If you were a cynical 12-year-old boy like I was, then the words Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers will bring to mind bitter thoughts of cheesy dialogue, bright spandex uniforms, and choreographed live-action anime fight scenes, all overdubbed and irritatingly formulaic. Other children (many, actually) fell in love with the show, and its popularity continues to grow as new generations are taken in by the bright colors and trademark teamwork of the heroes. I hadn’t thought about the Power Rangers in years until I learned that one of the show’s stars, Jason David Frank (who played Tommy Oliver, The Green Ranger) is the founder of a Mixed Martial Arts clothing line for the Christian Fighter/MMA enthusiast called Jesus Didn’t Tap.
Jesus as the One True Warrior
The thought of a man who spent his formative years delivering campy dialogue and roundhouse kicks (all while wearing a fierce ’90s ponytail) now marketing the Lord with Mixed Martial Arts was intriguing, to say the least. The Mighty Morphin’ alumni already boast a convicted murderer, an actress who died young in a car crash, and now, with Jason David Frank, an anointed fighter and proselytizer.
Frank has swapped the full-body Power Rangers getup for MMA shorts, four-ounce gloves, and a muscular frame with so many tattoos the man looks graffitied. He has a 2-0 record in the cage (his wins coming via omoplata submission and TKO) and according to TMZ, Frank even has his eyes set on fighting Jean Claude Van Damme.
Back in November of 2009, I spoke with Frank on the phone. He lives in Texas and managed to squeeze my call into a 15-minute window, between his training and a “meeting,” which might have been for either Jesus Didn’t Tap, his chain of Rising Sun Karate schools, or one of the other projects he has in the pipeline. As he told it, one day Frank and a partner “did statistics on Christian numbers” and decided that it was a huge market to tap into. According to Frank, in their first year alone (2008), they did over $250,000 in sales, and the J.D.T. line is only growing.
In February the New York Times published R.M. Schneiderman’s article “Flock Is Now a Fight Team in Some Ministries” about the “growing number of evangelical churches that have embraced mixed martial arts—a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling, and other fighting styles—to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low.” Jesus Didn’t Tap offers the newly converted Christian-inspired threads that won’t clash with the Affliction and Tap Out gear already in their wardrobes.
There’s no doubt that Jesus Didn’t Tap was a great business move, but what Frank tries to make clear is that it’s not all about the money. For a long time the 36-year-old “wanted to come up with something strong to show people that really there’s only one true warrior in life, and it’s Jesus. And Jesus never complained”—i.e. never tapped. In summa, what Frank is trying to say is “There was a guy by the name of Jesus Christ and he was positive.”
Giving the Prince of Darkness a Noogie
Frank’s “positive Jesus Christ” shows up on the J.D.T. “Street Wear” (crewnecks, long-sleeves, hoodies, sweats, beanies, fitted hats), “Fight Wear” (MMA fight shorts, gloves, rashguards), and other accoutrements (stickers, patches, and dog tags). The images are often cartoonish and evince a simple mythology of anthropomorphized good vs. evil: Jesus (w/ halo) battles Satan (w/ tail, goatee, and skin the color of Frank’s® RedHot®). On the Get a Hold of Your Life shirt, it looks like Jesus is both choking Satan and giving the Prince of Darkness a noogie.
Some of the shirts are cute, like Jesus Loves Me and My New Tattoos. (Frank’s an obvious fan of the ink; even his left forearm, from wrist to elbow, advertises the Jesus Didn’t Tap line.) Other messages seem as if they were lifted from a generic self-help book. The Break Your Bad Habits shirt has an image of Jesus arm-barring the Devil, who, for some reason, is wearing a pair of cutoff shorts.
The wordplay on the Putting the Jew in Jiu-Jitsu T-shirt is off-putting; yet on the same shirt you have the silhouette of a crucified Jesus looking down at the shadow the cross is casting: a shadow made up of two men grappling in the formation of the crucifix. The surreal image is almost a revelation.
