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Understanding Josh Neer or what it means to be a violent sportsman


When others are trapped in distressed situations, their predicaments ask something from us, namely, to give. They need our financial resources or on-the-scene courage or myriad forms of assistance. They require our understanding, care and humanity.

Fighting also asks something of you, but in entirely opposite ways. It asks you, in part, to disregard another person's humanity. It summons your destructive impulses or ultimate willingness to cause suffering. It asks for corporeal demolition. Taken far enough, it can ask, or at least result in, outright death. It's important to note that despite how many people delude themselves into thinking otherwise, very few can actually answer the call to violence.

The video of Josh Neer hammering an internet heckler has recently gone viral. Reaction within the MMA community has been polarized. Some view it as perhaps ugly, if justified. Others find it to be outright abuse.

Those on one side of the debate charge that this sort of practice, while unsightly, is currently and has been practiced at MMA gyms throughout the world. Hecklers, would-be team members and various 'others', it is claimed, are treated to this baptism as a means of establishing hierarchy or merely to teach lessons.

This is true, at least somewhat. Fighting is the physical adjudication of dispute. It's the cleanest and most efficient form of debate. That's why the Gracie Challenge worked so ruthlessly. They knew they had something with their form of jiu-jitsu. The game was basically rigged. Each time a hapless dojo stormer stepped up, the Gracie's case for their argument became stronger.

That's also true presently. There is an existing gym culture that espouses a more refined form of what isn't entirely dissimilar to gang initiation. Beatings of the outmatched or out of line is perfectly reasonable to maintain general order, according to this world view. This practice isn't universal among gyms, but it isn't rare either.

Focusing on this practice or ethos as the end point of the debate about Neer's behavior is important. It is part of what explains this, but is incomplete by itself. The question isn't just whether what Neer did is in line with ethical framework of modern MMA gyms. One can easily argue it is.

There are two other factors to consider. First, MMA often either attracts or produces contradictions in its practitioners that professional competition shields the viewer from fully comprehending (more on this in a moment). Second, what sort of person is attracted to this world and finds this framework acceptable in the first place? After all, did this heckler really know who Josh Neer is?

Perhaps a review of Mr. Neer is helpful. Neer is in the latter chapters of his professional career, but for a time could legitimately claim to be an high-level UFC fighter. There are very respectable scalps on his resume. He is a veteran of 50 professional fights, having competed in many of the sport's top organizations. According to a biography, he amassed nearly 90 amateur bouts.

Neer has also occupied both extremes of MMA. He has trained with the highest level and, for a moment in time, reached fairly close to it himself. Yet, he is also the product of partially or poorly or not-at-all regulated bouts in dirty ballrooms in the most blighted enclaves of the nation's Midwest.

These facts have been used by the other side of the debate to turn things on their head. It's been repeated Neer is a professional. He should've used restraint or ignored the heckler, some suggest. Those who argue as much are not necessarily wrong. They are, however, a bit out of touch. We do not allow fighters to regulate themselves or their contests for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is their threshold for an acceptable level of punishment to hand out in the name of training or fighting (or anything, really) is often unacceptably high. Fighters, generally, are much more comfortable with violence than the average person. Some fighters' comfort levels appear downright sadistic.

Review the tape and one gets a pretty clear sense of that. Neer not only had to be restrained by teammates for the mugging to cease, he later (inadvisably) posted the video of the beating. In other words, Neer not only lacked any scintilla of remorse for going what many consider overboard; he admired his handiwork enough to share and parade it.

Back to the earlier point about contradictions. The fact is as violent as it may be, professional mixed martial arts competition is a sanitized thing. It's violence made legal, restricted and athletically elevated. It is, after all, entertainment. It's in no way as real as it gets. Lessons in comeuppance like "Bully Beatdown" are borderline cartoonish. Professional competition is not a full window into the culture that produces MMA fighters. It's merely the digestible form.

There's another level of reality most MMA fans don't get an opportunity to see beyond the purview of preview specials or athletic commission oversight. It is sometimes grotesque, but unmistakably there. Fighters like Neer have been in the trenches of that level for a very long time. He was initially attracted to seek it out, yes, but the culture of it has washed over them, year after year, warping their decision making about what fairness or justice or retribution looks like.

And here's the most difficult part of the issue to square. Short of a DUI incident in 2009, Neer does not have a history of violence outside of competition. In large part, he is every bit the sportsman we ask him to be. Recall, he didn't seek out this fight with the heckler. He merely accepted a request. There is no evidence to suggest Neer is a special menace to society. There's nothing he's doing here that lacks historical precedent or is outside the boundaries of practices in gyms across the country.

No, not every fighter would have done what Neer did. It's true some MMA fighters do not stand behind Neer's actions. Josh Kosheck, for example, sparred a fan a few years ago, but only handed out enough punishment to hint at what else he could've done. The message was sent without incident. While Neer left little to the imagination, we cannot roundly say all fighters would have acted similarly. There is a range of opinion on the matter.

But this is the problem with MMA. Fighting is an activity humans do to settle disputes, petty or important. Mixed martial arts is that activity stuffed within the parameters of sport. The two, however, aren't always firmly apart from one another. The ugliness of unrestrained violence and the precision of elite skill can share the same motivational antecedent.

In MMA, it is not a contradiction to be both Josh Neer and 'The Dentist'. Professional competition only lets the viewer see the healthier side, but MMA is sometimes about being both Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. We just aren't accustomed to nakedly witnessing the more unpleasant side of things. We've been protected from it, probably for good reason.

Well, welcome to the uncomfortable picture of what is sometimes the wider truth.

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