‘The Man in the Middle': Mixed Martial Arts Referees and the Production and Management of Socially Desirable Risk

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Abstract

Mixed martial arts (MMA) competition involves one-on-one, full-contact fighting, most often held within the spatial confines of a steel cage and in front of a paying audience. The spectacular entertainment value of this sport, as well as its intrinsic psychological appeal to competitors, is steeped in risk. While the perspectives of athletes and fans on this issue are reasonably well-researched, little is known about a crucial third party in the production and maintenance of risk in competitive fights: that of the referee. In this paper, I attempt to bridge this gap by arguing that referees’ work is centrally important in the construction of socially desirable forms of risk. Specifically, their role involves protecting fighters’ bodies from the damaging excesses of the action which otherwise constitutes the sport’s raison d’être in the eyes of competing athletes and paying fans; but at the same time, this action is something which referees themselves both facilitate and promote. As such, this work sees referees navigate a core tension residing at the heart of MMA, as with other high-risk sports: how and when to define dangerous action as either desirable or undesirable; as exciting or excessive. The paper concludes by highlighting some wider contextual factors shaping referees’ work, which may bear consideration in future studies of the production of risk in sport.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalQualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 6 Jan 2022

Keywords

  • Combat Sport
  • Mixed Martial Arts
  • Referees
  • Refereeing
  • Risk
  • Sociology of Sport
  • Risk Management

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