Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The middle class chooses to cage-fight

A manager in the entertainment industry was an amateur cage-fighter. While grappling, he hurt his neck. He cried.

“I’m not crying from the pain,” he explained. “I could give a shit. I know what this means. I’ve felt this before. This is going to be six months off the mat. That’s why I’m upset.”

It turned out to be a sprain that only earned him a two-week stint from the gym. “Well, injury is part of the game,” he said. “But I hope that shit doesn’t happen again; I hate not being able to train.”

Men and women of the middle class choose to cage-fight. This is not their day job — they choose to train long hours for a hobby that bestows chronic pain. They accepted the risk of brain trauma and surgery-worthy injuries. This is not a dead end — as members of the middle class, these men and women have other possibilities for respect and achievement.

“How many other people want to spend a Saturday morning getting punched in the face?” one cage-fighter asked.

Sociologists Corey Abramson and Darren Modzelewski, writing in Qualitative Sociology, wanted to know that, too.

Why does the middle class choose to fight?

By Any Other Name

Cage-fighting also goes by mixed martial arts (MMA) and ultimate fighting.  The fighters themselves don’t like the name “cage-fighting” as it conjures ready-made fantasies of Thunder Dome-level violence, and, they profess, these fantasies are not what they are there for.

Like all sports, MMA, or cage-fighting, there are rules, both codified and honored. In general, the ring is caged and the fights are timed. Combatants are free to use a variety of styles to subdue their opponent. Legally, one can punch, kick, and wrestle, or artfully tessellate these. There are no-goes, such as biting and hair-pulling, hits to the groin or throat, and so on. The fight can end in many ways: When an opponent is subdued, or when the fighters refuse to abide by the rules, or time runs out. Like boxing, participants of like heaviness fight each other.

Among Themselves

Abramson and Modzelewski spent two years, most days of the week, on both coasts of the US training in gyms with amateur cage-fighters. They hung out with them in bars and homes. They attended the cage-fights of others and fought in competitions. One author, already trained in martial arts, also coached and did corner-work. The sociologists, like the fighters, were injured from time to time, but not life-threateningly so.  

Most of the fighters they talked to were in their 20s and 30s and had a college education. They were teachers and managers and microbiologists or some other white collar profession. All had previous athletic experience. Most are white. They held long interviews with 20 men and five women.

The sociologists gained the confidence of the cage-fighters because they blended in. The other fighters saw them as young, white, middle class men, with previous athletic experience, like they. They were among themselves.  

Pain and Separation

Training and fighting risks injury and these men and women had chronic pain everywhere. Some had surgery.

To prepare for a match, one must train for many hours. To train that long, one must neglect friends and family who live outside of the gym. The neglected can get upset with the amateur fighter who chose to spend time in the gym and away from them.

“Uh, it’s hard to explain it to your girlfriend,” a business owner in his late-20s said. “She doesn’t quite understand. You have to sacrifice a lot. I mean, my life right now is training and work. And any free time I’m spending with my family and friends but that’s pretty minimal now.”

Work colleagues may not quite understand it, either. At work, sporting bruises and black eyes lead work colleagues to shun them or think that the fighters are mad. “At work I try to avoid the discussion,” one man said. “I try to keep those two worlds apart.”

Why the Middle Class Fights

Some think that men choose MMA because they long for an aggressive warrior-world that they can’t get in their respectable, unadventurous middle-class lives. Yet, the sociologists write, women train and fight, too. Meritocracy is a virtue – anyone, man or woman, can earn their place if they train hard and keep to the rules.

Another explanation the sociologists don’t like is that cage-fighting is about violence. Middle class men, attracted to violence, see a real-life “Fight Club” and go there to hit and be hit. This, the authors argue, confuses the fighters with the fans. For some or many of the roaring crowd, the violent fantasy is why they watch. But the fighters, they don’t even see it as violence, because violence is born of anger. There’s no anger, here.

“Look, this is a gentleman’s sport,” one experienced fighter told a younger colleague. “and there’s been an agreement made between the two of you. This isn’t a street fight, you’ve both agreed to the rules, and to be there, and you need to know that.”

“Go after him,” they added.

Anger is so anathema to the gym’s denizens that its manifestation is a cause to shun the angry. Fighters who fight outside the ring, or seem to delight in the physical pain of others, are frowned upon by their gym peers. Trying to hurt others, for any reason, can get a fighter banned.

And so: If it’s not about the men’s movement and if it’s not about violence, then, why do white middle class men (and some women) get into MMA?

For the fighters, it’s about the ethos.

That ethos, the authors argue, is the middle class American ideal: Merit through grit; passion for the sport; acceptance of everyone and the rules of the gym; and personal sacrifice through pain and injury. They accept a hard fought outcome – even a loss — and disdain laziness. Fighters prove themselves to the others through their skill or dedication to the craft of the fight, and by sacrificing their bodies to the value of self-improvement-through-hard-work.

It’s a journey: Through cage-work, the fighters reveal themselves to themselves.

“Win or lose, I learn something about myself,” explained a 27 year old teacher. “As long as I lay it on the line, I’m happy.”

Belonging to a little-known and unappreciated world of rules, virtues, and skills that they share with like-minded others is why they fight. The gym and the cage are where everybody knows your name. It’s a place where they share a deep bond with those around them. And they can’t get this bond anywhere else.

“The gym is my home,” one fighter said.

“These guys are my family.”



This was written by Josh Dubrow and is based on the article, “Caged Morality: Moral Worlds, Subculture, and Stratification among Middle-Class Cage-Fighters,” by Corey M. Abramson & Darren Modzelewski and published in Qualitative Sociology (2011) 34:143–175.

“I’m not crying from the pain…” p. 154

“How many other people…” p. 167

Cage fighting goes by … (p. 144). The authors chose to keep “cage-fighting.”

Methods are described on pp. 147 – 150. The oldest was 39.

“At work I try…” p. 155. It’s this separation of worlds – between “fighters and non-fighters,” (p. 167) as one fighter put it, or between middle class work and middle class gym life — that draw them to the gym time and again.

In this study, women reported that the men accepted them, so long as they held to the subculture’s ethos.

“Uh, it’s hard to explain it …” p. 154

“Look, this is a gentleman’s sport…” p. 160

“Win or lose…” p. 166

“The gym is my home…” p. 167

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND



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