A Good Read: Taffy Akner on Ultimate Fighting

by Site Author

A couple years ago, Taffy Akner wrote a long article about a season of The Ultimate Fighter dedicated solely to female fighters. The piece is a great read because Akner is a great writer and she wrote it for a relatively unknown online outlet, Matter, and so faced relatively few editorial constraints.

I’ve gone back to her article a few times to try and figure out why I like it so much. To start with, the article is filled with hilarious and beautiful prose. (It’s no wonder Akner’s Twitter game is strong.) Take, to start, the second paragraph, in which she describes the house in which the reality show is staged.

The 16 women who lived here now milled around the house in bikinis, in and out of the hot tub, in and out of the kitchen, where egg whites and turkey sausage were grilling endlessly. They hydrated, an act that imitates drinking, but has loftier and more purposeful goals. They played cards, but with no access to the internet, they couldn’t remember how to play most games, so they were relegated to Speed, over and over, in their bikinis.

It’s hard to find another three-sentence paragraph with this kind of punch-line density. And it seems almost like poetry. That last sentence, in particular, could be fashioned into a poem.

They played cards,
but with no access to the internet,
they couldn’t remember how to play most games,
so they were relegated to playing Speed,
over and over,
in their bikinis.

And that is still just paragraph two.

Akner keeps up this tone through the entire article, both mocking her subjects but also expressing profound interest and respect. She brings in bizarre details whilst breaking the fourth wall, making herself a character in the profile. She devotes a couple paragraphs just to the Energy Drinks marketed at Ultimate Fighting events.

I waited at a table and drank a NOS, which is the official drink sponsor of TUF and so was readily available. NOS is a sports drink that is pronounced like “noz” but should be pronounced as “nose,” as in: No, thank you, I’ll just take a seltzer. It contains taurine, an organic acid that is the major component of human bile, and it tastes sweet the way landfills smell sweet: technically true, and yet. In my journey through the UFC I would taste many sports drinks – they are to MMA what Red Bull and vodka are to DJs – and I will say this: When I cycled back around to NOS, particularly if you can find the grape flavor which is not as prevalent as the fruit punch flavor, it was less offensive than I’d remembered. I leave room for the possibility that it finally had done some environmental impact on my tongue and that maybe I could no longer discern good from very bad.

Why bother writing about energy drinks at all? Maybe the drinks, marketed to teenagers while both appearing and tasting like engine oil, somehow encapsulate all there is to know about mixed martial arts. Also, this is just hilarious.

But the work is not only comedy. Akner works to give readers a sense of this new world of Ultimate Fighting, a world taken incredibly seriously by millions of adolescent boys. And she manages to make some Very Serious Points, albeit with a light touch. She points out that the female fighters chosen to be on the show tend to be pretty. She makes this observation, both bemoaning and explaining the issue, in just a single sentence.

And perhaps we can be generous, and forget all we know about television and casting and men who are in charge and men who pay for tickets to arenas and say what a coincidence it was that the remaining women happened to all be the prettiest of the lot.

And then there’s the part of the piece in which Akner grapples with whether she’s wrong to think of MMA as a violent and misguided pastime.

It makes you – me – wonder when the last time you were so wrapped up and focused in something, when was the last time you were so physical and full of your own body like that. The utter biology of it is striking, the pounding so frequent that your ears can’t even keep their shape, and still you would want this. Pain might be a part of other sports. But I have watched these fights closely enough to have fighter sweat and spit on my face. Here, pain is the goal.

And who is to say that they’re wrong? Who is to say that it is me who is using my body correctly – me, sitting there, lumpen, eating room-service steaks at Caesars as I hunch over a keyboard for the ninth hour of a day and try to get 5,000 steps from my Fitbit, getting unsolicited diet hints from female fighters, who genuinely seem to want to help me. Who is to say that I should not be wrapping legs and arms around necks and waists, absorbing another woman into my pores, as an expression of how alive I am? Who is to say that I shouldn’t be devoting more time to hydration, that maybe it is at my wateriest that I will be at my finest? Who of us knows what a body is for in the first place anyway?

It’s this kind of article that makes me wonder how someone can ever learn to write this well; these perfect sentences that could balance on the tip of a needle. It’s not fair. Go read her piece.