One of many reasons I admire Aaron Simpson – a professional fighter and an avid animal advocate – is because Simpson embraces both the peace of veganism and the controlled violence of fighting. More than a few athletes have embraced vegan diets, but many of them do it for health reasons alone. While Simpson is wise to the benefits of a plant-strong diet, first and foremost he refuses to eat animals because of the cruelty.
Is veganism, in its rejection of cruelty, antithetical to the violence displayed in fighting? Or is there a significant difference between violence and cruelty? The psychology of violence has been the focus of my academic research for many years. Violence can be jarring but measured – aggressive but lacking sadistic intention. Cruelty and abuse, on the other hand, comes in both violent and nonviolent forms. So can we be violent without cruelty? Should we call into question the very definitions of violence?
As a fan and as a practitioner, I enjoy aggressive sports like mixed martial arts – often referred to as “MMA” – which encompasses a great variety of fighting styles, from wrestling to boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to Muay Thai, and beyond. While training in mixed martial arts, I have learned endurance, agility, strength, coordination, teamwork, honor, and courage. Did I learn all this from “punching people in the face?” It isn’t nearly so simple. To be a great MMA fighter is similar to being a great fighter for animals: you must be light on your feet, find balance, and work on conditioning, strength training, and discipline. Like the vegan, the martial artist is often misconstrued.
That’s one reason why it’s so exciting to watch as Simpson refuses to be what people expect him to be. Too many fighters are typecast as meatheads by those who don’t understand the complexity of the sport – but Simpson is a tofu-eating, quinoa-loving “veg head.” He’s as much a champion of human and non-human animals as he is a champion wrestler and wrestling coach. He holds a master’s degree in higher education and is a master of educating fighters, too. “I do my best to displace stereotypes,” he says.
The stereotypes that he is displacing are not only about veganism, but about fighting and aggression. There’s never only one way up a mountain. The secret that many unfamiliar with MMA don’t understand is that there can be a joy to fighting. Humans, like nonhuman animals, enjoy wrestling – which is, not coincidentally, the original Olympic sport. What many see as violence, others – fans and fighters – see as a graceful sport, a physical and mental contest, with a poetic sensibility. “I had an English teacher in high school who told me the way I wrestled was like a dance, that it was beautiful,” says Simpson (whose high school record was 142 wins to 1 loss). “In a way it is poetic – it’s not just these angry monsters out there.”
Simpson is a great tribute to the ferocity of veganism and the humanity of mixed martial arts. “I grew up wrestling, and it’s even more so a thinking man’s sport; it’s not just two barbarians out there trying to bloody each other up.” He points to “the preparation, the conditioning, and the discipline of getting your body and mind in tip-top shape.” Beyond the hype of the fight, he says, the real contest is “to go out there and compete against another human being, shaking hands before and after, with mutual respect. You just don’t get that degree of intensity in many other sports.”
This Saturday night, March 23, Simpson will put his intensity to the test. With 12 wins and 4 losses, he will fight Josh Burkman for the World Series of Fighting (check it out on NBC Sports at 8:30 p.m. Eastern). Getting ready for his big fight has meant cutting down his weight to meet his weight class. As he says, “I’ve been downing tofu like it is almost extinct.” He explained that his diet is even stricter than usual as he cuts weight: almost entirely “quinoa, greens, and tofu.” And water, a whole lot of water: three gallons a day this week. After tomorrow’s fight, Simpson plans to indulge in a tofu scramble breakfast burrito from the Pomegranate Café outside of Phoenix. The restaurant serves vegan, organic, locally grown food. “Oh God, it’s just amazing,” Simpson told me. Like most vegans, he loves to talk about food.
“I love quinoa, couscous, lentils, legumes, beans. I can’t believe how much healthier I am, in terms of my blood pressure and my energy levels,” Simpson admits. He grew up in the Midwest before moving out to Arizona. “I eat vegetables and fruits now, which I never thought I’d eat,” he says. “I grew up plain and boring: I’d eat cheeseburgers and French fries. I didn’t know any better.” He says that back in the day, before his veganism, a “healthy food” was something like “pasta with marinara sauce with maybe a salad.” When Simpson began researching optimal diets, he realized he was “not even close to being healthy. I was eating garbage.” Worse, he says, was that “not only was it unhealthy, but the cruelty …” he sighs.
Simpson says becoming vegan “just opened my mind up to so many things.” As is true for so many of us, it’s hard for him to think about his childhood diet, which was heavy in animal consumption. “It disgusts me. I can’t even think about it,” he says. He focuses on “spreading the word and getting people to stop eating meat, and maybe open their eyes to animal cruelty and loving animals.” He never hesitates to talk about his eating choices, either. “I get a lot of people asking me about my diet. I have no problem with the ‘where do you get your protein?’ question because people are just ignorant to it and need to be educated.”
The relationship between the mind and the body is at the heart of ethical veganism – and it forms the foundation of mixed martial arts, too. The apex of this harmony may include activities that challenge our notions of our bodies, our minds, and ourselves. As an advocate and crisis counselor for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence, I encourage victims to participate in mixed martial arts. MMA helps transform victims into empowered athletes. So what is violence? It doesn’t always include suffering; so is it cruelty that is the root of the problem?
The poet-athletes among us, like Aaron Simpson, push their bodies to the limit against formidable opponents. Fighting against bullies and exploitation, they explode into the ring with great bursts of strength – and kindness. Simultaneously, they work to invigorate their bodies to be champions, moral role models, and peaceful vegans. Tomorrow night, Simpson aims to embody just that. I, for one, will be rooting for my favorite animal-loving fighter.
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