The MMA Ethicist: Is it wrong to laugh at Johnny Walker memes?

“What’s making me upset is the reaction from the people,” UFC light heavyweight Johnny Walker said after his first-round knockout loss at last Saturday’s Fight Night event. “They just make jokes and they don’t care about somebody getting hurt.”

The somebody in question here was him. The jokes, one assumes, were stuff like this and this and that. You know how it goes. Any time there’s an odd knockout, and this one was definitely odd as a motherfucker, the MMA memesters are going to jump on it with a quickness to make that sweet, sweet content. This is a fact of life as a UFC fighter, especially if you’re going to be out here headlining events.

But then here’s Walker, showing up on his YouTube channel in the immediate aftermath of the fight, talking at the camera in his bathrobe for a video he titled, “What went wrong & talking about this toxic people social Sport.”

Jamahal Hill may have hurt his face. But you toxic people on the socials? You hurt his feelings.

To be fair, it seems that Walker (and his girlfriend, who joins the video about halfway through and kind of, sort of hints that it was her idea for him to film this message to the MMA world) is complaining about two different things here.

One is the jokes themselves. You know, memes and such. Which, if you just lost your fight, and with it half your paycheck, pushing you further from your career goals while also giving you a concussion in the process, you can see how it might feel like some unnecessary salt in the wound to log on afterwards and see yourself photoshopped into church revival meetings.

But the other thing both Walker and his girlfriend are upset about could best be described as direct online harassment. According to them, people were out here messaging them from anonymous social media accounts, sending them the memes and the screenshots and calling them all kind of names in the DMs.

“Excuse my French, but what fucked up person watches a fight, sees someone get a head injury, screenshots it, zooms in, and goes on to social media and finds my Instagram, and messages me to antagonize me?” Walker’s girlfriend says in the video.

And yeah, that is fucked up. There’s no excuse for that, no reason to do it at all. But also? It is a separate thing from the people who are just watching fights, discussing them with their online friends, even making or sharing memes that find humor in a pro fighter’s misfortune. That is not necessarily toxic. That is, to a certain extent, what fandom looks like in the realm of combat sports. So fucking deal with it.

The important distinctions here are intent and audience. If you’re on Twitter, talking shit with your online buddies about the fights you’re watching, noting how Johnny Walker took that right hand and looked like someone being electrocuted in an ‘80s movie, that is your right as a fucked up fan of this fucked up sport.

The fact that this moment could have been legitimately dangerous and damaging to the actual human brain of Johnny Walker does not mean it cannot ever be joked about. You know why? Because this whole sport is dangerous and damaging. We know that. He knows that. The fact remains that it exists as a form of entertainment. That’s why there’s money in it for people like Walker.

There didn’t used to be. In the primordial days of MMA there were plenty of “events” that were little more than tough guys in a gym or a basement somewhere just testing out their own skills for the love of the competition and the desire to taste their own blood. It wasn’t a career then, or even an “opportunity,” as Dana White likes to put it. It was just a sick, twisted hobby.

But as the sport grew it attracted fans and promoters and media and advertisers and all the trappings of a modern sport. That’s where the money comes from. That’s why guys like Walker get to do this and nothing else for a living. With all that inevitably comes the opinions of other people, and part of what they’re buying with the price of admission is the right to enjoy this bullshit the way they want to – up to a point.

Because while you get the right to have an opinion, to boo or cheer, to make or share hilarious memes of the worst night of someone else’s career, what you don’t get is the right to be a dick specifically to that person about it.

That’s the important difference between posting a meme and talking shit to people in their DMs. The former is for the enjoyment of the community, weird as that may be given that what we’re talking about here is sanctioned, consensual violence. The latter is an attempt to derive some bizarre pleasure out of rubbing someone’s nose in their own failures, and it is a deeply fucked up impulse, especially when aimed at a person you don’t even really know, who has done nothing at all to you.

I realize that may be confusing for some people, so let’s see if we can’t simplify the rule: It’s OK to find humor in someone’s knockout loss, but it is not OK to force them to see you finding humor in it. It’s why posting a Johnny Walker meme is fine, but tagging him in the post is some real dirtbag shit. You know he’s already going through a hard time. What kind of asshole needs to make sure he sees you laughing at him? If he goes on Twitter and searches his name, or somehow seeks out this stuff, that’s on him. Going out of your way to shove it in his face? That’s on you, and it makes you a real piece of shit.

In the aftermath of Walker’s “toxic people social Sport” video, a lot of people got online to do some finger-wagging at all the meme-makers and meme-enjoyers out there. This was largely hypocritical, because who among us hasn’t at least chuckled at some of these here and there at some point? Like the memesters say, it’s always funny until it’s your favorite fighter.

But you have to go through some complex mental gymnastics to think it’s fine to watch and enjoy this stuff, even rooting for one person to physically beat up another, yet somehow tell yourself that it’s a sin to laugh when someone gets hit and falls down weird. You can laugh. It’s OK. If you want to get mad at something, get mad at how poorly they’re paid, or how much of the money is being hoarded by the people in charge. Don’t get angry at Twitter photoshoppers for caring about jokes over fighter health if you’re not also angry at promoters for failing to provide ongoing health care to the fighters they profit off.

Mostly, though, recognize that there is a difference between laughing at the absurdities of this insane sport and trying to personally torture individual, real people with mean-spirited, direct mockery. The internet doesn’t have to be nice. But it also doesn’t need to show up in your inbox when you’re trying to lick your wounds and eat your post-fight pizza.

(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Hey, if you made it this far and didn’t hate it, you should consider signing up for the Co-Main Event Patreon. There you can comment on these posts, argue with other people about them, even call us names or whatever. You also help support the CME and keep the discourse free and unfuckingfettered.

Further reading

Support the CME

With a helping hand from you, the discourse is free and the corporate fat cats are kept away from the door. We love you for that.

Patrons get exclusive access to:

Livestream events

Audio extras

CME Power Hour

CME Movie Club

Drape those old bones in some CME merchandise …

Show those around you that you’re a not-to-be-messed-with, third-dan Dundasso master, or perhaps that you have a very refined taste in tobacco products that are definitely not for kids. Straight up repping your fav MMA-themed podcast is also an option.

Shop merch

Read a book, if you nasty

“Two deadly acts of arson, over a decade apart bind this mystery of an army veteran’s return home. In Chad Dundas’ assured hands, one man’s search for answers makes for a lyrical, riveting meditation on memory.”
Entertainment Weekly, on The Blaze

Shop books

Email the Podcast