The UFC’s Phantom Cam: Refining the Spectacle of Corporeal Damage and Durability

Curator's Note

“Phantom” cameras enabling super slow-motion are now commonplace from mainstream to “extreme” sports. For MMA, this technologically enhanced vision deepens opportunities to scrutinize reciprocal bloodletting; for fetishistic replays of a body’s reaction when struck. The two lacerations opening the 166 highlights are part and parcel with fighters regularly posting Twitter and Instagram photos of their injuries. As highlights do, they focus on the most sensational elements, which for MMA is an isolation and emphasis on the spectacle of corporeal damage and durability. What these re-narrations elide is also revealing.

One crucial ommission here is the ringside doctor examining dos Santos twice during the fight, shining a flashlight in the heavyweight’s eyes, both times allowing the fight to continue in a parody of the Texas Athletic Commission’s mandate to protect fighters. Even UFC president, Dana White, whose performance bonuses reward (or more appropriately, compensate for) a brawling style, said the fight should have been stopped earlier. But White’s paternal rhetoric, his “taking care” of fighters, belies MMA’s fundamental design as a spectacle not merely of martial skill and technique, but of bodily destruction and durability. This is, of course, rationalized through the neoliberal market logics of individual choice, “freedom,” and familiar deflecting discourses of warrior nobility.

Considering the afterlife of sports media, and accompanying technologies of visualization constantly moving spectator ecologies towards greater intensification and customization, I am reminded of Steven Heath’s point that “narrative never exhausts the image.” This plentitude of the image propels a kind of refinement, in the sense of a technological “act of removing unwanted substances from something.” Here UFC events are reduced to protracted moments (plus a glorifying score) – refined to their most valued (and possibly disturbing) imagery  while the brutality of actual duration and key narrative information (audio, corner cams) is elided, not unlike in fictional action genres.

A techno-minimalist sport, MMA certainly benefits from such high-tech visualizations. In a moment of increasingly negative media attention and growing public awareness surrounding traumatic brain injury in football and MMA, one might imagine businesses trading in such fare would seek to avoid calling further attention to the evidence, much less hyper-visualizing it. But, given that the circulation of pain is MMA’s stock-in-trade, this refining of the UFC's spectacle of corporeal damage also “highlights” the potential disconnect between the viewer/consumers' knowledge of exploited bodies and the complicity in returning for more.


Thank you for a fascinating post Matthew, which follows on nicely from the NekNom video! It's notable how all the posts this week so far are on masculinity and the circulation of pain. I'm interested in the gendering of this, particularly as my facebook page is filled with the ciruclation of the female 'no make-up selfies' at the moment. Your post touches on an aspect of digital violence that we are especially interested in and that is the kind of viewer response that is solicited through social media. I like your point that the technology which allows for the refining of the 'spectacle of corporeal damage' highlights the tension between concern - and desire - for the visualization of wounded bodies. How do you think we might further pursue an analysis of that tension and what it suggests for an ethics of viewing violence in contemporary digital culture?

Yes, one of the things I try to suggest by the end is that in these phantom cam videos, with such a heightened level of visual description, it becomes harder to ignore the physical toll fighters take. And I have noticed fans expressing forms of ambivalence in response. For example, one fan (also a producer of re-edited highlight videos) saying that some of the fights showcased in the 166 highlights "left me profoundly disturbed." ( **read the comments below his video). But as any fan of horror films knows, people seek out these kinds of disturbances and disruptions, it's just that one's complicity as a viewer consumer changes when real trauma is being inflicted. Still, the system accommodates dissent, even profits from it. I don't think the NFL's revenues have taken a hit since the CTE revelations. I think one important issue are the ways the physical toll gets deflected through ennobling rhetoric (e.g. the warrior, toughness, grit, "heart"). On the flip side, my research also considers the ignoble-ing rhetoric employed by commentators and fans ("he's a "savage"... an "animal"... a "beast" ...a "psycho") which is essentially dehumanizing, but also serves a promotional function. I will try to return to your question of an ethics of viewing violence later on -- great question worth pursuing.

