This past Friday night at the Alliant Energy Center's sprawling complex off John Nolen Drive, I may have been the only person to cross the windswept parking lot that separated the Madtown Throwdown and the Women's Flat Track Derby Association's Eastern Regionals Tournament.
Roller derby and freestyle fighting don't appear at first glance to have much in common. One is a women's team sport on roller skates, the other a fist-on-face battle between two men, popularized by the televised Ultimate Fighting Championships. And, to generalize very roughly, the crowds that turned out Friday night could probably be drawn down ideological lines -- fight fans for Republicans, derby fans for Democrats.
But it turns out they share a lot otherwise. Both involve muscle, skill, fast moves, amped-up aggression and sexualized theatrics. Neither is respected like hockey or football.
Sen. John McCain once referred to mixed martial arts as "human cock fighting." In the past 15 years or so, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has had to create stricter rules as well as reform and market itself as a reputable sport.
Roller derby players especially have been exasperated by the way the media have covered them. "Jen Detta," co-captain for the Rockford, Ill., league's Screw City Slammers, recently wrote a long post about the issue on the league's blog, and her main thesis is this: "The mainstream media, in general, do not cover roller derby as a sport. Articles and newscasts focus on the showy part of roller derby: the fishnets, the stage names and the 'professional-by-day, rollergirl-by-night' theme. The coverage produced by most publications -- from the small daily newspapers to the media giants -- rarely appears in the sports section. Instead, it's considered entertainment news."
As an entertainment writer for the Mainstream Media, I don't want to crank out a fishnet-focused story on derby or a blood-and-guts review of freestyle fighting. And I'm not even going to try to cover it as a sport -- clearly, I'm not remotely qualified. (At the last Mallards baseball game I attended, I asked when halftime was.) But, from a cultural standpoint, when does a sport turn to entertainment and entertainment to sport?
Like the women of roller derby, the Madtown Throwdown men come in all sizes. Some are diminutive but taut 22-year-olds with lean six-packs. Others have pumped-up pectorals that pop out like two chicken breasts affixed to their chests. And some are flabby 30-somethings, built like refrigerators but somewhat flaccid from years of beer and too many late-night Taco Bell runs.
They walked out into the ring like rock gods: lights flashing, dry ice smoke billowing, Motley Crue blasting. Nubile young things in underpants and eyeliner sashayed around the ring with signs announcing the round number. A trainer or friend often slapped the fighter before the round, presumably just one more tactic to get him hyped up on adrenaline and testosterone.
And the fighting. It's disgusting, sexy and athletically beautiful. Sometimes the men look like they're in a foreplay tussle for gay porn. Other times it's repulsively brutal and leaves blood smears that the refs have to mop up afterward. But when one man has another curled up like a leaf mid-air, then flips him around and bounces him like a marble on the ground, it's pure modern dance.
There were shouts of "Bring some blood!" once in a while, but the crowd (mostly men) was more sedate than the television audiences for Ultimate Fighting Championships.
The fights got more intense and disturbing toward the end. When one man mysteriously doubled over in pain after what looked like a small blow, his opponent called him a "real wimp" over and over again (except, substitute in that quote a stronger modifier and a derogatory epithet for homosexual). It turned out the man in pain didn't have his jockstrap cup on right, and his opponent had smacked him "in the bag," as the woman sitting next to me put it.
I left soon after that.
Over at the roller derby tournament, the Gotham Girls All-Stars (from New York City) were beating the Dairyland Dolls (that's us) by a wide margin. At the crux of the bout is a call by a ref to oust one of Madison's most popular derby players, Mouse, from the game. I didn't see it, but apparently she turned mouthy and flashed her panties at the ref in anger. Her theatrics got hotly discussed off the track.
On the track, the bout was very physical and fiercely competitive, though clearly in the favor of the New York team. Both teams dodged and knocked each other with artful precision.
To rev up the Madison crowd, a mascot in a frilly milk maid outfit skated back and forth, leading chants ("Who loves Double D's?" -- "We love Double D's!").
Out in the lobby, at least a dozen vendors were selling skating gear, buttons and T-shirts. Some shirts were emblazoned with the slogan of the players' new campaign: "Roller Derby Is a Sport."
Yes, it is. Without question. As is freestyle fighting. But, like they say on Facebook, it's complicated.
The sexualized aspect of roller derby comes off as detached and ironic in comparison to the Madtown Throwdown's bombastic approach, though I'm not sure that irony always translates the way the roller derby players think it does. Sometimes, chanting about Double D's is just exactly what it sounds like.
But there's something subversive and appealing about the unashamed pageantry of both, especially the non-ironic presentation of the throwdown. Established sports like football don't seem to have to explain away their scantily clad cheerleaders very often. But because roller derby and freestyle fighting combine entertainment and sport so fluidly, they get more flak.
Driving home Friday night, I listened to the Beach Boys in the car, and the lyrics from "Catch a Wave" suddenly had new relevance:
"Don't be afraid to try the greatest sport around ...
Those who don't just have to put it down ...
They said it wouldn't last too long
They'll eat their words with a fork and spoon.
And watch 'em, they'll hit the road and all be surfin' soon
And when they catch a wave, they'll be sittin' on top of the world."