99% of the time trash talk in MMA doesn’t bother me. In fact it usually does the exact opposite. There’s something about watching the strongest men and women on the planet get beaten into verbal submission that brings me joy. Maybe that’s messed up, but I’m clearly in the majority here as we’ve seen fighters like Conor McGregor, Chael Sonnen, and Tito Ortiz’s wife gain superstardom using their mouth. It’s verbal sparring that’s like an appetizer to the real fist to cuffs. Even when lines are clearly crossed and fighters insult each other’s spouses or religion, my twisted mind finds the interactions entertaining.
But a seemingly innocent instance rubbed me the wrong way when Ben Askren kept calling UFC welterweight Champion Kamaru Usman “Marty”.
Even though I don’t know Askren personally, he seems like a well meaning guy poking a little fun at the champion in hopes that it would get a rise out of Usman, and maybe leap frog a stacked welterweight division to get him a title shot.
For those unfamiliar, Usman immigrated from Nigeria as an 8 year old boy. Because people at his school couldn’t pronounce his name, his wrestling coach came up with the name Marty for him and Kamaru went with it.
But in hindsight, pronunciation clearly isn’t an issue. Today everyone from fight announcers to UFC fans can say “Kamaru” with no problem. So why go with “Marty” in the first place?
It’s a story all too familiar for immigrant kids with unusual names. We don’t want to get made fun of or bullied. My name rhymes with 9-11 for Allah’s sake – talk about an easy target. We want to roll with the cool kids. We don’t want to spell out our name 4 times at Starbucks when we’re trying to impress a girl. You even get more job offers with a stereotypical name.
Kamaru went with Marty because he wanted to fit in. Not because of pronunciation issues.
Askren’s Marty comments had a similar feel to the historic moment when Ernie Terrell insisted on calling Muhammad Ali by his “slave name” of Cassius Clay, where Ali subsequently beat the living shit out of Terrell while yelling “What’s my name?” at him.
The difference is unlike Ali, nobody forced Kamaru to call himself Marty. He chose to give himself that “slave name”.
It comes down to insecurity.
If he was confident in himself and his heritage, he would proudly represent a Nigerian warrior name like Kamaru Usman. Of course it’s much easier said than done, especially as a teenager when the Marty moniker originated. And once he said his name is Marty, there was no going back. He can’t even change his name back in college because at this point he’s trying to qualify for the Olympics in wrestling, and no scouts, coaches, or sponsors know who the fuck Kamaru is. They only know Marty.
I remember talking smack to my dad as a child when my dad would introduce himself as “Al” to strangers in the aftermath of 9-11, even though his real name was Khalid. “You’re name is not Al. Why you making up some weird white boy name?” I was already an asshole at 10 years of age. But now I get it. He didn’t want to get in a confrontation in front of his kids with some racist or get spit in our food. It’s easier just to be “Al”.
That’s why Ben Askren’s “Marty” comments didn’t feel right. I’m 99.99% sure Askren was NOT trying to make Usman abandon his African heritage and “be more white”. After all Askren’s close friendship with former UFC Welterweight Champion and Black Lives Matter activist Tyron Woodley is well documented (image below). Regardless of his intentions, it felt similar to when a white person calls a black person a “N****”, by reminding them of a dark past when they were subjugated by whites. It diminished Usman’s lifetime of work to become so successful and so confident that racism no longer affects him the same way, putting him in a position to proudly represent his real name. It adds a little shame to African boy already self conscious about their names.
Even though it was inadvertent, making fun of another man’s racial identity is in a way lower than calling someone’s mother a whore or shitting on someone’s religious beliefs.
Also it’s sad that the social justice people made talking about race so “woke” and extreme that I feel dirty condemning someone’s racial slip-up. Anyway, peace from the Middle East.