UFC 168 aired this past weekend and because I’m in Thailand I had to remove myself from the internet for about a day in order to not see spoilers prior to being able to watch the fights for myself. The Ronda Rousey versus Miesha Tate fight was the main issue for me, a hotly anticipated fight due in the main to the contentious relationship between the two, arguably made much worse by the season of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter, in which the two had just been opposing coaches.
When I had finally seen the fight I went back online and saw a slew of messages from folks in the US who had already seen the fight. Everyone was talking about the fact that Rousey had refused to shake Tate’s hand after submitting her in the third round, the majority of comments crying for sportsmanship. One woman who is a fighter in Florida asked me to write a post on the subject of sportsmanship, obviously in relation to this particular incident between Rousey and Tate.
So here’s my disclaimer before I get started: I’m a fan of Rousey and have been defending her since I first became aware of her, which was, incidentally, just prior to her first fight against Miesha Tate before women were in the UFC. Tate was already an established fighter in the major promotions that had female bouts and Rousey had basically talked her way into a match with Tate, which pissed a lot of people – including Tate – off. I wrote about it at the time, about how I thought Rousey’s approach was good for female MMA. And I still think this. On top of that, I’m not defending unsportsman-like behavior, but am of the opinion that the refusal to shake Tate’s hand after beating her was not only not unsportsman-like, but is actually good for the general understanding of sportsmanship. (For a really insightful article on “Rousey and the Feminism of the Bitch” see L.A. Jenning’s post for Fightland here.)
The relationship between Rousey and Tate is very uncomplicated: they do not like each other. By reading what I wrote about their first match-up, a little under two years ago, their relationship started out contentious and just has gotten worse. Tate, legitimately, thought Rousey didn’t deserve to jump the line in order to fight with Tate there were other women, longer established in Strikeforce and other promotions, who were more logical opponents for Tate as the first and foremost female champion at the time. That’s fair, I think. In fact, after the fight Rousey even came right out and basically owned up to having talked her way into the fight and called out the woman everyone felt she’d line-hopped, Sarah Kaufmann, paying her compliments as contender. Rousey absolutely earned her way to where she is, she just did it on a different stage than most of the women she was jumping into the cage with. She’s been very vocally pro-female community in women’s MMA and, in fact, when Cat Zingano was in the position to coach The Ultimate Fighter season opposite Rousey, I actually wondered how that would go down, since the two are so amicable. Both have a very strong “this is for women everywhere” message and mentality. There was little promise for drama.
But then Cat Zingano’s knee injury took her out of the show and Miesha Tate was put in, last minute, without telling Rousey. For dramatic purposes, Tate was sent in to tell Rousey that she was coaching opposite her for the season and the whole thing was set up as a means to mess with Rousey – it was for drama. And it worked. So before we start going around saying Rousey is this kind of person or that kind of person, it needs to be established that a reality show is really anything but reality and that the way she feels about Miesha Tate is really in no way similar to the way she feels about any other female competitor I can think of. And Tate does a great deal to keep that fire stoked. The season was full of these dramas with Tate’s team of coaches playing pranks on Rousey, as well as social media shit-talking that evidently has gone on for a long time. That one goes both ways. But the difference between the two is that Rousey actually gets emotional and Tate comfortably plays two sides: smiling to your face and then talking shit behind your back.
I don’t think anyone is faulty for being emotional, so long as those emotions are controlled in some way. I don’t think it’s a sign of virtue to be unaffected by someone saying hurtful things about your family, your friends, your team. And I certainly don’t appreciate empty gestures, the kinds of things Rousey continually called Tate out for. Rousey’s argument was that they were both very cutting toward one another but “at least I’m up front about it,” Rousey would say. I agree with her on that for the simple reason that if a gesture like shaking someone’s hand is going to have any meaning at all, it has to have sincerity in it. By Rousey not being able to shake Tate’s hand, she actually infused the gesture with meaning that everyone who is crying foul seems to be missing. A handshake is important – it is a gesture of sportsmanship that is unmistakeable, almost to the point of being taken for granted. I remember in soccer as a kid we’d have to line up after each game and shake every single player’s hand and say “good game… good game… good game” as we moved own the line. I also remember how girls on my team would joke about spitting on their hands prior to doing this, in order to kind of dupe the other team. That’s not sportsmanship – that’s anti-sportsmanship in that it is using a gesture with a recognizable meaning for a purpose that is opposite from that meaning. That, I feel, is what Tate is accused of doing at every turn.