Matthew, thanks for such a thought-provoking piece! I find the phantom cam and your discussion of its "technologically enhanced vision" quite invigorating in for other areas of my personal research having to do with the development of visual technology alongside warfare and sporting events (as ways of revisualizing physical space and traumatic impact), and in many ways showcasing the violence of conflict in vastly different ways, though always mediated and presented in some way through a pretense of distance. Your discussion of the de-humanizing aspect of this, particularly through the lens of Dana White's proclamation that he is looking out for and protecting his employees, which clearly is a complicated piece of rhetoric which begs unpacking. Do you find that the masculine nature of this bleeds (no pun intended) into the civilian arena in the ways that we are using technology to showcase these protracted, distanced instances of violence against the body more broadly? I mean, a clear connection, I think, is Tina and Tanya's post from yesterday, but I'm thinking more diverse and less. . . site-specific/centric (I think this is what I'm getting at) as with NekNominations? And is there a specific way you see sport in particular eliding the concerns of commentators on projects like the NekNominations as being specifically "idiotic" or does that rhetoric also crop up from critics' readings of MMA?

Thanks, Matt, for bringing in the idea of distance here. On the one hand I think the slow-motion is distancing viewers from the actual experience, but then, even watching the live events on a television is mediated / distanced in a number of ways. I'm pretty sure the UFC strategically under mics (or rather, is less concerned with the audio component of the event than the visual) events because it brings a level of corporeal realism that might deter viewers. So strategically, they want to mitigate certain aspects of our sensory intimacy or engagement with the fights. On the other hand, I think the super slow-motion creates a form of intimacy (however paradoxically) by distancing you from the other realistic narrative elements, allowing one to take in moments of the events in a different way, as one does video games and action films that use the device (and the fictional inter-texts are pretty clear for mma, through market synergies, etc.). And its an intimacy with what happens to the flesh, how it responds and holds up, and to a lesser extent a figther's 'senses' or consciousness. One of the UFC's taglines is "As Real as it Gets," a savvy one, but in crucial ways misleading. For example, the one minute rest period between rounds allows fighters to rest, then fight hard(er) again, thus the UFC is better able to extract their labor (and blood), etc. so really the format is not in any actual sense "real" or "natural" to how fighting happens spontaneously (if that's the yardstick). But I see the highlights as part of a (visual) descriptive repertoire typically available to fictional action media (i.e. categorically not "real"). I haven't really answered your questions, and i am interested especially in the one about how this "bleeds" into the civilian arena, which I'll try to take up tomorrow...

Thanks for an engaging post, Matthew! I’ve been considering these issues around the UFC and spectatorship in some of my own work as well. I regularly watch UFC fight nights with a group of Brazilian Jujitsu practitioners. The conversation generally revolves around evaluating a fighter’s strategy or technique and that seems to be the central discussion focus of the group and the main pleasure derived in spectatorship (which is reflective of some scholarship on UFC fans). That being said, the Phantom camera certainly adds a different dimension to the experience and the conversation. This became particularly apparent when watching UFC 168 (Weidman vs. Silva) in December. We all watched Silva break his leg on Weidman’s knee block and there was a general grown around the room when it happened. However, when we watched the Phantom cam replay, the break was so much more graphic and the room erupted in horror and averted their eyes during the numerous replays (which also circulated widely in social media). The slow motion graphic leg break produced visceral reactions that cannot be ignored and support your points here. I think than another aspect of spectatorship operating here is the endurance through pain that the athlete accomplishes and the viewer witnesses and experiences him/herself. An athlete is demonstrating that he/she can withstand a certain amount of pain and overcome it. The spectator witnesses this phenomenon, roots for the athlete to overcome pain, and also must withstand viewing the horror to prove he/she can take it (not unlike the horror film). I’d agree, however, that the reality factor certainly complicates the comparison to horror as you have demonstrated in this piece. I’d just tack on the idea that pain endurance and ultimately overcoming pain as an obstacle is a portion of this equation for the athlete and the spectator.

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