Bread and Games: The History of Organized Combat During Times of Crisis 1

Worldwide, the coronavirus has paused major sports, with one notable exception: The Ultimate Fighting Championship. While nearly every other prominent sports organizations prematurely ended or suspended their seasons, the UFC pressed on, hosting events despite the health risks to athletes, their employees, and the public. Perplexed, MMA fans and critics alike wondered why cage fights were allowed to continue while daily life was stopped.

The surface-level answer, that UFC President Dana White values profits over safety, holds water, but there is a deeper explanation. Holding fights during a pandemic is irresponsible and unexpected, but it isn’t unprecedented.

Throughout history, in times of crisis, emperors, kings, and presidents have consistently provided their citizens two staples: food, to keep them alive, and entertainment, to keep them distracted. With an unparalleled ability to capture human attention, organized, competitive combat is the obvious choice for entertainment.

In Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, or pre-colonized Mesoamerica, a marathon of gladiator games, jousting tournaments, or human sacrifices was an effective way to entertain the masses and stave off violent deposition. In a contemporary scope, if an administration bungles the response to a pandemic during an election year, it helps reelection chances if the electorate is watching knockouts on ESPN rather than a rising death count on CNN. It’s said religion is the opiate of the masses, but the churches are deserted on fight night. The Romans had a term for this superficial appeasement — Bread and Games.

The Past is Prologue

The word “gladiator” brings an iconic scene to mind: two men, armor-clad and wielding swords dripping with blood, circle each other, looking for an opening. Disfigured bodies and discarded weapons lay scattered across the sand. Above, the crowd cheers. Drunk on ale and excitement, spectators from all walks of Roman life — from poor bakers, to high-born nobles, to the Emperor himself — eagerly await the finale. The men charge; swords clatter; one man falls; the Emperor turns his thumb down, and the crowd celebrates their victor.

While accurate, this picture fails to explain why these games were held. Along with accumulating political popularity, gladiator games were a proven way for the emperor to quell public unrest during war, disaster, and plague. The opening of the Colosseum, the Mecca of gladiator combat, was used for this exact purpose.

In AD 80, Emperor Titus’s reign began disastrously: a plague killed thousands, a fire razed Rome, and Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying entire cities in lava and ash. If you’re a meager Roman citizen who believes natural disasters are punishments from angry gods, you might think the deities despised Titus and wanted him deposed.

So, Titus announced a spectacle — one hundred days of games, to inaugurate the architectural wonder of the Colosseum. Beast hunts and criminal executions were preliminary to the main event: gladiators. Equipped with an array of armor and weaponry — from the swords and shields of the Roman army to the tridents and nets found on rickety fishing vessels — gladiators fought grueling, bloody duels. Some bouts were one-on-one while others recreated famous pitched-battles. Regardless, the crowd was enthralled. Addicted to the rush of combat, they forgot all about their concerns for the Emperor. But Roman emperors weren’t the only ones to use competitive combat as a distraction.

A millennium later in Medieval Europe, royal tournaments highlighted the wealth and prestige of royalty. Archery and sword fighting were captivating, but jousting was the headliner. A pair of knights, their identities concealed under glistening armor, charged each other atop monstrous steeds. The clatter of hooves on compact clay; the explosion of a lance as it collides with a breastplate; the roar of the crowd as a competitor is ripped from his saddle and thrown to the ground. A thousand years after the Romans, combat still enthralled nobles and peasants alike.

In 1348, amid fears the Black Plague would cross the English Channel from mainland Europe, King Edward III of England displayed a lively tournament season. Ignoring the epidemic (which had already claimed his daughter), Edward held “splendid tournaments at Windsor, Reading, Eltham, Canterbury, Bury, and Lichfield, inviting all the nobility.

On mainland Europe, mass death was threatening the social order, the bedrock of European nobility. Displaying his authority to the English nobility through an energetic tournament season undoubtedly helped King Edward reinforce his station before the plague crossed the channel.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Aztec Empire, ever creative in the practice of human sacrifice, used competitive combat as a means of enticing the gods to end droughts, famines, and plagues. Prisoners of war fought to the death, battled vicious beasts, played a hyper-violent version of racquetball, and were subjected to the “gladiator stone.” Tethered to a ritualistic alter, prisoners fought off waves of enemies with nothing but a blunted sword, lasting as long as they could before being killed.

If sacrifices fail to appease the gods and end the crises, it’s inevitable the citizenry will wonder if the gods didn’t like the king, and wanted the people to instill another. Creative methods of human sacrifice were a way for Aztec Kings to entertain their subjects and push revolutionary thoughts from their minds.

40 Fights in 90 Nights

“40 fights in 90 nights” bragged the chyron overlaid on the UFC’s Fight Island broadcast, a striking echo of Emperor Tiberius’s “100 days of games.” While four-ounce gloves have replaced two-handed swords, the symbiotic relationship between competitive combat and worrisome leaders remains. American incumbents at the state and federal level are desperate for sports to return, hoping it will restore a sense of “normalcy” and stave off an electoral reprisal. When Dana White showed no signs of slowing down for the pandemic, elected officials from both parties happily stepped out of his way.

Since the beginning of social distancing, the UFC has held three events in Jacksonville, Florida, and six events at its private training center in Las Vegas, Nevada. They’ve also held three events at “Fight Island” on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Future events are planned for Las Vegas and Fight Island.

The UFC is a private company, but because MMA is sanctioned by state governments, these events have gone ahead with the blessing of elected officials. The governors, senators, and representatives of Florida and Nevada easily could have stopped them, as Senator Diane Feinstein did for UFC 249 back in April. And President Trump, who sees his reelection contingent on a restored sense of normalcy, had no interest in leaning on the states to stop the events in the name of public safety.

As for Fight Island, just like before the pandemic, the U.A.E. uses the UFC to soften its reputation of egregious human rights abuses to a western audience. Between rounds, tourism ads show families frolicking in the Yas Island sand before returning viewers to the arena that the U.A.E. government paid the UFC to come to.

“Why is the UFC still holding events?” was an inevitable question. Corporate greed and self-focus are partial answers, but stopping there lets those who are supposed to act in the public’s interest — elected leaders — off the hook. Like the emperors and kings who came before, American presidents and governors, as well as Emirati monarchs, have exploited the human attraction to violence for their own political gain.

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