the fact she is an athlete and focus on letting the world know whether or not you find her physically attractive? Most of all, do you have the stones to write things online about fighters, journalists, and fellow fans that you would never dream of saying to their face? If you answered yes to any of those questions then buddy, you just might have what it takes to become one of the all time greats.
OK, obviously I'm being facetious here. I'm also painting with broad strokes; the above paragraph is a caricature of many of the worst tendencies displayed by online MMA fans. By and large fans who are passionate enough about the sport to read sites like this and to take the time to post comments are thoughtful, articulate, and mature enough to treat people with respect. I think obsessing over the minutia of a hobby - whether it be film, collecting comic books, or watching MMA - is an inherently cerebral activity; people who find themselves spending part of every day reading up about these things are by and large a brainy lot.
Well, most of them that is. There's also a decidedly vocal minority of misanthropes who seem to revel in the chance to anonymously pound their chests and take out their frustrations on the world. It seems in the comments following nearly every article I read on an MMA site there is at least one person - usually with a command of written English that would only be described as tenuous by the exceedingly generous - who can't resist the urge to hurl childish insults at the subject(s) of the article, its author, or any fan with a differing opinion. It's the same deal on message boards. When these cretins flock to threads like sharks to fresh blood the resultant negativity gets so oppressive it's hard to keep reading.
What's sad is how keyboard warriors keep online communities from reaching their full constructive potential. You might have noticed, but we live in a time when rapidly evolving technology is changing the way we interact with one another. One of the unfortunate side effects of this change has been a tendency for some people to view online forums as a place where they can give their worst impulses free reign without internalizing a sense of how their words might affect people. It's easy to detach yourself from a sense of responsibility for what you write when you never come in direct contact with the people who read it.
Sometimes though, we get a reminder that there are actual human beings out there reading our comments.
Take for instance Jason "Mayhem" Miller. During a recent long form interview with MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani he became emotional when discussing fan reaction to his recent bizarre appearance on The MMA Hour. Miller was visibly choked up as he talked about online fans taking his refusal to break from the "Lucky Patrick" character as a cue to start talking trash rather than expressing concern for what many construed as a sign of legitimate mental health concerns. You might think he's being overly sensitive, but the fact is when this story broke there were a number of dismissive posts in online forums complaining about how Mayhem wasn't newsworthy because he had never been a top level fighter. If he truly was someone in need of psychological help are comments like "F--- Mayhem Miller" - an actual comment I read on a message board - really an appropriate response? Considering the fact that evidently he, like a lot of fighters, actually reads what is written about him on online forums, it's not outside the realm of possibility he could have read some of these insensitive comments at a time when he was at his most vulnerable.
If you think fighters should just toughen up and take whatever verbal abuse fans spew their way and chalk it up as the price for choosing a career in the spotlight, well then let me ask you this: are you comfortable with the idea of a fighter reading an insulting comment you made about him and having it ruin his day? Don't you think you can make your point without all the ad hominem negativity? If not, do you even have a point worth making in the first place?
I'm not saying fans need be a bunch of glad handing Pollyannas who do nothing but shower every fighter with lavish praise. Fighters are human beings just like the rest of us and sometimes they make mistakes. When they do it's important to hold them accountable. Constructive criticism of a fighter's skills, business decisions, or behavior outside the cage is all fair game - but the key word here is "constructive." Dropping a bunch of F-bombs and condescendingly dismissive put downs doesn't add to the conversation. All it does is make the keyboard warrior using them look like a combative simpleton with insecurity issues.
This behavior plays into the worst stereotypes about MMA fans. When I recently told a close friend of mine I was trying to become an MMA journalist he laughed - not because he thought I couldn't make it, but because, in his words, "How can there be MMA journalism when your average MMA fan barely knows how to read?" I told him he was way off base and that there were a number of highly educated, hyper intelligent people who love MMA. Which is true, but how embarrassing would it be for someone like him to stumble upon an article about MMA on a mainstream sports site like SI.com or ESPN.com and see a comment section full of keyboard warriors acting like junior high bullies with an elementary school writing level? As fans of a fringe sport that still has a negative stigma attached to it, shouldn't we be better than that?
Ultimately I know that keyboard warriors - like cockroaches - aren't going away. What I hope though is that a few of them will start to think about how their words affect others before they type. Then maybe we can have an elevation of the discourse that would in turn help dispel some of the negative stereotypes about MMA fans.
Let's leave the trash talk to the guys who actually have the guts to get in the cage and back it up.
Follow me on Twitter @BorchardtMMA or reach me via email at steveborchardtMMA AT gmail DOT com