“No forget Jesus!” Yoel Romero said after scoring a historic TKO win over Lyoto Machida a few days ago.
He was capping off a long and emotional rant, in his admittedly poor English, which left many up in arms.
The former Cuban Olympian, now based in Florida, was thought to be attacking the recent Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex unions to be recognized as marriages countrywide.
(He would later explain that wasn’t his intention – but still, wasn’t entirely clear. My thoughts on that are available elsewhere. Moving on…)
Our own Matt Griffith said in this week’s show, while he isn’t a fan of religion; he thought Romero was simply “lost in translation.”
“He loves Jesus,” Griffith said, “and he loves gays, and he loves us, and everyone should get off his balls.”
On behalf of all believers, thanks Matt. (I think.)
But not everyone agrees. In fact, UFC President Dana White evinced his frustration with Yoel Romero earlier this week.
“You just won the biggest fight of your career,” White said. “America doesn’t want to hear your thoughts on Jesus. Keep that stuff at home: religion, politics, all that. When you’re out there fighting, and you’re being interviewed, they want to hear about the fight. It’s awesome that you love Jesus. Love Jesus all you want. You just don’t have to do it publicly.”
The truth is, the fight game has never really “left that stuff at home,” and contrary to what White says, it has always been out in public.
Religion is at the roots of sport which the UFC so readily celebrates, and it’s in the “here and now.”
It’s in Muay Thai, which sees its fighters enter the ring with beautiful regalia steeped in Buddhist tradition: like a headband blessed by monks, and a floral arrangement around the neck “symbolizing the permanence of existence” as John Wolcott writes in his History of Muay Thai.
It’s Shinto and Zen traditions at the roots of karate, and jujutsu.
It’s the rosary (necklace) worn around the neck of so many Latinos so dominant in boxing – and Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines, too – as they walk to the ring. That rosary is prayed to recall “the mysteries in the history of our salvation, and thank and praise God for them.”
It’s fighters that cross themselves before a round. You see that every week…
It’s former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, who quotes a verse from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians after every bout – win or lose. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It’s sometimes seen as boastful, but actually implies contentment in times good and bad.
Sure, you don’t see all of that in other sports – or not as often. But then, the fight game is unusual. That’s why hardly anyone bats an eyelash when White drops his “f-bombs” in the same interview where he tells Romero to keep his beliefs to himself. White’s language really wouldn’t be acceptable for an NBA or NFL commissioner.
But, it’s the fight game.
It’s an intense, one-on-one, hand-to-hand, combative sport – unlike any other. Max Kellerman called boxing “tennis without the ball” – the literal imposition of will between two athletes, and MMA is perhaps even more so. It all feels like life and death sometimes, in a way other sports don’t. So, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that religion comes into play.
It will mean different things to different people. Some may go to the extreme of dubbing themselves “Soldier of God” as Romero, others may wear the regalia and not even know the meaning.
But it’s always been there, and always will be.
And it should never be the case where a man in our sport says “don’t forget Jesus” (or Buddha, or Allah for that matter) and is then called to be silenced.