Some may think that choosing to market Christianity with MMA—a sport where the goal is to beat the shit out of your opponent—is contradictory. But Christian MMA fans have their apologists. Sites like Anointed Fighter provide answers to questions like “Can a true Christian compete in a full contact sport like MMA? What does the Bible say?” While I’m sure many would be interested to know whether or not Jesus would order the next Ultimate Fighting Championship event on Pay-Per-View, there are larger issues at stake.
As Schneiderman writes in his New York Times piece, “the outreach [of churches to MMA fans] is part of a larger and more longstanding effort on the part of some ministers who fear that their churches have become too feminized, promoting kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.”
In a blog post, Eugene Cho, a Christian who was interviewed for the Schneiderman article, writes “What I have a problem with is when we have Christians, churches, and pastors who now begin to blur the line in equating MMA to Jesus; that we somehow speak with great conviction that Jesus would have endorsed MMA or other forms and expressions of the growing hyper-machismo culture.” In Cho’s view,
“To reduce Christ to pop culture images of manhood seems wacky—theology and Bible exegesis gone bad. Rather than focusing on external appearance, shouldn’t we focus on our ‘heart, soul, body, and mind’?”
With the inclusion of “body” in the list of four, Cho manages to undercut his point just a little—because if MMA focuses on anything, it’s definitely the body. The strongest connection between the high-contact sport and Christianity may lie here. Christianity has always had what could easily be called a masochistic relationship with the body and a bit of a fetish for blood. Although it is not unique to Christian sects, members of monastic orders have used methods like starvation and self-flagellation to achieve states of transcendence and ecstasy. For them the body’s suffering (and its effects on the mind) has been an effective vehicle to God. (Of course, this is never separate from the New Testament’s tales of Jesus’s own trial, suffering, and death.)
So it is not hard to see how a Christian may view MMA, with its grueling training regimens and bloody bouts, as simply another method. A three-round match becomes a kind of Passion play, where the fighters experience the ecstasies of physical torment directly before a mostly male congregation.
The Elbows of Sin
Frank is aware of the controversy, yet, rather than take part in a theological dialectic—even though there is a J.D.T. Bible—he seems content to let the product do the talking and the selling. Because whatever the product lacks in nuance it makes up for in its unflagging allegiance to its message: Jesus is the “one true warrior.”
The problem comes when that message is adhered to so strongly that it verges on self-satire. For example, the front page of the Jesus Didn’t Tap Web site features the following from Anointed Fighter’s Danny L. White:
When Jesus stepped inside the cage of life to take on the cross, human legs did not kicked [sic] his out from under him. It was not human hands that broke his arm during the arm bar of adversity. It was not a human fist that knocked him to the mat for our sins. It was not a human that kept him inside the triangle choke of suffering. It was not the fighter’s [sic] sent by Satan to tap him out that beat him.
God gave him strength while on his back being pounded in the face by the elbows of sin…
It is hard to imagine a potential convert needing a metaphor to be laid on this thick. That’s not to say that everything Jesus Didn’t Tap makes is as over-the-top. One of the more moving images can be seen on its How Do You Train? T-shirt. The rhetorical question is accompanied by the image of Jesus carrying the cross—on his way to Golgotha, no doubt.
Frank tells me a joke he hears often: “Jesus didn’t tap… because he couldn’t.”
I get it. Jesus’s arms and legs were tied (and/or nailed) to the cross, so he couldn’t have tapped.
“Ha-ha,” Frank says, about to deliver a rhetorical punch. “Well, he could have verbally tapped.”
Frank notes that in the cage one can verbally tap or give up. As an example, he mentions a UFC fight between Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre. At one point in the fight St. Pierre had Hughes’ limbs incapacitated, so Hughes was forced to verbally tap, which brought an end to the fight.
For a second I wonder whether the Jesus/MMA metaphor has become literal for the former Green Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger. Does Frank actually think the same rules applied to First Century A.D. Roman crucifixion as to a sport currently sanctioned in most of the 50 states?