8 min

Exploring the homoerotic undertones of mixed martial arts

'With Muay Thai I was scared of getting hit; with Brazilian Jujitsu I am scared of getting hard'

ROLLING JUJITSU. "It's surprising, in this world of very masculine fighters, that nobody gives me any grief about the fact that at times I wear more makeup than their sisters," says Robin Black. Credit: Kenny Lee

I love to watch mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting and I’m hooked on The Ultimate Fighter. But I want to do more than just lust after the fighters on TV. Am I tough enough to actually participate in MMA? Can I walk into a room full of aggressive 20-year-old straight boys and throw down with them? Can I fight another man? Thinking about it makes my balls tighten. That’s how I know I have to do it.

MMA demands that fighters master both stand-up striking and ground-level grappling. I will be training in the art of Muay Thai kickboxing for my stand-up game and Brazilian jujitsu for my ground game. The jujitsu doesn’t scare me; I’m pretty comfortable rolling around on the ground with boys. But I am terrified of striking. I’ve never thrown a punch in my life and, until now, I’ve generally avoided situations in which I might get punched in the face.

I enlist my buddy Jim Morrison to give me a crash course on the basics of the sport. Morrison has been involved with martial arts since he was just a kid growing up in Halifax. Teen years spent in Asia exposed him to the pure martial arts. As an adult he returned to Thailand to shoot a film about Muay Thai fighters and ended up staying and training. Now back in Toronto he trains for fun.

“Martial arts in general is something I love,” he says. “I was working out hard at the gym but I felt like I needed more testosterone. I really like sparring with people who are not as good as me, to bring up their game, and with guys who are better than me to improve my game. Also, punching stuff is good.”

Morrison is a big, intimidating guy who looks like he could kill you with his pinky finger. But he’s not your stereotypical bruiser. Rather, he’s a sweet, intelligent artist in the tradition of the poet-warrior. For him fighting is intertwined with notions of honour, respect and spirituality. Who better to show me the ropes? As I strap on a pair of fingerless fight gloves, I ask Morrison how this flimsy padding is supposed to protect my face.

“It’s not,” he laughs. “It’s to protect your knuckles.”

Morrison takes me through the basic punches — the jab, the cross, and the hook — and demonstrates a variety of blocks and kicks. I focus on mastering my blocks. After all, the best offence is a good defence. I feel ridiculous. Morrison punches and kicks accurately with stealthy grace; I move like Barney Fife. Morrison says fighting is like a language: even though I’ve learned to speak a few words, I can’t string a sentence together. True fighters don’t have to think about what they’re doing. Every action has an instinctive reaction developed through years of repetitive practice.

Toronto Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ) is a medium-sized training club painted green, yellow and blue: the colours of Brazil. For a monthly fee, members participate in classes in all kinds of MMA disciplines, from Muay Thai to shoot wrestling.

Inside, guys with the MMA look — shaved heads, sleeve tattoos, mostly silent — are sitting around watching fights on a monitor waiting for the class to begin. After signing a waiver freeing Toronto BJJ from responsibility for any potential injuries I might incur whilst training, I head down to a small locker room to get changed. Should I wear shoes and socks? When do I put in my mouth guard? Should I wear a cup? I put it on, then change my mind and remove it discreetly upstairs.

There are twelve guys here for the class. There are no introductions made. As we mill about stretching, we size each other up. Who is the biggest? Who is the fastest? Who doesn’t know what the fuck they are doing? (That would be me!) The participants are various shapes and sizes; from big and beefy like Jim to a couple of wiry string beans who are surprisingly strong. An intimate, unspoken camaraderie exists among these guys, but I don’t feel like part of it.

After an intense warm-up that makes me feel like puking, the instructor, a short, muscled Brazilian kid who doesn’t speak much English indicates that we will be concentrating today on technique, and as such everyone should be hitting at quarter strength.

They tell us to pair up and I’m relieved to be paired with Jim, but then disaster strikes. The instructor comes over and pairs me up with a tall, broad blond with a permanent frown etched upon his face. We begin practicing a combination of jabs, crosses and kicks, taking turns holding a large pad. The blond kid’s very first kick knocks me flat on my ass. Either this guy doesn’t have the skill to operate at quarter strength, or he doesn’t care to. Either way, I’m getting clobbered.

Soon he clips me on the chin with a jab. Ouch! His hits continue to increase in strength. I’m worried now because I don’t know how to hold the defensive pads properly, and this fucker is going to break my arm if he connects just so.

The order comes to switch partners just in time. We will now be sparring for several minutes, and then we will switch partners again and continue, round-robin style. I pair myself up with a small guy since he looks like I could take him, but in fact he’s fast as hell and has some powerful legs.

I spend the rest of the class holding my gloves over my face trying to fend off blows while being kicked repeatedly in the torso and legs. I feel like a dork and a coward, but when it’s over I also feel proud of myself.

Afterwards we line up to shake hands and bow. It’s a weird jock ritual that brings me back to high school sports.

Sweat is pouring down my face. The adrenaline pumping through me is incredible. On my way out I thank the guys for putting up with me. Now that the danger has passed I see for the first time how beautiful and sexy the fighters are. I’ve been so busy and nervous that I barely noticed! Afterwards my hands smell of the gloves for days.

