Inside MMA: Sensory ethnography that hurts

Anne Tjønndal
Nord university

Dale C. Spencer
Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment: Violence, Gender, and Mixed Martial Arts
199 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2012 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-415-71955-1

Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment is a sociological approach to understanding mixed martial arts culture in North America. The book is based on an ethnographical study inspired by Wacquant’s famous sociological accounts of boxing gyms[1]. The author of the book, Dale Spencer, is an assistant professor at Carleton University. Spencer has recently published a book titled “Violence, Sex Offenders, and Corrections” (2017), while the book at hand was first published in 2012. Using his sensory experiences and field work from mixed martial arts clubs, the author describes how mixed martial arts fighters build their identity, express emotions and construct masculinities. As a part of this field work, Spencer emerged himself in mixed martial arts by becoming a fighter himself. In his introduction, he describes how he has used his own body as an instrument of data collection in this academic endeavor and elaborates on how this ethnography has affected his body permanently:

Because of my commitment, this project is not without many regrets. My academic colleagues, friends and family expressed how weary they were of the harm I was subjecting my body to, and their worries are not without substance. During this ethnography, I pulled my groin twice, my knee cap popped out on two occasions […] I fractured my fifth metacarpal in my right hand, I suffered the pain associated with having cauliflower ear, and I received stitches under my left eye. (p.1).

Despite these injuries, Spencer claims that he would not be without the experiences he gained during his months in training. Through his body and his sensory experiences, he has gained a degree of access into a world that some academics can only imagine, thus highlighting the unique experiences of doing field work and ethnographical studies.

The book consists of ten chapters. After the introduction, Spencer begins by mapping out an overview of the ontological underpinnings of his research project in chapter 2, “Phenomenology and Bodies”, particularly focusing on phenomenology and the centrality of bodies in social life. The third chapter, “Time, Space and Sense of Fighting”. provides the reader with a phenomenological analysis of life in the MMA club. Chapter four, “Difference and Bodies”, discusses gender and racial aspects of Mixed Martial Arts, in particular how these aspects work to include some bodies and exclude others from participation and consideration as viable bodies in combat sport. In the fifth chapter, “Being a MMA Fighter”, the author documents the ways of becoming an MMA fighter and the life of the fighters outside of the club environment. The sixth chapter, “Habit(us), Body Techniques and Body Callusing”, examines the processes in which fighters learn body techniques and contribute to the production of MMA habitus. Chapter seven is called “Narratives of Despair, Loss and Failure: Pain, Injury and Masculinities” and analyses the ways MMA fighters deal with pain and injury in their sporting careers, while chapter eight, “Emotions and Violence”, discusses the emotional dimensions – confidence, frustration and anger – related to participation in MMA. The last empirical chapter deals with “Homosociality, (Homo)eroticism and Dueling Practice”, and in the tenth chapter, the author sums up his findings in a conclusion.

I would have enjoyed seeing an even more detailed description of his methodological approaches and challenges while conducting this study.

One of the most interesting aspects of Spencer’s book is reading about his experiences while conducting this ethnographic study. While Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment is rich with interview material from professional MMA fighters, I still found Spencer’s excerpts from his field notes and narratives of his embodiment of becoming a MMA fighter the most exciting to read. Spencer flawlessly blends his personal embodiment and sensory experiences of being part of an MMA club with the narratives of other bodies in his study. I would have enjoyed seeing an even more detailed description of his methodological approaches and challenges while conducting this study. This would have made the book a helpful tool for students and young researchers getting into ethnographic studies, or others with little knowledge of these types of methodological approaches in sociological research.[2]


In particular, I enjoyed reading chapter seven about Spencer’s (and other fighters) experiences with pain, injury and failure. Here Spencer manages to artfully illustrate how emotions and pain are deeply connected to masculinities and meaning-making among his fellow MMA fighters. In this chapter, Spencer starts by describing a moment of despair after being injured in a Muay Thai fight:

I find myself at an impasse; after my Muay Thai match last night I am bruised and battered. I re-injured my left knee at the end in the first round. I was forced to stop the match. … I am very disappointed. I trained a long time for this fight and was dominating my opponent until he kicked the side of my left knee. How could this have happened? […] Fuck. I feel impotent; my heart hurts. It is laborious to breathe. (p. 99).

Spencer’s rich descriptions of his own emotions and sensory experiences is what makes this contribution unique. In this way, Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment contributes new knowledge to not only the study of Mixed Martial Arts and combat sport, but also to studies of violence, emotion and embodiment in sport. The book is most likely written for a sociological audience and in my opinion, it is also best suited for sport sociologists. Some readers and mixed martial arts enthusiasts might find this book overly theoretic. However, scholars with a sociological background will surely appreciate Spencer’s theoretical analyses.

While Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment is not completely new (as it was first published in 2012), it still provides the reader with a unique sociological analysis of mixed martial arts, emotions, masculinity and embodiment in sport. It’s a good read for scholars (in particular sociologists) interested in sensory ethnography and studies of combat sports!

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2017

[1] See: Wacquant, L. (2004). Body and soul – notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[2] For a recent account of sensory ethnography and an extensive list of references in the field, see Hans Erik Næss, “Sensory Ethnographies of Sport: Three Methodological ConsiderationsScandinavian Sport Studies Forum Vol 8 2017, pp. 49–66 [Editor’s note].


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