On the way to denouncing Donald Trump during her Golden Globes speech Sunday, Meryl Streep ended up miffing some sports fans. “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” she said, “and if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts—which are not the arts.”
Just as Trump would soon shoot back at Streep, the mixed martial arts community soon took issue with her comment. Scott Coker, president of Bellator MMA, wrote her an open letter inviting her to attend a fight so she could see that “mixed martial arts celebrates male and female athletes from all over the world who work tirelessly honing their craft and—yes—art.”
The complaints from fans were not simply that she’d seemed to condescend to the sport but that she’d, in fact, misrepresented it. “MMA is as international as Hollywood,” the author Kerry Howley said on Twitter, adding, “Meryl Streep: America’s white working class invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”
Howley’s semi-fictional 2014 book Thrown is based on her real experience spending three years getting to know MMA fighters. Deadspin called it “The Only MMA Book Anyone Ever Needs To Write.” Looking for some perspective about mixed martial arts’s multiculturalism and claim to the status of art, I spoke with Howley, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, on the phone this morning. This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: What was your reaction when Meryl Streep mentioned MMA?
Kerry Howley: I just thought it was odd. She couldn’t have chosen a worse sport to represent American provincialism.
The implication was that you could expel foreigners from the country and you wouldn’t have Hollywood but you’d have MMA. Of course, if you expelled foreigners from the country you would destroy MMA, which is as Brazilian as it American—and Irish and Japanese and Russian and Korean and Belgian.
I think her implication was bigger: It was that MMA fans are inward-looking, provincial people who are offended and confused by the cosmopolitanism of Hollywood. And that’s a more disturbing kind of ignorance: ignorance about people rather than ignorance about the dynamics of a particular sport.
I’m not sure how much you know about MMA…
Kornhaber: I really don’t know anything!
Howley: Originally, MMA was brought to this country, in the early ’90s, by a Brazilian family who had studied a Japanese art form. The sport has never lost its international flavor. Fighters and fans are completely aware that this is a cosmopolitan sport. Just list the martial arts you need to be successful in mixed martial arts: Muay Thai, Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Taekwondo. Do those sound American?
If you’re a Brazilian fighter, you might come to the U.S. to study boxing and American wrestling. But otherwise you’ll be seeking wisdom from other cultures. Fighters are constantly going back and forth to training camps in Brazil. Many of them study Portuguese so they can more effectively understand their instructors. And it bleeds into a real interest in the culture.
You couldn’t turn it into the kind of inward-looking white American phenomenon that Meryl Streep seems to think it is. If Americans wanted to not have to deal with other cultures they could go watch American wrestling or do something else.*
Kornhaber: What about the implication that the fandom, at least, is a lot of people who supported Trump?
Howley: I can’t comment on the mass of fans. But the fighters I write about in Thrown and all the fighters in this one fight camp I spent years with—which is in Iowa, it’s not in New York City—are searchers. They’re nonconformists. They’re artists who absolutely embrace the cosmopolitan aspects of the sport. They think it’s bigger than this country, and they’re completely dismissive of the provincial attitudes that Meryl Streep was complaining about.
I mean, think about it: If you were a strong natural athlete and also a conformist who was uncomfortable with difference and with change, what would you do? You would try football, or basketball. You wouldn’t choose the stigmatized, relatively un-renumerative sport. You wouldn’t learn Portuguese so you could learn under Brazilians.
I don’t know if most MMA fans are Trump supporters. I have no idea. But whatever part of them is interested in MMA is not the part of them that celebrates white supremacy or inward-looking provincialism. We know that [Ultimate Fighting Championship president] Dana White is friendly to Trump, but Dana White is not the mass of MMA fans.
Kornhaber: What did you make of the comment that mixed martial arts are not art?
Howley: The fighters that I know self-identify as artists. They’re people who are seeking out a life that is very likely not going to make them wealthy, that is very difficult, and that is openly stigmatized, as we just saw. And they’re doing it because there’s something beautiful and strange about the experience of opening yourself up to this kind of violence. It was very easy for me to spend three years with these men because they shared a lot of the values of the artist community that I have here in Iowa City.
Of course if you’re not inside the world, you only see Ronda Rousey and you might say, “Oh, she’s after fame and B-movie parts.” But, of course, most fighters are never going to be Ronda Rousey and are well aware of that. There are fights in high-school gyms every weekend. There are fights at state fairgrounds. These are people who love what they’re doing and are trying to refine a number of distinct arts that have been brought here from other cultures.
Kornhaber: Streep also mentioned the NFL, another sport associated, to many people, with contact and violence. Do you think it makes sense to group those sports together?
Howley: I am deeply ignorant about football—to be honest, I share Meryl Streep’s assumptions about football. And so when she makes these deeply incorrect assumptions about MMA, it makes me stop and think about the breadth of what I don’t know about lives that I haven’t bothered to understand. So right now the comparison [with the NFL] makes no sense to me because I can see that MMA is so international and football doesn’t seem to be. But I don’t know—maybe if I wrote about football I would discover a world of broadminded people.
Kornhaber: Scott Coker, an MMA promoter, wrote Streep a letter inviting her to a match. What do you think she’d make of it if she went?
Howley: I don’t think she’ll respond. But if she went, she could very likely end up at a fight card that isn’t even majority American. And that might be surprising to her.
* This article originally included a quote from Howley that said UFC fighter Amanda Nunes spoke through a translator after defeating Ronda Rousey. Nunes spoke English that night.