by Adam Park
In the timeless words of “Fight Pastor” Brandon Beals, “Jesus didn’t throw stones, but he had some.” And it may surprise some of you to hear that this is no religious idiosyncrasy. Others, apparently, agree. Indeed, the subjects of the new documentary, Fight Church, help spread such good news. Beals’ testicular testimony, and that of the combative Christians in Fight Church, and many, many others represent a publically bourgeoning group of evangelicals within the increasingly substantial mixed martial arts community. This new manifestation Muscular Christianity is both gaining popularity from and facilitating the spread of MMA. Amongst a certain contingent of evangelicals then, Jesus’ well-formed and rugged stones are quickly becoming orthodoxy.
Overall, this is a story about mixtures, about intersections between the sacred and the secular. As the Academy Award-Winning Director, Daniel Junge, and Co-Director, Bryan Storkel, phrase it: this “entertaining story” centers on the “connections between religion and condoned violence.” And Junge and Storkel are no strangers to such mixing. Several of their previous respective films—namely, Saving Face (2011), They Killed Sister Dorothy (2008), and Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians (2011)—also fixate on the overarching theme of sacred-secular combinations. So what’s going on here? Why Christianity? Why MMA?
The film’s main protagonists—four fighter-pastors, Paul Buress, Preston Hocker, John Renken, and Nahshon Nicks—spend the bulk of their interviews advocating not only for the compatibility of Christianity and MMA, but also suggesting a cultural need for such relations. As former pastor of Xtreme Christian Fellowship, John “The Saint” Renken, claimed, “mainstream, western Christianity has feminized men.” He continues: “lost people are watching MMA. So I think that’s where we need to be.” Speaking to a need for more and better men’s ministries, Preston “The Pastor of Disaster” Hocker agrees, as he regularly hosts UFC gatherings for members of (and potential converts for) his church. This is “a platform to win souls to Christ,” Nicks similarly asserts.
“Fight Church” is no oxymoron … at least not for some. In fact, the film estimates that there are currently over 700 churches with MMA ministries in the US. To be Christian and to do MMA is not only possible, but is perhaps common, as brief interviews from UFC veterans Jon Jones, Benson Henderson, Justin Wren, and Jared Hamman attest. This documentary is but a small sample of what’s going on in the larger world of Christianity and MMA—where men learn how to be godly men, like Jesus, robust stones and all.
But just as MMA has its legal naysayers, so too does Christian MMA have its religious critics. Ex-fighter-turned-Christian, Scott “Bam Bam” Sullivan, eventually realized a discordance between his newfound religion and his participation in combat sports. “I’m conflicted,” he tells the camera, as he owns an MMA gym and works on a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion. Christianity and sport fighting are “incompatible.” Unlike the other fighter-pastors, Sullivan finds that he cannot be both/and. The chief antagonist in the film, however, Father John Duffell of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in NYC, sees the purpose and function of Christian MMA ministries less ambivalently. Christianity is about love, he claims, and “this ain’t love.” Rather, “cage fighting is about hating one another.” Christian mixed martial artists are a walking contradiction, evidence of religion gone awry. Father Duffell has even mobilized his theological opposition by appealing to state representatives in NY—the last and only state in the Union to still have a ban on professional MMA. For more hardnosed critics like Duffell, Christian MMA is not only a problem within Christianity, but also within the law of the land. The laws of both God and man are compromised. Fighter-pastors are false prophets.
For advocates and opponents alike, the question of MMA legitimacy and Christian orthodoxy are bound here. The question of appropriate “sport” (which I wrote about previously) is tied to the question of appropriate “religion.” And “violence” is the issue. A certain vision of Jesus is essential to authorizing, legitimizing MMA (or, contrarily, un-authorizing and delegitimizing). What we see in Fight Church is a new range of practices—a new sport—for new Muscular Christians to articulate and assert and old theology—a theology that has to do with a stout, masculine Jesus, and his salvific ability to make stout, masculine men. In the years just before the First World War, ex-professional-baseball-player-turned-revivalist, Billy Sunday, colorfully claimed that Jesus “was no dough-faced, lick-spittle proposition.” Rather, “he was the greatest scrapper that ever lived.” Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, came to hear Sunday’s message as he traveled across the country. If Jesus turned the other cheek, it’s only because he knew his cheeks could take it. If the Jesus was whipped by the Romans, it’s only because he knew he could whip them. Evangelicals know that sports are a perfect venue to impart such life lessons, and they’ve known that for a long time.
Even in modern MMA, Christianity (i.e. evangelicalism) was there from the very beginning. At the 1994 world’s Ultimate Fighting Championship III, fighter Kimo Leopoldo’s entering entourage was led by a man holding a large banner that read: “Jesus said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’—Matthew 16:24, Holy Bible.” Supporting two massive, cross-shaped timbers, Kimo walked closely behind as he made his way through the crowd towards the Octagon. Painted in white letters on the back of the cross that Kimo bore were the words: “JESUS LOVES YOU.” Telling of the usual six-month annual timeframe that Kimo spends “spreading the word,” the commentator further explained Kimo’s passion, saying “he’s definitely on a mission.” Tattooed down his spine and across his shoulder blades was a large crucifix; arching across his belly was the name, “JESUS.” The announcer went on to introduce him as a preacher of “the gospel” and perfecter of “the art of Taekwondo.” Though he failed to secure a victory in this match, Kimo recounted his religious understanding of the fight, saying: “My purpose here is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the whole world.” Kimo’s actions and words are telling. To compete, to fight, to be a man, to show other men what men should do, to reveal to others the power of God, therein lie the muscular Christian ways of Christian MMA both then and now.
Convincing or no, we have a square-jawed, broad-shouldered Jesus. However—and this is key—if we really want to understand Christian MMA culture, we should think that this is less about the articulation of beliefs than it is about the cultivation of certain bodily experiences. For Sunday, for Kimo, for the contemporary fighter-pastors in Fight Church, Jesus’ strength lies in his ability to handle pain, to deal with adversity, to best the competition. The bodily lessons that MMA imparts are uniquely translatable in that regard. As one trainer-pastor recently claimed: “The same struggle of jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and MMA, and any other martial arts discipline is the same struggle of a Christian.” Or, in former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Vitor Belfort’s words: “I think there’s two ways to get to God: through pain, and through love. Mine was through pain.” The Octagon is a place where God can do his work, teaching men how to be men.
Christian MMA is less a theology than it is an education of the senses. MMA has the potential to inform (and convert) practitioners at a very fundamental level, in the muscles, in the bones. And it seems to me that this is the genius of evangelicalism here. As MMA gyms open around the country, as MMA is taught in public schools and military branches, as millions of UFC fans try to replicate what they see on cable in their backyards and garages, evangelicalism will be there. Not only have evangelicals tapped into a space, a new sport, to assert their Christian message, but they have accessed common bodily experiences and appropriated these experiences for religious ends. Christian MMA is about pain, emotion, victory, loss, struggle, humility, conflict, ambivalence, and endorphins—about being a member in a community of believers and having one’s membership validated at the level of one’s body. Christian MMA offers an irrefutable empiricism. It feels real. It feels true. What else does one need?
Adam Park is a Ph.D. Candidate in Florida State University’s Religion Department. His current dissertation project is on Christian MMA in America. His email is email@example.com.