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Nancy Cheever: Communications Professor Researches Mixed Martial Arts Phenomenon



Photo by Joanie Harmon-Whetmore

Nancy Cheever: Communications Professor Researches Mixed Martial Arts Phenomenon

Nancy Cheever, assistant professor of communications, really likes to watch television, but not in the way one would think. She examines the effects of programming on society, with research projects such as the effects of children’s viewing habits on gender development and how stereotypes of single women on television diminish their self-esteem, while coloring society’s perceptions of them. Her most recent project, however, deals with a much less subtle subject: the popularity of mixed martial arts,(MMA), a combat sport that incorporates a variety of fighting techniques including striking and grappling.

“In communications, we have the cultivation theory,” she notes, “which says that the more TV you watch, the more you believe its distorted images exist in your world as they do on television. So, people who watch a lot of violent programming, tend to believe there’s a lot of violence in their neighborhood.”

While flipping channels for another project, Cheever experienced an initial disgust and then, a fascination with the show, Ultimate Fighting Championship on Spike TV, a tournament that features MMA. Having done extensive research on women and television, she decided to find out more about the genre’s effects on its predominantly male audience.

“We wanted to find out their viewing habits, their motives for watching, whether they watch it with friends, and what they talk about when they watch it,” she says of the research she conducted with the help of a student. “Some of them said they enjoyed the violent aspects and the blood and all that stuff. But most of them watch it because they appreciated the skills of the fighters.”
Cheever’s next research effort struck pay dirt, when the owner of a MMA Website, posted a link to Cheever’s survey for viewers.  The survey got an overwhelming response from 3,500 fans, 54 percent of whom had actually tried mixed martial arts. One of the more surprising findings of the survey was the lack of aggression among the predominantly male viewers of the violent and bloody sport.  

“I measured them on hypermasculinity traits,” Cheever says, “using two subscales of risk-taking behaviors and levels of aggression. They actually scored low on the risk-taking, and medium on the aggression. I think that’s because a lot of them engage in mixed martial arts themselves, and don’t tend to display much aggression outside of that arena.”

Cheever also found that 80 percent of the men said MMA has had a positive impact on their lives, and that 63 percent agreed they get a vicarious thrill from viewing MMA. The general demographic that answered her survey was 98 percent male, 77 percent single, and 97 percent under age 40. Eighty percent of the fans had at least some college education, and 32 percent had earned their degrees. Sixty percent of the participants had been in a street fight, in contrast to the 68 percent that had never been in an organized sport fight. She found that the overall appeal of MMA was its focus on excellence and competition.

“I realized that it’s not about brutality and blood,” Cheever says. “I started to really appreciate their dedication and training. “It’s more about the fighters’skill level and athleticism, because they really have to be in great shape to do this. I think viewers are drawn to that, and the spectacle of it.”

“A lot of people who were interested in boxing, and think it is overrated and corrupt now, are moving on to mixed martial arts because they say it’s a purer sport,” she points out. “It’s more exciting, and more unpredictable. And, believe it or not, there are fewer injuries in mixed martial arts, because the men aren’t being continuously pounded in the head like in boxing.”

As an observer of the effects of mass media on society, Cheever points out MMA’s popularity as indicative of how television is always pushing its boundaries to attract viewers.

“Compare what was acceptable to show on television 50 years ago to what they’ll actually show and what we’ll tolerate today,” she says. “It says something about our society, that we tolerate a lot of violence, not only in real combat sport, but also in fictional programming, like Law & Order, The Sopranos, and the CSI series. They’re very graphic and bloody fictional shows, comparable to those aspects shown in mixed martial arts.”

Cheever’s next step is to examine the reactions to MMA of people who are not regular viewers of the sport, and to analyze the psychological traits of the fighters. Hers is the first academic research on MMA, apart from studies of injury rates and content analysis on knock-outs and submissions in matches.

“I wanted to jump in because this was my chance to do some seminal work that’s never been done before on a really hot topic,” she says. “People who are into it, think that it’s more widely covered than it really is. It’s starting to get coverage on mainstream news now, and soon, it’s going to be all over the place.”

- Joanie Harmon-Whetmore





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Last updated Tuesday, March 13, 2007, 11:43 a.m., by Joanie Harmon-Whetmore