The Ultimate Fighter: A Case Study in Christian Vocation
The Ultimate Fighter has 30 seasons under its belt, yet most people aren’t aware of its existence. That’s a shame because it offers a refreshing perspective on Christian vocation and what it means to honor our Creator in the workplace.
For some, living out your faith at work means boldly turning on Christian radio or adorning offices with crosses and posters of the “Footprints” poem. While there is nothing wrong with any of these actions (I love “Footprints!”), I’ve also come to recognize that these choices can arise from a misinterpretation of verses like Luke 9:26: “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory.” Verses like these have driven some Christians to prove their faith in the public arena by wearing cleverly (or tragically depending on your vantage point) Jesus-themed shirts and WWJD bracelets or slapping fish icons on the back of their cars. But does this fully represent what it means to be a Christian in the public arena?
I’ve noticed similar claims to the kingdom of God in the mixed martial arts (MMA) community, which includes The Ultimate Fighter. In the very early stages of the sport’s rise to popularity, there was a Christian-themed apparel brand with clothes featuring phrases like “Jesus Didn’t Tap” and “Blood, Sweat & Prayers.” There is no shortage of MMA fighters who proudly sport Christian-themed tattoos and “give glory to God” in their post-fight interviews. When some of these same fighters are later arrested on DUI or domestic-violence charges, it’s worth asking if this MMA Christianity places more value on displaying faith in their workplace rather than living in faith with humility and gentleness.
There is another way, one that is rooted in history, applies a more holistic understanding of scripture, and brings glory to God. It can be summed up by the aphorism often attributed to church reformer Martin Luther: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
I believe this understanding is deeply rooted in the psalms. In Psalm 148, the psalmist calls on all of creation, not only people, to “Praise the Lord.” In Psalm 19:1-4, the psalmist writes that the “heavens declare the glory of God . . . They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth . . .” In both psalms, creation itself praises God simply by existing in its created purpose. Nothing more, nothing less.
Creation itself praises God simply by existing in its created purpose. Nothing more, nothing less.
The contestants on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter embrace this understanding when it comes to their vocations, regardless of their religious backgrounds. When the series debuted in 2005, Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighter parent organization Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC), repeatedly expressed his desire to dispel the stigma that had been attached to the sport: that it’s merely human rooster fighting. In reality, mixed martial arts requires discipline, self-control, and unwavering dedication. The latest season of Ultimate Fighter—which followed professional MMA fighters as they lived, trained, and competed together for a prized contract with UFC, under the leadership of coaches Julianna Pena and Amanda Nunes—has stayed committed to this declaration.
This was especially evident during an episode when women’s flyweight contestant Helen Peralta, in a moment of self-realization, asks her teammate if she thinks she’s more of a fighter or a martial artist. She then concludes that she, herself, is more of a fighter and still needs to develop if she ever wants to become a true martial artist. There is a vast difference between crass street fighting and the sport of mixed-martial arts; each episode gives a behind-the-scenes look into the grueling process of this craft. Every minute of the athlete’s day is planned and every calorie is counted, with the purpose of achieving maximum output when the bell rings and the fight begins. These athletes are unequivocally devoted to their craft. According to the Psalms 19 and 148, these fighters give glory to God by doing what their professions demand of them and doing it to the best of their ability. Nothing more, nothing less, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
The Ultimate Fighter enables the Christian viewer to make connections to the crafts of their own vocations, giving glory to God in and of their work itself. The winners of this season’s competition, Juliana Miller and Mohammed Usman, have repeatedly shown the dedication to their craft needed to become true martial artists. With every weight cut, every workout, every punch and kick, they give glory to the Creator. They are an embodied rephrasing of another Christian aphorism (this one often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi): “Give glory to God. If necessary, use words.”