Last weekend, the first formal inter-gender mixed martial arts cagefighting contest – post Enlightenment, at least – took place in front of a paying audience in the city of Czestochowa, in Poland.
Remarkably, the fight went to a second round. Many well aimed blows were landed by Piotrek Lisowski on his female opponent Ula Siekacz. But the referee eventually called things off when he had her pinned helplessly to the floor with his knees and was thumping her in the face.
A second fight, between Michal Przybylowicz and Wiktoria Domzlaska was stopped in the first round when the female fighter had no answer to a vicious early Przybylowicz onslaught.
Is this really the way we want sport to go? Or, better question: as we become increasingly culturally squeamish about noticing there are, er, differences between the sexes – not least, inherent physiological differences – is there anything we can do to stop sport going this way?
The grotesque fights described above were truly ‘cis’ battles of the sexes. That is to say, both competitors were born in the gender in which they took to the cage. This wasn’t a case of a man-turned-woman besting a less strong woman competitor. It was a straightforward case of a man pummelling a woman for entertainment.
A great deal of nonsense has been talked over the years, in pubs mainly, by men, about what sport actually is. Is darts a sport, or is it a hobby? And what is golf, or snooker? If you’re not required to run around and be physically fit to play well, can a pursuit really qualify as a sport? My answer has always been an unequivocal yes. Absolutely anything – from the 100 metres dash to a game of tiddlywinks – qualifies as sport if two or more people want the same thing badly enough and, crucially, the playing field is level.
If the playing field isn’t level, then what’s being served up isn’t anything like sport. Rather, it’s a deeply tedious spectacle that patronises the viewer. We love to watch real sport because in the heat of contest we have the opportunity to be instructed, often thrillingly, about the feats of which our bodies – and, by extension, our species – are capable. But when one or other player or team has an outrageous advantage, or is cheating, we don’t learn anything.
We certainly don’t learn anything when we watch men, or women who were born as men, beat up women who were born as women in a so-called contest. We know already that women are physically weaker than men – it’s a truth so universal and so obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain it doesn’t require substantiating with biological data about relative muscle mass and bone density.
The comedian Andy Kaufman famously wrestled women as part of his stand up act. He’d offer $500 to any woman in the audience who could beat him. ‘I couldn’t very well challenge men in the audience because I’d get beaten right away,’ he explained. ‘Most men are bigger and stronger than me.’ Between 1979 and 1983, Kaufman wrestled more than 400 women and never lost.
In 1998, too, Karsten Braasch, a German tennis player known for smoking Marlboro reds between sets, beat both of the Williams sisters consecutively, and easily, in a single afternoon. ‘The girls were saying they could beat any man ranked outside 200. I said “I’m 203 in the world and we can do it if you want”.’ Combined, Serena and Venus took three games off him. ‘I hit shots that would have been winners on the women’s Tour, and he got to them easily,’ Serena said after she’d been thrashed.
These examples are not by any means conclusive – Billie Jean King, after all, beat former world number one Bobby ‘no broad can beat me’ Riggs in 1973, although she was 29 at the time and he was 55 – but they’re certainly instructive.
If we’re to believe, as increasingly we’re told we must by authorities such as the World Health Organisation, that gender is nothing more than a social construct, then how do we protect the integrity of sport – and, by doing so, keep it interesting? And how, more importantly, do we protect women athletes in contact sports? The simple answer is we probably can’t. There can be no more intergender cagefighting contests, for example, when there is no gender. Instead, there will just be cagefights.
Better, surely, to insist that everyone must compete in the category of their sex at their birth against people of their sex at their birth. Or that trans athletes, if they would prefer, compete against other trans athletes. If it’s a fair contest, that’s certainly sport I’d watch.