This article came out of a talk given in Belfast by anarchist MMA fighter Jeff Monson in March 2009. The article first appeared in issue 1 of The Leveller.
Anarchist and professional mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighter Jeff Monson was in Belfast in March to fight Lithuanian Sergej Maslobojev in the main event of Cage Wars' "Decade" in Belfast’s Kings Hall. Never shy from speaking his mind about his politics, when it comes to his opinions about capitalism, Jeff literally wears his heart on his sleeve, as evidenced by the many political tattoos he displays.
Organise! was lucky enough to arrange for Jeff to do a short talk to local anarchists and MMA fans about sport and politics. Jeff arrived the morning before the fight, having flown from Florida to New York and then to Belfast. When we met him, he’d only been off the plane three hours, and was still nursing an injury from a fight the previous weekend, which he won. Jeff was also scheduled to give a grappling seminar straight after the talk, and then be wizzed to the fight press conference that evening. Long day eh?
For those who don’t much about Jeff, he’s a fighter from Olympia, Washington, affiliated with American Top Team. He’s a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and a two-time ADCC Submission Wrestling Champion, one of the most prestigious grappling tournaments in the world. He is also a veteran of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Pride and various other promotions.
In 2006, after a 3-fight winning streak in the UFC, Jeff earned a shot at the UFC heavyweight title against freak of nature Tim Sylvia. Jeff lost an epic five-found points decision, after pushing the fight hard for the duration, but being unable to overcome Sylvia’s significant reach advantage (almost a foot difference in height). His recent form is also convincing many that he’s still amongst the top of the heavyweight category in MMA.
In addition to being one of the top grapplers in the world, Jeff is also known for his anarchist views and affiliations. In solidarity, Monson is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He has also been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq. Prior to competing full time, Jeff worked as a mental health counsellor, having studied psychology to masters level in university.
The theme of Jeff’s talk was billed as ‘Sport & Politics’ – a theme broad enough to be of interest to people from both political and MMA/grappling backgrounds. Members of Organise!, Workers Solidarity Movement, and the CNT were present, as well as local grappling and MMA fans. While limited publicity and last minute confirmation meant attendance could have been higher, the discussion managed to span a broad range of topics, reflecting the diverse interests of those present. Topics covered the nature of wage-slavery, access to health care, and inequalities in UFC wages.
After an initial introduction, Jason from Organise! gave a brief summary of what anarchism is, and what Organise! as a group does in Belfast for the purpose of those in attendance that might not know a lot about anarchism. Jeff then spoke for around 15 minutes on his upbringing, how he got into anarchism, and his experiences as a fighter. This was Jeff’s first trip to Northern Ireland, having previously visited the Republic before, and he was excited to meet with local anarchists, as he had done for comrades in Manchester, and Paris before.
He describes his own background as somewhat privileged and blinkered until he attended college - “I grew up sort-of middle class… suburban USA, my parents bought me a car when I was 17, I never went without. I was a ‘RA-RA-USA’ type… didn’t know about the world, about world events”.
It wasn’t until he attended university, studying a psychology degree that his eyes were opened to economic inequalities and abuses of power. During graduate school, Jeff took classes in Community Psychology, and attributes his politicisation partly to two influential lecturers who described the dynamics of power and espoused libertarian views. “We talked about how money, tax payer’s money was being spent. This was a time y’know of Ronald Reagan, ‘Reaganomics’, the ‘trickle-down effect’… I kinda got a crash course from those professors in the way the world works”.
At home, Jeff was beginning to see the effects of capitalism on his doorstep; “you’d go walk down the street or the other end of town and there’s see people that didn’t have things, and the excuse was always ‘oh well they don’t work hard enough’ or ‘they’re not participating in the economy’, and that ‘if you work hard enough, you’ll get whatever you want’ and you believe that.”
Travelling the world served as another wake-up call - “when I got into fighting, my eyes were opened-up. I was able to travel … Brazil and the Philippines, the Middle East, I was able to see the most extreme poverty you’ve ever seen in your life, something that they wouldn’t even show in the movies”. This consciousness-raising effect of his travels lead him to ask “why is this happening?” Afterwards, he became involved in the IWW, with the Pacific North-East being a somewhat more politicised area, in radical terms at least, than elsewhere in the States. His fighting gave him a degree of credibility – he wasn’t a rebellious teenager angry at the world, here was a guy with a graduate education, earning his keep as a professional fighter, but questioning the system that means people don’t even have their basic needs, including education, met.
Jeff described his involvement in anti-war activity, one of which was his participation in a blockade of a shipment of arms to Iraq from a port in his home state, Washington. In 2007, he also used the platform of a press-conference after winning at Pride 34 in Japan, to criticise the US presence in Iraq. Additionally he’s currently facing charges for spray-painting anarchist graffiti on his state capital building and military recruitment centres.