Mounting Sam

Jogging to the gym for Brazilian jujitsu class the next morning makes me feel like Matthew Modine in Vision Quest, only older, gayer and Jewy-er. I’m nervous. With Muay Thai I was scared of getting hit; with Brazilian Jujitsu I am scared of getting hard. There are no singlets here at Toronto BJJ; instead you wear a gi, white pants and an open-style shirt tied shut with a sash. Upon entering the studio you bow, setting a tone of respect. Of course we’ve all seen the boys on Ultimate Fighter drunk and rowdy but here in the training studio it’s all business. Exchanging punches and kicks with another fighter is called sparring; grappling with a fighter on the ground is called rolling as in “we are rolling jujitsu.”

The instructor tells me that because today is my first time I will be working one-on-one with a junior instructor who will teach me the basics. He introduces me to Sam, a beautiful guy with a Harry Potter-like scar on his forehead. Sam is patient and gorgeous, banged-up and sweet, with real cauliflower ears. I have an instant crush but try to focus on the task at hand. Sam explains that he is going to show me the various holds, mounts and positions of jujitsu.  

“Then we’ll roll together for a while,” he says.

Brazilian jujitsu doesn’t just look like gay sex, it feels an awful lot like it too. Sam starts on his back with his knees up. He instructs me to sit on his lap, so I straddle him. He tells me to sit right down, putting all my weight on him, so I do. I know right away that I’m going to be in trouble. He looks so sexy lying on the mat under me and I can’t stop thinking about the tiny amount of fabric separating us. The position is called “the mount” for a reason.

I feel like I’m in a dominant position but Sam thrusts his hips skyward, sending me flying over his head to the mat. We try again and again. Each time I mount Sam I can feel my balls on his belly. Then he flips me and I come crashing back to reality.

We switch positions. With Sam on top I thrust my hips in an attempt to destabilize him. I can feel the blood flowing to my groin and my jock growing tighter. I try to imagine nuns and dead kittens. But oh man, Sam’s gi keeps falling open so we’re pressed against each other belly to belly. The kid’s got the greatest BO of all time.

Gay in the octagon?

As a gay kid I always felt left out of fraternities of men, whether it was the wrestling team or my neighbourhood gang. Robin Black knows what it’s like to be an outsider. Black is taking a break from his band, The Intergalactic Rockstars, to pursue a career as an MMA fighter. He’s not gay but he’s about as queer as it gets.

“I’m probably 85 percent straight on the Kinsey scale but aesthetically I’ve always been very effeminate, very glam rock, very gender bending,” he says. “I always felt most attractive wearing a bunch of eyeliner and nail polish and a big furry coat. I look like a drag queen on Sunday morning in small town Manitoba. Its surprising, in this world of very masculine fighters, that nobody gives me any grief about the fact that at times I wear more makeup than their sisters. Nobody. They all know me as Robin, this guy who kicks ass.

“As a kid I liked astronauts, superheroes, rock stars and pro wrestlers; people who did huge crazy things that seemed impossible,” he says. “The only thing crazier than being a rock star is trying to become a cage fighter in your 30s.”

Black laughs when I tell him about rolling with Sam. He says that in a real fighting situation things are different.

“If a you’re a gay guy rolling jujitsu you’re going to be so busy defending the jujitsu that you physically can’t think about sex or being horny,” he says. “I don’t think there’s time for sex to cross your mind unless fighting makes you horny.”

Black tells me that gay guys into Brazilian jujitsu are known in the fight scene as “romos” because in Portuguese the letter “R” is pronounced as an “H”. So there you have it: I’m a big romo and proud of it. Fighting, like sex, drugs or exercise, can bring you back into the here and now, forcing you to experience the moment with every part of yourself. Sometimes, there is nothing tougher than that.

“That’s what’s so beautiful about Brazilian jujitsu, or any fighting for that matter,” says Black. “You are living in this moment. You can think of nothing but protecting your neck, or moving your foot somewhere different. In a full-on cage fight — I have to protect my life. There’s nothing else on earth but this moment.”

Still, sometimes there’s not much difference between fighting and fucking, particularly when you’re talking about two men; both are power struggles about domination and submission. Men fight and compete to establish hierarchies. Somebody has to be on the top and somebody has to be on the bottom. It’s just the way of things.

In researching this story I wanted to interview a gay fighter. In March of 2008 the New York Times Magazine ran a profile of openly gay MMA fighter Shad Smith. Smith told The Times that fight fans occasionally taunted him because of his sexuality but that he hadn’t encountered any flack from other fighters or coaches.

“It’s like a fraternity,” he said, and you’re treated well “once these guys see you in the cage, as long you don’t make a fool out of yourself.”

But Smith stopped talking to media after the Times piece ran.

“To my knowledge there’s no one who is openly gay in the UFC but there’s got to be 15 or 20 guys who are gay,” says Black. “I train at Extreme Couture Toronto and I know in that environment nine out of 10 people would be completely accepting. As long as a person is driven and has a passion for the sport, most people wouldn’t give a shit who they love or have sex with, that’s my belief.”

It’s a nice sentiment but I’m not sure I buy it. The world of professional sports is still a largely closeted one and what are the UFC’s legendary ring girls if not decoys designed to distract from the homoeroticism inherent inside the octagon?

“I don’t think there’s anything sexual about MMA or Muay Thai,” says Morrison. “But Brazilian jujitsu is the most physical contact that most straight guys will ever have with each other.”

But to me the homoerotic overtones of the sport are so clear I can’t help but joke about it.

Morrison shrugs. “You know the expression that half of every joke is the truth? If we don’t talk about it then we wont make anyone uncomfortable.”

Black is more blunt: “Well you’ve got two of the most well-conditioned, muscular dudes in the world sweating and rolling around with each other. If you’re into dudes, you’re going to find it very erotic, there’s no getting around it. I think there’s a huge gay following, particularly with the Ultimate Fighter reality show.”