The fact is that Rousey was very sporting in her words after the fight. She gave praise to Tate as a fighter, verbally, in a manner that was sincere and – quite frankly – a little unexpected given the rivalry leading up to this point and then the snubbed handshake. But she also explained why she wouldn’t shake her hand – she addressed it: Tate said bad things about Rousey’s coaches and team, she made it personal, and so she would not give a gentleman’s handshake to a scoundrel, basically. But as an athlete and a competitor – for the sport – she used words to offer respect in the appropriate manner of one competitor to another.
And that’s where I think it ends. Sportsmanship is about respect. It means playing with respect, giving your all and obeying the rules, winning with class and losing with grace. All those things. But if you spit on your hand in order to give a handshake, you’re cheating the rules; and that’s what I saw Tate do over and over again throughout the season of The Ultimate Fighter. Rousey, on the other hand, does the far more noticeable, perhaps even audacious, thing by refusing to shake the hand at all. In doing so, she’s respecting the gesture itself. But I repeat, she did give respect in her words, with sincerity and dignity. For Rousey, her hatred of Tate is very real, so her words of respect must be also. Tate’s approach makes both the animosity and the respect feel fake, like each can be tried on to suit the situation. I think there’s something to sucking it up and just shaking the damn hand though, the presentation and the public display of being sporting. But I believe it should mean something. That if you make a public play out of it then you should stick to it and only talk privately – true private, not the public-privacy of social media – about any alternate feelings.
Look at it this way. One of the greatest rivalries in sports is between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Now, Ali had a big mouth. In fact, he’s exactly the kind of man I shouldn’t like at all and yet I do – I love his braggadocio, I love that he was loud and rude and clever in ways that had nothing at all to do with performing in his sport. I love this about him politically more than anything, I might really dislike it if he were doing this now. And I recall a quote from George Foreman, who says that Ali was a great man of dignity because at one point when he knocked Foreman out he didn’t throw a second punch – that was already geared up and ready to go – as Foreman was falling to the canvas. Foreman glows as he talks about it, as if it is divine mercy. That’s what lasted in his memory. But then you watch video of “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier being interviewed long after his fights with Ali and you can see he’s still hurt by things Ali said outside of the ring. Things Ali said about him, personal verbal attacks (like calling him an “Uncle Tom”), really got to him; they affected him for the rest of his life, in a way. What I mean by bringing this up is that all the mess that goes on outside of the sport does not necessarily leave the athlete in the way that a good sport is meant to “let go” of the particular win or loss. It’s personal.
As a group we seem to acknowledge “family matters” as carrying a great deal of weight. If a fighter needs to take a break for “family matters,” we kind of back off, hands up like, “go take care of you, Buddy.” So shouldn’t we understand that attacks against someone’s family, which for professional athletes includes their “fight family” of trainers and coaches, are out of bounds for the shit-talking that has become the norm in fighting sports? As fans, we don’t keep them separate, so why would athletes? If you are a pitbull owner, for example, would you shake Michael Vick’s hand? His animal abuse wasn’t part of his sport, so you could totally leave that out of your mind in order to be sportsman-like and shake his hand in public, right? Or what about someone who uses racial slurs or hateful speech against you or your family? The meaning of a handshake is a signal of trust, bonding and respect, so that’s what you’re signaling by accepting or offering your hand. Would you fault someone saying “I cannot shake this man’s hand because I cannot forgive his behaviors as a person, but he played a good game today and as an athlete he put forth the best of his abilities.” Would you then say, “yeah, but you didn’t shake his hand!” Which has more meaning?
Lastly, I don’t want to see Rousey shake Tate’s hand for one reason: in that moment, just the way it played out, given everything they’ve been through and the personal vendetta between them, with Tate putting her hand out for the handshake on her own terms as the one who has consistently “played by the rules” of sportsmanship by putting on a play in the cage and then literally taking one step away and being disrespectful or antagonistic, I feel completely that if Rousey had taken her hand in that moment that she would have been submitting to Tate’s game. And just because she won doesn’t mean she has to submit, not even one little bit. She gave more respect than I could have expected with her words after the fight and she did so without having to compromise any part of herself. She did so freely, willingly and sincerely. To me, her refusal was not an act against sportsmanship but rather a refinement of it. She put meaning back into the gesture by refusing it. She made it stronger.
[Update: if you enjoyed this article (or if you would like more reference for the significance) you should check out L.A. Jenning’s great article for Fightland on “Ronda Rousey and the Feminism of the Bitch.”]