But Monson maintains there’s nothing extraordinary about anything he does just because of his profile as a competitive fighter, and reserves his admiration for anyone involving themselves in fighting back against capitalism - “people taking off work, risking their jobs, or taking off school, for a passion that they have… what they believe in… sleeping in churches, other people’s houses, communicating with people they don’t know”.
He’s evidently sincere about what he says. One of his main reasons for being involved in politics, is a fundamental belief that everyone is entitled to the basics of what it takes to live in society; healthcare, education, transport to name a few. But capitalism, a system based on profit, not need, where we don’t control the products of our combined social labour, results in us competing amongst ourselves for the most basic requirements of living; food, clothes, and shelter, Monson sees this as tragic – “we should keep the competing to the cage, or to the chess-board, or to the football field.” Monson’s point is clear. We shouldn’t be competing with each other just to survive, but the precarity we all face under capitalism leads to us competing for everything from housing, to jobs, to school places for our children.
Monson went on to discuss the misplaced euphoria in the US over Obama’s recent election as the first black President. “People were actually crying… tears of joy…like ‘We’re saved! The world is a better place’”. While conceding that it’s marginally better than McCain or Bush, he stressed that it’s ultimately meaningless, and that ‘representative democracy’ is no democracy at all. “You atrophy yourself when you give people power over you. Voting for someone [means] you’re expecting someone else, the police, Obama, a governor, or the legislator, to come in and make your life better” he said before adding that this ultimately means we don’t make decisions for ourselves - “ you’re giving them your freedom, you’re giving it up, in order that you don’t have to make decisions for yourself”. But Monson’s view isn’t so bleak; he’s confident that we can and should make decisions for ourselves, and don’t need politicians or bosses to tell us how to run our lives – “If the people need a hospital, we know how to build a hospital. If we need a road, we can build a road”, indeed, we DO as workers already create and build these things, we just don’t have control of them. “We don’t need a governor or a president to say, ‘well ok, we’re gonna do this’ or ‘we’re gonna put up this much money for this’ or maybe decide not to do it”.
Staying with the point of making decisions about our own lives, but shifting from social living to more individual issues, Jeff spoke briefly about gay marriage, something that gets much exposure in the US and differs in treatment from state to state – “it’s unfathomable to me that people have that decision over our lives; who we can marry, who we can be with or not be with… It comes down to one person or a group of elites that decide our future for us”. He goes on to problematize this view, “we’re giving them permission to do it, we’re giving them permission to rule over us”.
Jeff closed his talk by asserting that we need to fight back to take control of our own lives, “all we have to do is stand up for ourselves as a group – they sleep at night because we let them.” As the discussion opened up to those in attendance Jeff talked about the nature of earning a living as a fighter, Monson made clear that the fighters don’t see much of a cut of the millions made at MMA promotions year on year. “I’m a wage slave”, says Jeff, before describing the inequalities in the wage-structure of fight promotions. Despite UFC 65 grossing 19.4mil US dollars, where Jeff fought for the heavyweight title, as main event, he was paid a paltry $13,000. To put this in perspective, say a fighter trains 6-10 weeks for a fight, which is usual, this is less than $7,000 per month, criminally low for an industry that generates so much income. As a result, fighters have to get involved in sponsorship deals, many teach seminars or train other fighters, others coach in gyms – all to put food on the table while also trying to train seriously for a fight.
This could be changing, Jeff described some moves by fighters towards organising a union. Key demands, aside from the obvious raising of fight wages for those at the bottom end of the ‘ladder’ in the industry, include more stable contracts, and medical coverage for fighters. Astonishingly in a profession where the bosses make so much off people taking such high risks, fighters do not get any support from medical care from MMA promoters – so if a fighter sustains a serious injury and is unable to fight for 6 months, tough luck, them’s the breaks. Even in sports like football, players are usually supported a lot better by their clubs, though many other sports have relatively strong unions.
Closing the discussion, Jeff explained that his politics have never been a hindrance in terms of his fight career, and asserted that, some promotion may even see them as a bonus, because it makes him a controversial character, and thus a crowd-puller. He did however tell the audience that it had affected sponsorship deals, explaining how a nutrition company, intrigued by his image, huge and tattooed, went sour when they found out he was an anarchist. Regardless, Jeff didn’t dilute his opinions, and from what he said it Belfast, it doesn’t look like he will any time soon – he’s a sincere anarchist, and a genuine, approachable guy. It was a pleasure to have had him chat to us.
At Cage Wars, the day after the talk, Jeff won his heavyweight title fight easily, with a trademark north-south choke. A week later, he also won his fight in Japan at the ‘Dream’ promotion against Sergei Kharitonov, and is now on a six-fight winning streak. Organise! congratulates Jeff on his current excellent form and would like to thank him for taking the time out to chat with us and meet local anarchists.