As combat sports fans, we are accustomed to battling stupid opinions. Our collection of interests in striking arts, grappling, and MMA is routinely misunderstood and jeered at by the masses. So, we go to war in comment sections whenever someone says a fighter “shouldn’t have tapped” to that hyperextended armbar, or a KO by a picture-perfect heavyweight uppercut means they have a glass jaw.
To the best of our ability, we put in the time to understand what happens during a fight. We respect the risk professionals fighters adopt, and all of us band together with data and experience to shout in one unified voice, “Fuck the casuals.”
So what’s that got to do with Olympic Gymnast Simone Biles?
If you didn’t know, Biles might be the greatest gymnast to ever compete for anyone, anywhere, for any prize. The 24-year-old has already racked up four Olympic gold medals in four different categories, as well as 19 gold medals at the world gymnastics championships.
She’s so dominant, gymnastic insiders have speculated about judges underscoring her routines to make it fair for her competitors. Imagine if the first six 3-point shots Steph Curry made every game just didn’t count or if Serena Williams had to play her matches against two opponents simultaneously.
Biles is currently making headlines not for her athletic prowess, but for her decision to withdraw from the finals of the 2021 Olympic Gymnastics team event. Citing mental health issues after underperforming on practice vaults, Biles dropped out, replaced by alternate Jordan Chiles for the uneven bars event and Suni Lee on the floor exercise. The shake-up lead to the US taking home a silver medal, with Russia winning gold.
Everyone from sports pundits to political leaders gave their two cents. Right-wing commentator Charlie Kirk called Biles a “selfish sociopath” for her decision, and conservative media group “the Daily Wire” published an article with similar sentiments. Even fellow athletes were highly critical, like former UFC champion Michael Bisping.
“I know nothing of gymnastics. I do know, however, that with sports of any level, there comes a lot of pressure. Throwing in the towel as she wasn’t having a perfect performance is not a good message to send young aspiring athletes. Other people would of killed for that spot,” Bisping stated via Twitter.
The BJJ world has opinions of its own too. ADCC champ Gordon Ryan criticized her lack of commitment to her team while admitting that spectators don’t have a good perspective on the issue.
“Spectators have ZERO idea what is going on inside an athlete’s head on stage,” Ryan wrote in an Instagram post. “…That being said, quitting because you ‘weren’t feeling it’ in the biggest tournament of your life, carrying an entire country on your back, is the softest shit I’ve ever heard in my life,”
So we have a high-level athlete choosing to quit before the big event, and according to some, it cost the United States another gold medal. But is that all there is to the situation? And even if that were the case, why should we defend Biles?
Let’s talk about the specifics of the situation for a moment. Gymnasts fly through the air like a fucking bird, and if the landing isn’t perfect, you could not only cost your team a victory but potentially cripple yourself for life. Careers can be derailed or ended in a single moment, with a poorer quality of life waiting for you in retirement.
Biles recognized on that day, for whatever reason, her chances of making a mistake were far greater than usual. She described feelings of vertigo through the practice vaults, and her sense of direction suffered while in the air. Rather than risking both her life and lowering her team’s overall performance, she chose to take herself out of the equation.
You could still look at this and claim that she has a “quitter” mentality. If you’re of that opinion, I think you’re very wrong and have toxic ideas about competition. But I’m not going to assume you’re some monster because there was a time I’d have probably seen Biles as a quitter too.
I never engaged in any big sports as a kid. Movies and TV shows shaped my opinions on competition and media constantly glorified suffering in athletes through images of heroes stoically swallowing whatever problems or fears they are experiencing to perform on the world stage.
We love stories of athletes competing injured, like WWE wrestler Kurt Angle winning Olympic gold with a broken neck or Michael Jordan’s flu game because they are wonderfully inspiring. However, they are also dangerous. They equate prioritizing personal wellbeing as weak or selfish and civilians assume, without any real context, that they should compete for glory no matter what.
Little Simone Biles could teach the MMA crowd a lesson here. We see fighters stepping into the cage with debilitating injuries almost every week. The meathead mindset of going to war and never giving up has been an issue since the first UFCs, with fighters who tapped to submissions ridiculed by know-nothing idiots. We’re somewhat past that stigma, but we still see fighters ignoring their health through horrible weight cuts and severe injuries in the quest for glory.
In the first round of his trilogy fight with Dustin Poirier, Connor McGregor’s leg snapped from fractures sustained in training camp. Kevin Lee went into his interim title bout against Tony Ferguson with a massive Staph Infection. Cris Cyborg nearly killed herself to cut down to 140 lbs, documented in truly hard-to-watch videos by Outside The Lines.
These fighters and others should have stayed home, but the public applauded their decision to fight anyway even though their performance suffered.
While not a combat sport, The Biles situation can be seen in a similar light. Take a grappling match, for instance. When the submission is in, the match is over. You either let the limb break, go unconscious, or tap, so nothing else happens. Anyway, you slice it. That’s the ball game.
There’s a ton to say about sticking it out and looking for escapes, but for the most part, when you’re caught, you’re caught. And even if you do fight out of the sub and get the win, your limb could be permanently damaged or entail a steep recovery time.
When grapplers let their limbs break, the spectators who train don’t think, “Wow, that dude is so freaking tough,” they usually go, “Oh shit, now that guy can’t train for a long time, and he’ll need surgery.” We see most refusals to tap as stupid and disrespectful to the art in some respects.
We should treat Bile’s recognition of her vertigo and sub-par mental state not as some mental weakness, but as a professional recognizing that a submission is locked in and fighting it will just lead to injury. Stepping back to analyze the problem means she’ll be able to heal in time for her next competition, rather than risk a lifelong injury by competing impaired. The best result of any sporting event is not your favorite team or player winning, but when everyone can go home healthy enough to play again the next day. If she’d competed and broken her neck, only to reveal later that she knew something was wrong in practice, we’d hopefully be horrified.
I know it’s not a perfect comparison, but true fans of combat sports understand the importance of recognizing defeat through submissions rather than just strikes to see this as a black and white issue. Simone Biles deserves to be applauded for her decision because it could inspire fewer people to risk injury by pushing through mental health struggles.
Hopefully, more people will start asking how well they are before going onto an athletic stage now too. It might lead to fewer underdog stories, but I’ll take fewer injured athletes and longer careers in that trade any day of the week.
For more info on the “twisties” Biles referenced, check out this article here!
Aces BJJ Blog staff writer and BJJ Blue belt under Edward “Scissor Hands” Berberich of Soulcraft BJJ. Kevin has been training BJJ for four years and complaining about Star Wars for over 20. Follow him on Instagram @kbrads_bjj